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Backwards in Time:
The Story of a Manuscript

The flowery paper-covered binding of Keble’s Manuscript (MS) 36 hides a complex history. Like a lot of medieval manuscripts, it passed through many hands before reaching its current home, but one of these pairs of hands had unusually light fingers…

MS 36. Regula S. Benedicti et Consuetudines Ordinis Cisterciensis. 13th century.

Keble College – from 1911 to the present

With this manuscript, perhaps it is easiest to work backwards in its provenance history. It was donated to Keble in 1911, and since then it has been looked after in the College Library, as Keble MS 36.

The Brooke brothers – from 1896 to 1911

Before finding a home at Keble, this volume belonged to Canon Charles Edward Brooke, a noted Anglo-Catholic clergyman. Charles was vicar of St John the Divine, Kennington, and was later made Canon of the Anglican Southwark Cathedral. He donated 38 manuscripts to Keble College due to his support for the Oxford Movement.

Charles had inherited these manuscripts, including MS 36, from the collection of his brother: Sir Thomas Brooke. Sir Thomas was a noted book collector and a wealthy industrialist, who made his fortune in the family firm, John Brooke and Sons. This historic company, which can be traced back to the early sixteenth century, manufactured woollen cloth at a large mill complex in Armitage Bridge, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire.

Frederick Startridge Ellis – during 1896

The manuscript made its way to Sir Thomas Brooke from Frederick Startridge Ellis.

Ellis was an antiquarian bookseller and official buyer for the British Museum for some years. He was good friends with William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, published their poetry, and also advised Morris on the purchasing of manuscripts.[1] Elllis bought MS 36 at the sale of the manuscripts of Sir Thomas Phillipps; it’s likely that he would have then offered it for sale to Sir Thomas Brooke, knowing that it was something the collector was likely to want. Ellis’s nephew and colleague, Gilbert Ifold Ellis, compiled the catalogue of Brooke’s collection in 1891, so they were certainly known to each other.

Sir Thomas Phillipps – from 1859 to 1872, and his heirs until 1896

Ellis purchased the book for ten pounds and ten shillings at a sale of manuscripts belonging to Sir Thomas Phillipps at Sotheby’s auction house in 1896.

The volume had been MS 16303 in the library of Phillipps, a self-described “vello-maniac” who built up a vast collection of 60,000 manuscripts in the mid-19th century. Phillipps died in 1872, but the conditions of his will stated that not a single book was to be moved from his house, and it was some years before his family were legally permitted to begin selling.

Phillipps had himself purchased the manuscript at an 1859 auction of books and manuscripts in the possession of one Guglielmo Libri. This is where things get murky…

Guglielmo Libri – from who knows where and who knows when?! to 1859

Libri was an Italian mathematician, palaeographer, book collector – and crook.

Appointed the Inspector of Libraries in France, rumours began to spread that he used his position to steal rare books or individual leaves from volumes in libraries across France. Investigations were made and a report prepared, showing that he had been stealing hundreds of precious and ancient manuscripts, including the Ashburnham Pentateuch and the letters of Descartes. Part of Libri’s modus operandi was to disguise the stolen material by removing provenance information such as inscriptions and stamps, even going so far as to rebind stolen volumes. The report did not lead to any immediate action, and Libri was warned about it by his friend, the French foreign minister. It was found by the Revolutionary government after the minister escaped the French Revolution in 1848, and so at that point Libri fled to England along with eighteen crates of books and manuscripts.

In spite of being convicted in France, he had friends and supporters in England and was able to establish himself as a rare books dealer selling manuscripts, including MS 36, at various London auctions during the 1850s and 1860s.

Early provenance – ??? to ???

Our copy has no early ownership markings or inscriptions – if they existed, they were likely to have been removed by Libri.  That means we have no firm indication of when and how he came to own it, or even whether it was stolen or was one of his legitimate purchases.

We know little of this manuscript’s early provenance, beyond its dating in the 13th century by its cataloguer, Malcolm Parkes, and that it was probably put into its current binding in the sixteenth century. Unusually, Parkes did not suggest a country of origin. The volume was likely compiled from two separate books, which had been brought together by around 1400. It includes lists of Cistercian houses and extracts from sixty-five papal privileges concerning the Cistercian order, and the ‘Rule’ or regulations for life in a Benedictine monastery. That suggests the contents were originally produced in two different monasteries, but we know nothing for certain until it fell – or was taken! – into the hands of Libri.

Dominic Hewett (Research Support Librarian at the Imperial War Museum, formerly Keble Assistant Librarian), with additions by Fiona Wilson (Keble Librarian).


Barber, B. (2018). Working in ‘The Cause of Bibliomania Throughout the World’: Sir Thomas Brooke (1930-1908), a Yorkshire businessman-bibliophile. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 90(1). pp. 158-177. DOI: 10.1080/00844276.2018.1465684

Bell, A. Phillipps, Sir Thomas, baronet (1792–1872), collector of books and manuscripts. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 8 May. 2023, from

Cleaver, L. (2021, June 28). Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872): A manuscript collector and his legacy. Institute of English Studies Blog.

Harris, P. (2004). Libri, Guglielmo [Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carrucci dalla Sommaia] (1802-1869), scientist, book collector, and thief. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 16 Nov. 2022, from

O’Connor, J.J., & Robertson, E.F. (2003, October). Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja. MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive.

Parkes, M.B. (1979). The medieval manuscripts of Keble College, Oxford: A descriptive catalogue with summary descriptions of the Greek and Oriental manuscripts. Scolar Press.

Tedder, H., & MacCarthy, F. (2004) Ellis, Frederick Startridge (1830–1901), bookseller and author. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 8 May. 2023, from

Worms, L. (2015, July 25). ‘The Book-Hunters of 1888 (4)’. The Bookhunter on Safari: Ash Rare Books Blog. The Book-Hunters of 1888 (4) | The Bookhunter on Safari (


[1] Another Keble manuscript, MS 77, belonged to William Morris at one point, so it is tempting to speculate that Ellis may have sold that one too.