The Correspondence of Edward Lhwyd (2,128 letters)

Primary Contributors:

Brynley F. Roberts, Richard Sharpe, Helen Watt, and Cultures of Knowledge

Edward Lhwyd, from the Book of Benefactors.Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford; source of image: Picture Library, Ashmolean Museum)

Edward Lhwyd (1660–1709)

The second Keeper of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Edward Lhwyd was an important naturalist, archaeologist, and linguist. He published the first catalogue of English fossils, the Lithophilacii Britannici Ichnographia (1699), in a limited edition of 120 copies, and many of the specific fossils he illustrated survive still in Oxford’s collections. A keen naturalist, he assisted (among many others) John Ray with his botanical work. Perhaps Lhwyd’s greatest claim to scholarly significance, however, rests upon the extensive tours he made of the Celtic lands to continue his work as a naturalist and for the dual purposes of archaeological and linguistic survey. This resulted, on the one hand, in the most sophisticated archaeological work of the day; and on the other, in the first serious comparative study of the Welsh, Scots and Irish Gaelic, Cornish, and Breton languages. For this latter achievement Lhwyd is now regarded as the father of Celtic linguistics. His results were printed in Glossography (1707), the first volume of his projected Archaeologia Britannica, giving some account additional to what has hitherto been publish’d, of the languages, histories, and customs of the original inhabitants of Great Britain: from collections and observations in travels through Wales, Cornwal, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland and Scotland.

This linguistic work, of course, must be associated with Lhwyd’s broader intellectual pursuits in Oxford, where he was not only Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, but also an active member of the Oxford Philosophical Society in its early years.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The 2,128 Lhwyd records featured in EMLO at present were calendared by the Cultures of Knowledge Editorial Assistant Helen Watt (building on transcriptions originally prepared by Dr Brynley F. Roberts), under the supervision of Professor Dafydd Johnston and Professor Richard Sharpe, and in association with the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.

The Edward Lhwyd Correspondence Project would like to thank Mrs Mary Burdett-Jones for the use of her transcripts of the letters of Humphrey Foulkes to Edward Lhwyd, which drew upon the scholarship of the late Dr Caryl Davies; Dr Leigh Penman, for the use of his transcripts of the letters of J. C. Seiff to Lhwyd and J. G. Kisner to J. C. Seiff, Dr Brynley Roberts for the use of his transcripts of letters of John Lloyd to Lhwyd; Dr Anna Marie Roos, for her assistance with all aspects of the correspondence between Martin Lister and Lhwyd, including completion and edition of several transcripts; Professor Richard Sharpe, for the use of his transcripts of the letters of Roderick O’Flaherty and Dr Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, for the use of his transcripts of letters to and from Edward Lhwyd relating to Scotland; also Dr Rhodri Lewis, Dr William Poole, and Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams, for assistance with the correspondence between Lhwyd and John Aubrey, and the following, for all their assistance with transcribing the very challenging letters of William Baxter to Lhwyd, containing words, phrases and quotations in many different ancient and modern languages, chiefly Dr Robert Ireland, University of Aberystwyth (Greek), and also Dr Petr Kocharov, Institute for Linguistic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg (Armenian); Dr Chris Lucas, University of London, SOAS (Arabic); Dr Han Nijdam, Fryske Akademy, KNAW (‘Friesian’); Dr David Parsons, University of Wales, CAWCS (Anglo-Saxon); Benjamin Suchard, University of Leiden (Hebrew, ‘Syrian’) and Aren Wilson-Wright, University of Austin, Texas (Phoenician). The Edward Lhwyd Correspondence Project would also like to thank the following for assistance with many aspects of the letters, including dating, translation, and palaeography: M. Daniel le Bris, Dr Susan Davies, Dr Oliver Padel, Dr Guy Rowlands, Professor Matthew Spriggs, Dr Regina Stuber, Professor Michelle Szkilnik, Dr Heather Williams, and the following for their assistance with editorial, technical and administrative aspects of the project: Dr Randolph Cock, Martin Crampin, Dr Jenny Day, Dr Catriona Gibson, Thomas Roebuck, Dr Anna Marie Roos and Dr James Willoughby. Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Sue Burgess for her help with the ingestion of the metadata to EMLO.


Lhwyd corresponded regularly throughout his busy life in English, Latin, French, and Welsh with a wide array of natural philosophers and antiquaries, including his mentors Martin Lister, John Aubrey, and John Ray. Ranging in date from the mid 1680s to 1709, the letters reflect Lhwyd’s many interests and include discussions on botany, palaeontology, languages, linguistics, topography, folklore, natural history, biology, archaeology, and antiquities, including ancient inscriptions and old manuscripts. Much of the correspondence is devoted to the periods in Lhwyd’s life when he was either compiling material for his own publications, predominantly the Glossography, or contributing to others, specifically the entries for Wales of the new edition of Camden’s Britannia printed in 1695. For the former, Lhwyd used a combination of questionnaires sent to every parish in Wales, as well as fieldwork during his journeys into Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, and Brittany. This work brought him into contact with many like-minded scholars in Britain and Europe; for example botanists such as Jacob Bobart junior at the Botanic Garden in Oxford; those interested in natural history, such as John Morton and William Nicholson, to name but a few. Lhwyd’s contacts with other scholars and the learned societies in Oxford, London, and Dublin provided him with correspondents including Hans Sloane, Tancred Robinson, Edmund Gibson, John Anstis, Humfrey Wanley, and Thomas Molyneux, and antiquaries in Scotland and Ireland, such as Sir Robert Sibbald and Roderick O’Flaherty. In Europe, he corresponded with scholars such as Augustus Quirinus Rivinus, the German physician and botanist, with whom he had a lively debate on fossils (as he did with John Woodward, later Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University) and others, such as several Scandinavian mineralogists, whom he had met on their visits to Oxford. Very little of this correspondence is personal, but a few letters to and from relatives in Wales also survive. The letters, therefore, were written in a wide variety of hands and styles and to cater for all these, the project devised its own template and style guide to produce uniform transcriptions, with translations where necessary. The project team is extremely grateful to all those mentioned in the acknowledgements who helped to make the finished work possible, given the very wide variety of languages also involved

Detail taken from the letter of 12 November 1704 from Edward Lhwyd to Sir Andrew Fountaine. (The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS Ashmole 1816, fol. 71r)


R. T. Gunther, in his Early Science in Oxford (volume XIV), published a collection of around 350 letters written by Lhwyd, but those received by him are largely unedited and unpublished. As with Aubrey, Wallis, and Lister, this has led to the neglect of his correspondence in all but the most specialized scholarship. The Lhwyd corpus, however, is vast: currently, we know of just over 2,100 letters, many of which are among the Lister, Ashmole, and Aubrey MSS in the Bodleian. Further letters written not only by Lhwyd himself but also by his correspondents have now been brought to light following systematic searching throughout Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England. These letters, mostly among the archives of his correspondents, are held in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth; Bangor University, Archives and Special Collections; Glamorgan Archives and Cardiff Central Library, Cardiff; Trinity College, Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and the National Library of Scotland, Manuscript Collections; the British Library, Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, London; Southampton Archives Office; Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Leeds; also Harvard University, Houghton Library. As well as the publication by Gunther, some letters appeared during the nineteenth century in learned journals, such as Archaeologia Cambrensis, and in collections of letters of his correspondents, such as William Nicholson (John Nichols ed., Letters on various subjects, Literary, Political, and Ecclesiastical, to and from William Nicolson, D.D. … 2 vols (London, 1809)), but more recently, Brynley Roberts, Richard Sharpe and others working in the field of Celtic scholarship have turned their attention to Lhwyd and his circle, publishing editions of letters such as Bryn Roberts, ‘Llythyrau John Lloyd at Edward Lhuyd’, National Library of Wales Journal, 17, no. 2 (1971), pp. 183–206 and Richard Sharpe, ed., Roderick O’Flaherty’s Letters to William Molyneux, Edward Lhwyd, and Samuel Molyneux, 1696–1709 (Dublin, 2013), also generously assisting the work of the Edward Lhwyd project by contributing their transcriptions to it.

Further resources

Primary Editions

Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Unpublished Letters by Edward Lhuyd in the National Library of Scotland’, Celtica, 11 (1976), pp. 34–42.

Lhwyd’s additions to Edmund Gibson’s edition of Camden’s Britannia are reprinted in Camden’s Wales, being the Welsh chapters taken from Edmund Gibson’s revised & enlarged edition of William Camden’s Britannia (1722), translated from the Latin, with additions, by Edward Lhuyd, with maps executed by Robert Morden, intr. by Gwyn Walters (Carmarthen: Rampart Press, 1984).

Lhwyd, Edward, Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia sive Lapidum aliorumque Fossilium Britannicorum … Distributio Classica (London, 1699).

— , Archaeologia Britannica, giving some account Additional to what has been hitherto publish’d of the LANGUAGES, HISTORIES and CUSTOMS of the Original Inhabitants of GREAT BRITAIN, I: Glossography (Oxford, 1707); facsimile edition in Archaeologia Britannica, 1707: English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints, 136 (Menston: Scholar Press, 1969); reprinted with intr. by Anne and William O’Sullivan (Shannon, 1971); and as Archaeologia Britannica, in Davis, Daniel R., ed., Celtic Linguistics, 1700-1850. Logos Studies in Language and Linguistics, 8 vols (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), ii, part 1.

Morris, Rupert H., ed., ‘Parochialia being a summary of answers to ‘Parochial Queries’, Archaeologia Cambrensis, Supplements, April 1909, April 1910, April 1911.

Gunther, R. T., Early Science in Oxford, xiv: Life and Letters of Edward Lhwyd (Oxford, 1945).

Sharpe, Richard, ed., Roderick O’Flaherty’s Letters to William Molyneux, Edward Lhwyd, and Samuel Molyneux, 1696–1709 (Dublin, 2013).

Secondary Works

Lhwyd factsheet (pdf) prepared by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Campbell, J. L., and Thomson, Derick, Edward Lhuyd in the Scottish Highlands, 1699–1700 (Oxford, 1963).

Cram, David, ‘On wild etymology and descriptive profligacy: a contrastive case study’, in Bernadette Smelik, et al., eds, A Companion in Linguistics (Nijmegen, 2004), pp. 219–30.

Edmonds, J.M., ‘Lhwyd, Edward’, in C.C. Gillespie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York: Charles Scribner, 1973), viii, pp. 307–08.

Edwards, Nancy, ‘Edward Lhuyd and the origins of early medieval Celtic archaeology’, Antiquaries Journal, 87 (2007), pp. 165–96.

Ellis, Richard, ‘Some incidents in the life of Edward Lhuyd’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1906–07, pp. 1–51; also printed separately by the Society as Some Incidents in the Life of Edward Lhuyd (London, 1908); and reprinted in Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, xiv, pp. 1–51.

Emery, F. V., Edward Lhuyd F.R.S., 1660–1709 (Cardiff, 1971).

— , ‘Edward Lhuyd and A Natural History of Wales’, Studia Celtica, 12/13 (1977–78), pp. 247–58.

Evans, Dewi W.,  and Roberts, Brynley F., Edward Lhwyd 1660–1709: Llyfryddiaeth a Chyfarwyddiadur/A Bibliography and Readers’ Guide (Aberystwyth, 2009).

— , and Roberts, Brynley F., eds, Edward Lhwyd: Archaeologia Britannica, Texts & Translations (Aberystwyth, 2009).

Gunther, R.T., Early Science in Oxford, iii: The biological sciences, and The biological collections (Oxford, 1945).

Hellyer, M, ‘The pocket museum: Edward Lhwyd’s “Lithophylacium”‘, Archives of Natural History, 23 (1966), pp. 43–60.

Jahn, M.E., ‘A note on the editions of Edward Lhwyd’s “Lithophylacii Brittanici ichnographia”‘, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 6 (1972), pp. 86–97.

MacGregor, A., The Ashmolean Museum: A Brief History of the Institution and its Collections (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2001).

Roberts, Brynley F., ‘Edward Lhwyd’s protégés’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, new ser., 14 (2008), pp. 21–57.

— , ‘Lhuyd , Edward (1659/60?–1709)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Walters, Gwyn, and Emery, Frank, ‘Edward Lhuyd, Edmund Gibson, and the printing of Camden’s “Britannia”, 1695′, The Library, fifth ser., vol. XXXII, 2 (1977), pp. 109–37.

Williams, G. J., ‘Edward Lhuyd’, Llên Cymru, VI, 3–4 (1961), pp. 122–37; reprinted in Lewis, Aneirin, ed., Agweddau ar Hanes Dysg Cymraeg: Detholiad o Ddarlithiau G. J. Williams (Cardiff, 1969, 1985), pp. 207–31.

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