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John Leland (also recorded as John Leyland)[1][2] (13 September 1506 – 18 April 1552) was an English antiquary. He has been described as 'the father of English local history'; his Itinerary introduced the shire as the basic unit for studying the history of England—an idea that has been influential ever since.


Early life

John Leland was born in London on 13 September 1502 [Mirror of Literature] or c. 1506 [Encyclopaedia Britannica]. He was a pupil to William Lilye—the first head master of St Paul's School—and through the generosity of Thomas Myles, he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1521.[3] From this university he transferred to All Souls' College, Oxford, where he paid particular attention to the Greek language. He afterwards went to Paris, where he studied under François Dubois (Sylvius) and cultivated the acquaintance of the principal scholars of the age. (The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction suggests that these probably included Erasmus, the Robert Estienne, Abraham Faber, and Adrian Turnebus). While there he completed his studies of Latin and Greek; he later learned several modern languages.

Royal appointment

On his return to England, he was a tutor to Lord Thomas Howard, son of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and to Francis Hastings, afterwards Earl of Huntingdon. He took Holy Orders and was appointed one of the chaplains to King Henry VIII, who gave him the rectory of Peuplingues, in the marshes of Calais. Henry also appointed him his library keeper, and conferred on him the title of Royal Antiquary; Leland is the only person ever to hold this title. In 1533 Henry commissioned him to search after England's antiquities, and explore the libraries of all cathedrals, abbeys, priories, colleges, and all the places wherein records, writings, and whatever else was lodged that related to antiquity. "Before Leland's time," says Hearne, in his preface to the Itinerary, "...all the literary monuments of antiquity were totally disregarded; and the students of Germany apprised of this culpable indifference, were suffered to enter our libraries unmolested, and to cut out of the books deposited there whatever passages they thought proper, which they afterwards published as relics of the ancient literature of their own country."

Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger from Leland's Naenia, 1548, showing Sir Thomas Wyatt

In this research, Leland spent over six years (from 1540 to 1546 travelling through England and Wales, visiting the remains of ancient buildings and monuments of every kind. On its completion, he presented the results to Henry, under the title of a New Year's Gift (published by John Bale in 1549) in which he says, "I have so traviled yn your dominions booth by the se costes and the midle partes, sparing nother labor nor costes, by the space of these vi. yeres paste, that there is almoste nother cape, nor bay, haven, creke or peers, river or confluence of rivers, breches, watchies, lakes, meres, fenny waters, montagnes, valleis, mores, hethes, forestes, chases wooddes, cities, burges, castelles, principale manor placis, monasteries, and colleges, but I have seene them; and notid yn so doing a hole worlde of thinges very memorable." This descriptive Itinerary runs to five printed volumes in the 1906 edition.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, Leland made application to Secretary Thomas Cromwell, requesting his assistance in getting the manuscripts that they contained sent to the king's library. In 1542, Henry presented him with the valuable rectory of Haseley, Oxfordshire. The year following he preferred him to a canonry of King's College, now Christ Church, Oxford, and about the same time, collated him to a prebend in the church of Sarum. He was an absentee pluralist, with the income and leisure to pursue his interests. He retired with his collections to his house in the parish of St Michael le Querne, Cheapside, London, where he intended to follow the Itinerary with a history divided into " many books as there be shires in England and shires and great dominions in Wales". It never materialized because, as a contemporary reported, in 1547 ‘he fell besides his wits’. He was certified insane in March 1550 and died, still mentally deranged, on 18 April 1552.


Leland's notes survived, and are held in the Bodleian Library. They are an invaluable primary source, not only for the local history and the geography of England, but also for archaeology, social history, and economic history.

The writings of Leland are numerous; in his lifetime he published several Latin and Greek poems, and some tracts on antiquarian subjects. His voluminous manuscripts, after passing through many hands, came into the Bodleian Library, furnishing valuable material to John Stow, William Lambarde, William Camden, Thomas Burton, William Dugdale, and many other antiquaries and historians. Polydore Virgil, who had plagiarised them freely, had the insolence to abuse Leland's memory—calling him "a vain glorious man."

From these collections Anthony Hall published, at Oxford in 1709, Commentarii de Scriptoribus Britannicis. The Itinerary of John Leland, Antiquary, was published by Thomas Hearne, at Oxford, in nine volumes in 1710, a second edition was issued in 1745, with considerable improvements and additions. The same editor published Joannis Lelandi Antiquarii de Rebus Britannicis Collectanea in six volumes at Oxford in 1716.

Other references to John Leland

Somerset and Camelot

John Leland makes a possibly unwitting contribution to the myth of Camelot and King Arthur in a reference in a letter of 1542:

"At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle. . .The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat."

It has been suggested that in making this reference to "South Cadbyri" (Cadbury Castle in Somerset) he was possibly influenced by the proximity to this location of the villages of Queen Camel and West Camel.

The Leland Trail

The Leland Trail is a 28-mile (45 km) footpath, which follows the footsteps of John Leland as he traversed South Somerset between 1535 and 1543 in the course of his investigation of the region's antiquities. The Leland Trail begins at King Alfred's Tower on the Wiltshire/Somerset border and finishes at Ham Hill Country Park.


  • Leland, John. Itinerary of John Leland
    • Toulmin Smith, Lucy (ed.) (1906) Itinerary of John Leland. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press; repr. 1964.
    • Chandler, J. (ed.) (1964) illustrated, single-volume abridgement. Gloucester: Alan Sutton[1]
  • Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) 16, p. 406
  • The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 10, Issue 286, December 8, 1827


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