By Rebecca Brackmann, Lincoln Memorial University

Laurence Nowell (1530–c.1570) was one of the foremost scholars of Anglo-Saxon in the sixteenth century, the period in which Old English studies began. Nowell, whose manuscript Vocabularium Saxonicum was the first Old English to early modern English dictionary, stood in the vanguard of this movement. Working closely with his friend William Lambarde (1536–1601), Nowell’s work with Old English legal manuscripts helped to lay the groundwork for everything that later common lawyers knew (or claimed they knew) about early medieval English law.


Nowell lived at a time when the humanist movement was in full swing, and this cultural background no doubt influenced his eventual approach to the texts of Old English laws. Nowell graduated with a BA from Christ Church, Oxford in 1552. He spent the next several years travelling intermittently throughout England, Ireland and the Continent. His travels probably both inspired and were in turn inspired by his interest in cartography; the manuscript maps of Britain and Ireland that he went on to produce in the mid 1560s would be the most accurate of any similar maps to date.

Some time in 1562 or 1563, Nowell was employed by Queen Elizabeth I’s secretary and one of the most powerful men in England, Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), as a tutor to Cecil’s ward, Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. Nowell lived in Cecil’s house from that time until 1567, even after his duties as a tutor were completed; Carl Berkhout speculates that Cecil employed him as a ‘scholarly factotum’.1 Cecil not only collected manuscripts himself, but had connections to other collectors such as archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker and dean of Canterbury Nicholas Wotton; it seems probable that Cecil’s influence opened doors for Nowell’s Anglo-Saxon studies by smoothing his way in borrowing manuscripts. Nearly all of Nowell’s manuscripts and notes concerning the study of Old English date from his time in Cecil’s house. While residing there, Nowell would also have come into contact with several prominent English humanists and writers of the day, such as Roger Ascham and Arthur Golding, placing his studies at the heart of Tudor political and literary culture. In 1567, Nowell left England to travel on the Continent and seek out manuscripts there. He did not return from this journey, and in 1571 the court of requests ordered that his bequests should be distributed to his heirs.

Legal studies

From the first, Nowell’s interest in Old English and early medieval texts centred on historical and legal materials. Although he left notes in both the Beowulf manuscript (which he owned) and the Exeter Book, he made no copies of texts from either of these books, and scarcely used them for his efforts in Old English lexicography. The earliest manuscript that witnesses Nowell’s interest in Anglo-Saxon laws, British Library, Additional MS. 43703, provides a good example of his methods, and of his importance to early modern studies of Old English law. Add. MS. 43703 is largely a copy of British Library, Cotton Otho B.xi, a manuscript which suffered severe damage in the Cottonian Library fire in the eighteenth century. Nowell’s transcription of this manuscript preserves (among other historical and legal texts) a copy of the Laws of Alfred and Ine. Nowell corrected and annotated this text, at times offering readings from other manuscripts or providing Latin translations of words from the Quadripartitus, twelfth-century attempt to translate Old English laws into Latin. However, a few of his corrections were his own suggestions, sometimes followed by ‘opinor’ (I think). Mechanical copying of manuscripts was not enough; Nowell, in his quest for complete versions, consulted not only all the manuscripts he could find (as humanist practice dictated) but developed his own sense of what the laws should be.

As he worked on Old English laws, Nowell moved from copying and annotating to editing the laws, attempting to compile the most ‘complete’ versions of these crucial texts that he could devise. Two holdings in the Canterbury Cathedral Library indicate his process for this. Cathedral Library Lit.E.2 contains a copy of the laws of Cnut, which Nowell had taken mainly from British Library, Harleian MS. 55, but had corrected against other manuscript versions. Nowell even inserted his own back-translations into Old English from the Latin Quadripartitus, where it seemed more logical to him. Indeed, he tracked down at least four versions of this later text. William Lambarde used Canterbury Lit.E.2 as the base text for his own edition of these laws in his Archaionomia. This all led Liebermann to argue that Lambarde had seen several manuscripts of Old English laws now lost, as Archaionomia had several unique readings. However, most of these probably stem from Nowell’s emendations in his editions, including some which are no longer extant.

While Nowell left the printing of the laws to Lambarde, his own editorial efforts seem to have culminated in at least two sumptuous manuscript editions with facing-page early modern English translations. Nowell’s edition of the Laws of Alfred is now British Library, Henry Davis Collection 59, and an edition of Ine is in private hands. These are written on vellum with several colourful capitals (including gold for the names of kings or realms in the prologues) and must have represented an extraordinary investment not only of time but of expense on Nowell’s part. Here also Nowell consults his own judgment as well as multiple manuscripts for his versions of the texts. The manuscript makes a visual argument for the importance of Alfred’s law, as does the effort Nowell underwent in consulting nearly every surviving Anglo-Saxon version of the laws or their Latin translation, the Quadriparitus to produce these enigmatic artifacts.

The history of early Anglo-Saxon studies is, in large part, the history of the study of Anglo-Saxon laws. This aspect of the antiquaries’ work was crucial, and law codes and other legal materials are heavily represented in their transcriptions, dictionaries and editions. Nowell’s work laid the foundation for what would remain one of the hallmarks of Anglo-Saxon studies for decades to come.


Berkhout, C., ‘Laurence Nowell (1530–ca. 1570)’, in Damico, H., with Fennema, D. and Lenz, K. (eds.), Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, 2: Literature and Philology (New York, 1998), pp. 3–16.

Brackmann, R., ‘Laurence Nowell’s edition and translation of the Laws of Alfred’, Heroic Age: a Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, 14 (2010)

---- ‘Laurence Nowell’s Old English legal glossary and his study of Quadripartitus’, in Jurasinski, S., Oliver, L. and Rabin, A. (eds.), English Law before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and ‘Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen’ (Boston, 2010), pp. 251–72.

Grant, R., ‘Laurence Nowell’s transcript of Cotton Otho B.XI’, Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 111–24.

Sisam, K., ‘The authenticity of certain texts in Lambard’s Archaionomia 1568’, Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford, 1953), pp. 232–58.

Wormald, P., ‘The Lambarde problem: eighty years on’, in Roberts, J. and Nelson, J. (eds.), Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honour of Janet Bately (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 237–75.

---- The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century: Legislation and its Limits (Oxford, 2001).


  1. 1. ^ Berkhout, 'Lawrence Nowell', p. 7.