The Bonniwell Bible’s provenance or, Who Owned It & When?

Provenance

Provenance is an important concept for historians, collectors and museums. It refers to the chain of ownership of any collectible item, including manuscripts, artworks, official documents or, in our case, a family Bible. Establishing the provenance of an item—such as the Bonniwell Bible—from its creation to the present day is important for several reasons:

  • By studying this Bible as an artifact, a book published on paper, we are establishing its history and authenticity as a Bible, published in London, England, by Christopher Barker, in the Geneva translation, including copious notes, helps and other additions, probably during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and, more specifically, circa 1580-1603.
  • By studying the inscriptions in this Bible, we can also try and establish who owned the book, and when they owned it. The more we know about this, the more confident we can be about the historical and genealogical information found in the Bible’s many inscriptions.

Who owned it first?

That’s still a bit of a mystery. On the one hand, we do have a solid—though perhaps not unbroken—history of Bonniwell family inscriptions in this Bible, beginning in 1697 and continuing through the early 1900s. First-person family recollections record the Bible’s direct descent from that time until the present day. And we know that this Bible was first in the possession of a related branch of the Bonniwell family and then owned by “our” Bonniwells no later than 1795:

Bonniwell Bible, detail, showing inscription by William Bonniwell, 1798, and ligature WBonniwell, 1795. photo credit: Kendalyne Gentile, 2022.

Which William?

My initial surmise when I transcribed these inscriptions was that the elegantly written top item read William Bonniwell / Nover 5th 1790 / His Book / Chatham Kent, and that it was written by William T. B. Bonniwell (1782-1832), the future patriarch of our Mequon Bonniwell family. As for the other inscription, I surmised that the less-refined, block-style WBonniwell / June 3rd 1795 / Chatham Kent may have been written by his son, future Mequon pioneer William T. Bonniwell.

Well, I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I made that surmise, as son William T. Bonniwell (1809-1874) was not even born at the time of either inscription (cough!). And—catching another error—after taking a closer look I see that the more elegant inscription is dated 1798, not 1790. So both inscriptions would appear to be the work of William T. B. Bonniwell, who was only 13 years old in 1795. And by 1798, William was was a more mature 16 years old, had developed a more elegant “hand,” and was now the owner of this, “His Book.”

Before the Bonniwells, 1648

Our research (so far) indicates that our Bible was probably printed between 1580-1603; it was certainly published before 1630. But our first Bonniwell inscription dates to 1697, many decades later. Someone must have owned this Bible during that time, but who? We have two clues. The oldest is this partial inscription, written upside-down in the margin below Acts 5:27.

Bonniwell Bible, inscription of previous owner(s) Hodges, 1648, below Acts Ch. 5:27. Photo credit: Reed Perkins

The inscription, in Secretary Hand, has been trimmed after it was written, as have—I believe—all other pages of this Bible (more on that in another post). The visible part of the transcription reads:

and Mary / Hodges her / Booke / 1648

If you compare the trimmed-off first line of the inscription with the undamaged Hodges of Mary Hodges her Booke, then I believe the full inscription should read:

[illegible] Hodges / and Mary / Hodges her / Booke / 1648

The missing first name appears to begin with a descending open stroke of the pen that curves down and off to the left (not to be confused with the looping, ascending tail of the d in the word and). Not too many capital letters in Secretary Hand begin with descending open strokes that curve left. A few possible first letters for this inscription may be F, G, I/J, or W, but these are guesses, at best.

Another owner, 1655

Our Bible appears to have changed hands after Mary Hodges made her inscription in 1648. In the second of our its Two right profitable and fruitfull concordances that follow the end of the New Testament, on the page of definitions and citations covering ANG to ARK, we find this inscription, written in an elegant and more “modern” Italic script, at a 90° counter-clockwise rotation in relation to the printed text, and also partially trimmed:

Bonniwell Bible, inscription of previous owner Golding, 1665, in margin below Second Table (of Concordances), page ANG to ARK. Photo credit: Reed Perkins

Transcribed, this reads: [J]ohn Golding / [hi]s Booke / 1665

Of course, the J in John and the hi in his are surmises. But I’m confident that they are plausible ones.

Who were these previous owners?

That’s a great question. The short answer is “I don’t know.” As far as I can tell, neither name can be found in George Bonniwell’s excellent survey of our Bonniwell family, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years (1999). So I did a very quick preliminary survey at Ancestry.com and at FamilySearch.org looking for any Hodges or Golding families in England in the 1600s.

Neither surname is exactly common, but there were enough hits so that I needed to narrow the geographic area being searched. Since the Bonniwell’s lived in or near Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire County, from the 1540s through the 1660s, and were at Aylesford, Kent County, from about 1668-1741, I focused my quick survey on those areas.

John Golding

“Golding”—not including various wildcard and variant spellings such as Goldring, Goulding, Gol*ing—was not a particularly common name. Even so, Ancestry had over 100 hits for the surname in Berkshire County in the 1600s, several of whom were named John. FamilySearch had over 1,400 hits for “John Golding” in England in that same century, but adding Berkshire County as a precise search filter narrowed the results to only a few hits.

The most tantalizing link so far is is an index for the parish records at Bradfield, Berkshire, England for the marriage of John Golding and Eliz White on January 16, 1643. Bradfield is a mere 19 miles from Sutton Courtenay. Is there a connection to our Bible? Not yet, but it might be worth investigating. The microfilmed parish record is available as FHL film 88193, DGS 8036170. I’ll need to go to a Family History Center to see the image of the whole document.

Mary Hodges

Surprisingly, to me at least, Hodges proved to be a much less common surname in the Berkshire county records of the 17th century. Ancestry found only about a dozen records, and most of them were for males. One interesting exception is the baptismal index for Mary Hodges, baptized at Kingston Lisle, Berkshire County on April 22, 1649, father William Hodges, mother Sara. Kingston Lisle is a village about 14 miles west of Sutton Courtenay. The microfilmed parish record of that baptism is available as FHL film 88305, DGS 8036137, and I’ll also need to go to a Family History Center to see that image.

History Mysteries

So we know more about the Bonniwell Bible’s provenance now than we did a week ago. But a number of mysteries remain:

  • Who owned this Bible prior to 1648?
  • Is there any relationship between the Hodges and Golding families?
  • How did the Bible get from the Golding family to the Bonniwell family?

Closer examination of the Bonniwell Bible shows that the pages of the book have been trimmed, probably on all four edges. And the original title page, (long) preface and most of the decorative woodcuts that were typical of this edition of the Geneva Bible are lacking from our copy, yet do not appear to have been cut or torn from this binding.

All of which suggests that this Bible may have been published in a larger format and lived its “first life” as a not-very-portable and somewhat expensive church or home Bible. Subsequently, it was cut down in size and rebound in a smaller, more portable format, without some of its more theologically contentious materials. This is my working hypothesis at the moment, but we have much more to investigate before it is confirmed.

I also wonder, did the new King James translation of the Bible (1611), or the English Civil War (1642-1651) and Protectorate (1653-1659) have any effect on the history of our Bible? There are many more discoveries to be made. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or solutions to our new Bonniwell Bible mysteries, please leave a comment below, or contact me via the blog’s Contact section, above.

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