Douce was born in London. His father was a clerk in Chancery. After completing his education he entered his father's office, but soon quit it to devote himself to the study of antiquities. He became a prominent member of the Society of Antiquaries, and from 1799 to 1811 served as Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum, but was compelled to resign owing to a quarrel with one of the trustees.
In 1807 he published his Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners (2 vols. 8vo), which contained some curious information, along with a great deal of trifling criticism and mistaken interpretation. An unfavourable notice of the work in The Edinburgh Review greatly irritated the author, and made him unwilling to venture any further publications. He contributed, however, a considerable number of papers to the Archaeologia and The Gentleman's Magazine. In 1833 he published a Dissertation on the various Designs of the Dance of Death, the substance of which had appeared forty years before. He died on 30 March 1834.
By his will he left his printed books, illuminated manuscripts, coins &c., to the Bodleian Library; his own manuscript works to the British Museum, with directions that the chest containing them should not be opened until 1 January 1900; and his paintings, carvings and miscellaneous antiquities to Sir Samuel Meyrick, who published an account of them, entitled The Doucean Museum.
Reasons for Resignation
In 1811 Douce resigned from the British Museum citing a series of reasons that have become legendary in institutional circles. The letter is preserved in the Bodleian Library. His list of complaints runs as follows:
- The Nature of the constitution of the M[useum] altogether objectionable.
- The coldness, even danger, in the frequenting the great house in winter.
- The vastness of the business remaining to be done & continually flowing in.
- The total impossibility of my individual efforts, limited, restrained & controlled as they are, to do any real, or at least much, good.
- An apparent, & I believe real, system of espionage throughout the place & certainly a want of due respect towards and confidence in the officers.
- The total absence of all aid in my department
- The want of society with the members, their habits wholly different & their manners far from fascinating & sometimes repulsive.
- The want of power to do any good, & the difficulty to make the motley & often trifling committees sensible that they could do any.
- The general pride & affected consequence of these committees.
- Their assumption of power, that I think not vested in them.
- The fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of.
- Bullen, Arthur Henry (1885–1900). "Douce, Francis". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 256–257.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Douce, Francis". Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 441.
- Works by Francis Douce at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Francis Douce at Internet Archive
- "Archival material relating to Francis Douce". UK National Archives.
- Overview of the Douce bequest at the Bodleian Library
- MSS. Douce: manuscripts from the collection of Francis Douce (1757-1834) at the Bodleian Library