Simonds d'Ewes 1602-1650

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Sir Simonds D’EWES, 1st Bart. 1602-1650

Biographical Note

Born at Coxden, Dorset, son of Paul Dewes, a barrister and government official. Entered St John’s College, Cambridge 1618 but did not graduate; moved to the Middle Temple (where his father was a Clerk in Chancery) 1620, called to the Bar 1624. He did not enter legal practice but became increasingly absorbed in historical studies in the records at the Tower of London and elsewhere; he became acquainted with Sir Robert Cotton and other antiquaries of the time. In 1633 he moved to the inherited family estate at Stow Hall in Suffolk. Puritan in his theology and politics, he became MP for Sudbury in 1640 and actively involved in the calls for reform led by the radical wing of the Commons; his associates there wearied of his tedious and pompous manner. He supported the Parliamentary cause in the Civil War but was increasingly regarded as a moderate and was excluded from the Commons after Pride’s Purge in 1648.

D’Ewes’s reputation rests not so much on his political activities as on his record keeping and transcription (he kept a useful diary of his life in Parliament, and copied the Parliamentary journals of the reign of Elizabeth I, published from his notes in 1682). His manuscripts (see below) form a significant part of what is now one of our key national collections. Although he had various plans throughout his lifetime for publications, including a history of Great Britain and an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, none of these came to fruition.


Armorial stamp of Sir Simonds D'Ewes

D’Ewes assembled a significant library, of manuscripts, printed books and various kinds of charters and documents which would now be categorised as archives. The full extent is not known but a number of lists exist, and the manuscripts collections remain substantially together, absorbed into the Harleian manuscripts in the British Library. A 17th-century shelflist (BL Add. Ms 22918), incomplete and derived from an earlier lost catalogue, lists ca.400 manuscripts and ca.600 printed books but we know that Harley acquired ca.600 mss, 563 rolls and ca.7800 charters; the original printed book collection will have run into four figures. Many of the manuscripts and other documents were originally from medieval English monastic houses. The library as a whole had a strong focus on history, heraldry and genealogy but it covered the wide range one might expect, including theology, classics, law, geography and practical books on household affairs. It was a known and valued collection among contemporary scholars and was used by Dodsworth, Dugdale, Selden and others.

Several surviving account books (BL Cotton Charter XVI.13, ms Harley 7660) record the purchase of books, the costs of binding and clasping, and expenditure on furniture and pictures for D’Ewes’s study between 1618 and 1647. The books were arranged by size and subject, using a pressmarking scheme of letters and numbers. He acquired books from many sources, including London booksellers, and some block purchases. He bought ca.25 manuscripts from the collection of John Dee in 1625-26, and a block of oriental manuscripts for £40 from the widow of Edward Tines (d.1641), an employee of the East India Company. In 1628 he paid £140 for a collection of books, manuscripts and papers of the recently-deceased Ralph Starkey. His largest single accession of documents was a collection of several hundred monastic deeds relating to Lincolnshire, acquired in 1648 from Montagu Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey. D’Ewes also inherited some books from his father.

D’Ewes bequeathed his collections to his son Willoughby (d.1685), with a stipulation that they should not be dispersed. During the second half of the century the library remained at Stow Hall, continued to be used by scholars, and suffered only slight losses; the listing in Bernard’s Catalogi manuscriptorum (1697) shows that most of the manuscripts were still there. In 1705 Willoughby’s son Simonds sold the entire library to Humfrey Wanley, acting on behalf of Sir Robert Harley, for £450. The manuscripts remained together with the larger whole which became a foundation block of the British Museum in 1753, but the printed books became part of the huge Harleian collection of ca.90,000 vols dispersed in 1743-45. Relatively few are identified today. Examples: BL; Cambridge UL Rel.e.64.9; Christ Church, Oxford O.f.1.11-12; Westminster School Busby N.B.12; and the numerous mss in BL mss Harley 1-600.

Characteristic Markings

D’Ewes sometimes added his own titlepages to manuscripts but did not regularly inscribe his printed books. He used two armorial stamps, one with his arms of three quatrefoils pierced and the crest of a wolf’s head collared, and one with the crest alone.