The Correspondence of John Aubrey

Primary Contributors:

Rhodri Lewis, William Poole, and Kelsey Jackson Williams

John Aubrey, by William Faithorne. (© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, acc. no. WA1904.3; source of image: Picture Library, Ashmolean Museum)

John Aubrey (1626–1697)

One of the foremost gatherers and disseminators of scholarly and biographical information in late seventeenth-century England, Aubrey was author of the celebrated Brief Lives, a pioneer of archaeology and antiquarianism, and a member of the fledgling Royal Society. Frequently, in describing himself to others, he would quote a line from Horace: ‘I perform the function of a whetstone, which can make the iron sharp though is itself unable to cut’. Aubrey was modest, but one of his greatest contributions to intellectual history meets exactly this description: namely, the extraordinary body of correspondence that he accumulated and would bequeath to the Ashmolean Museum (which, in turn, passed it to the Bodleian Library in 1860).

Partners and Additional Contributors

Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Professor Rhodri Lewis and Dr William Poole, invaluable founder members of the Project’s Steering Committee, for overseeing the work on this catalogue and Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams for his work to calendar the Aubrey letters for ingest to EMLO.


Aubrey’s correspondents ranged from philosophers like Hobbes and Locke, to scientists such as Newton, Wren, Hooke, Petty, and Halley, to the literary figures Thomas Browne and Henry Vaughan, to such  antiquarian scholars as Elias Ashmole and Edward Lhuyd [Lhwyd]. Furthermore, their social and geographical diversity attests that early British ‘science’ was as much the province of Somerset, Merioneth, or Yorkshire as it was of Oxford, Cambridge, or London.  Metadata for well in excess of a thousand letters is contained in EMLO and the Aubrey team, headed by Rhodri Lewis and William Poole, is preparing a complete edition of this correspondence for publication by Oxford University Press.

Aubrey’s range of epistolary acquaintance is remarkable enough, but is overshadowed by the variety of subjects that he and his correspondents discussed. Writing between 1654 and 1696, they chewed over aspects of alchemy, architecture, mechanics, mathematics, natural history, educational reform, artificial language planning, archaeology, topography, politics, local history, philosophy, and church governance — to say nothing of horticulture, musicology, and astronomy. Yet Aubrey’s letters are also unusually chatty, and give us a colourful picture of what it was like to live and write in late seventeenth-century England. This is because Aubrey was at least as animated by gossip as he was by ideas, something vividly demonstrated in the correspondence he exchanged with the historian and antiquary Anthony Wood. This formed the basis for one of the first monuments of English national biography (the Athenae Oxonienses) and comprises the largest single portion of the letters as they now survive.

Detail from letter of 24 December [s.a.] from John Aubrey to Thomas Tanner. (The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS Tanner 25, fol. 276r)

Further resources

Secondary Works

Barker, Nicholas P., John Aubrey’s Brief Lives: A Strange Rare Way of Conserving a Corps (University of Minnesota, Dissertation, 1966).

Beddard, R. A., ‘The Sources of Anthony Wood’s Life of Nicholas Hill’, Archives, 29 (2004), pp. 1–11.

Bennett, Kate, ‘John Aubrey and the “Lives of Our English Mathematical Writers”’, in  Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 301–29.

— , ‘John Aubrey, Hint-Keeper: Life-Writing and the Encouragement of Natural Philosophy in the pre-Newtonian Seventeenth Century’, The Seventeenth Century, 22 (2007), pp. 358–80.

—  , ‘John Aubrey and the Circulation of Edmund Waller’s Of a Tree Cut in Paper’, Notes and Queries, 49 (2002), pp. 344–5.

— , ‘John Aubrey, William and Judith Dobson and the 8th Earl of Pembroke: the Provenance of William Dobson’s Executioner with John the Baptist’s Head’, Notes and Queries, 49 (2002), pp. 352–5.

— ,  ‘John Aubrey’s Collections and the Early Modern Museum’, Bodleian Library Record, 17 (2001), pp. 213–45.

— , ‘Editing Aubrey’, in Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry, eds,  Ma(r)king the Text (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).

— , ‘Shakespeare’s Monument at Stratford: A New Seventeenth-Century Account’, Notes and Queries, 47 (2000), p. 464.

— , ‘John Aubrey’s Oxfordshire Collections: An Edition of Aubrey’s Annotations to his Presentation Copy of Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire’, Bodleian Library Ashmole 1722, Oxoniensia, 64 (1999), pp. 59–86.

— , ‘John Aubrey, Joseph Barnes’s Print-Shop and a Sham Newsletter’, The Library, 21 (1999), pp. 50–8.

— , ‘A New Anthony Wood Manuscript Paper’, Notes and Queries, 45 (1998), pp. 184–6.

— , ‘Material Towards a Critical Edition of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives’ (University of Oxford: DPhil thesis, 1993).

Botelho, Keith M., ‘John Aubrey’, in Alan Hagar, ed., The Age of Milton (London: Greenwood Press, 2004), pp. 14–18.

Buchanan-Brown, John, ‘The Natural History of Herefordshire: John Aubrey’s projected Tract’, Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, 49 (1999), pp. 378–403.

— , ‘The Books Presented to the Royal Society by John Aubrey, F.R.S.’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 28 (1974), p. 167 ff.

Dorris, George E., ‘Sir Walter Enjoying’, Notes and Queries, 12 (1965), pp. 381–2.

Emery, F. V., ‘English Regional Studies from Aubrey to Defoe’, Geographical Journal, 124 (1958), pp. 315–25.

Enright, B. J., ‘Richard Rawlinson and the Publication of John Aubrey’s Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, 54 (1956), p. 124 ff.

Fellows-Jensen, Gilliam, ‘John Aubrey, Pioneer Onomast?’, Nomina, 23 (2000), pp. 89–106.

Fowles, John, ‘The Great Amateur of Archaeology’, Natural History (August 1982), pp. 18–24.

Fox, Adam, ‘Aubrey, John (1626–1697)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

— , Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Frank, Robert G., ‘John Aubrey, F.R.S., John Lydall, and Science at Commonwealth Oxford’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 27 (1973), pp. 193–217.

Gordon, Cosmo A., ‘Letter to John Aubrey from George Garden’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 8 (1955), pp. 18–26.

Gunter, R. T., ‘The Library of John Aubrey, F.R.S.’, Bodleian Quarterly Record, 6 (1931), pp. 230–6. [Reprinted Powell, Aubrey, 2nd ed., Appendix B.]

— , ‘The Ashmolean Copy of Plot’s Natural History’, Bodleian Library Quarterly, 6 (1930), pp. 165–6.

Horsfall Turner, Olivia. ‘“The Windows of this Church are of several Fashions”: architectural form and historical method in John Aubrey’s “Chronologia Architectonica”’, Architectural History, 54 ( 2011), pp. 171–93.

Hunter, Michael, John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (London: Duckworth, 1975).

— , ‘The Bibliography of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives’, Antiquarian Book Monthly Review, 1 (1974), p. 6 ff.

— , ‘The Royal Society and the Origins of British Archaeology’, Antiquity, 65 (1971), pp. 113–21, 187–92.

Jackson, J. E., ‘Aubrey’s Wiltshire Antiquities’, Notes and Queries, 2nd ser., 8 (1859), pp. 467–68.

Jackson Williams, Kelsey, ‘John Aubrey’s Antiquarian Scholarship: A Study in the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters’ (University of Oxford D.Phil. Thesis, 2013).

— , ‘Training the Virtuoso: John Aubrey’s Education and Early Life’, The Seventeenth Century, 27 (2012), pp. 157–82.

Kelly, Joseph, ‘A Book from the Libraries of Ben Jonson and John Aubrey’, Seventeenth-Century News, 39 (1981), p. 44.

Kirtly, Bacil F., ‘John Aubrey upon the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford’, Journal of American Folklore, 78 (1965), pp. 64–5.

Kite, Jon Bruce, A Study of the Works and Reputation of John Aubrey (1626–1697) with emphasis on his Brief Lives (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993).

Lewis, Rhodri, Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to Locke (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 188–221.

— , ‘The Efforts of the Aubrey Correspondence Group to Revise John Wilkins’s Essay (1668) and their Context’, Historiographia Linguistica, 28 (2001), pp. 333–66.

MacGregor, Arthur G., ‘The Antiquary en plain air: Eighteenth-Century Progress from Topographical Survey to the Threshold of Field Archaeology’, in R. G. W. Anderson, Marjorie Lancaster Caygill, Arthur G. MacGregor, and Luke Syson, eds, Enlightening the British: Knowledge, Discovery and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century (London: British Museum Press, 2003), pp. 164–75.

Moorhead, T.S.N., ‘A Roman Coin Hoard from Wanborough’, in A.S. Anderson, J. S. Wacher, and A.P. Fitzpatrick, eds, The Romano-British ‘Small Town’ at Wanborough, Wiltshire, Appendix 1 (London: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies; Britannia Monograph Series, no. 19, 2001), pp. 351–5.

Nicholson, Oliver, ‘Iamblichus in Aubrey’s Miscellanies’, Notes and Queries, 33 (1986), pp. 481–2.

Owen, Patricia, ‘A Revaluation of the Writings of John Aubrey’ (University of Oxford: BLitt thesis, 1954).

Poole, William, ‘John Aubrey, the two George Ents, and the “Paduan” Laureae Apollinari’, Bodleian Library Record, 27 (2014, forthcoming).

— , John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning (Oxford: Bodleian Library Publishing, 2010).

Poole, William, and Kelsey Jackson Williams, ‘A Swede in Restoration Oxford: Gothic Patriots, Swedish Books, English Scholars’, Lias, 39 (2012), pp. 1-66.

Powell, Anthony, ‘John Aubrey’s Books I, II’, Times Literary Supplement, 13 (20 January, 1950), pp. 32, 48.

— , John Aubrey and his Friends (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1948; new and rev. edn, London: Heinemann, 1963).

Purdon, John James, ‘Aubrey’s Discourse in Paper’, Essays in Criticism, 55 (2005), pp. 226–47.

Scurr, Ruth, John Aubrey: My Own Life (London: Random House, 2015, forthcoming).

Turnbull, G. H., ‘Samuel Hartlib’s Acquaintance with John Aubrey’, Notes and Queries, 195 (1950), pp. 31–3.

Tylden-Wright, David, John Aubrey: A Life (London: HarperCollins, 1991).

Turner, A.J., ‘Mathematical Instruments and the Education of Gentlemen’, Annals of Science, 30 (1973), pp. 51–88.

Williams, Earl Melton, ‘John Aubrey’s Templa Druidum: Materials for an Edition’ (Dissertation, 1978).

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