John Leland

From Academic Kids

This is about John Leland, antiquary. For other people called John Leland see John Leland (disambiguation).

John Leland (September 13 1502April 18 1552) was an English antiquary. He has been described as 'the father of English local history'; his Itinerary introduced the shire as the basic unit for studying the history of England—an idea that has been influential ever since.


Early life

John Leland was born in London on September 13 in 1502 [Mirror of Literature] or c. 1506 [Encyclopaedia Britannica]. He was a pupil to William Lily—the first head master of St. Paul's School—and through the generosity of Thomas Myles, he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1521. From this university he transferred to All Souls' College, Oxford, where he paid particular attention to the Greek language. He afterwards went to Paris, where he studied under Francois Dubois (Sylvius) and cultivated the acquaintance of the principal scholars of the age. (The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction suggests that these probably included Erasmus, the Robert Estienne, Abraham Faber, and Adrian Turnebus). While there he completed his studies of Latin and Greek; he later learned several modern languages.

Royal appointment

On his return to England he was a tutor of Thomas Howard, son of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and to Francis Hastings, afterwards Earl of Huntingdon. He took Holy Orders and was appointed one of the chaplains to King Henry VIII, who gave him the rectory of Peuplingues, in the marshes of Calais. Henry also appointed him his library keeper, and conferred on him the title of Royal Antiquary; Leland is the only person ever to hold this title. In 1533 Henry commissioned him to search after England's antiquities, and explore the libraries of all cathedrals, abbeys, priories, colleges, and all the places wherein records, writings, and whatever else was lodged that related to antiquity. "Before Leland's time," says Hearne, in his preface to the Itinerary, "all the literary monuments of antiquity were totally disregarded; and the students of Germany apprised of this culpable indifference, were suffered to enter our libraries unmolested, and to cut out of the books deposited there whatever passages they thought proper, which they afterwards published as relics of the ancient literature of their own country."

In this research Leland spent over six years (from 1540 to 1546 travelling through England, visiting the remains of ancient buildings and monuments of every kind. On its completion, he presented the results to Henry, under the title of a New Year's Gift (published by John Bale in 1549) in which he says, "I have so traviled yn your dominions booth by the se costes and the midle partes, sparing nother labor nor costes, by the space of these vi. yeres paste, that there is almoste nother cape, nor bay, haven, creke or peers, river or confluence of rivers, breches, watchies, lakes, meres, fenny waters, montagnes, valleis, mores, hethes, forestes, chases wooddes, cities, burges, castelles, principale manor placis, monasteries, and colleges, but I have seene them; and notid yn so doing a hole worlde of thinges very memorable." This descriptive Itinerary runs to five printed volumes in the 1906 edition.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, Leland made application to Secretary Thomas Cromwell, requesting his assistance in getting the manuscripts that they contained sent to the king's library. In 1542 Henry presented him with the valuable rectory of Haseley, Oxfordshire; the year following he preferred him to a canonry of King's College, now Christ Church, Oxford, and about the same time collated him to a prebend in the church of Sarum. He was an absentee pluralist, with the income and leisure to pursue his interests; he retired with his collections to his house in the parish of St Michael le Querne, Cheapside, London, where he intended to follow the Itinerary with a history divided into "so many books as there be shires in England and shires and great dominions in Wales". It never materialized because, as a contemporary reported, in 1547 ‘he fell besides his wits’. He was certified insane in March 1550 and died, still mentally deranged, on April 18 1552.


Leland's notes have survived, and held in the Bodleian Library. They are an invaluable primary source not only for the local history and the geography of England, but also for archaeology, social history, and economic history.

The writings of Leland are numerous; in his lifetime he published several Latin and Greek poems, and some tracts on antiquarian subjects. His voluminous manuscripts, after passing through many hands, came into the Bodleian library, furnishing valuable materials to John Stow, William Lambard, William Camden, Thomas Burton, William Dugdale, and many other antiquaries and historians. Polydore Virgil, who had plagiarised them freely, had the insolence to abuse Leland's memory—calling him "a vain glorious man." From these collections Hall published, in 1709, Commentarii de Scriptoribus Brittanicis. The Itinerary of John Leland, Antiquary, was published by Thomas Hearne, at Oxford, in nine volumes in 1710, with a second edition printed in 1745, with considerable improvements and additions. The same editor published Joannis Lelandi Antiquarii de Rebus Brittanicis Collectanea in six volumes at Oxford in 1716.


  • The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 10, Issue 286, December 8, 1827
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911) 16, p. 406
  • Toulmin-Smith, L. (ed.) Itinerary of John Leland (Southern Illinois University Press, 1906, repr. 1964. ed. J. Chandler: illustrated, single-volume abridgement (Alan Sutton, 1964)

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