Commonplace Books and the Apocalypse: Anne Sadleir’s Manuscripts at Trinity

Detail from the Trinity Apocalypse, R.16.2, f.5r

Anne Sadleir (1585-1670) is remembered as the woman who gave the famed Trinity Apocalypse (R.16.2) to the college. In some ways we know little about her: there is no surviving portrait and few biographical details exist. Anne was the eldest daughter of the prominent lawyer, Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), who enrolled at Trinity but who left before obtaining his degree. He was Attorney General in the reign of Elizabeth I and later Lord Chief Justice. Her mother was Bridget Paston. Bridget was a descendant of the Norfolk gentry family whose 15th-century correspondence is well known to historians.

Three commonplace books (R.13.74, R.5.5 and R.5.6) which belonged to Anne and are now in Trinity College Library give us insight into Anne’s personality through her letters, papers, annotations and notes. Commonplace books typically record miscellaneous information of interest to its compiler. This can include passages copied from reading material, notes, quotes and prayers.

An autograph poem about her early life appears in the smallest of her commonplace books which measures just 12cm by 7cm (R.13.74): Hunting-field gave me Birth (Suffolk)/Ellsing Education (Norfolk)/Standon brought Affliction/Which made Heaven my Meditation (Hertfordshire).


Anne married Ralph Sadleir, heir to the estate of Standon Lordship in Hertfordshire in 1601 and these lines are thought by some to imply that her marriage was not a happy one.

R.5.5, letter 69

Her other two commonplace books (R.5.5 and R.5.6) reveal that Anne was in regular correspondence with many people. We can learn about her reading habits and social and religious opinions from her copious note-taking and annotations. They reveal that she was an assiduous and opinionated reader. She was part of a network of royalist gentry who continued to use the Book of Common Prayer for private devotion after it had been officially banned during the English Civil War. She donated the volume now known as R.5.5 to Trinity in 1669 describing it as containing “many letters to my selfe, of most eminent men, Sum others of men of a different stampe, papist, and frantick Prisbiterian, which I have answered” (R.5.5, letter 69).

Her correspondence with the Independent minister Roger Williams, a protégé of Sir Edward Coke, is particularly insightful. She had little time for William’s radical puritanism. One letter opens: “I thought my first letter would have given you soe much satisfaction, that in that kind I should never have heard of you any more, but it semes you have a face of brass, so that you cannot blush …” (letter 36)

The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson (Cornelius Janssen van Ceulen) oil on canvas, circa 1640 ©NPG 4759
R.5.6, f.27v

Elizabeth, Lady Capel (1610-60) was Anne’s much-admired cousin. Letters from Lady Capel to Anne are found in R.5.5 (letters 12-21). She was the widow of the royalist leader Arthur Capel who had been executed in 1649. Anne composed a brief account of Elizabeth’s life and death at the end of one of her commonplace books (R.5.6, f27v-28v). It is a significant text as a rare example of female authorship providing a description of the life of another seventeenth-century woman.

Anne also collected printed books including a jeweled book of hours given to Trinity College (C.30.9) as well as coins, manuscripts and other curiosities. Many items were presented to Oxbridge colleges and much of her library was given to the Inner Temple (which her father had attended) in 1662.  She died in 1670.

Further Reading:

Hunt, A., ‘The Books, Manuscripts and Literary Patronage of Mrs Anne Sadleir (1585-1670)’ in Burke, V., and Gibson, J., Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing (Ashgate, 2004)

One thought on “Commonplace Books and the Apocalypse: Anne Sadleir’s Manuscripts at Trinity

  1. Fascinating, as always. The wonderful collection in our Trinity library never ceases to amaze me. Do keep the postings rolling!
    Peter Elliott Trinity 1971

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