1823. Robert Southey to [John Britton], 4 November 1810

1823. Robert Southey to [John Britton], 4 November 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick. Nov. 4. 1810

Dear Sir

Accept my thanks for the three prints of Redcliff church. & for the honour you have done me in one of them. [1]  It is a building from which I have derived, from my earliest childhood as many feelings probably as Chatterton himself, with the addition of such as his memory has associated with it. [2] 

I wish it were in my power to furnish you with any information to your purpose But with regard to the church itself I have only looked at it to admire it, – never as an antiquarian. You <know> probably that the old ceremony of strewing the church on Palm Sunday is still observed there, – I know not whether it be retained any where else in England, – but I have seen it there some five or six & twenty years ago, when it never failed to draw together a great crowd.

The Rowley question has long been dismissed from my thoughts. In fact since I had the slightest acquaintance with old English literature I was perfectly convinced that it was utterly impossible the poems could be genuine. I will however mention one decisive argument, which I owe to a friend. The little facsimile of Cannynges feast contains manifest proofs that the xxxxx hand-writing is feigned, [3]  for if you examine it you will find that the letter e is written in some eighteen or twenty different ways. It may be worth while to avail yourself of this observation, & exhibit all the varieties, a glance at them will settle the question.

Now also there can be no impropriety in mentioning what could not be said when the collected edition of Chattertons Works was published, – that there was a taint of insanity in his family. His sister [4]  was once confined, – & this is a key to the eccentricities of his life, – & to the deplorable rashness of his death.

I have heard persons who remember him say that he was at one time a great coxcomb in his dress.

Of the honour which he has gained in his own country, there is one whimsical instance. Ten years ago a Leathern-Breeches maker & Undertaker had upon his shop-card an urn “sacred to the memory of Chatterton”. One of these cards is penes me, [5]  as the phrase is, – & perhaps Mr Haslewood in his extraordinary collection upon this subject has nothing more curious. [6] 

I am Sir

Yrs truly

Robert Southey.


* Watermark: 1806
MS: Bristol Reference Library, SR4 pb Southey MSS B20855. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 540–541. BACK

[1] Britton had sent Southey three of a series of engravings of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, which were later published in his An Historical and Architectural Essay Relating to Redcliffe Church, Bristol (London, 1813). One of the plates (‘Door-way, Skrean &c to the N. Porch’) was dedicated ‘To ROBERT SOUTHEY ESQ., whose various Literary productions display Genius & Talent’, (between pp. 25–26). BACK

[2] St Mary Redcliffe was the place where Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770; DNB) had purportedly discovered the papers of the monk Rowley. Southey and Cottle’s edition of Chatterton was published in 1803. BACK

[3] Published as a facsimile of Rowley’s hand, in Southey and Cottle, The Works of Thomas Chatterton, 3 vols (London, 1803), III, frontispiece. BACK

[4] Mary Newton (1749–1804), Chatterton’s sister and beneficiary of the Cottle and Southey edition of her brother’s works. BACK

[5] ‘In my possession’. BACK

[6] Haslewood collected documents relating to Chatterton and the Rowley controversy, these are now in the British Library. BACK

People mentioned

Haslewood, Joseph (1769–1833) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)