The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A manuscript misattribution?

This post was originally going to be titled “Murder in the Archives” and was going to be about an account in William Westby’s 1688 diary (Folger MS V.a.469) of the discovery of a dismembered body found scattered on a dung hill and in two “houses of easement” (latrines) in London, the revelation of which caused panic throughout the city. I often use Westby’s description of the murder and subsequent confession and punishment of a French midwife accused of killing her abusive husband on “diary day” in paleography class. But after these passages were digitized, I’d never had the chance to explore the diary further; that is, until yesterday when I thought I’d write about it for The Collation

Diary entry for January 30, 1688
Diary entry for January 30, 1688: the discovery of a dismembered man (click to enlarge)
The confession and punishment of Mary Aubrey for killing her husband
Diary entry for March 2, 1688: the confession and punishment of Mary Aubrey (click to enlarge)

Transcriptions of the entries about the grisly murder and the motive:

[January 30, 1688]

The lame post allwayes brings the best intelligence.

This day about 9 in the Evening was found the body of a Man with his head, Armes, & leggs, Cutt off, upon a Dunghill in Parkers lane his Armes & leggs was the next day found in the Savoy house of Easement which emtyed it selfe into the Thames, & his head was afterwards found in an house of Easement in the Strand.

This caused a great buzz and noise in the City & whole Kingdome, & the Circumstance of the driping of blood down the Wall in the Savoy from a window, which was ^onely occasioned by a mans being lett blood, & afterwards the blood was houe out at the window, much heighthned peoples Jealouses & the humour of the Town was so as if that this was but the earnest of a generall massacry & there was not a noted protestant divine whose head was not fitted to these shoulders Sir Roger Listrange had ther Examining of the Wittnesses & matters relateing to this Murdur.

[March 2, 1688]

… This day, Mary Aubry wife (& a french Midwife) wife of Dennis Aubry was burnt in Leicester Fields for killing her said husband the 27th of January last, in the Parish of St Martins in the Fields, this man proveing the person whose body was found in Parkers Lane his Armes Legs &c in the Savoy house of Office & his head in another near Exceter Exchange she Confessed she strangled him with his garter (he being almost drunck) & Cut him in Pieces for the more private convenient disposal of him, & at the Sessions at the Old Bayly the 22d of the last month she Pleaded Guilty to the Felony Murther & Petty Treason laid in the Indictment.

The reason she said that moved her to this bloody fact was his unkindness to her often beating & kicking her & his base drunken way of life & that the night she did this fact he offered great violence to her body in a most beastly manner. All the Informacions taken concerning this Murder after her Tryall was published by Sir Roger Listrang before whom they were all sworn.

After providing the transcription, I was then going to compare Westby’s account to the official account in the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. 1 It’s definitely worth reading and comparing the two versions, but it turns out I had a bigger problem on my hands.

I’m beginning to suspect that William Westby didn’t actually write this diary. Passages from Folger MS V.a.469 (Westby’s diary) have been quoted in various recent books about state formation and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, mostly relating to his first-hand observations of Londoner’s attitudes towards the impending Dutch invasion and rumors of a holy league between Catholic James II and Louis XIV. Westby doesn’t just report the news. He reports how people reacted to the news, and captures the conflicting emotions of anxiety, depression, resignation, and hopefulness of his fellow Londoners. But who was Westby? The catalog record states that the book “belonged to Westby in 1707 and appears to be in his hand.” After some inconclusive attempts to identify William Westby (was he the Catholic priest mentioned a few times in the Tyldesley diary from 1712-1714?), I fetched the manuscript, titled “A Continuation of my Memoiers or Memoranda Booke from January 1688 to January 1689,” from the vault in order to ascertain the source of the attribution to Westby.

Last page of diary with William Westby's ownership inscription.
Last page of diary with William Westby’s ownership inscription.

“William Westby His Book 1707” appears at the end of the last entry, for November 30, 1688 (right after something that looks like “Hous of Ingalant” (ungallant?), as if he were providing an alternative name for “the next Parliament”). Because of the 19-year span between the diary entries and this ownership entry, the original cataloger surmised that “the entries were probably written a little after the events described took place.” This sounded a little stretchy to me. When someone signs his or her name followed by “his book” or “her book,” this does not always imply that he or she authored the text, just that he or she owned it. Also, the hand isn’t exactly the same as the hand of the text, the entries are clearly the product of multiple writing stints, often employ a form of hurried, vowel-free shorthand, include currente calamo insertions and deletions, and are seemingly written without foreknowledge of what is to come, suggesting that they were written as events were unfolding. Occasionally the writer backtracks and adds additional news for a particular day.

And what about that other ownership attribution at the front of the book?

First page of diary with Peter Le Neve's ownership inscription.
First page of diary with Peter Le Neve’s ownership inscription.

It reads “Possessor verus ^hujus^ Libri Petri Le Neve Norroy” (Peter Le Neve, Norroy is the true owner of this book). Peter Le Neve (1661-1729) was a herald and antiquary with a large collection of manuscripts and printed books. In 1688, he was a deputy chamberlain of the exchequer, after spending time at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Middle Temple in London. Could he be the writer of the diary? The ownership inscription and diary entries have similarities, but they are not an exact match. This is not a dealbreaker, however, since he would have inscribed the book sometime after 1704, when he succeeded as Norroy king of arms, and handwriting evolves (see a previous post at The Collation for another example of his handwriting).

The British Library has a diary by Peter Le Neve (Add MS 61903) that sounds eerily similar to the “Westby” diary. It is described as the “diary and commonplace book of Peter Le Neve (1661-1729), Norfolk antiquary and Norroy King of Arms; 27 Nov. 1678-10 Feb. 1685. Chiefly concerned with public affairs, including trials connected with the Popish Plot and parliamentary proceedings” (I haven’t yet viewed it yet to compare hands). Kate Loveman’s description of it in Reading Fictions, 1660-1740: Deception in English literary and Political Culture, 2 with its emphasis on news, rumor, and gossip, gathered by someone who frequented coffeehouses and had access to manuscript newsletters, sounds a lot like V.a.469. And it would make sense for someone who kept a diary covering the Popish Plot to also keep one for the moments leading up to the Revolution.

So why did a Folger cataloger, so many years ago, attribute it to Westby and not Le Neve? This takes us into the tangled web of the library underground. As far as I can piece it together, here is what happened to this manuscript since December 1906, when Mr. Folger received it:

In a letter of November 9, 1906, the London bookseller Bertram Dobell contacted Mr. Folger about a “very important and valuable manuscript of Shakespeareian interest.” He claimed it was in the hand of the herald Ralph Brooke and concerned his dispute with William Dethick over the validity of some of the arms that Dethick had granted. It included a rough sketch of Shakespeare’s arms with the words “Shakespear ye player by Garter” written underneath, and was similar to another manuscript by Brooke which included a list of spurious arms, including Shakespeare’s, but no sketch of the arms (this is now Folger MS V.a.156). He offered it to Mr. Folger for £250. Dobell’s postscript adds some additional detail:

It appears to have been formerly in the possession of the celebrated Peter le Neve Norroy King at Arms as it is bound with 3 other MSS one of which is a diary kept by Peter le Neve for the year 1688.

After a series of letters in which Mr. Folger argued that the manuscript was not in Brooke’s hand but a later one and Dobell argued the converse, Dobell accepted Mr. Folger’s counter offer of £175. Mr. Folger did not enquire further about the other three manuscripts that were bound with it since the chief value was thought to lie in the depiction of Shakespeare’s arms.

Correspondence between Bertram Dobell and Mr. Folger, November 9, 1906 to January 29, 1907.
Correspondence between Bertram Dobell and Mr. Folger, November 9, 1906 to January 29, 1907.

When Seymour de Ricci consulted the volume of four manuscripts in the 1930s, he, too, concluded that the 1688 diary was authored by Le Neve. In fact, his entry in his Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York, 1935-40) privileges the diary over the manuscript with Shakespeare’s coat of arms, which Le Neve annotated (Le Neve may also have been the scibe behind V.a.470, which was originally the second manuscript in the volume). The notes to the ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) entry for Peter Le Neve also cite the diary as being Le Neve’s.

Entry for V.a.469 in De Ricci's Census, where it is described as being by Le Neve.
Entry for V.a.469 in De Ricci’s Census, where it is described as being by Le Neve.

And then along came the Folger exhibition called “Shakespeare, the Globe, and the World” in 1979-81, a nearly two-year traveling exhibition while the Folger was closed for renovation. The manuscript with Shakespeare’s coat of arms was of course invited to come along on this tour (which included venues in San Francisco, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Atlanta). To prepare it for exhibition, the decision was made to separate it from the other three manuscripts, bind them all separately, and give them all separate call numbers (V.a.469, V.a.470, V.a.350, and V.a.471). Part of the 18th-century marbled quarter-calf binding remains in the curatorial files for V.a.350, which is the heraldic manuscript. Thus the Le Neve connection was loosened, and I can only assume that when the manuscripts were individually cataloged his relationship to the diary was quietly diminished from author to “former owner,” which was how his relationship to the other three manuscripts in the binding was subsequently described as well. Or perhaps the cataloger went back to a pre-Dobell description, in the Sotheby’s catalogue for the 24 June 1889 auction of the Burton Constable Manuscripts (lot 172), which attributed the diary to Westby and didn’t even mention the Shakespeare coat of arms?

Early modern manuscripts are usually much more strange and elusive than they initially seem, and the deeper one digs, the more one encounters ambiguities. Libraries can interfere with the process of interpretation by making decisions (such as disbinding) which are not easily reversed. Making available digitized images of individual leaves, rather than the whole manuscript, can be both helpful and misleading. Catalog records for bound manuscripts are only mediocre offer only imperfect access points because they only reveal a fraction of the whole story. Descriptions are sometimes more speculative than we’d like, and must be constantly revisited to make them more accurate as more resources for contextualization become available online, and as scholars inform us of new connections and needed revisions. When we revise the catalog record for V.a.469 (after finding out more about the Le Neve diary at the British Library), we hope to remove some of those speculations and ambiguities, and perhaps contribute to the understanding of Le Neve as a young chronicler of a turbulent period.


Update 11 March 2013: The original phrase describing catalog records as “mediocre” access points inadvertently suggested that catalogers aren’t doing careful work. That was certainly not the intent, and so it has been altered to point out that records offer imperfect access points to an item, something that is both inherent to any catalog record and particularly true for records pointing to complex manuscripts.

  1. (, version 7.0, 27 February 2013), February 1688, trial of MARY AUBRY Dennis Fanet John Fanet John Desermo (t16880222-24).
  2. Ashgate, 2008, pp. 90-95


  • Thank you so much for your work on this–I’ll be eager to hear whether the hand matches that of the Le Neve diary at the BL! I referred to this as the “Westby” diary about fifteen times in my recent book, but I’m sure that future scholars will forgive me once all this is sorted out. It’s a fascinating document and one of my favorite diaries of the Revolution of 1688-89; I love that the author recorded in detail his responses to some of the pamphlets being printed in the months before the Revolution. (In all cases I cited the Folger catalog number, so future scholars will be able to follow my references even if the attribution is wrong). By the way, I am coming to the Folger for the month of June and am looking forward to seeing you then!

    • We look forward to seeing you, Scott! Arnold Hunt at the BL has kindly forwarded a couple of images of the 1678 diary, and the hand is certainly not an exact match, but some of the differences could possibly be accounted for by the ten year separation. So the next step is to look for other examples of his hand from the 1680s, and see if they are as cursive and slanty as V.a.469…

  • I assume that BL Add. MS 79491 will be your next port of call! (Although Peter Le Neve’s letters in that collection date from after 1692, so again it might not be an exact match). See you in June!

  • I remember this transcription day! What a fascinating post; it’s so interesting to see the intersection of library administrative history and reception history.

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