An Encomium on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I by George Etheridge — British Library Royal MS 16 C X

The British Library’s Collection of Greek Manuscripts


The collections of the British Library constitute one of the largest and most important resources outside Greece for the study of Hellenic culture. Within the Library’s vast holdings of around 150 million items manuscripts of Greek texts form a relatively small, but significant part. Ranging in date from the third century BC to the present century and in format from papyrus rolls and codices to ostraca, wooden and metal tablets, parchment and paper documents and codices, they bear eloquent testimony to the rich culture of Greek-speaking people from the time of the creation of the Iliad and Odyssey through the classical, Hellenistic, early Christian, Byzantine and Ottoman eras and beyond the creation of the Greek nation state. They also exemplify the passionate interest of successive generations of British scholars and collectors in Hellenic culture.

The British Library’s collection of Greek manuscript codices is one of the most substantial in the world, comprising around 1,000 items. It is moreover a collection of considerable depth, including, for example, two of the three oldest Greek Bibles, the remains of some 227 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, and around 50 Greek codices dating from the first millennium.

The history of the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts is inextricably linked to that of the British Museum. The Department of Manuscripts was created at the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. Its collections and staff remained part of that institution until 1973 when they transferred to the newly constituted British Library. In 1998 they moved to the Library’s headquarters at St Pancras. The British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts is therefore a mature collection, built up over several centuries through purchase and donation. Its development reflects the opportunism and discrimination of successive Keepers of Manuscripts, as well as past trends in scholarship and collecting within Britain.

Foundation Collections (1753)

At its foundation the British Museum held approximately 265 Greek codices. These came from the three founding collections: Cotton, Sloane and Harley.

The Cotton manuscripts were collected by the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d.1631) and acquired for the British nation together with Cotton’s charters and rolls, coins and medals and antiquities in the early 1700s.  Although his collection of 1400 manuscript volumes includes only four Greek manuscripts, one of them (Cotton Otho B. vi) is particularly remarkable.  Prized by Cotton above all his possessions – these included the Lindisfarne Gospels and two copies of Magna Carta – the Cotton Genesis remains one of the most celebrated codices to survive from the early Christian period. Tragically, this ancient copy of the Greek text of Genesis, which had survived virtually intact for around 1200 years, was ravaged by fire in 1731. Most of its approximately 300 refined illustrations of the story of Genesis are now barely comprehensible. In addition to the Genesis the Cotton collection includes four leaves (Cotton Titus C. xv) of the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a sixth-century deluxe copy of the Gospels, of which the major part remains in the National Library of Russia, St Petersburg. It also preserves a much lesser known volume, a somewhat battered Byzantine Gospel Lectionary with an early Armenian provenance (Cotton Vespasian B. xviii) and one of the few surviving copies of the bilingual papal bull of Eugenius IV that was issued on 5 July 1439 to confirm the union of the Greek and Latin Churches (Cotton Cleopatra E. iii, ff. 80v-81). The Greek text of the bull is signed in red by the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Other Greek manuscripts formerly owned by Cotton were dispersed as a result of his practice of lending and exchanging manuscripts with other collectors and scholars. Three manuscripts that now form part of the Royal collection in the British Library (Royal 16 C. vii, 16 C. xxiii, 16 C. xxv) formed part of an exchange between Cotton and the then Royal librarian Patrick Young in c. 1616. One of these Royal manuscripts (Royal 16 C. xiii), which includes an extract from Photius’s Bibliotheca, had formerly belonged to Richard ‘Dutch’ Thomson (d. 1613). In addition Cotton also once owned the important copy of Photius’s Lexicon that ‘Dutch’ Thomson (d. 1613) had brought to England after its discovery in Florence in 1598 and is now preserved in Trinity College, Cambridge (MS O.3.9).

The second foundation collection is that purchased after the death in 1753 of the fashionable London physician and man of letters Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. Within Sloane’s vast collection of plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities, drawings, prints, coins, medals, manuscripts, charters and printed books, Greek codices formed a very tiny part: of the 4,200 Sloane manuscripts only 11 contain Greek texts.  Appropriately, given Sloane’s medical interests, the best-known Sloane Greek manuscript is the thirteenth-century London Hippiatrica (Sloane 745). In addition to its valuable textual contents this volume boasts a distinguished earlier provenance, starting with Ioannes Chalkeopoulos in southern Italy in the fifteenth century and continuing with Cardinal Girolamo Seripandi and the Augustinian Canons of San Giovanni di Carbonara, Naples, in the sixteenth century. Both this volume and a copy of the Liber de simplicibus attributed to Dioscorides copied by Johannes Honorius (Sloane 804) formerly belonged to Jan de Witt, son of the Grand Pensionary of Holland, and were sold at the sale of his library in 1701. Other Greek manuscripts owned by Sloane include part of an autograph manuscript of Michael Apostoles (Sloane 324) and a copy of the Hippolytus of Euripides (Sloane 1774), both of which had once belonged to another English physician Francis Bernard (d. 1698).

The third foundation collection, the Harleian, is by far the richest in Greek codices. No fewer than 250 Greek manuscripts came to the Museum in 1753 within the 7,660 manuscript volumes that had been accumulated in the early part of the eighteenth century by Robert and Edward Harley, successive Earls of Oxford. (Their remarkable collection of printed books and works of art was widely dispersed.) The Harleian collection was highly influential for the future development of the manuscript collections of the British Museum, not least because of the presence of many manuscripts of great antiquity and scholarly value. Critical to the development of the collection had been the wealth and discrimination of the Harleys; the availability of manuscripts, either from British travellers in the Levant or through the dispersal of Continental collections; and Humfrey Wanley as first agent (from c. 1703), then librarian (from 1708) to the Harleys until his death in 1726.

The Harleian collection of Greek manuscripts was built up from various sources. In part it derived from collections assembled by other Britons. Dr John Covel, for example, sold his whole collection, including 39 Greek manuscripts, to Harley in 1716. This collection had been assembled largely during Covel’s tenure as chaplain to the Levant Company at Constantinople in 1670-76.  Several of his manuscripts retain records of their acquisition in the Levant as either gifts or purchases. Covel’s collecting of Greek manuscripts informed the authoritative account of the Greek Church that he had published in 1722. As early as 1699 Harley’s librarian, Humfrey Wanley, had examined Covel’s manuscripts with great interest: at that point he had singled out, borrowed and copied a specimen page from what Wanley described as the noblest book of the kind that I ever saw’ (the original is now Harley 5598; the specimen is at Longleat). In 1711 Wanley’s specimen of Covel’s tenth-century Greek Gospel lectionary was chosen by him to feature in his portrait by Thomas Hill. It was Wanley who brokered the purchase of Covel’s collection for the Harleian Library.

Harley also purchased Greek manuscripts from British book dealers. From John Gibson, ‘Scots gentleman buyer of books’, he acquired large tranches of manuscripts in 1720-26. These included several owned and partly written by Zomino da Pistoia (1387-1458), who had bequeathed his collection to his home town.  ‘Lately come from Florence’ in 1722, Gibson also supplied Harley with a Menaion (Harley 5581), a lavish copy of the Iliad (Harley 5600) and a more modest copy of the Odyssey (Harley 6325), all of which had been owned by members of the Tornabuoni family of Florence. Another British book dealer, Nathaniel Noel, acted as Harley’s agent in 1716-24. Through him came in 1722 an illuminated Four Gospels produced in 1478 for Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (Harley 5790), and in 1724 a large group of manuscripts, including sixteen in Greek, that had formerly been part of the Farnese Library kept successively at Rome, Parma and Naples.

Parts of other Continental collections came directly to Harley from Continental agents. From Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni, for example, Resident in London for the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, came manuscripts formerly owned by the scholar Johann Georg Graevius. Amongst these were eighteen Greek manuscripts, at least three of which had formerly been part of volumes held at El Escorial (Harley 5610, 5795, 6316). It is yet to be determined how Harley obtained another large group of manuscripts, including 24 of Greek texts, which had once belonged to the Jesuit College at Agen in the south-west of France.

Named/Closed Collections

In 1757, very soon after the foundation of the British Museum and its incorporation of the Cotton, Sloane and Harleian manuscripts, George II presented to the British nation the Old Royal library. Included in his gift were nearly 2,000 manuscripts that he had inherited from his royal predecessors. Several previous monarchs, including Edward IV, Henry VIII and Charles II, had contributed to the growth of this collection over the previous three centuries. The jewel of the entire Royal Library was without question the fifth-century Greek Bible, Codex Alexandrinus (Royal 1 D v-viii), which the Oecumenical Patriarch Cyril Lucar had intended for James I, but which after various delays was presented to Charles I in 1627. George II’s gift included 49 other Greek MSS. Most prominent amongst these are 29 volumes, mainly produced in the sixteenth century, which the then Royal Librarian, Patrick Young, acquired after the death in 1614 of the scholar Isaac Causabon. (Other Greek Casaubon manuscripts that Young acquired for himself are now at Trinity College, Cambridge.) As noted earlier, Young was also responsible for the acquisition for the Royal Library of three Greek MSS from Sir Robert Cotton. Other manuscripts came into English royal possession as gifts to the monarch. Elizabeth I, for example, who was renowned for her knowledge of languages, including Greek, received both verse and prose texts in Greek addressed to her. One of these manuscripts is Royal 16 C. x preserving George Etheridge’s autograph Encomium on Henry VIII addressed to Elizabeth I, which is edited here online for the first time as part of a joint project between the British Library and the Hellenic Institute of Royal Holloway, University of London.  

When, in 1831, the British Museum purchased the Arundel manuscripts, it acquired a further 35 Greek manuscripts that, like those of the Cottonian and Royal libraries, had already been in England for some considerable time. Together with the rest of the Western Arundel manuscripts, these volumes had been presented to the Royal Society as long ago as 1667 by Henry Howard, later 6th Duke of Norfolk. In common with the origins of much of that collection, their acquisition was the achievement of Norfolk’s grandfather, the renowned collector Thomas Howard (d. 1646), 2nd Earl of Arundel. Also a beneficiary of the assistance of the Patriarch Cyril Lucar, Arundel acquired in the Levant in 1626 22 volumes, at least six of which came from the Monastery of the Holy Trinity on the island of Chalce which had been founded by one of Lucar’s predecessors, Metrophanes III, and was a patriarchal perquisite. (In the same year the King’s Ambassador to the Porte, Sir Thomas Roe, acquired manuscripts from the same source that are now in the Bodleian Library.) As part of his significant acquisitions from German collections, Arundel obtained several other Greek volumes. Within the Pirckheimer collection that he purchased at Nuremberg in 1636 he secured at least six manuscripts with Greek texts, two of which include the signature (Arundel 526) and armorial bookplate (Arundel 530) of Willibald Pirckheimer (d. 1530). Unnoticed to date are also manuscripts formerly owned by the humanist Bishop of Worms, Johann von Dalberg (d. 1503). A copy of Diogenes Laertius Arundel 531), for example, bears the arms of von Dalberg and is cited in the correspondence of his fellow humanist Konrad Celtis (d. 1508).

A very different, but important early addition to the Library’s collections was the library of Charles Burney, D.D. (d. 1817), purchased in 1818. In essence this was the collection of a gentleman scholar of the period, based on purchases at sales in London, and built on earlier collections already assembled in Britain and large dispersals from the Continent during the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most famous Burney manuscript is the Townley Homer, an eleventh-century copy of the Iliad with extensive accompanying scholia. This volume had belonged to the Salviati family since the fifteenth century until its purchase at Rome in 1773 by Charles Townley (d.1805), the renowned collector of classical antiquities. Together with three other Greek manuscripts formerly owned by the Salviati family (Burney 75, 109, 408), the Homer was purchased by Burney at the sale held by Townley’s uncle John in 1814. For it he outbid the Bodleian Library with the huge sum of £620. Another important source for Burney was the manuscripts accumulated by the London physicians Richard Mead (d. 1754) and Anthony Askew (d. 1774). At Askew’s sale in London in 1785 both Cambridge University Library and the British Museum had acquired several important Greek manuscripts. Others were acquired by English private collectors, contributing significantly to the number of Greek manuscripts in circulation within Britain.  Although he had to wait until late in his life when he had sufficient wealth to purchase them, Burney secured thirteen Greek Askew manuscripts. Other Burney manuscripts were fresh to the market and recently imported from the Levant. In 1810 Burney purchased a copy of Greek military treatises, dated 1545, that had formerly been owned by the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai (Burney 69). At its sale the volume was said to have been recently been collected in the Levant by a British diplomat. Three years earlier, in 1807, Burney presented to the British Museum five stray leaves from a highly fragmentary Harleian manuscript of the Iliad (Harley 5672).

Additional and Egerton manuscripts

The two collections that form the principal ongoing series of manuscripts in the British Library are called Additional and Egerton. Additional MSS have been made by purchase and gift from the earliest days of the Museum until the present, and are literally additions to the foundation collections. Egerton MSS began with a small bequest of manuscripts (none in Greek) in 1831 from Frances Henry Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater (d. 1829) and, more importantly, with an endowment for further purchases of MSS, which continues to this day. Over half of the British Library’s Greek codices are to be found in the Additional and Egerton series. The Museum’s collecting in this field was greatly assisted by the funds at its disposal, significant dispersals of manuscripts on the Continent, a buoyant London market for such manuscripts, and the high expertise of successive members of staff in the Department of Manuscripts. Within the Additional and Egerton collections are many hidden British collections of manuscripts that were acquired en bloc or in part. These collections were formed by British scholars and bibliophiles, as well as British travellers and residents in the Levant. The same collections also include groups of manuscripts from old, mainly Western European, collections.

The first major acquisitions of Greek manuscripts for the Additional collection were made at the sale in 1776 of the library of César de Missy, French Chaplain at the Savoy (Add. 4949, 4950, 4951, 4952). Nine years later, in 1785, ten further volumes (Add. 5107, 5108, 5110, 5111, 5112, 5113, 5115, 5116, 5117, 5118) were bought at the sale of the library of the London physician Anthony Askew. Included in a twelfth-century Gospels acquired then were the Golden Canon Tables from sixth- or seventh-century Constantinople (Add. 5111, ff. 10-11), which have been described by one modern authority as the preserving the finest example of early Christian book painting. In 1792 Charles Townley donated to the Museum three of the Greek manuscripts (Add. 5422, 5423, 5424) that he had purchased at Rome in 1773, and as we have seen earlier, descended from the Salviati family.

Yet probably the single most influential dispersal of Greek manuscripts in Britain was that of the sale of the manuscripts collected by Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford. Both philhellene and bibliophile, Guilford had amassed a huge library that he transferred to Corfu and intended to form a basis for the intellectual revival of Greece as part of the Ionian Academy. On his death, however, his heirs sought to recoup some of the family fortune that had been expended by Guilford by having his entire library returned to London and put up for auction. Corfu’s loss was Britain’s gain. At the principal sale of Guilford’s manuscripts in 1830 the British Museum purchased over 600 volumes. Amongst these were 23 Greek volumes of particular interest for their contribution to the continuation of Greek learning and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Add. 8221, 8222, 8223, 8224, 8225, 8226, 8227, 8228, 8229, 8230, 8231, 8232, 8233, 8234, 8235, 8236, 8237, 8238, 8239, 8240, 8241, 8242, 8243). Like many other Guilford manuscripts, nine of these volumes had previously belonged to and been annotated by Nikolaos Karatzas (fl.1730-84), logothete of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Subsequent acquisitions continued to draw on the dispersal of Guilford’s collections. Of the 21 Greek manuscripts purchased at the sale in 1836 of the library of Richard Heber, a founder of the Athenæum (Add. 10057, 10058, 10060, 10061, 10062, 10063, 10064, 10065, 10066, 10067, 10068, 10069, 10070, 10071, 10072, 10073, 10074, 10075, 10076, 10077, 10078), almost all had once belonged to Guilford. The same was true of the purchase in 1841 of the manuscript collection of Samuel Butler, Bishop of Lichfield, which included 26 Greek codices (Add. 11835, 11836,11837,11838,11839,11840,11841, 11859, 11860, 11861, 11868A, 11868B, 11869, 11870, 11871, 11884,11885, 11886, 11887, 11888, 11889, 11890, 11891, 11892, 11893, 11894, 11895), many of Guilford provenance. Since then Guilford manuscripts have continued to be acquired, to the extent that the British Library has by far the largest single holding of his Greek manuscripts. To date 50 Greek manuscripts from Guilford’s library have been identified in its collections. The Library also retains the collection of Greek printed books that Guilford assembled and was unrivalled in its time for the completeness of its coverage of Greek printing.

Further manuscripts emerged directly from the Middle East. Of these some of the most ancient that came to the Museum in the middle of the nineteenth century are several Greek palimpsests that formed part of a huge cache of Syriac manuscripts removed from the Monastery of the Syrians, in the Wadi Natrun. Most famous amongst these are the Cureton Homer, the remains of an earlier deluxe copy of the Iliad (Add. 17210), and the Codex Nitriensis, the remains of a sixth-century deluxe copy of Luke’s Gospel (Add. 17211). Both manuscripts were recycled by a monk of the Monastery of St Simeon at Kartamin, near Mardin in south-eastern Turkey. Other manuscripts newly obtained from the Levant came from foreign agents such as Constantine Simonides in 1853 (Add. 19386, 19387, 19388, 19389, 19390, 19391, 19392A, 19392B), Constantin Tischendorf in 1853 and 1868 (Add. 20002, 20003, 20004, 26112-26115) and Spyridion Lambros in 1858 (Add. 22732, 22733, 22734, 22735, 22736, 22737, 22738, 22739, 22740, 22741, 22742, 22743, 22744, 22745, 22746, 22747, 22748, 22749, 22750). From Simonides the Museum purchased 21 leaves (Add. 19391) that have subsequently been shown to be part of the Vatopedi Ptolemy and from Tischendorf it obtained an important minuscule copy of the Book of Acts dated 1044 that had once formed part of a volume in the Patriarchal Library at Alexandria (Add. 20003). The astute judgement and discriminating eye of the then Keeper of Manuscripts, Sir Frederic Madden, also ensured the purchase at the London sale of the numismatist H.P. Borrell in 1853 of no less a manuscript than the famous Theodore Psalter (Add. 19352). According to Madden this volume had been obtained by Borrell from the library of the Archbishop of Chios.

The London auction houses and the booksellers Rodd, Payne and Boone also provided opportunities for the purchase of manuscripts from important Continental collections. In 1883 the British Museum purchased from Payne and Foss three Greek manuscripts of Italian provenance (Add. 9347, 9348, 9349), of which one came from Grottaferrata and another from San Marco in Florence. From the same dealers it purchased in 1835 and 1843 five further Greek manuscripts from San Marco, most of which bear the annotations of the scholar Niccolò Niccoli (d. 1437) (Add. 9824, 14770, 14771, 14773, 14774). (Another San Marco volume [Add. 11837] came with Butler’s collection in 1841.) Several Greek manuscripts were also acquired that had once belonged to the Collège de Clermont in Paris, having been secured in 1764 by Gerard Meerman (d. 1771) and dispersed in 1824.

During the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several important collections of Greek manuscripts were acquired for the Library. Amongst the most notable were those of:

  • Henry Stanhope Freeman, British consul at Janina – 14 MSS purchased in 1862 (Add. 24369, -24382)
  • Sir Ivor Bertie Guest, Welsh industrialist – 16 MSS purchased in 1871 (Add. 28815-28830)
  • J. W. Burgon, dean of Chichester – 7 New Testament MSS purchased in 1880, 1882, 1893 (Add. 31208; Eg. 2610, 2783-2787)
  • Samuel Dawes, chaplain at Corfu – 12 MSS acquired in 1904 (Add. 37001-37012)
  • The Hon. Robert Curzon – 42 MSS bequeathed by his daughter Darea, Baroness Zouche, in 1917 (Add. 39583-39624); all had been acquired by Curzon during his travels in the Levant, including Jerusalem in 1834 and Mount Athos in 1837.

After the acquisition of the Curzon manuscripts in 1917 the pace of acquisition slackened significantly. Only five of the numerous Greek manuscripts that had been presented by the Victorian philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts to Highgate School were purchased when they came up for sale in the 1920s and 1930s (Add. 40655, 40656, Eg. 3145, 3154, 3157). Other purchases were similarly choice: the so-called Bristol Psalter, from Western College, Bristol, in 1923 (Add. 40731), a Gospel Lectionary, with extensive annotations by John Ruskin, in 1930 (Eg. 3046), and of course the Codex Sinaiticus, purchased partly by public subscription in 1934 (Add. 43725). In 1962 the Museum bought back four leaves that had been removed from the Cotton Genesis by one of its former Assistant Keepers, Andrew Gifford (d. 1784) and presented by him to the Baptist College, Bristol. In 1955 a tenth-century copy of the orations of St Gregory of Nazianzus with forged illuminations was purchased at auction (Add. 49060) and in 1974 a mid fifteenth-century copy of Appian’s Historia Romana was acquired by private sale (Add. 58224). More recently, in 2006-7, the British Library acquired three Greek manuscripts all of which had once been part of the monumental collection formed by the English bibliomane Sir Thomas Phillipps (Add. 82952-82954) and two of which had previously been owned by Lord Guilford. Most notable among these is a magnificent Gospel Lectionary copied and illuminated in the middle of the eleventh century at the Studios Monastery (Add. 82953). It is a worthy final item with which to end this brief history of the remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts held at the British Library.

A significant number of the British Library’s Greek manuscripts are now accessible online.  As a result of the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, which began in 2008 and is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, full digital coverage and new catalogue descriptions of 548 Greek manuscripts are currently available to researchers. Included are some of the earliest acquisitions made within the Additional series, as well as manuscripts from the Arundel and Harley collections. It is anticipated that within the next five years the Project will have made accessible online all the Greek manuscript codices in the British Library’s collections.

Further Sources

  • Marcel Richard, Inventaire des manuscrits grecs du British Museum, I: Fonds Sloane, Additional, Egerton, Cottonian et Stowe (Paris, 1952)
  • The British Library Summary Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts, I (London, 1999)

Scot McKendrick