Enthusiastic collectors: the Bankes brothers European shopping in the 1640s

Yvonne Lewis, National Trust Libraries


At the death of Ralph Bankes in 1981, the National Trust received the generous bequest of his entire Dorset estate of over 16,000 acres. The estate included Studland and the coastal hills of Purbeck surrounding Corfe Castle, Holt Heath and the Kingston Lacy Estate north of the River Stour near Wimborne Minster.[1] Kingston Lacy house had been the family seat since it was built by Sir Roger Pratt for Sir Ralph Bankes in 1663-66. Originally built as Kingston Hall, it was renamed as Kingston Lacy by William John Bankes (1786-1855) during his extensive re-modelling of the house with Charles Barry which began in 1835-41.[2]

Ralph Bankes’s bequest also included the majority of the house’s contents, amongst which was a library of c. 3000 volumes. The collection as it stands reflects the interests of many different generations of the Bankes family from the seventeenth- to the mid-twentieth century. Its origins, however are in the seventeenth-century, partly due to the European travels of Sir Ralph and his elder brother John. About half of the 3000 volumes are from the seventeenth-century collection.

Sir Ralph Bankes (?1631-77) was the second son of Chief Justice Sir John (1589-1644) and his wife Lady Mary Bankes (1598-1661), often known as ‘Brave Dame Mary’.[3] After the death of his elder brother John (1626-56), Ralph inherited the somewhat depleted Kingston Lacy estate. The family fortunes had suffered considerably during the Civil War, as a result of the family’s staunch support of the Royalist cause.[4] After Sir John’s death, Parliament declared his estates forfeit in October 1645 and his library was granted to Sir John Maynard.[5] ‘Brave Dame Mary’ had defended their home at Corfe Castle through two sieges, but was eventually betrayed when a member of the garrison admitted Parliamentary troops to the castle disguised as reinforcements. The keys to Corfe Castle still hang over the chimneypiece in the Library at Kingston Lacy.

Ralph Bankes had to re-build both the family fortunes and their home. Evidence for John and Ralph’s collecting can be found in a few contemporary sources, including a library catalogue of c. 1670, Sir Ralph’s commonplace books, Dame Mary’s accounts in the Dorset Record office and John’s travel notes. The library catalogue, or ‘Catalogus Librorum’, begun by Sir Ralph Bankes around 1675, and continued by his daughter-in-law Margaret after 1691, is basically a list by shelf of the books at Kingston Lacy by the end of the seventeenth-century. Amongst the volumes were several, signed by either John Bankes or his younger brother Ralph. In some cases, where a volume was original signed ‘J Bankes’, Ralph has neatly overlain the ‘J’ with his ‘R’. We can trace roughly 50% of the volumes in that catalogue still in the house today.

After their father’s death, young John went abroad for his education during the 1640s, as presumably so did his younger brother Ralph a few years later. In her account book his mother, Dame Mary, has entries relating to paying for the receipt of letters from France and Italy during the period mid-February 1645/6 to the end of March 1648.[6] These entries in her accounts tie in with some of the dates in Mr John Bankes’s observations on his Travels. This is John Bankes’s copy of the Voyage de Monsieur le Prince de Condé en Italie (Lyons, 1635), which has been bound in plain vellum, but interleaved with slightly larger sheets of blank paper for note-making. He has also underlined the various places or sights in the printed text in pencil, as well as his having written several sheets of dated notes, which are bound in before the text. This fat vellum-bound volume, has now been boxed and given the spine title ‘John Bankes’s Travel MSS’. With this volume we can follow John’s travels through France and Italy in 1646-48.[7] As his brother, Ralph inscribed his copy of Malherbe’s Le secrétaire de la Cour (Rouen, 1645) at Rouen in 1648, the two brothers may have met in their respective travels. John, however, was fairly soon to be back in England as he inscribed his copy of Tobias Venner’s Via recta ad vitam longam at ‘Bathe August 28th 1649’.

Although the family managed to recover their lands and some of their fortune, the contents of Corfe Castle were scattered. The only potential surviving books from Sir John’s library that are now at Kingston Lacy are reputed to be two books formerly owned by Sir Nicholas Bacon, one of which has an elaborate armorial binding by the Huguenot binder from Dijon, Jean de Planche.[8] It was done for Sir Nicholas Bacon (1509-1579), whose elaborate arms are painted in the central oval panel on the front board. The second potential survivor bears the inscription on the front pastedown “Anna Bacona D. Custodis uxor”.[9] All of the other books bought in the seventeenth-century are from the 1630s and later. As can be seen from her account books, amongst the other goods, such as cloth for making clothes, pens and other small items, Dame Mary was paying between “6d” and “1-04-0” for a range of books from pamphlet sermons to “Bishops Hals workes in on uolume”.[10] Some of the pamphlets were later bound into volumes that are still in the house; a few bear the initials ‘MB’ [Mary Bankes].

In his three commonplace books, dated [1656?]-1659, 1657-[1668] and 1666-[1671?], Sir Ralph lists the titles of the books he read and makes notes upon his reading, usually in the language in which the book is printed. He carefully notes the author and title of each work, sometimes also the place of publication and format of the book. One of the pieces of work in progress is a project to compare the entries in these commonplace books with the Catalogus Librorum, to see to what extent Sir Ralph’s book buying and reading overlapped. He didn’t habitually annotate his books, so there is very little evidence in any of them of his reading habits. The same is true of other members of the family at this period, so re-creating the collection and where it came from is something of a jigsaw puzzle. With very few family papers remaining, we have to make educated guesses by piecing together the evidence from the few sources we have with the half of the collection that is still at Kingston Lacy. The Library room you see today is the same space in which we think the books were housed in the seventeenth-century, but the room which had been two rooms was opened up in the 1780s to house the enlarged library collection. [11] Looking out over the south lawn, brings together many generations of the family, as you can see the obelisk brought back from Philae by William John Bankes (1786-1855) as part of his collection of Egyptian antiquities.

[1] For further details of the house and estate, see Anthony Mitchell, Kingston Lacy, 1994.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] For further information on both parents cf. Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 1995 (CD-ROM).

[4] Details of the family fortunes during the Civil War years can be found in George Bankes The story of Corfe Castle, London 1853.

[5] Ibid. See also Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 1985. cf. under John Maynard (1602-1690). The DNB entry for Sir John Bankes does not record the recipient of Parliament’s grant of his library. Sir John Maynard left his manuscripts to Lincoln’s Inn.

[6]Dorset Record Office, D/BKL 8 c/64, f. 119r and 78v.

[7] Yvonne Lewis ‘A young Royalist abroad in the 1640s: in pursuit of ‘Mr John Bankes’s observations on his travels’, ABC Newsletter, Autumn 2014.

[8] The binding is on Theodore Zwinger’s Theatrum Vitae Humanae, Basel, 1565. For fuller details of the binding, see Treasures from the libraries of National Trust country houses, New York, 1999, no. 32.

[9] Peter Martyr Vermigli’s Loci communes, London 1576. STC (2nd ed.) 24667. The elaborate gold-tooled binding has been identified by Mirjam Foot as by Daniel Pateman’s binder.

[10] Dorset Record Office D/BKL 8 c/64.

[11]Anthony Cleminson, ‘The transition from Kingston Hall to Kingston Lacy: the Bankes’ fifty-year search for an adequate dining-room’, Architectural History, 31 (1998).

Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016


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