Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts

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The Thomason Collection of Civil War Tracts consists of more than 22,000 pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, books, and news sheets, most of which were printed and distributed in London from 1640 to 1661. The collection represents a major primary source for the political, religious, military, and social history of England during the final years of the reign of King Charles I, the English Civil War, the Interregnum, and the English Restoration of King Charles II. It is now held in the British Library.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Primary source Original source of information created at the time under study

In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions can be used in library science, and other areas of scholarship, although different fields have somewhat different definitions. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document written by such a person.

Charles I of England 17th-century monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland

Charles I was the monarch over the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 27 March 1625 until his execution in 1649.


Compilation of the collection

Bookseller and publisher George Thomason (died 1666), who maintained a shop in the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, methodically collected and preserved the works over two decades. The tracts consist of a broad range of writings, including sermons, songs, political speeches, debates, opinions, jokes, gossip, news reports, descriptions of the trial and execution of Charles I, accounts of Civil War battles, reports from Parliament, and several regularly appearing publications that historians consider the forebears of modern newspapers. Thomason's collection represents approximately 80 percent of the published works released in England during this period. [1] [2]

George Thomason was an English book collector. He is famous for assembling a collection of more than 22,000 books and pamphlets published during the time of the English Civil War and the interregnum.

Thomason frequently made handwritten annotations on the tracts, providing such information as publication dates and the authorship of anonymous works. During the turbulent years of the Civil War and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell Thomason reputedly moved the collection several times to protect the more controversial works from destruction by government or opposition censors. [2]

The Protectorate Period during the Commonwealth under the rule of the Lord Protector

The Protectorate was the period during the Commonwealth when England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland were governed by a Lord Protector as a republic. The Protectorate began in 1653 when, following the dissolution of the Rump Parliament and then Barebone's Parliament, Oliver Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth under the terms of the Instrument of Government. In 1659 the Protectorate Parliament was dissolved by the Committee of Safety as Richard Cromwell, who had succeeded his father as Lord Protector, was unable to keep control of the Parliament and the Army. This marked the end of the Protectorate and the start of a second period of rule by the Rump Parliament as the legislature and the Council of State as the executive.

Oliver Cromwell 17th-century English military and political leader

Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader. He served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1653 until his death, acting simultaneously as head of state and head of government of the new republic.

History of the collection

Thomason appears to have entrusted the collection to the care of Thomas Barlow, provost of The Queen's College and former librarian of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and a future Bishop of Lincoln. Between 1660 and 1664 Barlow offered the tracts, together with two copies of a manuscript catalogue to the university for £4,000 but the sale was not agreed. Thomason remained hopeful that they would be sold, and in his will dated 1664, he charged his three executors (Barlow, Thomas Lockey, and John Rushworth) with selling the collection to the University on behalf of his children.

Thomas Barlow (bishop) English academic and clergyman, Provost of The Queens College, Oxford and Bishop of Lincoln

Thomas Barlow was an English academic and clergyman, who became Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford, and Bishop of Lincoln. He was seen in his own times and by Edmund Venables in the Dictionary of National Biography to have been a trimmer, a reputation mixed in with his academic and other writings on casuistry. His views were Calvinist and strongly anti-Catholic, and he was among the last English bishops to dub the Pope Antichrist. He worked in the 1660s for "comprehension" of nonconformists, but supported the crackdown of the mid-1680s, and declared loyalty to James II of England on his accession, having strongly supported the Exclusion Bill, which would have denied it to him.

The Queens College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

The Queen's College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford, England. The college was founded in 1341 by Robert de Eglesfield (d'Eglesfield) in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault. It is distinguished by its predominantly neoclassical architecture, which includes buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Bodleian Library main research library of the University of Oxford

The Bodleian Library is the main research library of the University of Oxford, and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. With over 12 million items, it is the second-largest library in Britain after the British Library. Under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 it is one of six legal deposit libraries for works published in the United Kingdom and under Irish Law it is entitled to request a copy of each book published in the Republic of Ireland. Known to Oxford scholars as "Bodley" or "the Bod", it operates principally as a reference library and, in general, documents may not be removed from the reading rooms.

After Thomason's death in April 1666, the negotiations fell through and the collection remained in Barlow's hands, until they were acquired about 1677–1679 by the bookbinder Samuel Mearne on behalf of the Royal Library at the Palace of Whitehall. Mearne rebound the tract volumes in a uniform manner but was never paid for his work and so retained the collection. Eventually Mearne's widow sought and obtained the permission of the Privy Council in May 1684 to dispose of them on her family's behalf. Over the next four decades various members of the Sisson family (descendants of Samuel Mearne) endeavoured to sell the collection on numerous occasions to Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the Bodleian Library, Thomas Thynne, 1st Viscount Weymouth, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, Frederick, Prince of Wales, the Radcliffe Library in Oxford and the antiquary and book collector "Honest Tom" Martin, but in each case the potential purchasers were put off by the high price asked.

Samuel Mearne English bookbinder

Samuel Mearne was an English Restoration bookbinder and publisher whose work is considered a high point of pre-industrial bookbinding. He and his sons, Charles and Samuel Jr., were one of the group referred to by historians as the Queens' Binder.

Palace of Whitehall building in the City of Westminster, London

The Palace of Whitehall at Westminster, Middlesex, was the main residence of the English monarchs from 1530 until 1698, when most of its structures, except for Inigo Jones's Banqueting House of 1622, were destroyed by fire. It had at one time been the largest palace in Europe, with more than 1,500 rooms, overtaking the Vatican, before itself being overtaken by the expanding Palace of Versailles, which was to reach 2,400 rooms. The palace gives its name, Whitehall, to the street on which many of the current administrative buildings of the present-day British government are situated, and hence metonymically to the central government itself. At its most expansive, the palace extended over much of the area bordered by Northumberland Avenue in the north; to Downing Street and nearly to Derby Gate in the south; and from roughly the elevations of the current buildings facing Horse Guards Road in the west, to the then banks of the River Thames in the east —a total of about 23 acres (9.3 ha). It was about 710 yards (650 m) from Westminster Abbey.

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer English politician

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, KG PC FRS was an English and later British statesman of the late Stuart and early Georgian periods. He began his career as a Whig, before defecting to a new Tory Ministry. He was raised to the peerage of Great Britain as an earl in 1711. Between 1711 and 1714 he served as Lord High Treasurer, effectively Queen Anne's chief minister. He has been called a Prime Minister, although it is generally accepted that the de facto first minister to be a prime minister was Robert Walpole in 1721.

In January 1754 Elizabeth Sisson approached Thomas Birch one of the trustees of the newly established British Museum, loaning him the 12 volume catalogue, but again nothing was to come of the sale during Elizabeth Sisson's lifetime. Finally, in 1762, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute purchased the collection on behalf of King George III for the bargain price of £300 (a fraction of the cost of forming the collection). In that same year King George III donated the collection to the new British Museum at Montagu House, where they were originally known as the "King's pamphlets" and added to the Royal Library Collection. In 1973, the museum transferred the Thomason Tracts to the British Library where they continue to be housed. [2]

Thomas Birch English historian

Thomas Birch was an English historian.

British Museum National museum in the Bloomsbury area of London

The British Museum, in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection of some eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence, having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire. It documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It was the first public national museum in the world.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute 18th-century Prime Minister of Great Britain

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, was a British nobleman who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1762 to 1763 under George III. He was arguably the last important favourite in British politics. He was the first Prime Minister from Scotland following the Acts of Union in 1707 and the first Tory to have held the post. He was also elected as the first President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland when it was founded in 1780.

Significance of the collection

According to Thomas Carlyle, the Thomason Tracts were;

the most valuable set of documents connected with English history; greatly preferable to all the sheepskins in the Tower and other places, for informing the English what the English were in former times; I believe the whole secret of the seventeenth century is involved in that hideous mass of rubbish there (Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the constitution and government of the British Museum. [3]

The Thomason Tracts today

Many of the publications that comprise the collection are exceedingly rare. In fact, some are not known to exist anywhere else. The tracts are bound into some 2,000 volumes and housed at the British Library's main building at St. Pancras. Because of their rarity and fragile condition, the originals are not available to general researchers. However, the library maintains paper facsimiles in its rare books collection, and in 1977 University Microfilms International released a set of 256 microfilm reels containing the entire collection. The microfilms are available at research libraries around the world. [4]


  1. Chisholm 1911, p. 868.
  2. 1 2 3 Gillies 2013.
  3. Stoker 1992 cites Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the constitution and government of the British Museum, (London, 1850), p. 274.
  4. The Library of Congress, "British Government Documents in the Microform Reading Room."

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Further reading