Madden was born at Portsmouth, the son of an officer of Irish extraction. From his childhood he displayed a flair for linguistic and antiquarian studies. In 1826 he was engaged by the British Museum to assist in the preparation of the classified catalogue of printed books, and in 1828 he became assistant keeper of manuscripts. In 1832 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1833 he was knighted, and in 1837 succeeded Josiah Forshall as keeper of manuscripts. He did not get on well with his colleagues, and retired in 1866.
Madden was the leading palaeographer of his day. However, his ignorance of German prevented his ranking high as a philologist, although he paid much attention to the early dialectical forms of French and English. His minor contributions to antiquarian research were numerous: the best known, perhaps, was his dissertation on the spelling of Shakespeare's name, which, mainly on the strength of a signature found in John Florio's copy of the work of Montaigne, he contended should be "Shakspere." This led to a lengthy debate and to a period when the "Shakspere" spelling nearly became the norm.
On his death at his home in St Stephen's Square, London, he bequeathed his journals and other private papers to the Bodleian Library, where they were to remain unopened until 1920.
He edited for the Roxburghe Club Havelok the Dane (1828), discovered by himself among the Laudian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, William and the Werwolf (1832) and the old English versions of the Gesta Romanorum (1838). In 1839 he edited the ancient metrical romances of Syr Gawayne for the Bannatyne Club, and in 1847 Layamon's Brut, with a prose translation, for the Society of Antiquaries. In 1850 the magnificent edition, in parallel columns, of what are known as the "Wycliffite" versions of the Bible, from the original manuscripts, upon which he and his coadjutor, Forshall, had been engaged for twenty years, was published by the University of Oxford.
In 1866-1869 he edited the Historia Minor of Matthew Paris for the Rolls Series. In 1833 he wrote the text of Henry Shaw's Illuminated Ornaments of the Middle Ages; and in 1850 edited the English translation of Joseph Balthazar Silvestre's Paléographie universelle.
In April 1837, when still the Assistant Keeper of MSS, Madden was shown a garret of the old museum building which contained a large number of burnt and damaged fragments and codices of vellum manuscripts. Madden immediately identified them as part of the Cotton Library collection, which had been badly damaged in a fire of 1731.
During his tenure as Keeper of MSS, Madden undertook extensive conservation work on the Cotton manuscripts (often in the face of opposition from the Museum’s board, who deemed the enterprise prohibitively expensive). In collaboration with the bookbinder Henry Gough, he developed a conservation strategy that restored even the most badly damaged fragments and manuscripts to a usable state. Vellum sheets were cleaned and flattened and mounted in paper frames. Where possible, they were rebound in their original codices.
As well as the fragments found in the garret, he carried out conservation work on the rest of the collection. Many manuscripts had become brittle and fragile, including the codex that contains the only known copy of Beowulf (Cotton Vittelius A xv). By 1845, the work was largely complete, though Madden was to suffer one more setback when a fire broke out in the Museum bindery, destroying completely some further works from the collection.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- "Library and Archive Cataloge". Royal Society. Retrieved 2012-03-04.
- John Louis Haney, The Name of William Shakespeare: a Study in Orthography, Egerton, 1906, pp. 42-50.
- Andrew Prescott, Their Present Miserable State of Cremation: the Restoration of the Cotton Library, 1997