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University research project receives funding to digitise Alice Thornton manuscripts, discovered at Durham Cathedral

26 April 2021

The University of Edinburgh has been awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to conduct a £1million research project into the autobiographical writings of Alice Thornton (1626-1707) and create a digital edition, accessible to researchers and members of the public.

The three-year research project, entitled ‘Alice Thornton’s Books: Remembrances of a Woman’s Life in the Seventeenth Century’ will be carried out in partnership with Durham Cathedral.

Alice Thornton (née Wandesford) wrote four books about her life as a 17th century woman, predominantly in Yorkshire, during the British civil wars. She was the daughter of Christopher Wandesford, Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1640.

Dr Cordelia Beattie, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Edinburgh and lead investigator on the project, found one of these books, presumed missing since the late nineteenth century, in Durham Cathedral’s archives amongst Dean Comber’s papers in 2019. Thomas Comber was the Dean of Durham from 1689 to 1699 and also the husband of Alice Thornton’s eldest daughter, Alice. Dean Comber’s papers were given to the Cathedral Library in 1969, one of which was mistakenly catalogued as ‘a journal of his wife Alice’.

In 2018, Dr Beattie had located another book written by Alice Thornton that was presumed missing, in private hands. This book, microfilmed for Yale in the 1930s, has now been gifted by a member of the Comber family to the Cathedral. The other two books were acquired by the British Library in 2009.

Dr Suzanne Trill, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and co-investigator on the project said, “Thornton's books offer an exceptionally rich example of how a woman below the ranks of the nobility conceptualised her life. The four manuscript volumes are interconnected in complex ways which is why a fully searchable, open-access digital edition is the most appropriate format to enable us - and future readers – fully to appreciate Thornton’s significance."

The research project will enable far more detailed analysis and understanding of Thornton’s writings, including more precise dating of the books and her motives for writing and revising these accounts of her life.

The project will include the creation of a fully searchable online edition of all four books, the engagement of two post-doctoral research assistants, a research symposium, a range of public outputs including lectures, a display and play at Durham Cathedral, publications, and other online resources. The AHRC award was for the sum of £809,123.

Dr Beattie said, “We’re really pleased that our partnership with Durham Cathedral will enable us to use their unique spaces to communicate our project findings to a wider audience. We’re particularly excited about our plans to display the two recently located Thornton books and related family papers in the Refectory Library which Thornton’s son-in-law helped set up, as well as staging a one-woman play based on Thornton’s writings in the Galilee Chapel. These events are planned for Autumn 2023.”

Find more information about the The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and their work online.