FOUR centuries after the death of William Shakespeare, the National Library of Wales (NLW) has announced its purchase of a manuscript associated with the person to whom the playwright’s First Folio was dedicated.
In December, the National Library of Wales purchased at auction in London a manuscript work by George Owen (c. 1598-1665) of Pembrokeshire, written around 1624, and containing an account of successive Earls Pembroke from the Norman Conquest to the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
Owen dedicated his manuscript to William Herbert (1580-1630), third Earl of Pembroke, a powerful courtier and patron of the arts in the Jacobean court, and recipient of a jointdedication by editors John Heminge and Henry Condell to the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
Herbert seems to have been a magnet for those who searched for advancement and favour at the Royal court, and George Owen’s dedication of a manuscript to him displays a clear intention of impressing a possible benefactor, a nobleman who was also his distant cousin.
The compact manuscript now acquired by the Library, embellished with finely painted genealogical tables and a fine armorial, was intended to catch the nobleman’s eye, and seems to have achieved its purpose.
George Owen was an illegitimate son of the antiquary of the same name who became Wales’ first county historian. George Owen senior, author of The Description of Penbrockshire (1603) died in 1613, and his son wrote this new account of the earldom of Pembroke ‘to finish this work by him begotten … for the benefit of his younger children’, and to complete the task which his father ‘allwaies intended’.
Whatever the actual motivation for the work, the resulting patronage of William Herbert seems to have propelled George Owen junior from his home in Pembrokeshire to the heart of London courtly life. His nomination to the heraldic office of Rouge Croix pursuivant in February 1625 led to his further advancement as York Herald in December 1633, positions of influence in which he could indulge his passions for history and genealogy.
Although he turned his back on King Charles by supporting Parliament during the Civil Wars, he returned to royal favour in 1660 before retiring to Pembrokeshire the following year after a moderately successful life at court.
The National Library’s Director of Collections and Public Programmes, Pedr ap Llwyd, expressed his delight ‘in the acquisition of this unique text, the first work by George Owen junior to be represented in the Library’s holdings’.
He added that ‘the timing of the purchase is significant as it brings us ever closer to the personnel and culture of the Jacobean court frequented by Shakespeare and his associates’.
Whilst a copy of the Second Folio (1632) of Shakespeare’s plays is currently displayed in the National Library’s Words of War exhibition, no copy of the First Folio is believed to be in Wales. However, the National Library of Wales holds an unique contemporary manuscript poem addressed to John Heminge and Henry Condell, close associates of Shakespeare, in which they are praised for having presented the public with treasure greater than the gold of Mexico in the Bard’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies of 1623.