The historical and antiquarian interests of Thomas Tanner, 1674-1735, Bishop of St. Asaph
The Tanner collection of printed books and manuscripts today forms one of the most important bequests ever to have been received by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the present study is an attempt to throw some light on the formation and history of this collection, and to enable students to oome to a better understanding of its contents through an account of the historical and antiquarian interests of Thomas Tanner. From comparatively humble beginnings Tanner won his way to the episcopal bench, but he was an undistinguished cleric and he owed his ultimate success in the Church to a lifelong devotion to his duties and to his wide reputation as a scholar. Born at Market Lavington in 1674, he matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, at a time when that foundation was the hub of antiquarian activity within the University and his natural abilities in this direction were soon developed to the full. His worth was quickly recognised and he was welcomed into a wide circle of scholars who were amongst the foremost antiquarians of the day. Arthur Charlett, the Master of University College, took an especial interest in the young student and under his guidance Tanner undertook a number of literary projects which enjoyed varying degrees of success; it was partly through Charlett's influence that he later became first Chaplain and then fellow of All Souls College. By now his lifetime's work as an antiquary had taken shape. As an undergraduate he had started work on a county history of Wiltshire but had laid this aside in order to bring to completion a small handbook on religious houses entitled Notitia Monastica. This was an immediate success, but instead of returning to his study of Wiltshire Tanner now found himself at work on a project which was to develop into his Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica. He was to labour at this and at a revision of the Notitia for the remainder of his life. Before the turn of the century Tanner had established himself as a young scholar of promise and his name was widely known. His reputation was built on firm foundations for he had passed many hours in the libraries of Oxford. He had prepared catalogues of collections in the Bodleian Library the Ashmolean Museum for the mighty Catalogi Librorum Manuscriptorum Angliae et Hiberniae and his work on the Bibliotheca had led him to examine several of the college libraries in some detail. During the summer months he enlarged the field of his researches by travelling to London to work in the libraries of the metropolis and it was on one of these visits that he met John Moore, Bishop of Norwich. Moore had collected one of the finest private libraries in the land and he was immediately impressed by Tanner's love Of books and wide knowledge of them, so much so that he very soon made Tanner his private chaplain. The appointment was purely a nominal one and Tanner's duties were confined to the management of Moore's library during those months when the preparation of the Bibliotheca took him to London. It was not until 1701 that his association with Moore brought about the first major change in Tanner's adult life. In that year he was made Chancellor of Norwich and he also married Moore's eldest daughter. His new appointment obliged him to leave Oxford and set up house in Norwich and his academic undertakings were temporarily laid on one side as he devoted himself to the study of canon law. Even when he had mastered his new duties he was still unable to devote as much time as he would have liked to his studies for his Chancellorship involved him in a law suit, and his only daughter died at an early age and was soon followed by his wife. In 1712 he married once again and in the follow- ing year Moore, now Bishop of Ely, collated him to a preben- dal stall in that cathedral; but when Moore died in 1714 Tanner was left without any influential patron, and for several years he received no further preferment. He does not seem to have worried unduly over this and he settled down to a quiet life revolving around his ecclesiastical duties and hie beloved studies. After almost perpetual childbearlng Tanner's second wife died in 1713 having not long before given birth to the only one of his children to survive. It was probably the need to provide for his son that made him at last make an effort to improve his position and, after once more gaining a welcome footing in Oxford as a Canon of Christ Church, he eventually obtained the Bishopric of St. Asaph in 1732. As a bishop Tanner made little impact on ecclesiastical or political affairs and his episcopate was scarcely more than the conscientious discharge of his duties as far as his ill-health would allow; however, his frequent indispositions did not prevent him from marrying for a third time. His tenure of the see was very short and he died at Oxford in 1735. The bare recital of the facts of Tanner's life is unimpressive. A slow progression through minor preferments to a bishopric is indicative of a devoted rather than an outstanding clergyman and the publication at the age of twenty-one of an octavo volume is in itself hardly sufficient to entitle Tanner to be remembered as a scholar. Much of his reputation today can obviously be attributed to the fact that both the Notitia and the Bibliotheca were published posthumouely, but in fact he enjoyed a very similar reputation whilst he was still alive. His antiquarian knowledge was very wide and his researches were thorough; moreover, as a result of several discriminating purchases he had formed a fine collection of books and manuscripts and it is not sur- prising that his many academic friends turned to him with their problems. He was always ready with advice and assistance and the help that he dispensed so widely is often acknowledged in the learned works of the day. His unseen hand must surely remain untraced in many other pub- lications and his academic ability is fully reflected by the calibre of the people with whom he became genuinely friendly. Tanner's antiquarian interests fall into two distinct groups: his projected works and his collections. During the course of his life he embarked upon several scholarly undertakings but he only made any appreciable degree of progress with four of these. Although his History of Wiltshire was the least successful it played an important part in bringing him to the notice of the academic world. In Tanner's youth the county history was very much in vogue and as no full account of Wiltshire had as yet appeared it is not surprising to find his early researches directed towards the preparation of such an account. It was in this connection that he came into contact with John Aubrey who had formed large collections relating to Wiltshire which Tanner eventually managed to borrow, but they did not prove to be as informative as he had hoped and when Edmund Gibson asked him to contribute Wiltshire material to a new edition of William Camden's Britannia he was forced to rely for the most part on collections that he himself had made. The Britannia of 1695 was a complete success and linked Tanner's name with those of several established scholars. Early in 1694 Tanner issued printed proposals for his Wiltshire but he seems to have made very little progress after this. For the rest of his life he was to be regarded as an authority on the county but his move to Norwich, an event that finally made him abandon the project altogether, led him to take an equal interest in East Anglia and he supplied the additions for Norfolk and Suffolk in a later revision of the Britannia. Tanner also encouraged and assisted Francis Blomefield with his History of Norfolk. The Notitia Monastica was published in 1695 and, although this work was one which had developed from his natural inter- ests and was to serve as the basis for much further study, Tanner's main object in putting it to the press was to attract attention and patronage to himself.