Richard Holdsworth 1590-1649

From Book Owners Online

Richard HOLDSWORTH 1590-1649

Biographical Note

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, son of Richard Holdsworth, Vicar of St Nicholas there. BA St John’s College, Cambridge 1610, fellow 1613, MA 1614, BD 1622, DD 1637. University preacher at University of Oxford, 1620, Rector of St Peter-le-Poer, London 1624; professor of divinty at Gresham College, 1629, prebendary of Lincoln 1633, Archdeacon of Huntingdon 1634, President of Sion College 1639. Holdsworth was much admired in London as a preacher.

He was nominated Master of St John’s in 1633 but after a disputed election a compromise candidate was preferred. He became Master of Emmanuel College in 1637 and was Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, 1640-43; he was appointed a royal chaplain to Charles I but refused the Bishopric of Bristol. His official profile made him increasingly involved with the political strife of the time and although he tried to steer a moderate path (his sympathies were more Calvinist than Arminian) he became more associated with the royalist cause. He was ejected from Emmanuel in 1644 and spent some time under arrest (briefly in the Tower). Some sermons were published during his lifetime, and collections posthumously.


Holdsworth amassed a library of a little over 10,000 volumes, possibly the largest private collection of his generation, housed between Cambridge and London. He acquired books throughout his life, both new and second-hand (his library included many books from collections known to have been dispersed during the first half of the 17th century). Thomas Bainbridge, Master of Christ’s, bequeathed his books to Holdsworth in 1646, in conjunction with three others. The listing made in the early 1660s (Cambridge UL MS Ff.4.27) includes 10,095 items, including 186 manuscripts; the collection was particularly strong in all aspects of theology (over half the whole), but also had significant holdings in history, philosophy and law, with further wide ranging coverage across geography, science, medicine, mathematics, literature and classics. The manuscripts include many medieval monastic books, but also late medieval and 16th-century literary manuscripts, including an important 15th-century Chaucer manuscript (CUL Gg.4.27). The printed books also include various early literary texts in English, and over 200 15th-century imprints.

Holdsworth’s will, and associated documents, directed that his library should be given to University of Cambridge (excepting duplicates, to be given to Emmanuel), provided that the Lambeth Palace Library (transferred to Cambridge University Library in 1648-9) was returned, and that it had pleased God to resettle the English Church within five years of his death. Unscrambling the implications of this was delayed until 1663-4, after the return of the Lambeth library. Discussions and litigation between the University and Emmanuel led to a settlement whereby all the books went to the University, except the duplicates, with the college receiving an additional £200 in compensation to buy books. There is also a small group of books (ca.60 volumes) given by Holdsworth to St John’s, Cambridge in the 1630s or 40s. Examples: many thousands in Cambridge University Library, particularly in the A*-Z* shelfmarks (mostly books acquired during the 17th century) - but Holdsworth's ownership must usually be deduced from an absence of other provenance evidence.

Characteristic Markings

Holdsworth did not inscribe or annotate his books, or display any interest in the decoration of their bindings; they are not generally identifiable as his on the basis of any physical evidence. The division of his motives in building up such a large collection – between personal reading and use, or the deliberate intention to create a library to bequeath to an institution – is open to speculation. Under the terms of the settlement, both the University and Emmanuel were required to maintain the books as a named collection, but this was never done. The books in St John’s are marked by a printed gift label.