A Book Fit for Royals Washington and Lee's Special Collections is an educational resource fit for a queen, but this 543-year-old book really has royal connections.
Provenance, the fancy French word that roughly translates to “pedigree” or “who owned it,” often plays a major role in determining the rarity of an item. Certainly that is true for the earliest printed piece housed in Washington and Lee’s Special Collections. Known as an “incunable” (any work printed before 1501), Washington and Lee’s copy of a Latin text entitled “Historiae Adversus Paganos” (“Histories Against the Pagans”), published in Vicenza, Italy in 1475, is exceedingly rare in its own right. However, the ownership by not one, but two, British royals makes the Special Collections copy almost totally unique.
Although the text of our volume is hand-set type printed in 1475, the binding is an exquisite custom-designed red Moroccan leather binding with gold tooling likely done in the latter quarter of the 18th century. The front and back covers of this beautiful piece bear the coat-of-arms of George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834), a Whig member of Parliament who held various political offices during his long and distinguished career. Spencer was also noted for his interest in literature and early examples of printing. When Napoleon instigated the secularization of religious houses in South Germany, Spencer acquired many rare books and manuscripts. Hence his ownership of this religious work, which is a fine example of pre-Gutenberg Press printing. Spencer’s library of tens of thousands of volumes was sold at auction in the late 19th century. The late Diana, Princess of Wales, was descended from the Spencer royal family.
The inside of the front cover bears evidence of a second royal ownership. Neatly centered in an endboard adorned with hand-colored French marbled endpapers is the coat of arms of Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843). It is not evident in the record how the Duke of Sussex, nearly a contemporary of Earl Spencer, acquired the book from Spencer’s library. Prince Frederick was the son of George III and was born at Buckingham House in London. The Duke of Sussex was known for rebelling against royal traditions. Indeed, it was his liberal political views that fully estranged him from his father for much of his life. Not only did he advocate for Catholic emancipation, the removal of restrictions on Jews and dissenters, and parliamentary reform, but he also supported the abolition of slave trade.
He was president of the Royal Society between 1830 and 1838, and had a keen interest in biblical studies and Hebrew. His personal library contained over 50,000 theological works. The title of Duke of Sussex was bestowed upon him by his father in 1801. He was married twice, each time in contravention to the Royal Marriages Act, and neither union was recognized by his father. By his first marriage, he had two children, but since neither was recognized as legitimate, the title of Duke of Sussex became extinct on his death in 1843.
In a remarkable contemporary twist on this story of royal legacy, on May 19, 2018, Queen Elizabeth bestowed the royal titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on the morning before their wedding. While Meghan Markle is the first Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry becomes the second Duke of Sussex after Prince Augustus Frederick. It is not known whether the queen considered Prince Augustus Frederick’s anti-slavery advocacy when choosing the title for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It is quite fitting, however, for the royal couple, considering all the ways that both Harry and Meghan have used their royal and celebrity status for advocacy and charity.