William Sanderson, A Compleat History of the Lives and Reigns of Mary Queen of Scotland and of her son…James the Sixth (1656)

There are so many benefits to researching book history. Among the obvious advantages is that the topic sheds light on the political, religious, social, cultural and material world that readers immersed themselves in. Such areas of investigation are no less fascinating when studying the rapidly evolving field of early modern female book ownership. Why did women feel the need to inscribe their names? Is that sufficient proof they engaged with their book? Can we make sound conclusions about the interests or curiosities of the individual, or even the collective? Are there any identifiable trends among women readers? The questions are endless!

One of the more conventional approaches is exploring the connection between readers and their books. In other words, what is the owner looking to get out of the content? Examining the political, religious or social context might provide us with clues. The example here of Margaret Magee is an interesting case study particularly because it reveals how historical works were read and interpreted. Was history a tool for expanding one’s knowledge about the past or was its purpose to satisfy a reader’s expressed needs? More specifically, to what extent did historical information fuel a deeper sense of national consciousness?

As her inscription clearly indicates, Magee had William Sanderson’s A Compleat History of the Lives and Reigns of Mary Queen of Scotland, And of Her Son and Successor, James The Sixth, King of Scotland (1656) in her possession by the end of the seventeenth century. She may have purchased it at an earlier date. However, given that she wrote ‘Margeret Magee her book 1699’ would suggest it was acquired at that time. As book historians have argued, inscriptions could be seen as a statement of possession which was most likely written at the time of purchase.

Examining Sanderson’s work can also help us get a better sense of Magee’s personality. The author was an historian and staunch royalist. He was appointed secretary to Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, who was chancellor of Cambridge University from 1628-49. Sanderson’s political support for the Stuarts during the Interregnum was unwavering. In addition to his work on the reigns of Mary and James (1656), he wrote a history of Charles I two years later. It clearly endeared him to King Charles II following the Restoration in 1660 as he was not only rewarded with a knighthood but also promoted to Gentleman of the Privy Chamber.

It was not necessarily Sanderson’s royalist viewpoint that appealed to Magee but possibly his assessment of Scottish monarchs. At the risk of making lofty presumptions her surname suggests she may have been of Scottish descent even though she resided in London. On 17 July 1719 she included her address on the inside of the book: ‘next dore to the three hatts in Islinton’. The Three Hats was a well-known public house in early eighteenth-century London. Indeed, her house may have been included in the striking watercolour by T. H. Shepherd which was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1823 (see the image here). However, it’s the timing of Magee’s acquisition that is noteworthy, coming at a time when discussions were starting about a potential union between England and Scotland. Though it was not formally agreed until 1707, we might tentatively consider Magee’s second inscription as voicing her opposition to the union by endorsing a book that highlighted Scotland’s independent and illustrious past when it stood toe-to-toe with their Tudor neighbours. A big claim, perhaps, but not altogether unreasonable.

Whatever her reasons, whether it was because of her love of history or her possible Scottish sympathies, Magee greatly valued her purchase. Sanderson’s work was considerably dated when she penned her name to it. Much scholarship had been subsequently been done in the intervening forty-three years. Moreover, the fact that she saw a need to inscribe ‘Margaret Magee her book’ a second time in 1719 surely indicates an affinity with Sanderson’s work and, arguably, a longing for Scotland’s independence.

Source:  Images reproduced by kind permission of the Governors and Guardians of Armagh Robinson Library.

One thought on “William Sanderson, A Compleat History of the Lives and Reigns of Mary Queen of Scotland and of her son…James the Sixth (1656)

  1. Jay Roland

    What a lovely read. I have just bought a first edition of this book to add to me every growing library and often wonder about who owned my lovely tomes in the past and what they thought of them. Some have armorial bookplates, others have handwritten inscriptions such as yours but most have nothing.


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