Archive Collection icon Archive Collection: LETTERS WRITTEN TO RALPH THORESBY



Level: Collection 

Classmark: YAS/MS2

Date: 1679-1723

Size and medium: 1 volume

Persistent link: 

Collection group(s): Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society

Referencing help | Visit Special Collections


Includes a letter from Thoresby to John Evelyn, portraits and miscellaneous items.

Microfilm copy available.

Administrative or biographical history

Thoresby, Ralph (1658-1725), antiquary and topographer, was born on 16 August 1658 at Kirkgate, Leeds, the son of John Thoresby (1626-1679), a wool merchant of that city who had served in the parliamentarian army under Fairfax, and his wife, Ruth (d. 1669), the daughter of Ralph Idle of Bulmer, near York. The Thoresby lineage could allegedly be traced back to the time of King Canute and at the time of the Norman conquest was seated at Thoresby in Yorkshire. Ralph Thoresby did extensive research on his pedigree and was especially proud of the connection with John Thoresby, the archbishop of York.

Thoresby was educated at a private grammar school under the Revd Robert Garnet and then at Leeds grammar school. Destined by his father for the wool trade, in 1677 Thoresby was placed with John Dickenson, a cloth merchant of London related to his father, in order to learn the profession. While in London, Thoresby spent much of his time visiting the remarkable places about the city, copying inscriptions, and attending nonconformist meetings. On the advice of his father, while in London, Thoresby began his diary on 2 September 1677, a habit which he kept throughout his adult life. The diary was published in 1830.

Having returned to Leeds in February 1678, in July of that year Thoresby was sent by his father to Rotterdam, to learn Dutch and French, and to further his knowledge of the wool trade. He spent much of the summer travelling through the principal towns of Holland, including a visit to collections in the physic garden and anatomy theatre in Leiden. His time abroad was cut short when he developed a serious ague, and he returned home in December.

Thoresby spent many months recuperating during which time he made several small excursions in the Yorkshire countryside, taking advantage of these trips to improve his knowledge of local antiquities. His travels continued over the next decade, visiting London and Scotland, visiting men of learning, and viewing collections, including the Ashmolean Museum in 1684, Mr Charlton's museum, and the repository at Gresham College in 1695. He also scoured the local countryside making observations and recording inscriptions. About 1690 he resolved to write a county history.

John Thoresby died in October 1679, having been predeceased by his wife and his eldest son. Thoresby, who had been much influenced by his father, felt the loss deeply but determined to continue his father's business as a wool merchant and also assumed responsibility for the care of his younger brother and sister. The foreign wool trade to Leeds had fallen off in the years before and Thoresby diversified his interests to include linens. For this he bought his freedom in the incorporated Society of Merchant Adventurers trading to Hamburg, and in the Eastland Company in 1685. By his own admission, however, Thoresby 'never made a merchant worth a farthing' (Atkinson, 1.222). He retired from the cloth trade in 1704.

On 25 February 1685 Thoresby married Anna (d. 1740), the third daughter and coheir of Richard Sykes of Leeds. They had ten children, three of whom survived: a daughter and two sons, both of whom were bred to the church. The marriage was happy, Thoresby describing his wife after thirty-five years of marriage as 'the greatest blessing' (Atkinson, 1.245). It was, however, marred by differences of opinion on religion and the proper education of their children after Thoresby changed his views on conformity.

Thoresby was raised a presbyterian but had always occasionally conformed. In December 1683 he was indicted at quarter sessions under the Conventicle Act. He was acquitted but after this attended conformist services weekly. About 1699 he committed to the established church, 'judging it to be the strongest bulwark against popery and a union of protestants absolutely necessary'. Religion remained important to him throughout his life. When a charity school was founded at Leeds, he was instrumental in raising money in support of it. Likewise, he was a corresponding member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and took pains in distributing pious books among the poor. His correspondence includes many letters devoted to questions of religion.

Thoresby was elected a common councillor for Leeds in 1697 and took the oaths of allegiance and supremacy in June of that year. The following year he was much occupied with difficulties stemming from an oil-mill speculation in Sheepscar in which he had embarked a decade earlier. It involved him in a lawsuit, caused the loss of his capital, and for a short time he was imprisoned for debt.

After his retirement from trade, Thoresby's interests turned increasingly to antiquarian pursuits and the study of antiquities. His father had founded the Musaeum Thoresbyanum by purchasing the cabinet of coins and library of Lord Fairfax from his heir for £185. Thoresby now continued his father's antiquarian interests and expanded the collection.

The museum expanded rapidly under Thoresby's care and by the time the catalogue was published in 1715 included a great variety of material. The largest part was given over to coins and medals, numbering over two thousand. These formed the heart of the collection, as well as the primary focus of Thoresby's researches. As early as 1682 he lent a number of the Saxon coins to Obadiah Walker to be engraved in his edition of Spelman's Life of King Alfred. Edmund Gibson and Sir Andrew Fountaine benefited from a similar loan for illustrations in Camden's Britannia and the Numismata.

In addition to the coins and medals, the museum contained a substantial collections of plants, shells, minerals, and fossils. Thoresby also kept remains of animals, including feet, horns, and skin, many of which were of exotic species. He had numerous funerary urns with human remains, as well as parts of human bodies testifying to unusual medical or accidental occurrences. By his own estimation his most notable of the human curiosities was the arm of the marquess of Montrose, whose quarters had been disposed of to several cities in Scotland, whence his specimen had come. Thoresby also kept instruments of war and of mathematics, and a variety of statues and amulets collected not only in Yorkshire but from around the world.

Thoresby's museum attracted virtuosi and the curious to visit his home in Leeds. His diary frequently reports him showing his collection to visitors whose numbers included members of both houses of parliament and visitors from abroad. In addition to this, the collection, and especially his study of and observations on its contents, brought him into discussion with many of the eminent men of his time. Two volumes of their letters to him were published in 1832, another volume in 1912.

The Musaeum Thoresbyanum was remarkable not only for the variety of material which it contained but also as a highly developed manifestation of what was largely a metropolitan pastime in a provincial setting. While many of the fellows of the Royal Society collected, few had collections as large or esteemed as Thoresby's. Richard Gough considered him to have inherited Tradescant's mantle as the foremost private collector in Britain, though he found the curiosities demonstrated a 'credulity and want of judgement' (Gough, 2.436). In its mixture of natural specimens and cultural artefacts, the collection is typical of its day and the narratives which Thoresby constructed around them were welcomed into the most sophisticated intellectual circles in England.

From early adulthood Thoresby cultivated and expanded his father's antiquarian circle in Leeds, including Mr Thornton, the recorder of Leeds, Bishop William Nicholson, Bishop Edmund Gibson, Thomas Gale, the dean of York, and his son Roger Gale, Sir Andrew Fountaine, Thomas Hearne, William Richardson, John Ray, and Bishop White Kennet. His interest in and skill at heraldry brought him into correspondence with John Anstis, garter principal king at arms, and Peter Le Neve, Norroy king at arms, while his study of medals brought him into contact with other virtuosi, including the earl of Pembroke.

In 1697 Thoresby was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the strength of an account of some Roman antiquities he had discovered in Yorkshire, communicated to the society by his correspondents Martin Lister and Dr Gale. Following his election, at least thirty of his communications to the society were published in the Philosophical Transactions. These deal with Roman and Saxon monuments in the north of England, with inscriptions on coins, or with accounts of uncommon accidents. Thoresby expanded his correspondence to include the prominent antiquarians and collectors within the Royal Society of the day, including Sir Hans Sloane.

Thoresby's great work was the Ducatus Leodiensis, or, The Topography of Leedes (1715). From the time he settled on the project in the early 1690s, Thoresby worked industriously towards its completion. This was not the first topographical publication of importance about a provincial town but it was the first work of importance by a Yorkshire antiquary. Attached to the main body of the text was a catalogue of the Musaeum Thoresbyanum and the volume included a very fine map of the area. Ducatus was published by subscription and was dedicated to Peregrine Osborne, marquess of Carmarthen and heir apparent to the duke of Leeds, and to the mayor of Leeds and aldermen of Leeds. About 2000 copies were printed and sold for £3. A second edition appeared in 1816, with notes and additions by Thomas Dunham Whitaker.

Encouraged by the success of Ducatus, Thoresby planned to complete the work with a historical account of the area. In 1724 Vicaria Leodiensis, or, The History of the Church of Leedes was published. On his death he left the completed manuscript for the history, beginning with the Britons, through the Romans, Danes, and Normans to the sixth century. This was published, along with a biography by his eldest son, in Biographia Britannica.

Thoresby remained active until almost the end of his life. He was esteemed by others an ingenious and sober gentleman, and an industrious antiquary. He was skilled in the Saxon language. He was kind to his friends and never more happy than when he could share with them some piece of antiquity or a valuable manuscript.

In October 1724 Thoresby had a major stroke, losing his speech and the ability to walk. Though he recovered over the coming months, one year later he had a second stroke and, after languishing for six days, he died on 16 October 1725. He was buried among his ancestors in the chancel of St Peter's Church, Leeds, on 19 October.

Thoresby's elder son inherited his collection. After the son's death it was sold at auction in London in 1764 over three days. The sale included coins and medals, manuscripts, curiosities, and ancient deeds. The sale was attended by many of the prominent antiquarians and collectors of the second half of the eighteenth century, including Horace Walpole, but it realized only £450. The printed books were sold separately. Many of the curiosities languished in a garret in Leeds after Ralph Thoresby's death; they were sold eventually to Jonathan Swale and some by him to Dr Burton. Much of the once-celebrated collection was left to rot and was eventually simply thrown out.


Note that the letters are bound in one volume and do not have individual numbers, the numbers reflect the order in which they are bound.

Access and usage


This collection has not been listed in detail and access to parts of it may be restricted under the Data Protection Act and other relevant legislation. If you would like to request access to any part of this collection, please contact Special Collections. Upon receipt of your request, a member of the team will discuss your requirements with you and review relevant material accordingly.

Special Collections require at least 2 working days' notice to retrieve from the collection.

Visit Special Collections

Collection hierarchy 

What is an archive hierarchy?

Catalogues of archives are usually arranged in hierarchies - one hierarchy for each collection in the archive. The details on display will be of a record at a particular level of the hierarchy. There may be other records above, below, or alongside this record in the same hierarchy. The full hierarchy is shown below.

Learn more about archive hierarchies

What is an archive hierarchy?

Books, manuscripts and archives in Special Collections are usually grouped together in collections. Catalogue records for individual objects link to a collection record, which show the object's context, and associated material.

You can see the full hierarchy under 'In this collection'.

Learn more about archive hierarchies

What is the Level?

Catalogues of archives are usually arranged in hierarchies - one hierarchy for each collection in the archive. The details on display will be of a record at a particular level of the hierarchy. There may be other records above, below, or alongside this record in the same hierarchy. You can see the full hierarchy under 'In this collection'.

Learn more about archive hierarchies

Collection hierarchy 

Contact us