Laurence Nowell

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Two sixteenth-century English cousins, one an antiquarian and the other a churchman, were named Laurence Nowell. Their biographies have been confused since the seventeenth century.


Laurence (or Lawrence) Nowell (c. 1515 – c. 1571) was an antiquarian, a cartographer and a pioneering scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature.

Nowell's self-portrait with an empty purse, from the lower left corner of the pocket map he prepared for William Cecil.

Nowell attended King's School in Westminster from the early 1530s until 1549 before attending Christ Church, Oxford, where he received an MA in 1552. By 1562, he was living in the London house of his patron, Sir William Cecil, where he collected and transcribed Anglo-Saxon documents and compiled the first Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum. During this time he became the friend and mentor of William Lambarde, another early scholar of Anglo-Saxon. In 1563, Nowell came into possession of the only extant manuscript of Beowulf. The manuscript is bound in what is still known as the Nowell Codex (Cotton Vitellius A. xv). He also studied the Exeter Book, annotating folios 9r and 10r amongst others.[1]

In 1568 Lambarde, with Nowell's encouragement, published a collection of Anglo-Saxon laws, Archaionomia, which was printed by John Day.[2] In the introduction he acknowledges Nowell's contribution. This publication included a woodcut map depicting the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, which is thought to be the first map of any sort ("Lambardes map") to have been designed, printed and published in England, and which is very likely to have been the work of Laurence Nowell. [3]

Nowell devoted much effort in the 1560s to a large-scale atlas of Anglo-Saxon Britain, though he never completed the work. For Cecil, he made the first accurate cartographic survey of the East coast of Ireland, as well as a small, accurate pocket-sized map of Britain, which Cecil always carried with him.

In 1563, Nowell was made the tutor of Cecil's ward, Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Nowell visited the Continent to study in 1568, and probably died there between 1570 and 1572. His books and manuscripts passed into the possession of William Lambarde.


Laurence (or Lawrence) Nowell (died 1576) was a churchman and first cousin of Laurence Nowell the antiquarian. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1536 and received his MA in 1544. Having strong Protestant views, Nowell fled England when Mary took the throne, eventually joining his brother, Alexander Nowell, in Frankfort.

Nowell returned to England with the accession of Elizabeth in 1558. That year he became Archdeacon of Derby. In March 1560, he became Dean of Lichfield. He died in 1576, and is believed to be buried at Weston,[4] Derbyshire.

Biographical confusion[edit]

The biographies of the two Laurence Nowells have been confused and conflated since the seventeenth century. Both William Dugdale and Anthony Wood made the mistake, and it persisted through the Dictionary of National Biography and into the twentieth century. In the 1970s, however, Retha Warnicke's analysis of a 1571 court case made it clear that there were two different Laurence Nowells, and their biographies have since been disentangled.


  1. ^ Muir, Bernard J. (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry: An Edition of Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3501, 2nd edn, 2 vols (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2000), i pp. 15--16.
  2. ^ William Lambarde (1568), Archaionomia, siue de priscis anglorum legibus libri: sermone Anglico, vetustate antiquissimo, aliquot abhinc seculis conscripti, atq[ue] nunc demum, magno iurisperitorum, & amantium antiquitatis omnium commodo, è tenebris in lucem vocati. Gulielmo Lambardo interprete. Regum qui has leges scripserunt nomenclationem, & quid præterea accesserit, altera monstrabit pagina, London: Ex officina Ioannis Daij, OCLC 606547050 .
  3. ^ Laurence Nowell of Read Hall, Lexicographer, Toponymist, Cartographer, Enigma. William D Shannon, essay in "North West England from the Romans to the Tudors" pub by Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2014.
  4. ^ There are several Westons including Weston-on-Trent.


  • Grant, Raymond (1996). Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde and the Laws of the Anglo-Saxons. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
  • Hill, David (2004). "Laurence Nowell, Cartographer, Linguist, Archivist and Spy, and his Anglo-Saxon Atlas of 1563." Paper read before the Society of Antiquaries of London, February 12, 2004.
  • McConica, James, ed. (1986). The History of the University of Oxford, Vol. III: The Collegiate University. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Warnicke, Retha (1974). "Note on a court of requests case of 1571." English Language Notes, xi, pp. 250–256.
  • R. Flower, Laurence Nowell and the Discovery of England in Tudor Times, Proceedings of the British Academy 21 (1935) 47-73. A discussion of Nowell-Lambarde books and manuscripts.