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Lost manuscript discovered among Durham Cathedral archives

20 June 2019

An exciting discovery, of a ‘lost’ text by 17th century writer Alice Thornton, has been made at Durham Cathedral.

Dr Cordelia Beattie, a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Edinburgh, made the discovery after researching Durham Cathedral’s archive collections in No.5 The College.

Alice Thornton (nee Wandesford, 1626-1707) was a British writer during the English Civil War. She wrote four books about her life as a 17th century Yorkshire woman, having at one time been the daughter of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, before being thrust into poverty following the death of her husband.

The volume found at the cathedral by Dr Beattie had been presumed missing since the early 20th century, leaving a gap in Thornton’s autobiographical writings, and thus a gap in the study of family, health and spiritual life in the 17th century. The discovery has finally put an end to the speculation surrounding the contents of the second manuscript, with the researcher confirming that it revises material covered in the first book, as well as dealing at length with matters of Thornton’s inheritance and finances.

Dr Beattie made the discovery in the cathedral archives after researching Thomas Comber, who was the Dean of Durham from 1689 and also the husband of Alice Thornton’s eldest daughter, Alice Comber. Dean Comber’s papers were given to the Cathedral Library in 1969, one of which was titled ‘Comber 7’ and described as ‘a journal of his wife Alice’. Despite the description, Dr Beattie had a hunch that the text was in fact the missing second book in the trilogy of Alice Thornton’s life, chronicled over 291 pages. After examining the text, and finding it was indeed written in Thornton’s own handwriting, Beattie’s hunch was confirmed.

Dr Beattie said: ‘I am very excited that we can now read Alice Thornton’s autobiographical writings as she intended them to be read. It is clear that she saw them as interconnected books as they cross-reference each other.’

The full text of this volume has never been made available to the public, although selected extracts were published by the Surtees Society in 1875.

The Durham Cathedral manuscript is the second of two Cordelia Beattie has located. Dr Beattie found another book by Alice Thornton among private family papers in December 2018. This manuscript is a book of remembrances, which was microfilmed for Yale in the 1930s and is still owned by a descendant of the family.

Alison Cullingford, Head of Collections at Durham Cathedral, said: 'We are thrilled that Dr Beattie has made this discovery.  The cathedral’s archives are an exceptional record of over 1000 years of history and this find shows that there are always new and exciting stories to explore.’

Dr Beattie and her colleague from the University of Edinburgh, Dr Suzanne Trill, are currently seeking funding to publish this magnificent work in print and online.  Their aim is to see how the four texts compare and to make the manuscripts accessible, so that members of the public can discover more about Alice Thornton’s fascinating life.