Gaude rosa sine spina: Christmas carols and the Eton Choirbook

The Eton Choirbook, a rare and lovely survival of early Tudor choral music, does not, sadly, contain any Christmas carols.  Carols were around in the years 1500 to 1504, when the choirbook was being made.  They have their roots in the early middle ages, when Christmas music was either liturgical (the sequences of hymns assigned to the services for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Epiphany, and so on) or popular songs that formed part of secular traditions like wassailing.  Some of them, like O Come all ye Faithful, Good King Wenceslas, and Good Christian Men, Rejoice, are still popular today.

But the music of our choirbook, Eton MS 178, is not specifically Christmassy.  The hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary that were copied into the choirbook were intended to be sung every single day.  On the other hand, they are almost all dedicated to one of the most important figures in the Christmas story: Mary, the mother of God.  The texts of the hymns in the Choirbook worship Mary in language very familiar to us in carols, particularly the carols that celebrate the annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel or that show Mary singing to Jesus in the manger, and carols for Advent which promise universal salvation through the miraculous birth of the infant Jesus.

The short hymn Nesciens mater, set by Walter Lambe, shows Mary as nursing mother and queen of heaven:

Nesciens mater virgo virum
peperit sine dolore
salvatorem saeculorum.
Ipsum regem angelorum
sola virgo lactabat,
ubere de caelo pleno.

Knowing no man, the Virgin mother
bore, without pain,
the Saviour of the world.
Him, the king of angels,
only the Virgin suckled,
breasts filled by heaven.

Nesciens Mater,  set by Walter Lambe. Eton Choirbook, folios 87 verso-88

Listen on Spotify

The text ‘Gaude rosa sine spina’ (set in the Eton Choirbook by Richard Fawkner) also adopts a trope common to medieval Advent carols:

Rejoice, rose without thorns, virgin, morning star, outshining heaven; there is no taint of sing in you, but all the gifts of grace, as you bore God while remaining inviolate. She it is who crushed the serpent, dispelling the sins of Eve.

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Initial letter decorated with a rose from the Eton Choirbook, folio 66 recto

The depiction of Mary as the rose without thorns was so popular that roses were associated with her in medieval manuscript decoration.  These carols, set to music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, have become firm favourites.  They include Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin (1934) and Herbert Howell’s A Spotless Rose (1919).

Lady, flow’r of everything,
Rosa sine spina,
Thou bare Jesu, heaven’s king,
Gratia divina.
Of all thou bear’st the prize,
Lady, queen of paradise;
Maid mild, mother es

Final verse of Hymn to the Virgin, written by an unknown author in the early 14th century.

Listen to Benjamin Britten’s setting on Spotify


The Adoration of the Magi from a fifteenth-century French Book of Hours.

Mary also appears in carols as a singer of lullabies.   Modern versions of these carols – like Away in a manger and Silent Night  – invite us to imagine ourselves at the crib, worshipping the Christ Child and singing him to sleep.  But earlier versions give Mary her own voice:

Upon my lap my Soveraigne sits,
And leans upon my brest,
Meanetime His love maynetaines my life,
And gives my sense her rest.

Sing lullaby, my little Boye,
Sing lullaby, mine onely joy.

When thou by sleep art overcome,
Repose, my Babe, on me,
So may thy mother and thy nurse,
Thy cradle also be.

Sixteenth-century carol by Martin Peerson (c.1572-1650).

Listen on Spotify

The Eton College Chapel Choir will be singing Peerson’s Upon my lap in the Eton carol services as part of the programme around the public exhibition showing the Eton Choirbook, accompanied by the Wetheringsett Tudor-style organ currently on loan from the Royal College of Organists.  As we celebrate the Choirbook and its physical survival through the Reformation, we can also trace the survival of its words and images in our carol tradition’s depiction of Mary as the lullaby singer, the rose blooming in the midst of winter.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

  • The Eton Choirbook has been digitised and can be viewed via the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. A log-in is required, but is free to set up.
  • The Choirbook will be on public display until March. The exhibition is open on Sunday afternoons and by appointment during the week. Please visit our website for more information.
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Ghost stories of a librarian

It probably will not come as a surprise to you that Eton College Library is haunted. While you may be sceptical of the paranormal, I believe everyone can enjoy a good ghost story. Not the least of which is old Etonian, M. R. James. James was a medievalist and scholar, but he is best remembered for his ghost stories. By depicting supernatural events through implication and suggestion, James fostered a narrative structure that stood out against his Gothic predecessors. He devised tropes such as a small village setting, a naïve, nondescript scholarly protagonist, and haunted antique objects. Today, ghost stories with these elements are ‘Jamesian tales.’ Furthermore, James’ focus on mundane details of setting and character provides greater contrast to the macabre and often violent events in his stories.

Illustration of There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard. Anonymous Eton Student [FDA-E.1321-2014]

I will admit that I enjoy giving myself a scare every now and again, so I spent one crisp evening in Edinburgh wandering through the closes listening to a recording of James’ “The Mezzotint.” The story is about a curator of art for a university library receiving a disturbing engraving that changes every time someone looks at it.

The Mezzotint

Illustration of “The Mezzotint”. Anonymous Eton Student [FDA-E.1319-2014]

Let’s just say I found myself sufficiently scared. When I sat down to start writing about ghost stories for the October blog post you’re reading now, I couldn’t help but draw the similarities between the adventures of Williams in “The Mezzotint” and some curious events that happened in the College Library. When I lock the library up at night, I can easily imagine why M. R. James wrote the haunting tales he did. So please dim your lights and raise your volume because I have a fantastic story to share…

For extra spookiness, listen to this recording while you read…





Music by Darach Sharkey. Illustrations by Kat Lewis.

Narrative framing inspired by ‘The Mezzotint’ by M. R. James and illustrations inspired by ‘The Story of a Troll Hunt’ by James McBryde.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “”The Rules of Folklore” in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James.” Folklore 108 (1997): 9-18.

Wanting more of the macabre? See the exhibition Death and the Doctor on now in the Tower Gallery open until the 1st of November.


Kat Lewis

Project cataloguer, College Library

Climbing heaven and gazing on the earth

Summer 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon landings. Earth’s only satellite has been humankind’s constant companion, and its regular phases of waxing and waning inspired some of the earliest ways of measuring time and setting calendars. Its gravitational forces combine with those of the Sun and with the rotation of the earth to create the tides, setting the biological rhythms of sea creatures and the conditions of human navigation.

Depictions of the Moon go back thousands of years and it has played a part in many cultures’ mythologies and religious beliefs and practices; the Moon has also inspired artists and poets from Shakespeare to Shelley. To celebrate one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, we present a selection of images drawn from College Library and the College Collections.


by Stephie Coane, Curator, Modern Collections

Death and the Doctor: Dying, Burying the Afterlife in the Seventeenth Century

Death & the Doctor Exhibition_Email Invite

The exhibition Death and the Doctor: Dying, Burying the Afterlife in the Seventeenth Century curated by Dr Lucy Gwynn is now is display in the Tower Gallery until 1st November 2019.

This exhibition looks at the experience and ideas of death, the corpse and posthumous life in seventeenth–century England. Its starting point is the writing of Norwich physician and author Sir Thomas Browne, whose extraordinary essay Urne-Buriall is an extended meditation on death, and particularly on what is left of us after we are gone: decaying remains, scraps of memories, and the possibility of eternal life. The exhibition looks at deaths, funerals, and resurrections as described in the sonorous language of the Book of Common Prayer, and in the works of Browne, Shakespeare and Donne.

Alongside these, it presents the seventeenth-century fascination with the funerary customs of other cultures, from pyramids to catacombs to funeral pyres. Through contemporary illustrations, it explores the use of the dead body in the rapidly developing science of anatomy and it introduces Browne’s remarkable writings through Eton College Library’s fine collection of editions of his works.

Displayed in the exhibition are the following four visually exciting works which we hope will entice you to book a visit…

5Lachrymae 2

Lachrymae lachrimarum, or, the spirit of tears by Joshua Sylvester et al. (London 1612)

A compilation of poems mourning the death of Prince Henry that includes verse by John Donne. This volume was designed to emphasise the shock and grief provoked by Henry’s sudden death. Each right-hand page is bordered with grinning skeletons, and each left-hand page printed entirely in black except for Henry’s crest.


STBL Skull on plinth

© Sir Thomas Browne Library, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

Wax cast of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, on loan from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

‘To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking bowls, and our bones made into pipes…’

Browne’s coffin was discovered in the 19th century in the church where he was buried. The sexton took the skull and sold it, fulfilling Browne’s fear of his remains being exposed to undignified display. The skull was reinterred in the 1920s, after several casts, including this one, were made.



Detail from Cerebri anatome by Thomas Willis (London 1664)

Willis’s study of the brain is one of a genre of meticulously detailed anatomical studies produced in England in the late 17th century. In focussing on single elements or organs of the body, Willis and his colleagues continued the trend begun by Vesalius, finding marvels in anatomical details rather than treating the whole as an indivisible microcosm of God’s creation.



Omnia opera anatomico-medico-chirurgici by Frederik Ruysch (Amsterdam, 1737)

Ruysch was a doctor in 17th-century Amsterdam who specialised in the wax preservation of soft tissue for medical study, crucial in an age when specimens were rare and refrigeration non-existent. He arranged his specimens in artful tableaux which were, he claimed, meant to persuade people to overcome their natural revulsion towards the dead body. Like the display of Browne’s skull in a pathological museum, Rusch’s tableaux occupy an uncomfortable – even distressing – territory where scientific investigation and morbid exploitation overlap.

Death and the Doctor: Open until 1st November 2019. To book a free appointment to visit Monday-Friday, 10-4pm, contact us at or 01753 370590.

Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian and Deputy Director of Collections

Lucy Cordingley, Exhibitions and Access Co-Ordinator

Current exhibitions in the Eton College Collections: the generosity of benefactors.

We have an engaging and varied exhibition programme running temporary exhibitions across two galleries, offering the chance to see holdings not shown in our permanent galleries and museum displays. The current exhibitions draw attention to the incredible generosity of benefactors to the Collections, and seek to share these works with others.

Watercolours from the Eton College Collections, Verey Gallery, Eton College

24 November 2018 to 24 February 2019

john frederick lewis, the patio de los arrayanes, alhambra, 1832. pencil, watercolour and gouache.

John Frederick Lewis, The Patio de Los Arrayanes, Alhambra, 1832. Pencil, watercolour and gouache.


john ruskin, capri, 1841. pencil and wash.

John Ruskin, Capri, 1841. Pencil and wash.


joseph mallord william turner, chateau d'arques, near dieppe, c.1834. pencil and watercolour.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Chateau d’Arques, near Dieppe, c.1834. Pencil and watercolour.


william daniell, eton from the river, 1827. pencil and watercolour.

William Daniell, Eton From the River, 1827. Pencil and watercolour.


The latest exhibition in the Verey Gallery is a display of some of the most significant 18th- and 19th-century watercolours from the Fine & Decorative Art collection. They represent many of the British artists of the golden age of watercolour painting, including Thomas Girtin, JMW Turner, John Ruskin and Paul Sandby.

This collection of more than 1,500 drawings and watercolours includes scenes of Windsor, Eton and their environs in addition to a considerable body of work depicting national and international subjects. Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art, has curated a display which highlights the quality, scope and beauty in the watercolour collection that has been acquired by the College by several generous donations. The collection has been used for teaching, research and various displays with the aim of opening up access.

This exhibition can be seen on Sunday afternoons, 2:30-5pm, entry is free. Alternatively, arrange a visit by appointment with from Monday to Friday.


Treasures from the Nicholas Kessler Collection, Tower Gallery, Eton College Library

24 November 2018 to 29 March 2019

carl buddeus, volksgemälde und charakterköpfe des russischen volks. leipzig, johann friedrich gleditsch, 1820. depictions of russian peasants by an estonian artist.

Carl Buddeus, Volksgemälde und Charakterköpfe des Russischen Volks. Leipzig, Johann Friedrich Gleditsch, 1820. Depictions of Russian peasants by an Estonian artist.


henri gaudier-brzeska, two deer, c.1913. a study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to arundel park in 1913.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Two deer, c.1913. A study of two fallow deer, probably dating to a visit to Arundel Park in 1913.

hergé, tintin au tibet. paris, casterman, 1960. split board mosaic binding commissioned by nicholas kessler from shepherds in 2012, with binder_s metal plate.

Hergé, Tintin au Tibet. Paris, Casterman, 1960. Split board mosaic binding commissioned by Nicholas Kessler from Shepherds in 2012, with binder’s metal plate.


joachim bouvet, l_estat present de la chine, en figures. paris, pierre giffart, 1697.

Joachim Bouvet, L’estat present de la Chine, en figures. Paris, Pierre Giffart, 1697.


thomas hardy, the trumpet-major. london, smith, elder, & co., 1880. first issue of the first edition.

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. London, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1880. First issue of the first edition.


Curated by Michael Meredith and Dr Stephanie Coane, this exhibition commemorates one of College Library’s most significant 20th-century benefactors, Nicholas Kessler OE, who died earlier this year. During his life Kessler gave over 900 rare books to Eton, including important works on China, Russia and the novelist James Joyce; his gifts to Eton also include autograph manuscripts by Thomas Hardy and contemporary sculptures. Without his gifts our nineteenth century collection today would be very much the poorer.

Primarily a memorial to Nicholas Kessler, this exhibition also enables us to display some of the interesting books, manuscripts and photographs he gave us. In so doing, the extent and range of his gifts can be appreciated for the first time, as he wished to remain anonymous during his lifetime. This exhibition is open by appointment and we welcome you to book a visit: contact us at or 01753 370590.


Remembering the First World War: the Libro d’oro

Eton’s chief Great War memorial was a large-scale bursary scheme for the sons of Old Etonians who had been killed, wounded or incapacitated in the war. It was decided early on that, in addition, there would also be a ‘permanent and visible record’ of the service and sacrifice of 1,157 old boys and Eton masters who died and 5,660 who served. A significant element of this is the beautiful calligraphic manuscript List of Etonians who fought in the Great War, 1914-1919, also known as the Libro d’oro.

Libro Doro 1SMALL

Graily Hewitt, Illuminated frontispiece of the List of Etonians who fought in the Great War, 1914 -1919, Treyford, Sussex, 1923.

The gold (oro) in the name refers to the colour used to highlight the names of those who died, as well as military honours bestowed. This manuscript was written on vellum by Graily Hewitt (1864-1952), a central figure in the revival of the art of calligraphy in this country. It is based on a printed war list compiled by house master E.L. Vaughan, and honours all Old Etonians who served in the British armed forces during the war. Appended are the names of those who served in non-military units such as the Red Cross, and also those interned in Germany.

Libro Doro 2SMALL

The manuscript list of service is displayed in triple columns of blue (leaving dates and house masters’ initials), black (names) or gold (names of the fallen, and honours), and red (rank and details of service).

The record of service is bookended by two poems by Old Etonians. The manuscript opens with ‘Into Battle’ by Julian Grenfell (1888-1915), written in Flanders in April 1915, just weeks before he died of wounds sustained in fighting. The book closes with the words to ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country, by Sir Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918), an earlier poem which he had re-written in 1918 in view of the losses of the war, and which became a well-known patriotic hymn after being set to music in 1921 by Gustav Holst (1874-1934).

The Libro d’oro, bound in a fine black goatskin binding by Douglas Cockerell (1870-1945), has been displayed in the war memorial side chapel in Eton’s College Chapel since 1923, the year of its completion.

Rachel Bond

College Librarian



Reading Euclid at Eton

“All boys should have a competent knowledge of Mathematics before leaving school.”

Edward Hawtrey, Head Master of Eton, 1851

Eton College Library and Archive were recently approached by the Reading Euclid research project (based at the University of Oxford) for material relating to the role of the mathematician Euclid in the curriculum at Eton between 1500 and 1800.  Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, written in Alexandria around 300BCE, was a crucial text in the mathematical culture of early modern Britain, read by almost everyone with an interest in geometry.  It would be reasonable to expect Euclid to have been read and taught at Eton College.

It was with some regret, therefore, that we had to disclose that – unlike other historic schools like Westminster College and Christ’s Hospital – Eton only began to offer mathematics in the 1820s, and did not make maths compulsory until 1894.  Until then the curriculum was almost entirely focused on classical texts, with other subjects like maths and modern languages being ‘extras’ for which boys’ parents would pay additional fees.

Whilst we have very little evidence of early modern students at Eton reading Euclid, we know that the picture was very different for the academic community around the college.  Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622) was a mathematician and classical scholar as well as Provost of Eton from 1595.  He was a key figure in the study of mathematics in England, both publishing on Euclid and endowing two professorships at Oxford University in geometry and astronomy.  William Oughtred (c.1575-1660) was born at Eton, the son of a writing master, and went on to publish a series of works which helped to promote the study of geometry amongst the English gentry.

Eton College Library holds early modern copies of Euclid and Oughtred, including the six books displayed below.  These books are included in the Seeing Euclid networked exhibition which has been curated by the Reading Euclid project from libraries across Britain and Ireland.

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Fb.7.3. Euclid, Eukleidou ton pente kai deka stoicheion, ek ton tou theonos synodion to proton (Strasbourg, 1564). This copy has clearly been well used. It is rather dirty, but also bears annotations, some of which appear to be entirely unrelated to Euclid! The title page bears a line from the Christian hymn, the Te Deum (‘Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father’) and individual letters perhaps meant as calligraphic exercises. There are lists and geometric diagrams in the margins throughout the text. And the verso of the title page bears the ownership inscription of William Tonstall dated 1631. This copy was given to Eton in 1751 by a Fellow of the College, John Reynolds (1671-1758).

Fa.4.6. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion biblia 13 (London, 1620). This copy belonged to two seventeenth-century Etonians: Richard Herbert, second Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1600?-1655) and his friend William Browne. The inscription indicates that Herbert gave the book to Browne in 1623 whilst they were both at Eton. The volume later belonged to John Free (dated 1738) and Rowland Ingram, reaching Eton in 1962.

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Fa4.4. Euclid, Eukleidou stoicheion bibl. 15 ek ton theonos synousion (Basel, 1533). A copy of Euclid’s works which was in Eton College Library in the early seventeenth century. It has a typical ‘Eton binding’ of the period, with a large blind-stamped centrepiece of the College arms, broad fillet border, and the traces of clasps and a plate for a chain which were later removed. The title-page verso bears the engraved armorial bookplate of the College.

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Ib1.1.51. Eton’s copy of Oughtred’s ‘The circles of proportion and the horizontal instrument’ (London, 1633) bears intriguing signs of its mathematical use in the seventeenth century. It is bound in a contemporary limp parchment with two other mathematical treatise of the period, and its front board bears a rosette which has clearly been inscribed with a set of compasses. A user has used the front flyleaf to inscribe a series of sums and drawn two architectural cornices with circles and rules marking out their proportions, demonstrating the importance of mathematically determined harmony in classical architecture. This copy arrived in Eton in 1909 as a gift.

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Gb.7.25 and Gb.4.23: Two further copies of works by ‘Willelmo Oughtred Ætonensi’, with an engraved portrait of Oughtred and woodcut geometric diagrams.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian