The letter was found in the rare book stack by Dr Christopher Matthews, a researcher from the Andalus Theological Seminary in Seville, who has been consulting items in the library’s Wiffen Collection of material on Spanish Protestantism. Tucked inside one volume - a 1715 translation into Spanish of The Book of Common Prayer – was the handwritten letter, dated 31 May 1837, written and signed by the Duke of Wellington.
The letter is addressed to Dr Phlip Bliss, Registrar of the University of Oxford, and in it Wellington - who was Chancellor of the University at the time – suggests to Dr Bliss that the University Press should consider publishing the Spanish translation of the prayer book, having first discussed the provenance of the copy that he has.
The book in which the letter was discovered is the 1715 translation that was owned by Dr Bliss. It was then acquired by Benjamin Wiffen at a sale of Dr Bliss’s library on 7 May 1858, and went on to become part of Wadham Library’s Wiffen collection.
Wadham Librarian Tim Kirtley explains: “Wellington was using a slightly earlier version of the Prayer book translation, one that was printed in 1707, which was given to him by Eleanor Butler, one of the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. We think what is likely to have happened is that he sent the letter to Bliss who went out and bought the 1715 translation, into which he had tucked the letter.”
The letter’s handwriting and signature have been verified by the Wellington expert Dr Belinda Beaton, former Wadham DPhil student of Fellow, Dr Jane Garnett. Dr Beaton tracked down an account of Wellington’s ownership of the prayer book in a memoir by Georgiana, Dowager Lady de Ros that was published in Murray’s Magazine, Volume 5, Number 25, January 1889, pp.48-50:
History of the Spanish Prayer-Book
'One day, when we were at Stathfieldsaye, the Duke of Wellington was alluding to having learnt Spanish from a Spanish translation of the English Prayer-book, which was given to him when he was going to take command (in 1808-9) in Spain, by Lady Elinor Butler, the Duke, then Sir Arthur Wellesley, having visited her and Miss Ponsonby at their cottage at Llangollen, as he went through from Wales to Ireland. On my asking what had become of the Prayer-book, “Oh, it’s somewhere in the library here,” was the answer. Whereupon I searched until I found it, with no name, or anything to tell its history. He was very much pleased to see it again, and said he would give it to me as I had taken such pains to find it. I carried it off at once. Soon afterwards, the Duke wrote to ask for it, to show to Dr. Bliss, Registrar of the University of Oxford. I sent it, making a condition that, before returning it to me, the Duke would write its history inside – which he did as follows:
London, June, 1837
“This book was given to Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, before he went to command the Armies in the Peninsula in 1808, by Lady Elinor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, better known as the Ladies of Llangollen. He had it in his possession and with him during the whole of the war; and learnt from the perusal thereof what he knows of the Spanish language. Lady Elinor Butler was a lineal descendant from the Duke of Ormond, who had resided in Spain, and to whom probably the book had belonged. The Duke of Wellington gave it to Lady Georgiana de Ros.”'
A fuller account of the letter and its significance will appear in Wadham library’s online exhibition.
Transcript of the letter found in Wadham Library’s Rare Book Stack
London May 31 1837
My dear Sir
I am much obliged to you for the account of the Prayer Book.
It was given me by Lady Elinor Butler and Miss Ponsonby two best ladies of whom you may have heard who resided at Llangollen in North Wales. It probably descended to Lady Elinor from her ancestor the Duke of Ormond who I believe resided in Spain after his Attainder. Has it ever been printed by the University. The translation is so good that I am astonished that you should not print an edition of it. I beg you will keep it till you will have satisfied yourself that you have obtained all the information that can be got.
Believe me ever yours much faithfully
The Rev P. Bliss