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Wright, Thomas (1810-1877) (DNB00)


WRIGHT, THOMAS (1810–1877), antiquary, was born at Tenbury in Shropshire on 23 April 1810. His father's family had long been settled at Bradford in Yorkshire, where they had been engaged in the manufacture of broadcloth. His grandfather, Thomas Wright, who for many years occupied a substantial farmhouse named Lower Blacup, at Birkenshaw, near Bradford, was a supporter of the Wesleyan methodists of the district. He knew John Wesley and John Fletcher of Madeley, and engaged in theological controversy with Sir Richard Hill. His chief publication was a satiric poem in defence of Arminianism entitled ‘A Modern Familiar Religious Conversation’ (Leeds, 1778; 2nd edit. 1812). He died on 30 Jan. 1801, having married twice, and leaving a family of thirteen children. He left in manuscript a detailed autobiography reaching down to 1797; this was published by his grandson the antiquary in 1864, under the title of ‘Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw.’

The antiquary's father, also Thomas Wright, was apprenticed to a firm of booksellers and printers at Bradford, and finally obtained employment with a firm carrying on the same business at Ludlow. He compiled ‘The History and Antiquities of Ludlow’ (2nd edit. 1826). He was always in poor circumstances, and died of cholera at Birmingham.

The antiquary was educated at King Edward's grammar school at Ludlow. His zeal for literary research showed itself in early youth, and attracted the attention of a well-to-do neighbour named Hutchings, who defrayed the expenses of his education at Cambridge. He was admitted to a sizarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 7 July 1830, Whewell being his tutor; he graduated B.A. in 1834 and M.A. in 1837. While an undergraduate he contributed antiquarian articles to ‘Fraser's,’ the ‘Gentleman's,’ and other magazines. He came to know John Mitchell Kemble [q. v.], who induced him to devote himself to Anglo-Saxon, and he formed a lifelong friendship with a younger student, James Orchard Halliwell (afterwards Halliwell-Phillipps) [q. v.], with whom he collaborated constantly in later years. The chief labour of his undergraduate life was an elaborate ‘History and Topography of Essex,’ which he was invited to undertake by the London publisher George Virtue. It formed one of a series of topographical compilations which had been inaugurated by a ‘History of Kent’ from the pen of the Shakespearean forger Henry Ireland [see under Ireland, Samuel]. Wright's ‘History of Essex’ was issued in forty-eight monthly parts between 1831 and 1836. It was illustrated with a hundred plates, and the completed work was published in two demy quarto volumes in 1836. The work was based on Morant's ‘History,’ but Wright supplied much new topographical, historical, and biographical information. He had many correspondents in the county, but he seems to have rarely visited it himself.

In 1836 Wright left Cambridge to settle in London. He soon took a house at Brompton, and for nearly forty years plied his pen unceasingly. He recovered from manuscript and printed for the first time many valuable historical and literary records. Much of his work was hastily executed, and errors abound, but his enthusiasm and industry were inexhaustible. At first his efforts were mainly confined to mediæval literature. In 1836 an anthology of ‘Early English Poetry,’ prepared by Wright, was issued in black letter by William Pickering [q. v.], with prefaces and notes, in 4 vols. sq. 12mo. At the same time he was giving much aid to the French mediæval scholar Francisque Michel in his researches. In 1836 Michel and his friend Renaudière issued in Paris a French translation of a sketch by Wright of Early English literature; this they entitled ‘Coup d'œil sur les Progrès et sur l'État actuel de la Littérature Anglo-Saxonne en Angleterre.’ Wright's original English version was issued in 1839. In 1838 Michel and Wright combined to produce ‘Galfridi de Monemuta Vita Merlini: Vie de Merlin attribuée à Geoffroy de Monmouth.’ There followed immediately Wright's ‘Early Mysteries and other Latin Poems of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,’ and at the same period he supplied many of the historical descriptions to Le Keux's ‘Memorials of Cambridge.’

On 16 Nov. 1837 Wright was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Of the newer literary societies which came into being in 1838 and following years, Wright, like his friend Halliwell, was an indefatigable supporter. He was long the honorary secretary of the Camden Society from its foundation in 1838, and he edited for it: ‘Alliterative Poem on the Deposition of Richard II’ (1838); ‘The Political Songs of England, from the Reign of John to that of Edward II’ (1839); ‘The Latin Poems commonly attributed to Walter Mapes’ (1841); ‘Narrative of the Proceedings against Dame Alice Kyteler for Sorcery in 1324’ (1843); ‘Letters relating to the Suppression of Monasteries’ (1843); ‘Mapes de Nugis Curialium’ (1850), 4to, and ‘Churchwardens' Accounts of the Town of Ludlow in Shropshire, from 1540 to the End of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth’ (1869), 4to.

For the Percy Society, founded in 1841, of which he was treasurer and secretary, Wright edited fifteen publications, including ‘Political Ballads published in England during the Commonwealth’ (1841); ‘Specimens of old Christmas Carols, chiefly taken from Manuscript Sources’ (1841); ‘Specimens of Lyric Poetry composed in England in the Reign of Edward I’ (1842); ‘A Collection of Latin Stories, illustrative of the History of Fiction during the Middle Ages, from Manuscripts of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries’ (1842); ‘The Seven Ages in English Verse, edited from a Manuscript in the Public Library of the University of Cambridge’ (1845), with an ‘Introductory Essay’ (1846); Hawes's ‘Pastime of Pleasure’ (1845), and Chaucer's ‘Canterbury Tales,’ a new text, with illustrative notes (vols. i. and ii. 1847, vol. iii. 1851; reissued in a single volume, 1853, and in Cooke's ‘Universal Library,’ 1867).

For a short-lived Historical Society of Science, formed by Halliwell and himself, Wright edited, in 1841, ‘Popular Treatises on Science, written during the Middle Ages, in Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and English.’

For the Royal Society of Literature Wright undertook a more ambitious work, a ‘Biographia Britannica Literaria; or Biography of Literary Characters of Great Britain and Ireland, arranged in Chronological Order.’ It was intended to carry the undertaking down to 1840, but only two volumes appeared, one dealing with ‘The Anglo-Saxon Period’ (1842), and the other with ‘The Anglo-Norman Period’ (1846).

For the Shakespeare Society Wright edited ‘The Chester Plays’ (1843–7, 2 vols. 8vo), and for the Caxton Society Geoffrey Gaimar's ‘Anglo-Norman Metrical Chronicle of the Anglo-Saxon Songs: printed for the first time entire; with Appendix, containing the Lay of Havelok the Dane, the Legend of Ernwulf, and Life of Hereward the Saxon’ (1850, 8vo).

Meanwhile his collaboration with Halliwell produced ‘Reliquiæ Antiquæ: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, illustrating Early English Literature and the English Language’ (1839–43, 2 vols. 8vo; reissued 1845, 2 vols. 8vo). Together, too, the friends edited ten numbers of a monthly periodical called ‘The Archæologist and Journal of Antiquarian Science’ (September 1841–June 1842). Halliwell acknowledged great assistance from Wright in preparing his ‘Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words’ (1846); and they were avowedly joint editors of the revised edition of Nares's ‘Glossary’ (1859).

Intimacy with the engraver Frederick William Fairholt [q. v.] led Wright to produce in partnership with him an interesting series of illustrated volumes. In 1848 there appeared ‘England under the House of Hanover: its History and Condition during the Reigns of the Three Georges, illustrated from the Caricatures and the Satires of the Day, with Portraits and 300 Caricatures, Plans, and Woodcuts engraved by F. W. Fairholt, F.S.A.’ (2 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. 1849; 3rd edit. 1852). To the same class of compilation belonged Wright's ‘History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art, with Illustrations from various sources; drawn and engraved by F. W. Fairholt, Esq., F.S.A., London, 1865, sm. 4to. With R. H. Evans he also wrote for Bohn's library an ‘Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray; comprising a Political and Humorous History of the latter part of the Reign of George III’ (London, 1851, 8vo). Wright subsequently developed this essay into ‘The Works of James Gillray the Caricaturist; with a History of his Life and Times,’ with four hundred illustrations, London, 1873, 4to.

Wright's independent work of the period included: ‘Queen Elizabeth and her Times: a Series of Original Letters selected from the inedited private Correspondence of Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, and others’ (London, 1838, 2 vols. 8vo, with very slender commentary); ‘The History of Ludlow and its Neighbourhood’ (8vo, part i. 1841, part ii. 1843, in 1 vol. 1852); ‘Autobiography of Joseph Lister of Bradford in Yorkshire’ (1842, 8vo); ‘St. Patrick's Purgatory: an Essay on the Legends of Purgatory, Hell, and Paradise current during the Middle Ages’ (1844, 8vo; partly written when he was an undergraduate); an edition of ‘The Vision and the Creed of Piers Ploughman,’ edited with notes and a glossary (1842, 2 vols. 500 copies; 2nd edit., with additions to the notes and glossary, in J. R. Smith's ‘Library of Old Authors,’ 1855, 2 vols.); ‘Anecdota Literaria: a Collection of Short Poems in English, Latin, and French, illustrative of the Literature and History of England in the Thirteenth Century, and more especially of the Condition and Manners of the different Classes of Society; edited from Manuscripts at Oxford, London, Paris, and Berne,’ London, 1844, 8vo, 250 copies; ‘The Archæological Album: or Museum of National Antiquities, with Illustrations by F. W. Fairholt’ (1845, 4to); and a collection of contributions to periodicals, ‘Essays on Subjects connected with the Literature, Popular Superstitions, and History of England in the Middle Ages’ (1846, 2 vols. 8vo).

Wright's industry gave him a wide reputation. His friend and neighbour at Brompton, François Guizot, recommended him for election as a corresponding member of the French Institut des Arts et Sciences, and he was admitted in 1842, in succession to the Earl of Munster. In 1843 he joined Pettigrew, T. Crofton Croker, and Charles Roach Smith in founding the British Archæological Association, and continued to advance its interests until he seceded in 1849 with Lord Albert Conyngham-Denison, afterwards first Baron Londesborough [q. v.], and others. Thenceforth he devoted much attention to archæological exploration, and one of his most successful works was ‘The Celt, the Roman, and the Saxon: a History of the Early Inhabitants of Britain down to the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity: illustrated by the Ancient Remains brought to light by recent Research’ (1852, 8vo; revised with additions, 1861, 8vo, 1875, 1885). Wright was an enthusiastic pedestrian, and he combined his walks with archæological exploration. Entertaining and valuable sketches of both appeared in 1852–3 in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and were collected into a volume under the title ‘Wanderings of an Antiquary: chiefly upon the Traces of the Romans in Britain’ (1854, 8vo). It was largely at Wright's persuasion that Beriah Botfield [q. v.] undertook the expense of excavating the site of the Roman city at Wroxeter. The work was conducted under Wright's direction in 1859, and he published in that year an interesting account of ‘The Ruins of the Roman City of Uriconium at Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury’ (1859, 12mo); republished as a ‘Guide to Uriconium,’ 1859; a fuller work on the subject followed in 1872.

Wright's labours were not remunerative, and much of his antiquarian work in middle life was undertaken at the expense of wealthy patrons. For James Heywood [q. v.] he translated ‘Statutes of King's College, Cambridge, and Eton College,’ 1850, 8vo; and he edited ‘Cambridge University Transactions during the Puritan Controversies of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’ (1854, 2 vols. 8vo), for which Heywood wrote the preface. At the expense of Joseph Mayer [q. v.] he produced ‘A Volume of Vocabularies illustrating the Condition and Manners of our Forefathers, as well as the History of the Forms of Elementary Education, and of the Languages spoken in this Island, from the Tenth Century to the Fifteenth; edited from MSS. in Public and Private Collections’ (Liverpool, 1857, imp. 8vo, privately printed). A second volume under the same auspices appeared in 1873. A new edition, edited by Professor Richard Wülcker, was issued at Leipzig in 1884 (2 vols.). For his friend Lord Londesborough he compiled ‘Miscellanea Graphica: Representations of Ancient, Mediæval, and Renaissance Remains in the possession of Lord Londesborough; the Historical Introduction by Thomas Wright,’ London, 1857, 4to.

For various members of the Roxburghe Club he edited ‘Joannes de Garlandia de Triumphis Ecclesiæ Libri Octo: a Latin Poem of the Thirteenth Century,’ 1856, 4to; ‘Songs and Ballads, with other Short Poems, chiefly of the Reign of Philip and Mary: edited from a Manuscript in the Ashmolean Museum,’ 1860, 4to; and the ‘De Regimine Principum: a Poem by Thomas Occleve, written in the Reign of Henry IV; edited for the first time,’ 1860, 4to. On the recommendation of his friend Guizot, and at the request of the author, Wright translated very rapidly in 1865–6 the Emperor Napoleon's ‘Vie de Jules César,’ 1865–6, 2 vols. 8vo.

The more important of Wright's latest philological or antiquarian publications were: ‘Essays on Archæological Subjects, and on Various Questions connected with the History of Art, Science, and Literature in the Middle Ages,’ with 120 engravings, 1861, 2 vols. 8vo; and ‘A History of Domestic Manners and Sentiments in England during the Middle Ages,’ illustrated by upwards of three hundred engravings on wood by Fairholt, 1862, foolscap 4to. For the Rolls Series he also edited two works of value to the student of mediæval history, although errors abound in Wright's editorial contributions, viz.: ‘Political Poems and Songs relating to English History, composed during the Period from the Accession of Edward III to that of Richard III,’ London, 1859–61, 2 vols. royal 8vo; and ‘The Anglo-Latin Satirical Poets and Epigrammatists of the Twelfth Century,’ London, 1872, 2 vols. 8vo. For the Early English Text Society he edited ‘The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry: translated from the Original French into English in the Reign of Henry VI; from the unique Manuscript in the British Museum: with Introduction and Notes,’ London, 1869, 8vo.

In 1865 Wright's small resources were supplemented by a grant from the civil list of a pension of 65l., which was increased to 100l. in 1872. Until that year he had enjoyed robust health and buoyant spirits; but after 1872 his mind failed, and he sank into imbecility before his death. Halliwell-Phillipps generously contributed towards his maintenance in his last years. He died at Chelsea on 23 Dec. 1877, and was buried at Brompton cemetery. His civil list pension was revived in 1881 in favour of his widow, a French woman whom he married in early life. She was buried beside him on 10 Feb. 1883.

A marble bust of Wright by Durham, purchased of his widow, is in the apartments of the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House. A portrait engraved by Daniel J. Pound for the ‘Drawing-room Portrait Gallery’ (2nd ser. 1859) was reproduced in the ‘Essex Review’ for April 1900.

Richard Garnett [q. v.] justly castigated Wright's carelessness as an editor of mediæval literature in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for April 1848. Nearly all his philological books are defaced by errors of transcription and extraordinary misinterpretations of Latin and early English and early French words and phrases. But as a pioneer in the study of Anglo-Saxon and mediæval literature and of British archæology he deserves grateful remembrance.

Wright's works embrace in the British Museum catalogue 129 entries. Besides those already enumerated and many separately published lectures and papers in transactions of archæological societies, he issued: 1. ‘Early Travels in Palestine: comprising the Narratives of Arculf, Willibald, Bernard, Sæwulf, Sigurd, Benjamin of Tudela, Sir John Maundeville, De la Brocquière, and Maundrell; edited with Notes,’ 1848, 8vo (Bohn's ‘Antiq. Libr.’). 2. ‘Narratives of Sorcery and Magic: from the most authentic sources,’ 1851, 8vo; New York, 2 vols. 1852. 3. ‘The History of Fulke Fitz-Warine, an Outlawed Baron in the Reign of King John; edited from a Manuscript preserved in the British Museum; with an English Translation and Notes,’ 1855, 8vo. 4. ‘Songs and Carols from a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century in the British Museum,’ 1856, 8vo. 5. ‘Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, publiées d'après le seul Manuscrit connu, avec Introduction et Notes [et Glossaire] par M. Thomas Wright,’ Paris, 1858, 2 vols. 16mo. 6. ‘The History of King Arthur and of the Knights of the Round Table; compiled from Sir Thomas Malory; edited from the Text of the Edition of 1634, with Introduction and Notes,’ London: J. R. Smith's ‘Library of Old Authors,’ 1858, 3 vols. fcap. 8vo; 2nd edit. revised 1865, 3 vols. fcap. 8vo. 7. ‘History of Ireland,’ London and New York, 1848–52, 3 vols. imp. 8vo. 8. ‘History of France,’ imp. 8vo, pts. 1–34, 1858–62. 9. ‘Roll of Arms of the Princes, Barons, and Knights who attended King Edward I to the Siege of Caerlaverock in 1300. Edited from the Manuscript in the British Museum, with a Translation and Notes; with the Coat-Armoury emblazoned in Gold and Colours,’ 1864, 4to. 10. ‘Ludlow Sketches: a Series of Papers,’ 1867, 8vo. 11. ‘Womankind in Western Europe, from the Earliest Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Illustrated with Coloured Plates and numerous Wood Engravings,’ 1869, fcap. 8vo. 12. ‘Feudal Manuals of English History: a Series of popular Sketches of our National History, compiled at different periods from the Thirteenth Century to the Fifteenth; from the Original Manuscripts,’ London, 1872, 4to; privately printed.

[Essex Review, ix. 65–76, art. by Edward A Fitch; Reliquary, 1877–8, vol. xviii., art. by Llewellyn Jewitt; Academy, 29 Dec. 1877; Athenæum, 29 Dec. 1877; Roach Smith's Retrospections, iii. 83 sq., and Collectanea Antiqua, viii. 250.]

S. L.