On the Long History of Language Learning at Busby Library

Bijan Omrani |

Former Classics teacher Bijan Omrani used to teach in a school classroom one minute's walk away from where King Charles III was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

In this article, he revisits what might be the 'world's most historic classroom', looks again a remarkable collection of ancient books held there, and in an interview with the Westminster School archivist asks how they might still be used in contemporary teaching.

Elizabeth Wells, the Westminster School's archivist, shows students books from the Busby Library's collection.

It is difficult for a teacher visiting one of their old classrooms not to feel a frisson. Even if one has been away for several years, the sight of long-familiar tattered old books, scuffed furniture, a piece of scurrilous graffiti etched on a desk will conjure up a sudden mix of memories and emotions: joy and hilarity, regret and wonder, the heavy sense of past time becoming once again present.

When that classroom is one of the most historic in England, housing one of the most significant libraries in the history of secondary education, those feelings are all the more complex and intense.

For this article, I am revisiting the Busby Library. This used to be my main classroom when I taught Classics at Westminster School in the heart of London. It is my first time back in this room in nearly a decade. Nothing has changed, apart from the appearance of a few new Sanskrit lexicons for the pupils. The desks and chairs are the same, the discreet wall cabinets with their small displays of Graeco-Roman ceramics, the high domed ceiling with the ornate plaster mouldings. The view from the grand south window is as I remember: the College buildings (whose first designs were made by Sir Christopher Wren, a former pupil, but later taken forwards by Lord Burlington), the Palace of Westminster, the walled gardens of Westminster Abbey, where one might see the canons playing croquet in the summer. Most of all, there are the books: shelf after shelf of leather and gold or vellum bindings, Virgil, Plutarch, Polybius, Aristophanes, Euclid, Hugo Grotius, Ossian, John Dryden (another former pupil) – an extraordinary collection that would be the envy of any scholar or bibliophile.

A view of Busby Library today.
Westmintser pupils (perhaps studying Ancient Greek) in class in the Busby Library in 1957.

It is the books that I am here to see. Both the collection of books, as well as the room itself, were the work of Dr Richard Busby. Busby was one of English history’s most formidable teachers. He served as Head Master of Westminster School for nearly 60 years from 1638 to 1695, dying whilst still in harness at the age of 88. Aside from Dryden and Wren, his pupils included the scientist Robert Hooke, the philosopher John Locke, the poet Matthew Prior, not to mention over a dozen bishops. Stories abound about his character. One is that he would not remove his hat before King Charles II in the presence of his scholars, so that they should not think that there was a greater man in the world than their teacher. Certainly, as a teacher he was dedicated and indefatigable. He was the author of a number of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew textbooks which continued in use for centuries afterwards. A number are on the shelves around me.

I am with the School’s archivist, Elizabeth Wells. When I was teaching here, we would sometimes use books from Dr Busby’s collection in lessons, for example looking at a copy of John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, along with other earlier translations, and comparing them with the Latin original to understand the response of other ages to the original text. However, during my own time I left much of the Library unexplored. I have come back not only to find out more about the history of the Library and its influence, but also what use these ancient books could be in contemporary lessons for secondary (high school) students, and what can be learned from such a collection. A late-19th century Westminster teacher, John Sargeaunt, wrote in an 1898 history of the School that “for the work of education [the books] are of course obsolete.” Is this pessimistic assertion really the case?

Dryden's translation of the Aeneid.

Although it bears his name, Elizabeth reminds me, the library did not originate with Busby. It traces its beginnings to the re-foundation of the school in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. “Queen Elizabeth herself did not contribute financially to the school, except for donating £2 Maundy money to the school every year. Instead, she encouraged her courtiers to support the school on her behalf. Her closest adviser William Cecil, Lord Burghley, gave money. His wife, Mildred, Lady Burghley, a highly-educated scholar who was also influential at court, gave books. A 1585 document lists nine books given by her to the school. Two are known to remain here.” 

Elizabeth has one of the two volumes with her. “If I can show pupils only one of the books in the collection, I choose this one. I always ask them to describe what they can see.” I look at the title page, and see that it is a 1557 edition of the Tragedies of Aeschylus, published by the French-born Henri Estienne. A handwritten note in Latin at the top of the page, dated 1650, states that it was the gift of Lady Burghley – a fitting gift from someone who was said to have spoken ancient Greek as fluently as English. 

“One of the first things about this book that very few people catch is that the date on the title page is different from that on the binding.” This is something I myself had missed. On the cover of the book, I see the initials ‘MB 1586’ impressed in the leather, with traces of gold leaf still remaining. 

“A fundamental thing about encountering these books is helping students vividly to realise and understand the ways the knowledge has come down to us over the centuries. The difference between the two dates is the first hint that before the early 19th century, printed books are all unique. The bindings  were often arranged separately and bespoke to suit the purchaser. You aren’t easily able to just go and order a text – one might not be currently in print, and you have to make do with one that is 30 or 40 years old that has passed through multiple hands, and retain signs of its earlier use. This is not seen as a bad thing. We also talk about the publisher. Estienne – Stephanus in Latin – was not just a person who printed the book. He was a scholar as well. Many publishers had to be researchers and scholars, who didn’t just grab a text and typeset it. They would look at the different manuscripts of the Classical text available to them, and make decisions to develop their own edition. They also started to develop the commentaries and the apparatus that students are familiar with today. Here, we can see this happening.”

The handwritten notes and scribbles in the margins and endpapers attest to the idea of the book’s uniqueness, and role as a witness to history. Someone has used the book for handwriting practice – both in Latin and Arabic – and Dr Busby has also used some of the back pages to record the destinations of his students in 1648 and 1649. One can make out the name “Dryden” amongst those for 1649. 

Henri Estienne's 1557 edition of the Tragedies of Aeschylus, gifted to the library by Lady Burghley.

“One other thing about Lady Burghley’s copy of Aeschylus is that it gives a sense of how the library at the school developed. This was one of the first volumes here. But afterwards, books seem to have accumulated in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Some may have been acquired by the historian William Camden, Head Master in the 1590s who taught the playwright Ben Johnson. However, there is no record of donations, so we cannot be sure. Yet, by the early 17th century, enough books had been amassed that a separate space was chosen to store them. Dr John Williams, then Dean of Westminster Abbey (1620-44), set aside a room on this spot, to the south-east of the large main school room, to be a library room. 

“Later in the 17th century, Dr Busby, then Head Master, became quite wealthy. He had been loyal to the Royalist cause throughout Cromwell’s time, and had been rewarded after the Restoration by being made a Prebendary of Westminster Abbey, and Abbey Treasurer, which added to his income. He also had a similar position at Wells Cathedral. This extra income allowed him to pursue a number of charitable projects. One of them, in collaboration with his old pupil Robert Hooke, was the rebuilding of the ‘library room’ to be his ‘museum’, in which his books would be stored. Next door he also built a house for himself, which was completed in 1687. The ‘museum’ was lined with bookshelves, and it also contained other artefacts including two quadrants and an astrolabe. These have all gone missing.” 

One rather forbidding item which does survive from Busby’s time still sits in the corner of the room, a Spartan-looking table darkened with age and incised with generations of pupils’ graffiti. This is the ‘Rod Table’. Elizabeth opens the draw and produces from it a traditional birch rod. “A modern reproduction” she reassures me. “But the table dates back to at least the 16th century. In Busby’s time it would have been in a separate place, the ‘Rod Room’. On ordinary school days, the draw was open with the handle of the birch pointing outwards to show that it could be used. At the end of term, however, it was reversed to show that it was not to be used, and that the holidays were starting…” 

The Rod Table with a modern reproduction of the traditional birch rod.

Busby was renowned for his sternness. At one point he boasted that he had beaten every Bishop then sitting in the House of Lords when they had been his pupils, and his predilection for the rod was later satirised by Alexander Pope. Yet, as an educationalist, in his time he was at the cutting edge. The 18th-century essayist Sir Richard Steele wrote “I must confess that I am of the opinion Busby’s Genius for education had as great an Effect upon the age he lived in, as that of any ancient Philosopher, without excepting one, had on his Contemporaries.” The many disciplines pursued by his old pupils bear witness to a breadth of interest that he encouraged in the classroom. He taught not only the Latin, Greek and Hebrew required by the School statutes, but also Arabic, to the extent that some pupils could compose Arabic poetry. Music and maths also played a great part in the life of the Westminster pupils. The library is a witness to his educational vision.

There is evidence that from the 1650s, Busby started to acquire books on a whole host of disciplines – Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, maths, philosophy, science, theology, music, history, modern and world languages – from every possible source. Some came through bulk orders from London booksellers. Others were from the purchase of whole libraries, for example that of the mathematician Dr John Pell (which included the most valuable book currently in the collection, a first edition copy of Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode). He obtained others by seeking them through legacies, particularly from scholarly churchmen. Busby sent a number of these books, particularly the simpler ones in English, to different churches for the use of poor clergy. However, the greater part was retained in his ‘museum’ at Westminster.

“What is distinct about this Library,” stresses Elizabeth, “is that Busby made it available as a resource for pupil study. At the time, this was quite unusual. Other places, like Eton and Winchester, certainly had libraries, but they were only for the use of the staff, or ‘fellows’, instead of the pupils. Here, although we don’t have any written rules about how the pupils could use the library, we do have various pieces of evidence on how they did use it.”

She goes to take down a volume of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, published in 1651. “For example, we know from John Aubery’s biographical notes on Robert Hooke that when he was a pupil at Westminster he mastered the first six books of Euclid in just a week, to the admiration of Dr Busby, who introduced him to it. He might well have studied it in the ‘museum’ here, since Aubery said Hooke was seldom seen in the main school room. We can’t be certain, but this volume is a good candidate for the one he used. Another letter from a London printer says that Busby was reading to the pupils nearly every night from an introduction to algebra, which suggests how Busby encouraged his pupils, with the aid of his books, in wider studies beyond the curriculum.”

She retrieves another volume bound in dark brown leather. “This is another book I like to show the pupils.” Opening it, one is first struck by lines of bold and vigorous Arabic type. Between them, much smaller, is a Latin translation. Scattered through the pages also are pictures, woodcuts of men with halos – the Apostles. It is an Arabic translation of the Gospels, published in Rome in 1591. “This is another book that Busby had in his ‘museum’ and would have used in his teaching. One of his pupils, William James, used the text to prepare an Arabic vocabulary, which we still have. After studying here, he went to Oxford, but came back to teach at Westminster, eventually becoming Under Master.”

The 1591 edition of the Bible in Arabic and Latin.

I ask Elizabeth why there is such interest in studying Arabic here at this time, when it wasn’t one of the original biblical languages. Was there a different, and perhaps broader view during the period of what texts were considered classical than we often credit the scholars of the generation for? “Yes, perhaps so. With Arabic, it may be that he thought this was another way to reach closer to the biblical texts in their original language. But Busby’s collection contains texts in an extraordinary range of languages, particularly translations of the Bible, apparently for the pure interest in language itself. One thing that the students looking at these books begin to realise is that the text of the Bible was so deeply grounded in the mind of Busby and the scholars of his generation that when they went to look at the biblical writings in another language – for example Polish, or Old Slavonic – that profound depth of knowledge of the biblical text which is not common today aided them in the learning of those other languages.”

A Syriac Bible saved from the bombing of the Busby Library during World War II.

As a teacher working in this room daily, I remember being not a little intimidated by the range of material on the shelves, and what it implied about the superior linguistic capacity of that earlier generation of scholars. I ask Elizabeth if students looking at the collection react similarly. “There is admittedly an instinct when showing this collection to comfort students and to somewhat play down the sense of their predecessors’ ability. But, to be honest, you can’t really do so. There is no getting away from the fact that, at least in the narrow field of the Classical languages, they were much more capable than today. But, of course, there were far fewer distractions, and the curriculum was still much narrower. However, I think the collection also challenges one of the ways we now confront the question of the relevance of the Classics, or ‘dead’ languages. It’s often argued that we should learn Classical languages because it helps with modern languages: learn Latin because it helps us learn French… but then, why not just learn French? The response should be different. We should embrace the fact that these things are interesting and wonderful in their own right. Knowing these texts in their original language allows access to them in a way that is not always possible in translation, and in translation something is always lost.”

Elizabeth then takes out another small volume, older than the Arabic bible. The title page has a woodcut of a medieval classroom, the schoolmaster sitting in a chair clutching a birch with his left hand, and pointing to an open book with his right. The students sit clustered on the floor around him, sharing books between them. The title page says in Latin that the book is the Synonyma by John of Garland, with a commentary by Galfredus of England (better known as Geoffrey the Grammarian). John of Garland was born in England around 1190, and after studying in Oxford went to teach in Paris and Toulouse, where he probably wrote the Synonyma, a detailed verse treatise on the differences of meanings and relationships between words. The text would have circulated in manuscript for over two-and-a-half centuries before it was published in this print edition by William Caxton’s colleague Wynkyn de Worde, in 1502.

The frontispiece of the 1502 edition of the Synonyma by John Garland.
Colophon of the 1502 Synonyma by John of Garland. The Publisher, Wynkyn de Worde, uses the sign of his former colleague William Caxton.

“There are many things we can get students to think about when we show them these books. On a simple level, there are ideas about what happens when new technologies are invented. Here, as people make the change from manuscript to printing, they try to make the text look like a handwritten manuscript, with little capitals and the colophon at the back. This is like skeuomorphism in the early days of computers and phones, where people needlessly tried to make on-screen buttons look three dimensional, rather than thinking about how the technology can make things different.

“But, on another level it makes the students think profoundly about the way that they approach learning and knowledge. One thing we might mention in this context is the public treatment of J.K. Rowling’s books. About 25 years ago, when the Harry Potter series was first published, some people on the Christian right burned copies of her books on the grounds that they promoted witchcraft. Much more recently, young people on the left, primarily in the United States, have also burned copies of her books as a stance against her real or perceived position on trans rights. For people of my generation or older, the sight of a book being burned is shocking; it is something that just isn’t done, and of course evokes memories of the behaviour of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But for the younger generation, the symbolism of book burning has come to mean something very different. In destroying a copy of Harry Potter, they have no notion that they might be preventing other people from reading it; the act of burning merely signifies their disapproval. But for people of an older generation, there is an understanding that the burning of a book can prevent access to information or knowledge. This idea has been forgotten in the age of the internet, where everything feels available; but the sight of these rare and ancient books emphasises this fragility. It’s especially the case with the Greek and Latin texts: there have been centuries of manuscript transmission before even getting to the printing press. Students realise how miraculous it is that these works survive at all.”

Busby’s library has been no stranger to fragility. In the Second World War, it was hit during an air raid. Busby’s house next door was completely destroyed and never rebuilt. The library itself was severely damaged. Most of the books had been moved to Christ Church Oxford for safety, but a few boxes of books remained. Elizabeth brings out a copy of the scriptures in Syriac in a plain binding, affixed for conservation. Kept with it, in a protective plastic box, are charred ashes from a Syriac New Testament, in which fragments of text can still be discerned. “After the War, one of the Westminster pupils was chosen to take some of the damaged copies of Plutarch for repair near London Bridge, where the bookbinders had their workshops. This was Nicholas Barker – he went on to become the first Head of Conservation at the British Library.”

The Busby Library in 1940 showing the damage from WWII bombing.

Following the War, Busby’s Library was rebuilt almost exactly as it was beforehand. In the midst of change, there is also a note of continuity. Elizabeth takes down two other slim volumes. Their dates are different – 1676 and 1815 – but otherwise they are almost identical. They are copies of the Greek Grammar written by Busby himself. “The same grammar text by Busby was used in a number of schools for centuries,” says Elizabeth. “Compare text books now, where there is a constant churn. What also hits the students is that these Greek grammar books are all otherwise in Latin, and that the learning of Greek – and all other things in the classroom – was done in that medium. No one who knew Latin was allowed to speak English – you would be punished otherwise,” she says, gesturing to the Rod Table.

Spoken Latin, as I have written elsewhere in these pages, is returning to the contemporary classroom since its strong efficacy as a teaching method is again being recognised – though mercifully it will not be a cause for beatings, as in Dr Busby’s time. To see these old textbooks offers a sense of comfort in that respect, a sense of connection with generations who flourished in these old ways. One can profit from reading the texts in Busby’s Library themselves, but the very books themselves teach deep lessons and give much food for thought: on the vulnerability of knowledge, how it is best passed on, the merits of a wide and eclectic curriculum but the need to balance it with depth, the potential benefits of bearing in mind the older methods of pedagogy, and also how we should be bold in the love of learning for its own sake. Pace to Shakespeare, there are indeed sermons to be found in books.

Teachers who are interested in showing historic books in lessons can use online resources where physical copies are not available. A catalogue of the books in Busby’s Library is available, along with a number of photographs of books from the collections. There are also many online resources about the history of Westminster drawn from the School archives.

Outside Westminster, the British Library also has a number of high-quality digitised resources for early printed books, including Shakespeare, Caxton’s Chaucer, and the Gutenberg Bible, as well as an excellent illustrated timeline.

The University of Chicago also offers a page with a large number of links to online resources for early printed books and material, as does the specialist website Early Printed Books.

For those in London, it is occasionally possible to arrange guided visits to Westminster with the Archivist in the school’s holidays. See this link for further details.

Further reading:

Elizabeth Wells, ‘“All my best bookes”: The Libraries of Dr Richard Busby and Dr John Pell’, in Seventeenth-Century Libraries: Problems and Perspectives (Brill, forthcoming).

Edward Smith, ‘Hooke and Westminster’, in Michael Hunter, ed., Robert Hooke: Tercentennial Studies (Routledge, 2006).

Edward Smith, ‘Westminster School Buildings, 1630-1730’, in Westminster Part I: The Art, Architecture and Archaeology of the Royal Abbey (Routledge, 2017).

John Sargeaunt, Annals of Westminster School (London, 1898).


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Bijan Omrani

Bijan Omrani is the author of Caesar's Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul. He is an honorary assistant research fellow at the University of Exeter, and formerly taught Classics at several schools.


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