King Alfred and Univ (3): A Recent Donation

Published July 2015

The last of our Treasures relating to Univ’s adoption of King Alfred has an interesting modern twist. Featured here is a biography of King Alfred written by Sir John Spelman just before his death in 1643, titled Aelfredi Magni Anglorum regis invictissimi vita (Fig.I). Spelman’s work remained unpublished until Univ’s Master, Obadiah Walker, planned an annotated Latin translation of the text. The ambitious work was published in 1678.

Although Spelman did not refer specifically to Univ’s foundation, Walker and his team did not let the truth get in the way of a good story. This footnote on page 135 of the text (Fig.II), probably written by Obadiah Walker himself, claims that Alfred was founder of both the University and the College.

“With the greatest of pleasure, and with every kind of thanks of minds and hearts, we acknowledge and glory in Alfred as the founder of this university and in particular of our College.”

The Library collection includes three copies of the 1678 text. One is part of the Browne Collection in the Master’s Lodgings. The second is a proof copy containing many notes and alterations in Obadiah Walker’s hand. The third copy is featured here.

In March this year one of our Old Members, Sir David Edward, contacted the Library to inform us that a book with Univ provenance was due to appear in the Edinburgh Christian Aid Book Sale. On closer examination it was discovered that the volume had not been seen in college for more than 70 years. It was withdrawn from Univ's collection and donated to the Red Cross in 1942 by William Beveridge and the then Librarian, E.F. Carritt, in support of the war effort. Even at that time, people appear to have subscribed to the idea that King Alfred was our founder (Fig.III).

Although there is no record of where the book went after being sold by the Red Cross in 1942, it ended up in the collection of Donald Gorrie, the Scottish politician and antiquarian book collector. On his death in 2012, Gorrie bequeathed his collection to the Christian Aid book sale where its Univ connection was spotted. The organiser of the sale, knowing of his connections with Univ, asked Sir David’s advice. As an exception to the usual rules, Christian Aid allowed Sir David to buy the book at valuation before the start of the sale. Sir David very kindly then presented this well-travelled volume to the College Library.

Selected bibliography:

Darwall-Smith, R. H. (2008). A History of University College, Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).