John Leland (c.1506-1552)


Leland, the Father of English History, is credited with developing the use of original sources and the creation of our modern research-based history. Born in London and educated at St. Paul’s, he graduated from Christ’s in 1521, and continued his studies in All Souls’ Oxford and Paris.

Returning from France, Leland took holy orders and after a spell teaching within the households of the Howards and Hastings, was appointed in 1530 rector of Peuplingues in the Pas de Calais, in the gift of Henry VIII, who in 1533 commissioned him to investigate the archival record of England’s greater ecclesiastical institutions, eventually leading to The laboryeuse Journey and Serche of J. Leylande for Englandes Antiquitees geven of him for a Neu Yeares Gifte, eec., (unpublished in his lifetime) re-edited by John Bale in 1549. Modern historians know it as The Itinerary of John Leland from Thomas Burton and Thomas Hearne (9 vols. Oxford, 1710-1712; other editions in 1745 and 1770). Leland, although having ‘reforming sympathies’, sought to preserve the library resources of monasteries and other churches dissolved or ‘acquired’ through the turmoil of the Reformation. Recent research has highlighted Leland’s pioneering role in antiquarianism and archaeology, resulting from his first hand observation and examination of Roman remains. Though assuming that what he saw was ‘British’ building of the Roman era, he was able to link what he read in St. Augustine’s Abbey library in Canterbury with the adjacent (surviving) early church of St. Martin, in use before Augustine’s day. Leland went on correctly to identify further ‘British’ buildings at Dover and elsewhere and in particular the remains of Verulaneum (St. Alban’s) where he even indulged in a spot of ‘digging’. Though such interdisciplinary techniques were not taken up again until the advent of modern archaeology in the 18th Century, Leland’s ideas concerning ‘Briton Brykes’ remained current thanks to Camden , Speed et al through their reading and often mere repetition of Leland’s original observations. By the end of his life Leland lived in London, his great work left unfinished. He was declared insane in March 1550 and died two years later.

by Dr Frank Woodman

More on John Leland:

- Chandler , J. (ed) John Leland’s Itinerary: travels in Tudor England, 2nd. Ed. Stroud, 1998, also Copinger, W.A, Manchester , 1895

- Harris, O. “Motheaten, mouldye, and rotton”: the early custodial history and dissemination of John Leland’s manuscript remains, Bodleian Library Rec. 18 460-501.

- Harris, O. John Leland and the ‘Briton Brykes’ The Antiquaries Journal, 2007, v.87. pp.346-356

- Skeat, T.C. Two 'Lost' Works by John Leland, The English Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 257 (Oct., 1950), pp. 505-508

- Toulmin Smith, l. (ed) The Itinerary of John Leland, 5 vols. London, 1906-10.