Secret Library

Britain by the Book: The Curious Story of the Third Printing Press in Britain

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, we offer a brief excerpt from Dr Oliver Tearle’s new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

I’ve often thought that someone should write a book about interesting thirds. Firsts are interesting, of course, and the silver-medallists of history have their place, but the third of something is often fascinating in ways that can baffle and surprise.

Take Shakespeare’s First Folio, for instance – or rather, don’t take that, take his Third Folio instead. Copies of the Third Folio are worth more than a First Folio (which itself sells for a small fortune at auctions), because most of the Third Folios perished in the Great Fire of London. In the confessedly unlikely event that you should find an old Third Folio gathering dust in your attic, don’t throw it out thinking collectors are interested only in first editions.

Or consider the third university set up in England, which was in, of all places, Northampton in 1261, when a group of renegade scholars fled Cambridge and received a Royal Charter to establish a new university. Unfortunately, it only lasted four years before King Henry III changed his mind and dissolved the university. (He also decreed that there would never be a university in the town again, so when the modern-day university was established in 2005, they had to overturn a 750-year-old piece of red tape.)

The third printing press in England, too, was something of a curiosity. It was set up at the Abbey Gateway in St Albans in 1479, by a schoolmaster whose name may have been John Haule, though nobody seems sure who he was; however, aptly, given Haule’s profession, the Abbey Gateway now forms part of St Albans School. The St Albans printing press followed hot on the heels of Caxton’s Westminster premises set up three years earlier, and the university press created at Oxford in 1478, where the very first book printed, a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, carried a misprint on its title-page (it was dated 1468 instead of 1478, which did at least have the effect of making the Oxford University Press sound more established than it then was).

The jewel in the crown at the Abbey Gateway printing press was, without doubt, The Book of Saint Albans (1486), which was at least partly the work of a prioress named Juliana Berners from the nearby Sopwell Priory. (Her name is sometimes rendered as Julyan Barnes, which makes her sound like the unlikely medieval ancestor of the author of Flaubert’s Parrot.) According to Alan Tennant in On the Wing, this makes Berners ‘almost certainly’ the first female author of a printed book in English – ‘and, until J. K. Rowling, by far the most successful’. Whether Berners was the author of all of the book is difficult to ascertain, but she appears to have contributed at least one third of it, namely the section on hunting. The other two thirds cover hawking and heraldry, the latter of these being printed in colour – making The Book of St Albans the first printed English book to feature colour printing.

The Book of St Albans remained popular for over a century after that first edition rolled off the new printing press in 1486. A fourth section, covering fishing, was added to a subsequent printing of the book, and appears to be the first book on fly-fishing, some five centuries before J. R. Hartley’s fictional tome, Fly-Fishing, appeared. But it is the prioress’ section that has probably had the most profound influence, thanks to a jocular glossary of collective nouns which is appended to Berners’ chapters on hunting. These include many terms which, as David Crystal argues in The Story of English in 100 Words, were probably invented specially for the book: an unkindness of ravens appears to have already been in use, but many of the others, such as a diligence of messengers, a sentence of judges, a nonpatience of wives, an abominable sight of monks, and a superfluity of nuns may well have been dreamt up by Berners/Barnes or by her fellow sisters at the priory as a bit of light amusement.

Within fifty years of the publication of The Book of St Albans, the ‘superfluity of nuns’ at the priory – and elsewhere throughout England – would be dealt a deadly blow by Henry VIII and his ministers, who, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, put an end to such religious institutions and such high jinks with collective nouns. St Albans Priory would be hit like many others. There would be no more ‘abominable sights of monks’.

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle is out now in hardcover, published by John Murray.

Image: by @SReadBooks on Twitter.


  1. This is so interesting! Thanks for posting.