Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata and his time

by Marco Mazzi

When we speak of "Dark Ages", we refer to those centuries (5th - 9th) of which we have scarce and often unreliable historical sources. But the lack of information doesn't necessarily mean they were uncivilized times or that important events didn't take place. On the contrary, recent archeological and historiographic research tells us that those were times "of dynamic development, cultural creativity, and long-distance networking", as Professor Peter S. Wells points out.


Detail from the Sarcophagus, Govan Old Parish Church. Public domain

The land we today call Scotland experienced in the 6th century a most unique period in its history: the events of the following three hundred years would have unfolded from what happened in the 6th century.

At that time, southern Scotland was inhabited by the Celtic Britons, while in northern Scotland lived the mysterious ancient Picts. On the southeastern shores, the Angles, one of the Germanic peoples coming from the European continent, were slowly settling into those which for them were relatively new lands. On the northwestern coastal region lived the so-called Scots (but that is not what they used to call themselves) whose kingdom, Dál Riata, had linguistic and social connections to the Irish Gaels of Ireland, while it is still debated whether or not the Dalradians (or Scots) had Irish origin.

All of these very different peoples lived in a semi-tribal society, where many clans joined to form petty kingdoms led by a high chieftain or king. The relations between neighboring populations (Britons, Dalradians/Scots, Picts, even Angles) ranged from war, to competition, to mixed marriages in order to forge political alliances. Some of these petty kingdoms, in particular Dál Riata, held commercial relations not only in the region, but also with distant countries on the European continent, through seafaring networking. Recent discoveries have shown that Dál Riata was a kingdom based on the trade of luxury goods, including gold and silver, worked by the Dalradian smiths.

In this scenario, during the 6th century Christianity appeared as a major game changer. Celtic Britons in the south of Scotland had previously known the Christian religion, but the definitive withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, in the 5th century, had caused the abandonment of Christian beliefs and a revival of the ancestral religion and society of the druids. Now, in the 6th century, Christian missionaries from Ireland brought back Christianity to Scotland, this time for good. A main actor in this missionary work was Saint Columba, whose abbey on the island of Iona, in Dál Riata, became a hub of evangelization for all of northern Britain.

A representation of what the Spike Island monastery may have included. 
 The Wooden Church, Devenish, Co Fermanagh.  An example of a waterside 6th century Irish monastery.  Stone buildings and churches were very rare in 7th century Ireland.

An example of a 6th century Gaelic monastery, as it may have been the Abbey of Iona in its early years.

Artistic drawing by Philip Armstrong

In the last quarter of the 6th century, the most powerful ruler in this region was King Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata.

None of the sources for his life are contemporary: the earliest, Life of Columba (Vita Columbae) was written at the end of the 7th century by an abbot of Iona, Adomnán, who, according to some scholars such as James E. Fraser, draw extensively from an existing body of accounts, all subsequent King Áedán's death by some decades, anyways. All the other sources were written centuries later.

Furthermore, none of these sources are historically reliable. Some of them are hagiographies, some are poems and literary tales, or inconsistent lists of kings compiled hundreds of years later, based mostly on oral accounts. Modern historians had to compare all the different sources and select the more credible information, discarding the implausible details.

Needless to say, the paucity of the historical record makes treating the biographies of Áedán mac Gabráin and his contemporaries extremely difficult.

Nonetheless, historians can identify some facts amongst the many gaps in the records.

Proceeding with selective research, for example, we came to know the existence of a very peculiar character who lived in Scotland in the second half of the 6th century. His name was Artúr mac Áedáin, son of the above-mentioned King Áedán of Dál Riata.

Artúr of Dál Riata is mentioned in three sources: the already mentioned Life of Columba (7th century); the genealogical section of The History of the Men of Scotland (Senchus fer n-Alban), which is believed to have been originally compiled between the 7th and the 10th century; and the Annals of Tigernach (Annála Tiarnaigh), chronicles dating between the 11th and the 12th centuries.

In the Senchus fer n-Alban his name is actually recorded apparently as Áedán's grandson (but as already mentioned, the list shows some inconsistencies). In the Life of Columba, anyways, which dates only a few decades after Áedán's death, Artúr is part of a story which clearly describes him as Áedán's oldest son, and how he predeceased his father.

The bardic poem Y Gododdin, believed to have been transmitted from oral poetry dating from the 7th century (but the oldest manuscript is dated from the 13th century, most probably copied from earlier versions), honoured the memory of a great and famous warrior named Artúr, though there isn't any evidence which links that name to Artúr mac Áedáin, besides the fact that the events celebrated in Y Gododdin are set in the same region where Artúr lived and only a few years after his death: the poem consists of a series of elegies to the men of the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin and its allies who, according to the conventional interpretation, died fighting the Angles at a place named Catraeth around the year 600.

Cross checking the references found in all the different sources, we can draw a possible picture of the historical Artúr of Dál Riata. And it turns out that through the mist of the "Dark Ages", we can glimpse a very unique character.

As is often the case when it comes to the sources on the "Dark Ages", we don't have any date related to Artúr of Dál Riata. We can infer the range of his lifetime indirectly, from references contained in some sources. So, presumably he was born around the 550s and died in battle around the 580s or 590s.

His name is Brittonic, even if he was born into a Gaelic clan of Dál Riata. The reason for that is that his mother, Áedán's first wife, is indirectly recorded as a Briton woman. In the hagiography Acta Sancti Laisriani, written in Latin centuries later, it's mentioned as Áedán's daughter, Gemma or Maithgemma (also a Brittonic name), niece of a Briton king: meaning that Áedán's wife was sister to that Briton king. It's not possible to be sure if this hagiography contains some seeds of historical truth, but Maithgemma and Artur are both Brittonic names. Additionally, several Welsh works in the following centuries claim a Brittonic pedigree for Áedán. His own mother is recorded as a Briton high-ranking woman, daughter of Dumnagual Hen ("Dyfnwal the Old"), a 6th century king of the neighbouring Brittonic Kingdom of Alt Clut (later known as Strathclyde, in the area of the modern Glasgow). Though these pedigrees are inconsistent and likely dubious, they are notable in highlighting Áedán's close association with the Britons.

Thus, it appears that Artúr was probably three-quarters Briton, closely related by blood to the Briton rulers of the neighbouring Kingdom of Alt Clut, which stretched in the territory between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall, in southern Scotland. The Briton king mentioned in the Acta Sancti Laisriani could have been the famous Riderch Hael ("Rhydderch the Generous") of Alt Clut, contemporary of Áedán and Artúr, who reigned between the last quarter of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century. Riderch Hael joined an alliance with another important Briton king, Urbgen of Rheged, whose figure later merged into the Welsh legends as Urien Pendragon.

The meaning of the word "king" when referring to that society is somewhat different than what we would usually expect. It indicates a figure who ruled a confederation of clans as their high chieftain. The Brittonic word was guletic, which means "land-holder". The kingdoms ruled by those petty kings were not organised states, but rather territories under their influence, without defined borders. When a so-called-king became powerful enough, he usually tried to submit the neighbouring territories to his influence, and that led to bloody wars which often led to a shift in the powers of the region. One more aspect to take into consideration is that the armies were much smaller than what they would become many centuries later. Usually they consisted of just a few dozen men, so the correct term would be "warbands", rather than "armies". Only in rare circumstances, a confederation of different warbands from allied kingdoms would reach maybe a (very) few hundred men.

Artúr of Dál Riata was in his teenage years when the battle of Arfderydd was fought in southern Scotland (almost 200 miles away to the south from Dál Riata), which supposedly happened in the year 573 according to the 10th century chronicles Annales Cambriae; an alliance of Christian Briton leaders defeated a pagan Briton ruler, Gwenddoleu, and his retinue. It was possibly a defeat of the ancient druids' supporters, which set off the definitive predominance of Christianity in the region, at least in the Brittonic territories. Some sources, though not all of them, report that Artúr's uncle (if we want to consider believable the kinship reference in the Acta Sancti Laisriani) Rhydderch Hael was among the leaders fighting on the winning side. According to Old Welsh sources (hundreds of years subsequent to the event), Gwenddoleu's bard, named Lailoken, escaped from the battle and went insane wandering in the forests of the territories of Alt Clut. These semi-unhistorical sources tell how Lailoken became a madman with prophetic abilities and became known as Myrddin Wyllt ("Myrddin the Wild"), eventually getting in contact with Rhydderch Hael, to whom he predicted the future. The figure of Myrddin Wyllt will develop much later, through several versions, into the character of Merlin the wizard belonging to the Arthurian legends.

One year after the battle of Arfderydd, Artúr's father was ordained as King of Dál Riata by the hands of Saint Columba himself. It's the first known example in all Britain and Ireland of a king anointed by a Christian priest, and that is another sign of the spread of Christianity not only among the Britons, but among the Scots too.

As the oldest son of the Dalradian king, and at the same time as a nephew of the ruler of one of the most important Celtic Brittonic kingdoms, Artúr of Dál Riata was in a position of power from a young age.

Historian Michael D. Wood and others take into consideration some references in semi-historical sources, whose reliability cannot be confirmed: according to those sources, at some point Áedán mac Gabráin, more and more involved in the Christian transformation of his kingdom under the influence of Columba of Iona, provisionally retreated to a religious life and gave his son Artúr the supreme command of the Dalradian forces, making him the de facto leader of Dál Riata.

It would be Artúr, then, who led the Scots in several battles mainly against the Picts. Under this hypothesis, in his position as leader and considering that he was three-quarters Briton, Artúr would have probably had to deal with the Briton rulers active at that time at the southern borders of Dál Riata, especially with his uncle Rhydderch Hael and his allies, including Urien Pendragon. That epithet, Pendragon, with the meaning of "Highest Commander", was traditionally linked to Urien of Rheged probably because around the year 590 he was at the head of a Brittonic coalition in their first recorded war against the Angles of Bernicia, as is recounted in the Historia Brittonum, a semi-historical account dated from the 10th century. In that war Urien died, betrayed by a conspiracy of a Briton leader jealous of his power, and his figure was consigned to legend.

Artúr was not involved in that coalition, mainly because he was a leader of a Gaelic kingdom, adversary of the Brittonic kingdoms, but also because in the same period he was busy with his own battles at the Pictish borders.

According to some pedigrees, Áedán of Dál Riata claimed as his own territory an area between the Brittonic Kingdom of Gododdin (centered maybe around the modern city of Edinburgh) and the region called Manau, in the southern Pictish territories. His claims derived from matrilineal line, since his mother was a daughter of a Briton king of Alt Clut (Strathclyde). That's the reason why his son Artúr was active as military leader in that region.

The Miathi, as they are mentioned in Vita Columbae, were a population living in that area. Probably they are to be identified with the Southern Picts, but their identity might be traced back from the ancient Maeatae, a confederation of tribes that rebelled against the occupying Roman legions in the 3rd century.

It was against the Miathi that Artúr fought his last battle. It's not clear when, but around the 580s or the 590s. According to Vita Columbae, in that terrible battle two of Áedán's sons, Artúr and Eochaid Find, lost their lives, though at the end the Dalradian forces defeated the Miathi.

After the tragic "battle of the Miathi", Áedán mac Gabráin came back to the throne of Dál Riata, even though he was already in his fifties or even in his sixties, and he led the Scots maybe until around the time of his death in 609. Or he may have been deposed or have abdicated following his defeat around the year 603 at the battle of Degsastan, recorded also by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The victor of that battle was the Angle king Æthelfrith of Bernicia, the first unifier of the territories which will come to form the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria.

As for Artúr, we don't know if he was buried after the battle of the Miathi or what was his body's fate. But most probably his fame as a great warrior and leader outlived him. We have cited already the Old/Middle Welsh poem Y Gododdin and in particular the stanza in which is mentioned a warrior named Artur in passing, as a paragon of incomparable bravery. There's no evidence about who it could be that mentioned Artur, but considering that the stanza might date back to a few decades after the battle and that the poem is set in the same region as the battle of the Miathi, it could plausibly be a reference to Artúr mac Áedáin of Dál Riata.

It is a common view among historians that the earliest bardic poetry in the Old Welsh language of which we are in possession originated in the Brittonic lands of southern Scotland in the 6th and the 7th centuries and recounts the deeds of heroes belonging to that region's folklore.

If that is so, could it be possible that some of the feats of the commander Artúr became part of the Welsh legends? It is very possible, even if most of it was lost and what survives to our days was just a part of it. Actually, some of Artúr's contemporaries are an important part of those legends: figures such as Urien Pendragon and Myrddin/Merlin are legendary characters whose identities are rooted in real people who lived in the 6th century.

It's not the purpose of this article to prove anything, just to suggest with how much interest our popular imagination plunges into historical events that have been embellished and dramatically changed in the legendary accounts.

Sources include:

- Clarkson, Tim. THE MEN OF THE NORTH. The Britons of Southern Scotland. 2010, Birlinn Ltd.

- Wells, Peter S. BARBARIAN TO ANGELS. The Dark Ages Reconsidered. 2008, W. W. Norton.

- Wood, Michael D. IN SEARCH OF MYTHS AND HEROES. 2007, University of California Press.

- Adomnán of Iona. THE LIFE OF SAINT COLUMBA. As Told by Saint Adomnán (edited with an introduction by Phillip Campbell). 2021, Cruachan Hill Press.

- Bede. AN ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE (edited by B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors). 1992, Oxford: Clarendon Press.


An avid reader, Marco Mazzi has cultivated his passion for writing articles on different subjects for years, from history to modern society to sport. Marco has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication, besides a Musical Arts degree in Viola, which led him to the profession of classical musician. He has always been a history buff, and he has written several historical articles. He currently lives in South Africa, and he is a Lecturer at UKZN University. CHRONICLES OF ALBION is available HERE.

Friday, October 21, 2022

‘Cheek by jowl’—the Royal Academy’s Exhibition, 1776

by Philippa Jane Keyworth 

When one thinks of an art exhibition these days, one might imagine an enormous white space, interspersed here and there with paintings. Carefully crafted. Minimalist. 

Not so in the 18th century. 

The Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition
For my recent novel, I decided to set a scene at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual exhibition. The Royal Academy of Arts (often known in the present day as the RA), was founded in 1768. Sir William Chambers, an architect, brought a petition signed by 36 artists before King George III to seek permission to ‘establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design’. When the sovereign granted it, the RA and its annual exhibition was born, the latter known today as the Summer Exhibition. 

William Hunter's Life Class
for the Royal Academy of Art

Who could submit work? 

"[an] Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all Artists of distinguished merit."  

The Summer Exhibition remains one of the oldest open submission exhibitions in the world. This means you need no artistic pedigree in order to submit a piece for exhibit. It was a great egalitarian experiment in the vein of 18th century Enlightenment thinking that carries on to this day. 

‘...it’s a democracy of a sort, a very arbitrary one, I’m in charge!’ - Grayson Perry jokes in a Google culture and arts article 

Who could attend? 

And the visitors to the annual exhibition in the late 18th century were not all aristocracy either. Anyone could pay the shilling admission fee and admire the latest creations from the leading artists of the day. 

The academicians had to charge something, or—according to them—they might have to suffer the, 

‘noxious effluvia of the vulgar herd’ 

Perhaps now you can see why I might think this a fascinating setting? One in which I could base a scene filled with drama and intrigue in 1776? Just imagine it, the plethora of paintings staring down at the great swathes of artists, nobility and the middling orders gazing up. The sound and the buzz… 

What did it look like? 

So, back to the task at hand, I had decided to set a scene at the exhibition. Now I had to find out where it was held, what it looked like, which paintings were there in 1776. As any modern-dayer worth their salt would do, I began searching for contemporary images of the exhibition. Visual sources can be one of the most accessible ways to explore the past. I’m such a fan of it that I based my undergraduate dissertation on such sources, pouring over prints, paintings and etchings for many hours. And now I needed to find images of the exhibition. 

You read that right—by the way—I wanted to find ‘artwork of artwork’. And when I did, well, that was when I realised that the RA’s exhibition in 1776 was the furthest thing from a minimalist affair.

 Richard Earlom
The Exhibition at the Royal Academy
in Pall Mall in 1771, 20 May 1772. Mezzotint. 

Check out the RA’s reading of this print as each figure/painting/decoration has meaning. 

Paintings at the exhibition were hung cheek-by-jowl from dado rail to ceiling. It would have been an overwhelming sight upon first entry, and one which would have taken visitors some time to absorb.

To save wall space, pictures were hung frame-by-frame from chair rail to ceiling. The higher canvases, sometimes more than five tiers overhead, were tilted forward to enhance visibility and reduce glare. The huge, sky-lit galleries reverberated with the noise of the thronging crowds who, as usual at social occasions in Georgian England, brought their hunting hounds and lap dogs. - ‘Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s’

 If you were an artist whose work was accepted for display, it would then have been arranged by the academicians (members who ran the RA), meaning you could be a new artist displayed alongside established names. That’s still the case today. 

Artists coveted the ‘on-the-line’ spots, where you would have your work seen to advantage at around or just above eye level. Anything higher than that was… not great. 

I mean, it’s just a case of logistics. 

Who would be able to see it? So undesirable was the happenstance, that a term was coined especially for it: ‘skied’. No artist wished to be ‘skied’. That was not only an insult, it was bad for business. For the exhibition could make an artist, as it wasn’t just to display work, it was to sell it! 

So here we are, standing in a room with walls mounted to the ceiling with paintings, and it wasn’t just the one room. The first location of the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition was a set of auctioneer’s rooms in Pall Mall. The visitor would have progressed through them, within a great swell of people, pouring into the main chamber where the principle works were hung.

Two Hunters, 'Prophet' and 'Surprise'
John Boultbee

How would you know who had created what? 

Visitors would have been given a catalogue of the works on display—gratis—to carry around with them. I was delighted to find the original catalogue of the 1776 exhibition digitised here.

Queen Eleanor Sucking the Blood 
from King Edward's Arm
Coloured stipple etching by Wynne Ryland, 1780
after A. Kauffman

It was a glorious find for a historian like me. I was able to read about the pieces of art on display, and then look them up on Google. This led me to featuring several in my book including works by Boultbee, Cosway and Kauffman. The latter is a particular favourite of mine. Angelica Kauffman was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy and a celebrated painter of the day. It’s always pleasing to read about an independently successful woman from the past.

Madonna and Child
Richard Cosway

What does it have to do with my novel? 

So there it is, a wonderful historical backdrop in which to set a scene. The great cross-section of Society, oozing through the rooms, jostling one another, speaking, pointing, exclaiming. Oh yes, a very good backdrop, one in which the heroine of a Georgian romance might set about uncovering Societal secrets. And a backdrop where the hero might just wish to find out what she’s up to… 


  1. William Hunter's life class for the Royal Academy of Art at old Somerset House. Mezzotint, 1783, after J. Zoffany
  2. 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition, Arts and Culture, Google
  3. Richard Earlom, The Exhibition at the Royal Academy in Pall Mall in 1771, 20 May 1772. Mezzotint
  4. How to read it: The Exhibition of the Royal Academy in Pall Mall, 1771
  5. Britain's Royal Academy of Art in the Late 1700s and Early 1800s
  6. Two Hunters: 'Prophet' and 'Surprise', John Boultbee (1753–1812)
  7. The exhibition of the Royal Academy, MDCCLXXVI. (1776). The eighth., 1776
  8. Queen Eleanor sucking the poison from King Edward's arm. Coloured stipple etching by Wynne Ryland, 1780, after A. Kauffman.
  9. Madonna and Child, Richard Cosway (1742-1821)
  10. Difficult Beginning ? The Early Years of the RoyalAcademy of Arts in London, Isabelle Baudino
  11. Wellcome Collection
  12. About the Exhibition, Royal Academy


Philippa Jane Keyworth

Philippa Jane Keyworth, also known as P. J. Keyworth, writes historical romance and fantasy novels you'll want to escape into. Keyworth's historical romance novels include Regency and Georgian romances that trace the steps of indomitable heroes and heroines through historic British streets. From London's glittering ballrooms to its dark gaming hells, characters experience the hopes and joys of love while avoiding a coil or too! Travel with them through London, Bath, Cornwall and beyond and you'll find yourself falling in love.


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Treasures of Guildhall Library – the library of London History

 by Isabelle Chevallot

In the six hundred years since it was first established there have been several incarnations of Guildhall Library. The first library at Guildhall was founded around 1425, under the terms of the will of Richard Whittington ‘a rich and pious merchant’ who served as Lord Mayor of London. In English folklore, Richard or ‘Dick’ Whittington became a legend, reportedly rising from poverty by making his fortune through the sale of his cat to a rat-infested country and for centuries he has been immortalised in pantomime. However, Whittington did not come from a poor background. He made his fortune as a mercer and then from making loans, including to the king, which provided financial profits, together with access to the royal ear and a position of influence.

Richard Whittington pictured with a skull

When Richard Whittington died in March 1423, he left his entire fortune to charity and the City. Some of this money was used to found a library to serve the college of priests at Guildhall. There is no surviving catalogue of the contents of this collection, but it is logical to conclude that it was a library of theological books.

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In his ‘A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598’ pictured above, John Stow describes a "fair and large library, furnished with books, pertaining to the Guildhall and college". He tells us that during the reign of Edward VI (around 1549) the whole collection was 'sent for' by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. The books were loaded on to carts and taken away but were not returned. It is probable that the Duke 'borrowed' the books to furnish Somerset House, his new palace on the Strand.

The Duke of Somerset

Only one book from the original collection has found its way back to Guildhall Library, a 13th century copy of Petrus de Riga's Aurora, a metrical Latin version of the Bible pictured below.

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The Corporation does not appear to have attempted to recover the library from the acquisitive Duke and there was a gap of around 300 years until another library was formed.

Here is one other work which may be a survivor of the original library, a fourteenth century copy of the Chronicles of France pictured below.


We think this may have been held in the original collection because there is a record in the City Archives of a manuscript copy of the Chronicles having been returned to Guildhall in 1516 after having been a ‘long tyme in the keping of’ Robert Fabyan. 

There is no record of Guildhall Library acquiring a copy of the Chronicles, so it is fair to assume that this copy is one and the same. It also seems likely that some marginalia in this volume is in the hand of Robert Fabyan. 

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In 1828 a small library was opened for use initially only by members of the Corporation.  There were only 1700 volumes in the library at this time but as the library grew so did its membership, with tickets being granted to literary men as well as Members.

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This small library increased in size and importance and eventually outgrew its accommodation, and a new building was planned to the East of Guildhall and into Basinghall Street.  The Corporation and Common Council decided that from now on access to its books should be made available to the public free of charge.

The new library building was designed by Horace Jones (the City architect) and opened to the general public in 1873.  

By then the library contained about 60,000 volumes of works covering the history of London, its architecture, topography, its suburbs and a large collection of early printed plays connected with the city.  

It is this building which is now called ‘The Old Library’ and the office of the Guildhall Librarian is now the Chief Commoner’s parlour.

Around 25 000 volumes were lost in the Second World War, on 29th-30th December 1940, through the destruction of some of the library’s storerooms, but the damage to the library building itself was not extensive. However, the area around Guildhall was devastated by the bombing and for the second time in its 600-year history the hall itself had lost its roof - the first time had been during the Great Fire of 1666.  

After the war, the library continued to grow and flourish, expanding into the Guildhall crypt for some much-needed extra stack space. 

The image above shows the ‘Old Library’, as it is now called, depicted shortly before its closure and the layout had changed little in the 100 years of its existence.

As part of the post-war Guildhall reconstruction scheme, the Corporation decided to develop the West Wing and incorporate a new modern library.  The present Guildhall Library, in the West Wing of Guildhall, opened on 21 October 1974. It was designed by the architects Sir Giles Scott, Son and Partners, it ranged over five floors, two of which were purpose built for the storage of the now vast printed books and manuscript collections. 

Guildhall Library today

Guildhall Library is the Library of London History.  Our core collection covers London and its history and is the largest collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. We hold over 200,000 titles dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries including books, pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories and poll books. The collection covers all aspects of life in London, past and present, its trade, people and buildings and the whole of London, in addition to the City. 

The library holds internationally renowned collections of books on family and local history, wine and food, Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More, business and parliamentary history, poll books plus the libraries of the Clock Makers', Gardeners' and Fletchers' Companies, the Antiquarian Horological Society, Gresham College and the Charles Lamb Society.

Archive collections include the archives of 80 City livery companies, the Lloyd's Marine Collection and the London Stock Exchange.

While it is impossible to do justice to Guildhall Library’s collections in a single blog post, I shall highlight some of our more iconic treasures.

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The jewel in our crown pictured above is our copy of Shakespeare’s 1st folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies which was published in November 1623 around seven years after his death. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays – containing 36 plays. By the year of his death, only 18 of his 37 plays had been published.  Eighteen plays appeared for the first time in the First Folio, and these included - As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Without the First Folio these would likely have been lost. No substantial manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work survive.

Many copies lack this iconic title page, which would have been removed due to its value, to be sold or displayed.


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In 1891 the Parish Clerks deposited the London Bills of Mortality at Guildhall Library. The earliest printed bills in the collection date from the late 16th century, with a virtually complete run from 1664  to the middle of the 19th Century. 

The Bills of Mortality record the number of deaths each week and provide a statistical record of disease in London. They began to be produced after an outbreak of plague in 1592 (although there are a few earlier instances). From 1603, after another outbreak, they were made on a weekly basis, with the view to giving authorities and inhabitants full information as to the increases or decreases in the number of deaths.


The Parish Clerks collected and published the information every week. The printed bills were distributed on Thursdays at a subscription charge of a penny a sheet or 4 shillings per annum. They were delivered to the King and the Lord Mayor first by 8 am and then went on sale at 10am.

 The Bills of Mortality allow historians to trace the relentless march of the Great Plague, week by week and parish by parish as it progressed across the City. They show that September 1665 was the worst month for deaths from plague which reached 7165 for the week 12th – 19th September.


At this time the bills were edged with a border adorned with skull and crossbones, skeletons and implements of burial. At the top the inscription Memento Mori meaning ‘remember you will die’ sits beneath a winged hourglass representing the flight of time.


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From 1629 The Bills of Mortality included information about the cause of death with a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’. These covered a wide range of illnesses some of which are readily identifiable to us today some which are not. 

For the week shown here in addition to the 4237 individuals who died of plague, other diseases we would recognise include consumption and jaundice. 

For sudden violent deaths more details about the circumstances are often provided - as seen here: Broke her skull by a fall in the street at St Mary Woolchurch.

There are some diseases you may not recognise such as Tissick, which caused nine deaths and probably refers to tuberculosis or consumption and Rising of the Lights, which caused 18 deaths. The lights are likely to be lungs and Rising of the Lights would have referred to croup or pleurisy. Those who died as a result of fright, grief and ‘suddenly’ are also recorded.

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Another important item in our London collection is this first edition copy of 'The city & country purchaser & builder' by Stephen Primatt, printed in 1667, a year after the Fire of London had devastated some 430 acres, destroying over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, and 52 livery company halls in the City.

While the rebuilding programme led by Wren and Hooke would re-establish the public face of London, there was also a massive need for private redevelopment and Primatt’s was the first treatise issued in response to these private efforts. It is the first and also the most important book about the rebuilding of the houses and shops of London. It is also ‘the first work in English on building valuation, measurements and prices’.


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Guildhall Library holds first edition copies of 'Microcosm of London' commissioned by Rudolph Ackermann and published 1808-10. It contains aquatint plates covering all the well-known public buildings of London at the time. From the elegant ladies of Sadler’s Wells to the brawling fish wives at Billingsgate Market, shown in this image, all of London life is captured. Thomas Rowlandson – a caricaturist, watercolourist, draughtsman and engraver – supplied the figures, while Augustus Pugin drew the architect.

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Pictured above, is from a book of hand-coloured engravings depicting the costume worn by the children of each charity school in London taking part in the anniversary service at St Paul’s Cathedral, to draw attention to the plight of the children and raise money. Dating from around 1805, it consists of 5 plates of hand-coloured engravings by John Page. There are 124 children each depicted in the distinctive uniforms which were a feature of the charity schools. 

Guildhall Library is a public library and open to all. For more information about visiting:


The library has a varied programme of events the majority of which are free and can also be accessed online.

Images Copyright of Guildhall Library, City of London.


For the past twelve years Isabelle Chevallot has worked as a librarian at Guildhall Library where she presents talks, runs workshops, leads discussion groups and even organises Regency Balls to engage people in history. Her debut historical fiction medieval adventure novel The Song and the Sword is due to be published on 29th September 2022 in ebook, paperback and audiobook format. For more information:

The Song and the Sword - Kindle edition by Chevallot, Isabelle . Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.


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