Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, Robert (fl.1440)

THORNTON, ROBERT (fl. 1440), transcriber of the ‘Thornton Romances,’ has been identified by Canon Perry with the Robert Thornton who was a doctor of laws and commissary and official of the bishop of Lincoln in 1437–9 (Statutes of Lincoln Cathedral, ed. 1897, vol. ii. passim). He was collated archdeacon of Bedford in Lincoln Cathedral on 14 Feb. 1438–9, and died on 15 May 1450, being buried in Lincoln Cathedral (Le Neve, ii. 73–4). The transcriber has also been identified with the Robert Thornton, prior of the Benedictine abbey at Bardney, Lincolnshire, who gave to the inmates of that abbey a book entitled ‘Regulæ vitæ anachoretarum utriusque sexus;’ the manuscript extant in Cottonian MSS. Vitellius E, vii. 6, was marked as destroyed by fire in the catalogue of Cottonian manuscripts, but has been partially restored (cf. Thomas Smith, Cat. Cotton. MSS. 1696, p. 97). Neither identification is satisfactory. Numerous branches of the Thornton family were settled in Yorkshire in the fifteenth century (cf. Testamenta Eboracensia, Surtees Soc. passim; Foster, Yorkshire Pedigrees). The transcriber is more probably to be identified with Robert Thornton of East Newton, near Pickering, in the North Riding of Yorkshire (Foster, Visitation of Yorkshire, p. 296). He is said to have been a native of Oswaldkirk, and references to that place and to Pickering occur in his writings. He held several manors, was married, and had children. His grandson, Robert Thornton, born in 1454, married a daughter of William Layton of Sproxton; from him descend the Thorntons of East Newton, in the possession of which family the Lincoln manuscript of the ‘Thornton Romances’ remained until late in the sixteenth century (Autobiogr. of Mrs. Alice Thornton, Surtees Soc. pref. p. ix).

Thornton spent much of his life in transcribing, and perhaps translating into English, romances and other works popular in his day. By Tanner and others he is described as the author of some of these books, but there is no evidence that he composed anything himself. His transcripts, written in a northern English dialect, are extant in two manuscripts; one, already referred to, is now in Lincoln Cathedral library (A. i. 17), the other is British Museum Additional MS. 31042. The former, written about 1440, con tains 314 leaves of paper; a few are lacking at the beginning, at the end, and in other places. It includes seventy-seven articles; the more important are: (1) ‘The Life of Alexander the Great;’ (4) ‘Morte Arthure;’ (6) ‘Syr Ysambrace;’ (9) ‘Syr Degrevante;’ (10) ‘Syr Eglamoure;’ (13) ‘Thomas of Ersseldoune;’ (14) ‘The Awnetyrs of Arthure at the Terne-Wathelyne;’ (15) ‘Syr Perceyvelle of Galles;’ (30) a tract by William Nassyngton [q. v.]; (34–42) ‘The Moralia,’ and other works, by Richard Rolle [q. v.] of Hampole; (54) a sermon of John Gaytrygge; (77) a collection of medical receipts. Of these the poems of Thomas of Erceldoune were printed by Laing in his ‘Early Popular Poetry of Scotland,’ 1822; ‘The Awnetyrs of Arthure’ by Sir Frederic Madden in his ‘Sir Gawayne,’ Bannatyne Club, 1839; ‘Sir Perceval of Galles’ and ‘Sir Isambras’ by Halliwell in his ‘Thornton Romances,’ Camden Society, 1844 (‘Sir Eglamour’ and ‘Sir Degrevant’ were also printed in the same volume, but not from Thornton's manuscript); the ‘Morte Arthure’ was printed in a limited edition by Halliwell in 1847, and was edited by Canon Perry for the Early English Text Society in 1865 (new ed. 1871); Rolle's English prose treatises were edited for the same society in 1866, and Nassyngton's tract and other religious pieces in 1867 (new ed. 1889); two charms in verse were printed in the ‘Reliquiæ Antiquæ,’ i. 126–7.

Thornton's other volume (Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 31042), also dating from the fifteenth century, contains 183 leaves and twenty-six articles. The chief of them are: (1) a fragment of the ‘Cursor Mundi,’ edited for the Early English Text Society by R. Morris, 1874–8; (5) ‘The Sege of Melayne,’ apparently a unique poem, forming an introduction to ‘Roland and Otuel,’ with which it was edited by S. J. Herrtage for the Early English Text Society in 1880; (9) Lydgate's ‘Memorial Verses on the Kings of England;’ (20–1) Songs: (a) ‘How that Mercy passeth Rightwisnes,’ (b) ‘How Mercy commes before Jugement,’ printed by F. J. Furnivall in Early English Text Society, 1867.

[Authorities cited; prefaces to Sir F. Madden's Syr Gawayne, 1839, Halliwell's Thornton Romances, 1844, and Early English Text Society's publ. 1865, 1866, 1867; Ritson's Bibl. Anglo-Poetica; Tanner's Bibl. Brit.; Cat. Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 1882, pp. 148–51; Ward's Cat. of Romances, i. 928–9, 953–5.]

A. F. P.