Walter F. Oakeshott and the Discovery of the Winchester MS

As related in his essay "The Finding of the Manuscript" (Essays on Malory, J.A.W. Bennett, ed. [Oxford: Clarendon, 1963]: 1-6), Walter F. Oakeshott was a Librarian at Winchester College (founded 1382) in 1934. At that time, the College Library was housed in two locations--the Moberly Library, established in the mid-19th century for the use of boys in the school, and the Fellows' Library, dating from circa 1394. Oakeshott was Librarian of Moberly Library and assisted A.T.P. Williams (Headmaster) in planning the library's move to new, roomier precincts--in the recently reconstructed College Brewery.

Oakeshott, a student of late medieval and renaissance book bindings, was at that time engaged in a project cataloguing and describing the early book-bindings readily accessible in the open shelves. At the urging of J.B. Oldham, an expert in 15th-16th century blind stamped book bindings and Librarian of Shrewsbury School (Kingsland), Oakeshott approached the Fellows' Librarian for permission to enter the bedroom of the College Warden and open the safe containing medieval manuscripts in order to fill gaps in his knowledge of the Library's holdings. Oakeshott's account includes the following:

Accordingly, when at last I approached the safe with the key in my hands, it was with some excitement. I slid aside the metal grille, and was dashed to see at a glance that on the twenth or thirty manuscripts not a single medieval binding remained . . . It was a disappointment. But one did not get a chance every day to handle medieval books, so I pulled them out one by one and ran through one after another, catching a glimpse of an illumination here, or an interesting-looking text there, but making no systematic observations or notes. Two or three which were not in Latin but were in English caught my eye. One was very fat, some 480 leaves, paper not vellu, the text prose not verse, clearly about King Arthur and his Knights, but lacking a beginning or an end. Be it admitted to my shame that I had never read Malory, and my knowledge of him was about as sketchy as my knowledge of most things has aslas had to remain. But I made a vague mental note of this prose Arthurian manuscript, and passed on to the next item. (3)

Oakeshott goes on to relate that "by good fortune" several weeks later in preparing for a visit from the Friends of the National Library, he set out an exhibit of early printed books including several by Wynkyn de Worde (Caxton's successor in the book trade). In order to prepare a label for exhibit, Oakeshott consulted a reference work where, he says, he "came across a sentence which made my heart miss a beat":

"The compilation of the Morte d'Arthur', writes Duff, 'was finished in 1469, but of the compiler little is known save the name . . . No manuscript of the work is known, and though Caxton certainly revised it, exactly to what extent has never been settled." (4)

Oakeshott goes on to tell how he went to Wells Bookshop in College Street, bought the Everyman edition of the Morte D'Arthur, and "sought out the Librarian of the Fellows' Library and begged from him the key of the safe again, saying (what was indeed true) that there was some point I wished to check." With the edition alongside the manuscript, Oakeshott determined immediately that it was indeed a version of Malory and quickly discerned the degree to which Caxton had revised portions of the original author's work. Brief mention of the discovery was published on Monday, June 25, 1934 in The Daily Telegraph, followed the next day, June 26, by a notice in The Times of London.

Reading of the discovery in the newspaper, Eugene Vinaver--already well-established as an Arthurian scholar--quickly motored from Manchester to Winchester, followed, it is rumored, by "an aircraftman on a motor-cycle" (T.E. Lawrence). When asked to show Vinaver the manuscript, Oakeshott showed him the safe but stalled for a short time while awaiting permission to open it in Vinaver's presence from the Warden and the Fellows. In time, Vinaver made secure his claim to scholarly privilege in the matter; the result of Vinaver's research was the 3-volume The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (Oxford, 1947). A 2nd edition was published in 1967; in 1990, P.J.C. Field published a 3rd edition. None of these three editions is currently in print. In 1954, Oxford University Press published a one-volume edition giving the text without notes or other scholarly apparatus, and a second edition of that work appeared in 1967. Neither of these is currently in print.

Oakeshott, later Rector of Lincoln College (Oxford), wrote two articles in The Times in the months following his discovery; they were published on August 25, 1934 and September 27, 1934. Oakeshott's article "Caxton and Malory's Morte Darthur" was published in the Gutenberg Jahrbuch (1935: 112-116); his "Arthuriana at Winchester" was published in Wessex 3 (1936: 74-78). Eugene Vinaver's "Malory's Morte Darthur in the Light of a Recent Discovery," the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library (1935: 438-457) gives credit to Oakeshott as "the first to draw attention to this document" and cites Oakeshott's two newspaper articles.