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Welcome to Episode #180 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare mentions the word “book” over 140 times across his works, showing not only their prominent place in society but their popularity as well. There are several kinds of books referenced in Shakespeare’s plays including prayer books, muster books, horn books, and more but one particular kind of book seen as a novelty for Shakespeare’s lifetime that could be taken anywhere the owner themselves went was the tiny individual books collected together in what was known as a travelling library. These compact books were hardly larger than a standard pack of cards and each one  fit onto narrow shelves fashioned into a larger wood case shaped like a large book itself with a hard cover that opened and closed like a lid to both contain and protect the precious books held within. Often highly ornate, featuring elaborate paintings and even the coat of arms of those that had given or received the travelling library as a gift,  these bookcases were part of what was known as a “curiosity” for the 17th century when Jacobean English families would collect odd bits of treasure to display as a status symbol and conversation piece in their homes. As books were seen as precious items to be highly prized, owning a travelling library yourself was seen as an important privilege. One of these travelling libraries from 1617, the year after Shakespeare died, is housed at the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. Today, we are delighted to welcome one of the curators at the Brotherton Library, Dr. Michael Brennan, as an expert in travel and travel books of Shakespeare’s lifetime to tell us about the history and purpose of this unique item.

Join the conversation below.

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Michael G. Brennan is Professor of Renaissance Studies at the School of English, University of Leeds. His research and teaching focuses on 16th-17th and 19th-20th century English literature. He has published books on the Sidney family of Penshurst, early English travel writing and 20th century fiction, especially the works of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Michael Brennan about :

  • We are often taught that large sections of society in the 16-17th century were illiterate. Does the prevalence and commerce of objects like travelling libraries suggest there were large portions of society who not only could read, but that reading and collecting libraries was fashionable?
  • When we say travelling library, was this a library that travelled around for people to borrow from or travelling in the sense of being portable for personal use of someone who wanted to take books with them as they travelled?

  • How many books are included in the travelling library? Follow up: What titles are in the library that’s held there at the Brotherton Library? 

  • … and more!

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The King hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

Prince John

Henry IV Part II (V.5)

William Hakewill was a member of Parliament in the early 17th century. He was in favor of a strong navy and spoke against monopolies. He was described by Anthony Woods as “always a puritan.” For a time, Hakewill lived at Chequers (shown in this image here). Today, this building is the country residence of the British Prime Minister. Chequers is located near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, England. Image by Cnbrb | Public Domain. (CC0)

William Hakewill Commissioned the Travelling Library

Travelling libraries, like the Brotherton Library example Michael joins us to share about today, were often given as gifts. They were considered luxury items, novelties, and things to keep in a Cabinet of Curiosity. As books, they serve as a testimony to the prevalence of literacy in the 16-17th century. While, true, many in agricultural communities or from peasant and farming backgrounds may not have been able to read, literacy was seen as a prized skill. Gifts like a travelling library suggest that books, too, held a high value culturally. Being able to read, and obtaining a high education was not relegated only to the super elites. Michael explains, 

William Hakewill, born in 1564, commissioned the bortherton travelling library because he was born in Exeter, son of a merchant, and he was obviously a different literary strata than Shakespeare because his mother was the cousin of Thomas Bodley, founder of Bodleian library, he went to Oxford, began a career at Lincoln’s Inn in london and by the time the traveling library was made he was solicitor general to James’ wife, Anne, and became a leading anytiquarian. Both [Shakespeare and Hakewill were] beneficiaries of the education system of the 16th century with every different background (yet both merchant parents).

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Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.


Tempest (I.2)

The Brotherton Travelling Library. It is made to look like a giant book, but when it’s opened, contains smaller volumes on shelves. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections & Galleries, Leeds University Library. Permanent Reference Link | Description from the University of Leeds:

This Jacobean travelling library is one of four of a similar kind, the others being in the British Library, the Huntington Library and the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. When closed, it appears to be a single leather-bound volume measuring approximately 41 x 28cm, but when opened it is revealed to be a wooden box with three shelves containing 43 small books, vellum-bound and mostly printed in Leyden. A catalogue of the books faces them on the inside of the cover, painted in three columns surrounded by an arch design bearing a crest and five coats of arms. Each column relates to a shelf, one for Theology and Philosophy, one for History, one for Poetry.

The largest of the coats of arms is of an unidentified member of the Madden family, apparently the person to whom the travelling library first belonged. It was previously supposed that all four examples were made for Sir Julius Caesar (1558 – 1636), Master of the Rolls to present to friends, because his Roman namesake’s name is given special emphasis in the catalogue, and Sir Julius did own the British Library example. However, it has been proven (Nixon, H. M and Jackson, W. A., 1979, ‘English seventeenth-century travelling libraries’, The Cambridge Bibliographic Society, 7 (294 – 304)) that they were all commissioned by William Hakewill (1574 – 1655), traces of his name and arms dated January 1617 being just visible at the back of the bottom shelf of this copy of the travelling library. Who made the boxes and bound their contents is unknown, but there is evidence of a common source and a connection with the King’s Printer, John Bill.

Description taken from ‘The Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds: Its contents described with illustrations of fifty books & Manuscripts’ 1986, University Library, Leeds. Source

The Travelling Library Surveyed the Classics

While the books contained in a travelling library would have been curated by the owner (or the person commissioning the library itself), we can see from the surviving examples in the Brotherton Library example that classics were popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime, as was poetry, and plays. Michael explains, 

16-17th century there was no such thing as a public library. Today tavelling libraries are available to take books to people who cannot get to a library themselves but for this period, the traveling library depends on the individuals. It’s owned by the individual and gives them personal use of books. The kind of owners of these libraries would have a london residence, a country residence, and even be part of a legal profession where they travelled around teh corny for work so a portable library allowed them to take their books and favorite novels with them where theyw ent. There are only 4 surviving ones with the complete case made to look like a book and these may have been regarded as prized possessions inside what’s called  cabinet of curiosities. Collecting rare and obscure objects to show off and the travelling library might have been part of that kind of collection. One reason to believe this is that this brotherton library has very little wear and tear for something that was so highly portable. 

Clearly [the books] have a significance and order to them. Philosophy and theology [on the] top shelf, classical history [on the] middle shelf, poetry [on the] bottom shelf. Each book is bound in a white vellum with colored fabric ties, and they have blue ties for Philosophy and Theology, red for history, and pink for poetry. Each book has a guilded angel tooled on the spine and another angel with a scroll on the cover [with the inscription] “Gloria deo” [meaning] Glory to God. [The craftsmen were] very careful to design individual books. 

[Titles include works by] Seneca, Cicero, also Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and… Marshall and plays by Terrence, Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine. Many of these in the Brotherton travelling library were printed in Leiden between 1610-1616 but some others printed around the Netherlands and there’s one from 1577, so what we’ve got is an eclectic mixture, so it wasn’t a set at the start but someone put them together selecting form a larger set of options.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

Open them, boy.
But thou art deeper read, and better skill’d
Come, and take choice of all my library…

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (IV.1)

Portait of Prince Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I. Prince Henry was one of James I children for whom the monarch commissioned a travelling library. This portrait was painted in oil on canvas by
Isaac Oliver (1556–1617), the painting is dated c. 1610. It is housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain. Source 

Travelling Library Wasn’t Popular Printing Method in England

While owning a travelling library was relatively common in England, the printing of these small manuals was not specifically well known in England. Michael explains, 

All of these books were printed abroad, it wasn’t a common printing practice in England. They were coming to England from abroad. That suggests there’s a larger selection of miniature books available and the person ordering the travelling library was able to select which authors/titles they wanted.It’s possible they wer eimported into England to be selected at a shop or given as a present or to add to your collection, but the grouping together in these travelling libraries would be an eclectic mixture of the other suggesting which ones they wanted included. 

The Brotherton Library examples is a true marvel (particularly since it is so well preserved and relatively undamaged), but it is not the only surviving traveling library we know about. It seems James I was keen to have his children own this kind of novelty, and specifically commisisoned small libraries for each of his sons.

There are two other significant sets that have survived, they are both for the sons of King James I. Exactly the period of Shakespeare’s lifetime. First bound for Prince Henry, who would have been Henry IX, but date 1612, no box of his books but they did survive together as a set, it’s at the British Library. Another set made for Prince Charles, who later became King charles, and his set is in the Bodelain Library. They were put together for these royal individuals when they were children, the idea is that it is almost like children would appreciate a small book which would fit readily into a child’s hand, in the same way an adult might use a standard volume. The fact that there are two sets both commissioned for the sons of James I, is interesting to think of another way these books might have been used. 

…performance is a kind
of will or testament…


Timon of Athens (V.1)

Example of a book printed on vellum pages. Description from source: “Diagram, In A Volume Of Treatises On Natural Science, Philosophy, And Mathematics. “This manuscript is typical of the sort of book owned by medieval university students: its contents are academic, it is small and easily portable, the text is written in small cursive script, and with minimal decoration. On a flyleaf is a partially erased inscription, recording that it was given by a university graduate to an Oxford school; a later medieval inscription records its ownership by Holy Trinity collegiate church at Tattershall, in Lincolnshire. This diagram, and others like it, occur in a treatise on the planets. Rather than being fitted into the available margins, like most of the other diagrams in the manuscript, it is clear that the scribe made an allowance and left spaces for them.” Public Domain. Source 

Travelling Library Made of Wood and Vellum

Not only with the creation of new plays do we see changes in Shakespeare’s retinue, but old works previoualy performed are now outfitted with new parts and additional content. Lucy writes that the King’s Men were “the first group to revive his plays, and the first to have them revised, either by Shakespeare himself or by other dramatists after his retirement.” Lucy outlines a few of the specific changes we know about today:

A couple of plays that are not printed until the First Folio edition, but seem to have revisions (probably post dating Shakespeare’s death) the most famous is Macbeth, revised by Thomas Middleton, around 1615, and Middleton amplifies the role of the witches in the play, and is an aspect of Macbeth that appears to be calculated to appeal to James himself. James’ perspective on witches shifts over his life, by the 16teens he’s involved in inquiring about witchcraft cases, most credulous when he feels the witchcraft is affecting him personally. Particularly incensed about witchcraft around his marriage to Queen Anne. Middleton amps up Hecte and adds some songs that Measure for Measure 1620s, original play Italian settings, and relocated to Vienna in 1620s near the start of the 30 Years War, which would have been more resonate location.

Book & Resources Michael Brennan recommends:


‘With thanks to Dr Anthony Payne, Antiquarian Book Consultant and Former Director of Bernard Quaritch Ltd.’

The Travelling Library of King Charles I (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

A Book from the Travelling Library of Henry, Prince of Wales (elder brother of King Charles I) (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Elzevier 17th Century Miniature Books

Alexa Goff, ‘The “Rare and Curious” Library of Sir Julius Caesar: Marvel, Miniaturization, and Antiquarian Librarianship on Display’, MA Thesis, University of Oregon, 2017

17th Century ‘Tom Thumb’ Bibles

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