Among the brilliant and creative minds that surrounded Oxford during these early years at Cecil House were England’s first and most renowned modern scholar of Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) Laurence Nowell (c. 1515-1571), and his younger partner in these studies, William Lambarde (1536-1601). A cartographer and antiquarian, Nowell is famous among scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature as the first to devote himself to the task of translating the ancient and medieval manuscripts known today as the Anglo Saxon Chronicles into Latin and English. A “northern man” from Lancashire, educated at Christ Church, Oxford, Nowell was in his late forties when he began work on the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Although apparently hired by Cecil to tutor Oxford, this may also have been Cecil’s way of assisting the work of a “pore scholer” by way of Oxford’s estate, for it is likely that Nowell was already involved in translating and transcribing these manuscripts before Oxford came to Cecil. (According to the DNB, it was Thomas Randolph who recommended Nowell to Cecil.)
Not a great deal more than this is known about Nowell. Despite his importance to the world of Anglo-Saxon translation, his primary interest appears to have been mapmaking, which may be one reason that he travelled so frequently and extensively. Something of an artist, he created several beautiful maps while at Cecil House, one of which, still in existence, is believed to be the pocket map that Cecil kept handy for daily use. He was also known for his “beautiful hand,” a graceful Italic.
Ornamental additions include most prominently the portraits of two male figures in each of the bottom corners. The reclining figure on the left, usually identified as Nowell, seems sad, holding an empty purse, leans on a pedestal bearing a Greek inscription from Hesiod’s Works and Days stating that after Pandora’s opening of the jar “Hope was the only spirit that stayed there / in the unbreakable / closure of the jar, under its rim, / and could not fly forth.” Another seated figure on the right, thought to be Cecil, has a few books scattered about his feet and rests on an hourglass underneath which another inscription from Hesiod advises to “hope and endure.”
Nowell seems to have been something of a will ‘o the wisp, with an urge to see the world that prevented him from staying too long in one place or spending too much time on any one project. He left Oxford before graduating, apparently due to a dispute with one of the fellows, after which he spent some years travelling on the continent, through France and Paris, then on to Geneva, Venice, Rome and Padua, returning home shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, then off again to explore parts of Ireland before ending up at Cecil House, possibly in 1561, for an unknown period of time.
The dates involved suggest that Nowell’s interest in Anglo-Saxon arose with his first contact with the ancient manuscripts then in Cecil’s and Archbishop Parker’s possession. Considering his artistic bent, it may have been the beauty of these, their witty little illlustrations of men and beasts and their meticulous uncials and ornately colored and gilded majuscules, that first captured his interest. He seems to have taught himself to read Anglo-Saxon by comparing these texts with their Latin equivalents in Aelfric’s Grammar and Glossary, parts of which he transcribed and translated while with Cecil. During this period he transcribed and then translated into Latin a number of Anglo-Saxon texts, including the Old English Bede and parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He had for some time in his possession, possibly through either Cecil or Parker, what is now BL, Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv in the British Library, the collection of Old English writings known as the Nowell codex which contains the only surviving text of Beowulf (on the back of which Nowell’s name can still be seen, written in pencil, along with the date, 1563).
According to the ODNB, Nowell began compiling his Vocabularium Saxonicum, his dictionary of the Saxon language (AC 1.357-8) from these manuscripts sometime in 1560-61. According to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages:
Mostly in Latin, those parts that are in Old English are, after Gothic, the oldest vernacular writings in Western Europe. Many early manuscripts were lost or destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. Four hundred are extant that contain Old English texts. These are clear, well spaced, Insular miniscule hand, easy to read and pleasing to the eye, decorated with interlace patterns. They contain charters, wills, laws, treatises on grammar, math, medicines and geography. Four of the collections contain poetry of a very high order, the Nowell Codex being one of them. (274-5)
With what we know of Smith, his interest in Greek pronunciation, we can be certain that Oxford was familiar with the sound of ancient Greek poetry, with the lilt and cadence of Homer, Pindar, and Euripides, all found in Smith’s library. We can be equally certain that he was familiar with the sound of ancient Roman poetry, of Ovid, Virgil, and Horace, in Latin polished by Smith’s year at the University of Padua. It seems likely that, with so many manuscripts of Chaucer around, plus the lingering use of medieval tropes in the more remote rural areas of England, he would have been familiar as well with the sound of Middle English. But what about Old English? For Nowell, perhaps it was the creative excitement of connecting clues from the OE texts with Latin and middle English texts, that the sound and cadence of Old English poetry was revived, a project that kept this wanderer with Cecil for as long as it took to get Lambarde hooked, at which point Nowell took off again to see more of the world.
If this method of tranlating Old English seems like an improbable scenario, we need to keep in mind that most of these members of the Cecil/Parker coterie were already expert translators. Years of immersion in four or five languages, moving back and forth from classical Greek to Biblical (Koine) Greek, to Classical Latin to Medieval Latin, to English to French to Italian and back again, gave them a level of linguistic sophistication that few could match today. In addition, since Cecil House was a meeting place for travellers of all sorts, educated visitors from Scandinavia and Germany could have offered assistance with points of similarity between Old English and their own Teutonic and Nordic languages. There’s no doubt that when Moth says to Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost about Holofernes and Nathaniel, “they have been at a great feast of languages,” he’s reflecting the period when Oxford was surrounded at Cecil House and at Court by translators and tutors like Smith and Nowell.
History tells us that it was through the Archbishop that Nowell obtained the Chronicles manuscripts. Of the four manuscript versions of the Chronicles, all but one had come into the possession of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury at some point well before the dissolution of the monasteries, one at least was probably in its possession since the Norman conquest (Garmondswey xxxii). Notations on these manuscripts have been identified as those of John Joscelyn (Josselin), Parker’s Latin Secretary, Parker himself, and Nowell. It is known that Joscelyn worked from a transcript of one of the four made earlier by Nowell “in or after 1565 but not later than 1567” (Dumville xiv fn. 25). “In 1562 he [Nowell] had made what is now the earliest known complete modern copy of a version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle” and in 1565, large portions of another. To both these copies he added material from three others (Brewer xv-xvi). One version is known to have been first discovered by John Leland who had shown it to John Bale by 1548 (Dumville xxxii). These are the years when Oxford was spending most of his time at Cecil House.
William Lambarde (1536-1601) is another name familiar to students of Anglo-Saxon language and law. In the midst of his legal studies at Lincoln’s Inn at this time, it was Nowell who first interested Lambarde in the work for which he would become renowned, translating the ancient manuscripts of Anglo Saxon law into Latin, a work fundamental to the study of the history of English law (Dunkel 33). Although he did pass the bar in 1567, eventually his interest in language would overcome Lambarde’s interest in the Law itself. His book, Archaionomia, published by John Day in 1568, presents the material in a way often seen in similar works today, a page of Anglo-Saxon on the left page (verso) faced its Latin translation on the right page (recto). By giving generations of legal scholars access to the laws and customs of their early ancestors, his work placed William Lambarde among the great scholars of English jurisprudence.
Lambarde’s earlier education is unknown. Later he would donate books to the library of Christ Church College at Oxford, suggesting that he may have attended at some point. Through the friendships he formed in these early years with fellow benchers at Lincoln’s Inn, Thomas Egerton (later Lord Chancellor) and John Puckering (later Lord Keeper), he would move up the ladder of success within the legal profession, the expertise he had gained through his studies of ancient laws with respect to precedents bringing him respect and important office, eventually securing him the post of Keeper of the Muniment Room at the Tower of London. Lambarde remained close to the Archbishop until Parker’s death in 1575.
Having named Lambarde as one of the executors of his last will and testament, on or about 25 March 1567, Laurence Nowell departed one last time for the continent. While at the University of Paris, he sent his friend a transcript of yet another ninth-century history, the Gesta Normannorum ducum (Acts of the Dukes of Normandy). After visiting Venice and Padua, Nowell enrolled at the University of Vienna, but soon moved on to Basel. He was at Leipzig by August 1569, and in October matriculated at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. By 1571, presuming him dead, his family petitioned the courts to order Lambarde to release their inheritances. This he did, though he retained Nowell’s library, making use of his friend’s manuscripts and books in his own writings over the years.
Nowell’s greatest legacy was his Anglo-Saxon dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum, used in manuscript by generations of lexicographers until it was finally printed in 1952. He made the first critical edition of Alfred’s laws along with a modern English translation, which was used by Lambarde for his Archaionomia (1568).
N.B.: Laurence Nowell the antiquarian has frequently been confused with his cousin of the same name who became the Dean of Lichfield. They had the same paternal grandparents.