William Wotton’s Exile and Redemption: An account of the genesis and publication of Leges Wallicae
All great books have their own story to tell in terms of the individuals who created them and the circumstances of their creation, although some of these are more inspiring or poignant than others. This is an account of such a work that was undertaken both to repay a debt to friendship and to help rebuild a shattered life. It is also the story of how an Englishman came to discover a unique Welsh culture and helped to recover a significant part of what had been lost for many centuries.1
One night in May 1714 Dr William Wotton, the rector of Milton Keynes, Prebendary of Salisbury Cathedral, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, quietly left his newly rebuilt home together with his wife and their thirteen-year-old daughter. The family travelled across country to Gloucester, where they remained living incognito for a few days staying at an Inn, until they received word from a friend that they should continue into southwest Wales. Once at Carmarthen, Wotton and his family were provided with accommodation in the house of a Mr Joseph Lord, and he later found employment as a curate at St Peter’s church. He remained living there for the next seven and a half years. His wife did not survive to see her home in Milton again, and it would be nine years before the father and his daughter were able to return to their parish. During his years at Carmarthen, Wotton wrote several books and pamphlets and also contributed to other publications, either anonymously or else using the initials M.N. (taken from the last two letters of his names). By far his most remarkable achievement, however, was to learn to speak and write Welsh and to set about collecting and translating the ancient Welsh laws into Latin. These were said to have been reformed and codified by an Assembly convened by Hywel ap Cadell, or Hywel the Good, in the tenth century, and were collectively known as Cyfraith Hywel Dda. Wotton’s son-in-law later described the complexity of his task:
The present Welsh Language was the least part of the Difficulty. It was necessary for him to recover the meaning of all their old law terms and phrases, which had now for some centuries been intirely disus’d. The most skilful in the Welsh language were quite strangers to them. But by the assistance of the Reverend Mr Moses Williams in comparing a great variety of different Mss, and barbarous imperfect versions, they at last finshd the Translation of the laws.2
Ultimately it became apparent that the task could never be satisfactorily completed in Wales, and publication was delayed until Wotton’s circumstances allowed him to return into England in the autumn of 1721, shortly before his proposals for the publication were issued.3 Ill health and financial problems then ensued causing yet further delays, but with the continued assistance of Moses Williams, the translation and annotation were ultimately completed. The main text of Wotton’s work, which is usually referred to by its Latin title Leges Wallicae, was largely printed by the time of his death in February 1727. However, the finished work was not published until 1730, when it appeared with a preface by his son-in-law William Clarke.4
This account will focus upon Wotton’s years after his removal to Carmarthen and specifically upon the compilation and production of Leges Wallicae. It will seek to answer a number of questions:
what circumstances led a 48-year-old clergyman, from the Home Counties, to move to Carmarthen and live under an assumed name?
how was he received by the natives of the town?
why did he embark upon a translation of the ancient Welsh laws?
how did he set about identifying manuscripts and establishing the text?
how did he manage to translate the obsolete mediaeval Welsh terminology?
what were the circumstances under which the work was announced to the public, printed, and ultimately published?
what helps did he have?
what impact did the publication have on the development of the study of the Welsh language and the history of Wales?
In order to understand Wotton’s later career, however, it will be necessary to give some information about the childhood of this remarkable man.
William Wotton was born 13 August 1666, the second son of Henry Wotton, rector of Wrentham, near Southwold in Suffolk, and Sarah his wife.5 As a child he was blessed with an extraordinary memory and was a prodigious natural linguist who could read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew verses aged five. He was initially educated by his father, who later described his son’s remarkable abilities in An essay on the education of children (which he wrote in 1672, but which was not published until 1753).6 William was admitted to St Catharine’s College Cambridge in 1676, aged nine, and both matriculated and graduated in January 1680.7 He had by then acquired Arabic, Syriac, Chaldee, French, Spanish and Italian, and a good working knowledge of logic, philosophy, mathematics, geography, chronology, and history. The diarist John Evelyn described him as ‘so universally and solidly learned at eleven years of age, that he was looked on as a miracle’8.
Wotton lost both of his parents in 1679, and after leaving Cambridge, the thirteen year old prodigy was invited to London by Gilbert Burnet (later bishop of Salisbury), where he was introduced to some of the greatest scholars of his age.
When he was very young he could remember the whole of almost any Discourse he heard, and has often surpris’d a preacher with repeating his own sermon to him. This first recommended him to Bishop Lloyd, to whom he repeated one of his own sermons, as Dr. Burnet had engag’d that he shoud;9
William Lloyd, then bishop of St Asaph, took the young man up to his diocese and employed him in his library. Francis Turner, bishop of Ely, afterwards procured for him a fellowship of St John’s College Cambridge in 1682, where he graduated as M.A. in 1683.
Wotton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1687, at the remarkably early age of twenty-one, and quickly established an international reputation as a linguist and a scholar in several disciplines, but his chief interest was in the area of theology. He graduated as a Bachelor of Divinity in 1691, and soon afterwards began translating the thirteen volumes of Louis Dupin’s A new history of ecclesiastical writers, in to English, which were published between 1692 and 1699. In 1693 Wotton was ordained at Salisbury Cathedral, and presented with the living of Llandrillo yn Rhos in Denbighshire, on the North Wales coast. Soon afterwards he was appointed chaplain to the statesman Daniel (Finch), Earl of Nottingham, and tutor to his family, having been recommended by bishop John Moore of Norwich. Finch also presented him with the valuable rectory of All Saints at ‘Middleton Keynes’, in the diocese of Lincoln in December 1693, which he held until his death.10
In 1694, shortly after moving to Milton Keynes, Wotton published his Reflections upon ancient and modern learning, which has been described as “one of the first historical accounts of the growth of scientific ideas”,11 It was written in answer to Sir William Temple’s Essay on ancient and modern learning, of 1691, thus beginning the famous “Battle of the books”, which was later to involve Richard Bentley, Jonathan Swift and many contemporary writers.12 Wotton was satirised as a pedant by Swift in 1704, in A tale of a tub, and The battle of the books, but the following year he defended his work and ridiculed Swift in an appendix to a new edition of his Reflections.13 Of all the works published during the controversy between ancient and modern learning, Wotton’s Reflections was later described as “easily the most complete and the most judicious”.14
In April 1696, Wotton, who was then twenty-nine, married Anne Hammond, the twenty-five year old daughter of William Hammond of St Alban’s Court, Nonington near Canterbury.15 She came from an aristocratic family; her great aunt had been married to the antiquary Sir John Marsham, and her cousin was the first Baron Romney. William and Anne’s only child, a daughter also named Anne, was born 3 June 1700.
In addition to his scholarship in theology and the history of ideas, Wotton also has a place in the development of scientific knowledge. He took part in the early debates upon the origins of life at the Royal Society and in 1695 contributed to the Philosophical Transactions an abstract of Agostino Scilla’s work on marine fossils De corporibus marinis lapidescentibus. In 1697 he also wrote a ‘Vindication’ of the same work published in John Arbuthnot’s ‘Examination of Dr Woodward’s account of the deluge’. Soon afterwards Wotton began compiling a biography of the Chemist Robert Boyle, at the suggestion of Bishop Burnet, and with the help of John Evelyn.16 He likewise corresponded with Sir Hans Sloane on scientific and natural history topics,17 and with the philosopher Gerhard Leibnitz.18
Wotton’s classical learning was demonstrated by the publication of his History of Rome from the death of Antoninus, published in 1701, dedicated to Burnet, and which was later used by Gibbon as an important source for his Decline and fall of the Roman Empire.19 Similarly, his knowledge of languages was shown by the publication of a useful conspectus of George Hickes’s massive Thesaurus, of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Icelandic and northern tongues in 1708. This was done with Hickes’s approval and incorporating his footnotes, despite the fact that the two men held markedly differing religious and political beliefs. His most particular and long lasting friendship, however, was with Dr William Wake, a Canon of Christchurch Oxford, and from 1703, Dean of Exeter. Wake was a major historical scholar in his own right, as the author of the magisterial State of the church and clergy of England (1703). In 1705 Wake was appointed the bishop of Lincoln and so became Wotton’s Diocesan superior; thereafter the two men regularly exchanged letters on learned and political matters.
William Wotton was therefore a true polymath. His son-in-law William Clarke later provided an account of his character to Thomas Birch.
He was much acquainted with the several Branches of Learning, and a great Variety of Languages ancient and modern; His knowledge (to use an expression of one of his patrons in giving the character of another) was all in ready cash, which he was able to produce at sight upon any question; His great memory made him have little occasion for these resources, which are so necessary to most scholars, whose treasures of learninge often lye by them as a dead stock, which they cannot without some difficulty get off their Hands. … But above all he had great humanity and friendliness of temper; his time and abilities were at the service of any person, who was making advances in real learning.20
He appeared to be set for a distinguished career in the Church of England, particularly when his patron bishop Burnet presented him a prebend’s stall in Salisbury Cathedral in 1705, and when, two years later he was awarded a ‘Lambeth’ degree of Doctor of Divinity by archbishop Thomas Tenison, on the recommendation of bishop Wake.
However, together with his impressive intellectual achievements, and influential friendships, it was apparent relatively early on that the distinguished young scholar also had clay feet. Before he had moved to Milton Keynes, the antiquary Abraham de la Pryme described him in his diary as “a most excellent preacher, but a drunken whoring soul”.21 Unfortunately these were not just the transgressions of a foolish young man, and similar comments were made about him throughout his years in charge of his parish. Writing forty years after the events, William Cole, rector of the neighbouring parish of Bletchley, described him as “known in the learned World for his ingenious writings and in the country where he inhabited for his Levities and Imprudencies”.22 In one of several acerbic comments, Thomas Hearne referred to him as “little better than a madman”.23 Likewise, when giving a brief account of Wotton’s life, the printer William Bowyer II. explained:
He lived at a season when a man of learning would have been better preferred than he was: but it is supposed that his behaviour and conduct, which were very exceptionable, particularly in regard to the fair sex, prevented it.24
Yet, despite his disreputable behaviour, Wotton continued to receive preferment and recognition within the Church of England largely due to the friendship and patronage offered to him by some of the most influential churchmen in the country. This was partly out of a respect for his undoubted learning, but also he could also be very useful to them as a writer of religious and political tracts in support of the Whig episcopacy during the acrimonious debates of the Convocation Controversy, and against the Deists. For example, in 1704 he joined the attacks upon John Toland with a tract entitled A letter to Eusebia.25 Two years later bishop Wake chose him to preach at his Episcopal visitation to Newport Pagnel, and suggested that his sermon should answer Matthew Tindal’s, The rights of the Christian church asserted. Wotton’s entitled his response The rights of the clergy in the Christian church asserted. It was later published “for the Benefit of the Poor” and went through several editions and was also later reprinted in a collection of famous sermons. 26 Again, in 1711 Wotton drew up The Case of the present Convocation consider’d, in answer to some reflections by Dr Swift in the Examiner at the request of his friend. The bishop had sent his request for such a response by one post, and Wotton sent back his seven and a half thousand word text by the next.27
But later that year Wotton’s behaviour began to deteriorate to such an extent that even the most powerful churchmen could no longer condone it.