The Bodleian library


Victoria County History



H. E. Salter and Mary D. Lobel (editors)

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'The Bodleian library', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3: The University of Oxford (1954), pp. 44-47. URL: Date accessed: 21 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The older portions of the Bodleian Library include a 15th-century building comprising the Divinity School and a library over it, with a 17th-century group built as an extension to the old library after its refoundation in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley. The first addition was Arts End (1610–12) which now forms one side of the Schools Quadrangle (1613–18) extending eastward from the old library. A western extension, known as Selden End, was completed in 1640, over the new Congregation House.

The beginning of the Divinity School cannot be precisely dated, but contributions towards the cost were being sought as early as 1423 (fn. 1) and the work had been taken in hand by 1427, (fn. 2) on land obtained from Balliol College. (fn. 3) It is not known who was then the master mason, but by 1430 that position was held by Master Richard Winchcombe, (fn. 4) who had served New College in a similar capacity at the building of Adderbury Chancel between 1408 and 1418. (fn. 5) For his services at the Divinity School Winchcombe was to be paid 4s. a week while at work on the fabric and 40s. a year, together with a gentleman's gown, or 13s. 4d. instead, to mark his supervisory status. It is to be gathered that he brought other masons with him, for the University engaged to provide lodging pro se et suis consortibus; he was moreover to have hay for one horse and to be paid his reasonable expenses incurred in travelling on business connected with the building. The next recorded master mason, Thomas Elkin, appointed in 1439, was probably of less repute. He is not called master, and his emoluments were lower; his wage was reduced from 4s: to 3s. 4d. in winter; his annual payment was only 13s. 4d. and no gown or lodgings are mentioned in his agreement, though, like Winchcombe, he was expected to bring masons with him. His appointment coincided with an intention to alter the style of the work, which, so far as it had gone, was considered over-elaborate in taste and too costly and slow in execution. Elkin was, accordingly, required to proceed, as he had started, in a plainer fashion. (fn. 6) That, no doubt, is why, on the south front of the building, housing for images in the window jambs was omitted and, on the inside of the southern wall, the beginnings of casements and fillets were left uncompleted. (fn. 7)

How long Elkin continued in office is not known; probably for about ten years. (fn. 8) The work, in any event, seems to have been carried on slowly and fitfully. Towards the middle of the century more rapid progress was perhaps made possible by a legacy of 500 marks from Cardinal Beaufort, made on condition that the building should be finished in five years, i.e. by 1 March 1453. (fn. 9) Twelve commissioners were appointed for the purpose, who ordered that two masters of arts, at a salary of 4 marks a year each, should be appointed to provide materials, hire workmen, superintend the work, and keep accounts. The legacy, meanwhile, and all other sums given or allocated to the work, e.g. the proceeds of graces, were to be kept in a 'chest of five keys', from which payments were to be made to the superintendents only with the consent of the commissioners. (fn. 10) It was suggested that Congregation should compel all those who had received degrees in Oxford and were no longer resident there to contribute yearly to the work, Masters 8d. a year, Bachelors 4d.; but it would have been impossible to enforce such a decree. It may be doubted whether, in any real sense, the building was completed within the stipulated time, but it was sufficiently advanced by 1466 for arrangements to be made for furnishing it with desks and benches. (fn. 11) A payment was made for carving the heads or ends of these in 1469–70, and also for closing or glazing the windows, so that the School may have been at least temporarily roofed by then; but in the same year a sum of £10 was paid to finish building the walls, possibly in the upper story. (fn. 12) In 1472–3 a payment of 26s. 8d. was made for work on the roof and renewing its lead. (fn. 13) Possibly because the roofing had been too long delayed, the building was in a bad state and the not inconsiderable sum of £14 13s. 4d. was spent on repairs in 1474–5. (fn. 14)

In view of these facts the University's statements (fn. 15) about the building in 1478 must be thought at least a little exaggerated and, in one particular, inaccurate: but the state of the fabric was clearly unsatisfactory, and another attempt, eventually successful, was made to finish the work that had already been spread over more than half a century. Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London, did much to solve the financial difficulty by a gift of a thousand marks. (fn. 16) Workmen, however, were hard to find because many had been taken for royal works, but the king was asked to allow those employed at the time by Waynflete at Magdalen to be hired by the University, and Waynflete was requested to lend the machines used for his works. (fn. 17) By 1481 the University could tell the Bishop of London that the workmen were busy as bees, some in carrying stones, others in dressing them, some in carving images, and others in setting them in the arches. (fn. 18) By 1483 the fan vaulting of the roof had been finished (fn. 19) and, while there is no documentary proof that Waynflete's architect, William Orchard, was master mason at the Divinity School in this concluding stage, it is not improbable that he was in charge. (fn. 20) The finishing of the upper story, Duke Humphrey's Library, may have required more time, but by 1490 the Divinity School had been completed and the benevolence of donors could be directed to the fabric of St. Mary's. (fn. 21) For a century or more the Divinity School remained more or less as it is represented in Bereblock's sketch of 1566, (fn. 22) a two-storied rectangular building, with the main doorway at the western end, centred between two rectangular towers, both of which were removed by 1640.

With the completion of the upper story, some time between 1483 and 1490, the building could be used to house the collection of books to which the benevolence of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had contributed so remarkably. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, whether, as Anthony Wood said, through the misguided zeal of reformers in 1550, or, as Sir Thomas Bodley more probably believed, through inadequate endowment and supervision, the Library, as a public institution, had ceased to function. Its existence could be proved, not by the resort of scholars to it, but by 'the rome it self remayning and by … statute records'. (fn. 23) Meanwhile, it is said, the fabric had been neglected, the furniture partly removed, and the windows broken. (fn. 24) In a letter of 23 Feb. 1598 Bodley announced his intention to undertake the cost of restoring the Library to its former use and of furnishing it with shelving, desks, and seats for the purpose. Before 19 March in the same year he and Sir Henry Savile, Warden of Merton College, had drawn up notes for a 'platform'; timber, already felled, had been acquired from Merton College, and sawyers were at work on it. (fn. 25) Nearly two years later, on 24 Dec. 1599, Bodley looked forward to having done, within a fortnight, with 'carpenters, ioiners, caruers, glasiers and all that idle rabble'. (fn. 26) The next work, of furnishing the Library with gratings, chains, and other iron ware, was well advanced by June 1600 (fn. 27) ; but, for reasons not at all connected with the building, the Library was not opened until 8 Nov. 1602. (fn. 28)

In less than a decade the restored Library was seen to be insufficient to house the additions which Bodley's efforts did so much to procure. In Aug. 1608 the Divinity School was being measured with a view to extension, (fn. 29) and in December a rough drawing of the extension existed. (fn. 30) Bodley wrote, in May 1610, that he had decided upon extending and had partly agreed with the master mason, who gave hope of completing the work by Michaelmas 1611. (fn. 31) The mason was John Akroyd, (fn. 32) of Halifax, who, in 1597, with his brother, had undertaken to build Queen Elizabeth Grammar School at Heath, near that town, and who also, early in 1609, undertook building work at Merton College. The finishing of this work, which came to an end about Michaelmas 1610, was thus in sight when John Akroyd came to an agreement with Bodley. Akroyd was not the only northerner to work for him. John Bentley, mason, of Elland, near Halifax, and Thomas Holt, carpenter, who had all been employed at Merton, were to play important parts in building the Bodleian Library and the Schools. There can be little doubt about the reason. (fn. 33) In 1604 the building trades in Oxford had been incorporated and, by 1609, their association was taking up a more monopolistic attitude than was consistent with the convenience of the University and collegiate authorities who, probably to keep prices down, went outside the city for contractors and workmen. (fn. 34) Sir Henry Savile got his masons for Merton from his own native region and probably knew their work there, for his brother had been treasurer and chairman of the governors of the Heath Grammar School, which the Akroyds built. (fn. 35) Bodley had great faith in Savile's judgement, (fn. 36) had evidently consulted him on the plan for the Library, (fn. 37) and was therefore likely to employ his workmen, who had already shown their capacity in Oxford. It is nevertheless clear that, at times, Bodley was not satisfied with them.

The work, of which the first stone was laid on 19 July 1610, (fn. 38) was the Arts End, in front of the Divinity School and at right angles to it, the lower story being the Proscholium, a porch and passage with vaulted roof, and the upper part being, as it were, the cross-bar of the T of which Duke Humphrey's Library is the stem. Thus the east front of the Divinity School was hidden, except in the Proscholium, out of which the east door of the Divinity School opens. Some difficulty was encountered in finding adequate foundations (fn. 39) and, later, Akroyd, having laid a whole course of mulleted work, (fn. 40) found the stone poor and the work unhandsome. In Bodley's opinion the work was in danger of suffering from the too long absence of Akroyd, (fn. 41) who probably had other work in hand. During his absence John Bentley was in charge and, according to Bodley's information, made 'that which was naught a great deal worse with his unsightly daubing'. Early in 1611 it seemed that the building could not, as Bodley had hoped, be finished by Michaelmas, the weather, according to the masons, having delayed it, (fn. 42) but by May there was better news of its progress, and arrangements for plumbing could be contemplated. (fn. 43) Orders for timber were probably issued in April 1611, (fn. 44) but twelve months would be necessary for its proper seasoning. (fn. 45) The timber work was still in progress in September 1612, when John Bolton, who carved the screens in the Hall and Chapel of Wadham College, was in charge. (fn. 46) Painting had begun in or before May, but Davis the painter did not arrive to take charge until the autumn. He promised to finish by Christmas, (fn. 47) and it is possible that the work had been completed when the Library reopened, after a fortnight's vacation, on 2 Jan. 1613. (fn. 48)

The whole expense of the Arts End was borne by Bodley and, without his accounts, the detailed arrangements for carrying on the work cannot be known. He speaks of Bentley as though he worked for a wage, (fn. 49) but it is probable that Akroyd, at least, contracted, as he had at Merton, to do the work for an agreed sum. He was certainly bound to finish it by a stipulated date (fn. 50) and was, from time to time, supplied with money, perhaps in part payment of the agreed price, upon sight of a letter, certifying the need, from Mr. Brent. (fn. 51) Whether Akroyd was the architect, in the sense of designer, of the building is not known: details in ornamentation were left to the workmen, subject to the approval of the men whom Bodley trusted to supervise the building. (fn. 52) Akroyd was perhaps supplied with a general idea of what Bodley wanted, even with a rough sketch, and then left to work out the details for himself. (fn. 53) For the supervision of the work Bodley depended on his Librarian and on John Hawley, Principal of Gloucester Hall, William Gent, and Nathaniel Brent, later Warden of Merton College.

The restoration of Duke Humphrey's Library and the construction of the Arts End did not exhaust Bodley's munificence. In Oct. 1611, possibly, he was asking for information about the land held by the University in the vicinity of the Divinity School, (fn. 54) and on 5 Nov. he wrote of the need of 'better built scholes … then those ruinous little roomes' then used for the purpose. (fn. 55) Some time before the date of his will, 2 Jan. 1613, a scheme had been formed for the building of new schools, two stories in height, and Bodley made testamentary provision for a third, in order to give more room for additions to the Library. (fn. 56) By that time preparations were well in hand and the foundation stone of the Schools Quadrangle was laid on 30 Mar. 1613. The site was acquired from St. Mary's, the City, Magdalen College, and Oriel College. (fn. 57) Contributions were received from various sources. In addition to donations from individual benefactors there were contributions required from new entrants upon their admission to halls and colleges. (fn. 58) Disputation fees brought in some revenue; (fn. 59) so did fines, (fn. 60) and, as with most building operations, the sale of surplus materials yielded something. (fn. 61) Very large contributions were made from Bodley's estate. Up to 6 Nov. 1615 his executors had paid, in connexion with the third story, nearly £2,500 (fn. 62) and by the Hilary term of 1618 they had advanced a further £1,464 towards building the Schools. (fn. 63) Bodley's estate also provided money for the making of the staircases, on the north and south sides of the East End, by which the Library is at present entered. Previously, the entrances were at the western end of Duke Humphrey, and these are reported by Anthony Wood (History of the University, &c., ii, 939) to have survived until the Selden End was added and are represented on Bodley's monument by Nicholas Stone in Merton College ante-Chapel. (fn. 64)

Too little information has survived for the progress of the Schools Quadrangle to be traced, or for the organization of the work to be described, in any great detail. It is not even certain who the architect was. Akroyd and Bentley were probably employed, but not for long, for John Akroyd died in Sept. 1613 (fn. 65) and John Bentley in Dec. 1615. (fn. 66) The former, according to the Register of St. Mary's, was 'chief builder of the Schools' (fn. 67) and the latter, according to his epitaph in St. Peter's in the East, was novae partis bibliothecae novarumque scholarum architectus peritissimus. Possibly, as Mr. Hanson suggests, (fn. 68) Akroyd was in charge from March to Sept. 1613, John Bentley thence to Dec. 1615, his brother, Michael Bentley, to June 1618, and Thomas Holt (fn. 69) to June 1619, when, it is believed, the Picture Gallery, or second story throughout the Schools, was finished. (fn. 70) Thomas Holt, however, was at work on the Schools at a later date. (fn. 71)

In the earlier and the later phases of the work the same system, probably, was employed; that is, particular parts of the work were let out to individuals or partners by contract or 'bargain'. Thus, before 6 Nov. 1615, thirty-two great windows were paid for at £6 apiece; the cornice 'betwixt ye Antickes' amounted to 600 feet at 1s. a foot; the 'antickes' numbered 215 at 4s. each, and the walling, at 23s. 3d. a perch, cost £1,243 7s. 6d. (fn. 72) The surviving accounts do not show with whom these bargains were made, but after July 1621 the contractors are known. Thus there are entries of £6 'Paid unto Partridge free Mason towards his bargaine for paving and pitching the Scholes', and of £16 10s. 'Paid unto John Clarke and James Partridge towards there [sic] bargaine for the freestone gate towards Brasenose made with them by the Delegates.' (fn. 73) James Partridge was evidently a contractor on a moderate scale; between July 1621 and April 1624 he received, apart from sums paid to him and a partner, £153 for paving the Schools, carving armorial bearings, and other work on the Schools gates. (fn. 74)

It is clear that after July 1621 relatively little remained to be done, and the payments are for paving, finishing the gates, furnishing the middle room of the Tower with carpets and cushions, and putting a new press in the upper chamber. Between May and July 1624 payment was made for pitching Catte Street and along the north side of the Schools, and there were many payments on account of the pinnacles. The making and placing of these adornments of the Library and Schools were supervised by a Mr. Wilmott, whose pains the Delegates rewarded with 22s. for gloves. Like the other stone work, the pinnacles were made by contracts, in accord with which payments were made to James Partridge and seven other masons. (fn. 75) Four of them were allowed 10s. for the use of 'the garden they hired to work the pinacles in on the North side of the Schooles, in regard those masons could borrowe noe place to work theire stonnes in'. (fn. 76) Some of the stone used was perhaps defective; in seven years' time one of the pinnacles needed strengthening and another had fallen and had to be replaced. (fn. 77)

By the summer of 1624, therefore, the Schools Quadrangle was complete. (fn. 78) There remained only one part to add, the western end, at right angles to Duke Humphrey's Library. The foundation stone of this building, of which the lower story served as Convocation House, was laid on 13 May 1634, (fn. 79) and the work was carried out by contract, mainly by William Mason, who received £350 in 1633–4, £642 in 1634–5, and £408 in 1635–6. (fn. 80) Apart from various repairs little more was done until 1668–9. Then, in order to give a more direct egress to processions, the north side of the Divinity School was altered by the erection of the 'Gothic' doorway, the design of which is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, which still stands in front of the centre window. About the same time the vault of the Divinity School, probably because it was gradually giving under the weight above it, had to be strengthened with iron cramps. (fn. 81) Similar trouble in 1701–2 led to further repairs of the vaulting and, since the walls of the Library were being pressed outwards, the buttresses of the south wall, with their bases in Exeter College garden, were extended by 8 ft. (fn. 82) Gradually the rooms of the Schools Quadrangle have been turned from their original purpose and used to house the growing Library, but, in outward appearance, the buildings remain to this day much as they appear in Loggan's prints of 1675. (fn. 83)


1 Epistolae Academicae Oxon. (ed. H. Anstey), O.H.S. i, 5, 9.
2 Epist. Acad. i, 21.
3 Balliol Deeds (O.H.S.), 150.
4 Epist. Acad. i, 46, 58.
5 T. F. Hobson, Adderbury Rectoria (Oxfordshire Record Society).
6 Epist. Acad. i, 192.
7 W. St. John Hope, 'The Heraldry and Sculpture of the Vault of the Divinity School at Oxford', Archaeological Journal, 1914, pp. 217 seq.
8 The will of Thomas Elkyns, of Oxford, freemason, dated 29 Sept. 1449 is printed in Registrum Cancellarii (O.H.S.), i, 191. He left a tenement in vico de Catstrete, but his home was probably at Barrington in Gloucestershire.
9 In the order for the Cardinal's commemoration the money is said to have been given 'ad complendam aedificationem quarumdam scholarum' (Mun. Acad. i, 333: cf. 'pro scholis aedificandis', ii, 568). The Divinity School is not specifically mentioned but it seems to be agreed that it was intended.
10 Reg. Cancellarii, ii, 254.
11 'Ambones cum formulis; ambones cum scabellis correspondentibus.' Registrum Cancellarii, ii, 185. They were ordered specifically for the Divinity School.
12 H. E. Salter, Mediaeval Archives of the University of Oxford (O.H.S.), ii, 299.
13 Ibid. 308.
14 Ibid. 315.
15 Epist. Acad. ii, 430: '… multis jam labentibus annis manco et prope neglecto.' Cf. ii, 446: '… cum sexaginta ferme annos derelictum jamdiu squalesceret.' The discrepancy between these letters and the facts noted above is pointed out in St. John Hope, op. supra cit. Dr. H. E. Salter suggests, with great probability, that the letters, after allowance has been made for the exaggeration then common in such circumstances, only mean that the room was serviceable but not fine enough for the University, which had a plan, though no funds, to beautify it.
16 Paid in instalments between Sept. 1478 and Mar. 1482. See Epist. Acad. ii, 438, 451, 453, 464, 471, 474, 477.
17 Ibid. 446, 448.
18 Epist. Acad. ii, 471.
19 W. St. John Hope, op. supra cit. The vault, as Dr. Salter points out to us, was an afterthought and must have been put in after the walls, windows, and roof of the building had been finished. This additional weight made heavy buttresses necessary, which effectively kept the walls from being forced outwards, though, according to W. St. John Hope (op. supra cit.), they were not bonded to the walls.
20 W. St. John Hope, op. supra cit.; H. E. Salter, Med. Archives, ii, 291.
21 Epist. Acad. ii, 571.
22 Reproduced e.g. in Aymer Vallance, Old Colleges of Oxford. The drawing gives no idea of the window tracery; the arches in both stories are too round and, in the lower story, insufficiently depressed.
23 Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to the University (ed. G. W. Wheeler), 4, and see n. 2.
24 A. Vallance, op. cit. 7.
25 Letters Bodley to University, 6.
26 Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley to Thomas James (ed. G. W. Wheeler), 1.
27 Ibid. 1, n. 5.
28 Ibid. xxi.
29 Ibid. 178.
30 Ibid. 183.
31 Ibid. 189.
32 Of his family and that of his fellow worker, John Bentley, and of their work in Oxford and elsewhere, there is an excellent account in T. W. Hanson, 'Halifax Builders in Oxford' (Transactions Halifax Antiquarian Society, 1928).
33 As Mr. Hanson points out, pp. 264 sqq.
34 On the dispute see a letter of Brian Twyne's, Bodleian Quarterly Record, May 1928. (Cf. Letters … Bodley to James, 199, n. 2.)
35 Hanson, 260.
36 'Sir Henry Sauiles is to me, as the iudgement of a mason', Letters Bodley to James, 210.
37 Letters Bodley to University, 6.
38 Letters Bodley to James, 194 n.
39 Ibid. 194–5.
40 The meaning of the term is obscure. In the Oxford Dictionary only this instance (from Letters Bodley to James, 197) is noted. Mullett worke occurs in the accounts relating to the third story (Acta Convocationis Universitatis Oxon., 1615–28, fol. 1 v).
41 Letters Bodley to James, 206, 210.
42 Letters Bodley to James, 207.
43 Ibid. 212.
44 Ibid. 210.
45 Ibid. 210, 221.
46 Ibid. 217 n., 226.
47 Ibid. 230.
48 Ibid. 230 n.
49 Ibid. 206.
50 Ibid. 207.
51 Ibid. 196.
52 Ibid. 212.
53 Whether Akroyd could draw plans himself is doubtful. His will is signed with his mark (Hanson, 304) but that may have been due to weakness.
54 Letters Bodley to James, 218.
55 Letters Bodley to University, 21.
56 Ibid. 21 n.
57 The Vice-Chancellor's Accounts for 1621 contain payments of £1 2s. 4d. to the churchwardens of St. Mary's and £1 each to the City Chamberlain and Oriel College for rent of tenements, ground, and a house whereon the Schools were built. In the Accounts for 1666–7, however, the payments were £2 to the City and £1 10s. to Oriel College. Oriel Coll. Records (O.H.S.), 222; Oxford City Properties (O.H.S.), 273–7; Cart. Hosp. St. John (O.H.S.), i, 454–8.
58 According to a scale drawn up by the Delegates in charge of the fabric the payments varied from £3 6s. 8d. for the son of an earl to 5s. for a gentleman and 2s. 6d. for a plebei filius. (Acts of Convocation, 1615–25, p. 1, 7 Nov. 1615.) The receipts for July 1621–Apr. 1624 include the following: 'Item, received of Dr. Wilkinson Principall of Magdalen Hall for admission money, the 28th of July 1623 ut patet per acquietanciam, £10.'
59 e.g., an item of £30 in the accounts for 1621–4.
60 e.g., from six Masters of Arts of Magdalen Hall, towards the cost of the pinnacles, 40s. apiece 'imposed vpon them by Mr. Dr. Peirs Vicechancelor … for the hearing and determining of certayne differences betweene them and the Principall of that Hall' (Convocation Book, fol. 179 b).
61 e.g., an item in the receipts for 1621–4 'of Holt the Carpenter for olde timber solde vnto him of the Universities ut patet per acquietanciam, £3. 13. 4.'
62 Acts of Convocation, 1615–25, fol. 1 v.
63 Ibid. 56.
64 a Cat. Oxford Portraits (O.H.S.), ii, 49.
65 Wood, Antiquities of the City of Oxford (ed. A. Clark), iii, 121, 239.
66 Ibid. 175, 256.
67 Hanson, 304.
68 Hanson, 299.
69 He died in Sept. 1624, and, according to his tombstone in Holywell churchyard, was a Yorkshireman and scholarum publicarum architectus. Wood, Antiquities etc. iii, 190–1.
70 It is clear from the Acts of Convocation already cited that the two lower stories were not finished before the third was started, for money was spent on the third before Nov. 1615.
71 The Vice-Chancellor's Accounts for 1621–4 record the payment to him of £8 15s. for work on the Schools gates.
72 Acts of Convocation, 1615–28, fol. iv.
73 Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, 1621–4.
74 His 'bargains' do not appear to have survived and it is not possible, therefore, to know how far the payments were for workmanship alone. Some of them were for materials: e.g. £5 'to provide pibbles with', and £10 to provide stones for paving.
75 Wells, Dew (partner of Wells?), Blea, Edwards, Bull, Cox, and Thomas Holt. This Thomas Holt, a partner of James Partridge, is called a mason, and was therefore presumably not the Yorkshire carpenter.
76 Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, second part of Schools Account, May to July 1624.
77 Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, Aug. 1630 to July 1631. This year the roof also needed considerable mending.
78 Though as late as 1634–5 James Partridge was paid £2 for 'cutting and setting vp Sir Thomas Bodley's armes over the dore at the west end of the walke', and a sum of £23 was spent on pitching and paving. Vice-Chancellor's Accounts.
79 Aymer Vallance, op. cit. 9.
80 Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, 1621–6, fol. 31, 34, 36. A mason called Kingsman also was paid £10 in 1637–8 and Thomas Jackson, in the same year, received £112 for building a wall near the Convocation House (fol. 39).
81 Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, 1666–97.
82 Vallance, op. cit. 10.
83 Cf. I. G. Philip in Oxoniensia, xiii (1948), 39.