Thomas Hobbes was one of the great political thinkers and philosophers of modern history. Born in Westport in north Wiltshire, the son of a county clergyman (who was later excommunicated), he was taught Latin and Greek at an early age and sent to study at Magdalen Hall, Oxford aged 13 or 14. At university he shunned Aristotle and longed to study the sciences, read about the exploits of explorers and discover the secrets of astronomy.[i]

In a series of events that must leave today’s graduates somewhat envious, Hobbes was hired almost straight out of university by William Cavendish (future first Earl of Devonshire), to tutor his son. This established a life-long connection between Hobbes and the Cavendish family. He became close friends with the second Earl (accompanying him on a tour of France and Italy in 1614-15) and then acted as tutor and friend to the third Earl who was 29 years his junior. In his role as tutor, Hobbes was also given responsibility for the library at Hardwick Hall and there exists in the archives at Chatsworth a catalogue of this collection in his hand dating from the late 1620s (with additions in the 1630s).


A page from the Hobbes catalogue, ca. 1628. Note the reference to Calvini Institut. at shelfmark G.2.5.

Hobbes’s intellectual life flourished in the 1630s as he befriended the Earl of Newcastle and his brother, the mathematician Sir Charles Cavendish. In 1634 Hobbes and the third Earl of Devonshire went on a two year tour of France and Italy and upon their return, he was able to devote more time to philosophical and scientific researches. In the 1640s he began to publish his ideas on political philosophy that earned him lasting fame. Even if his understanding of human nature and arguments for the unlimited power of the sovereign are at odds with modern conceptions of liberal, democratic society and separation of powers, The Elements of Law (1641) and De Cive (1642) earned him a continental reputation upon their publication.[ii]

Hobbes lived and worked in Paris for much of the 1840s and wrote his masterpiece, Leviathan (1651), in which he examined the nature of sovereign power and the (limited) rights of subjects to oppose it. His hostile attitude to religion’s influence over politics lost him the support of the exiled English royalists in France leading him to return across the Channel to the employ of the third Earl of Devonshire. He spent the rest of his days defending his writings against critics and keeping up an exhausting regiment of writing and translation, made all the more remarkable given the onset of what was probably Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1679, aged 91 years of age.
What is particularly interesting for the scholar of Hobbes at Chatsworth, apart from the manuscript copies of his works and collection of his correspondence,[iii]is the question of which works were purchased by the Earls of Devonshire under his influence and whether or not they remain here today, the collection at Hardwick having been moved here in the nineteenth century. Part of my role as research assistant has been to find some of these books and establish their provenance. Without going into too much detail, this has been made much easier by the existence of the aforementioned catalogue written by Hobbes. However, upon examination, the titles are in a kind of shorthand that does not allow for immediate identification and when a possible title is found in the library as it exists today, the shelfmark given by Hobbes does not match that listed in the physical book! This state of affairs threatened to leave the mystery of Hobbes’s library unsolved; however, there exists another catalogue of the books which were held at Hardwick Hall. Written by James Wheldon, an employee of the Cavendish family, around 1657, this manuscript is an expanded version of Hobbes’s original (the additional titles presumably are those acquired in the intervening 30 year period) and crucially the shelfmarks listed by Wheldon are identical to those found in the books that still remain in the library at Chatsworth. Therefore, it is now possible to identify the works that have been in the Cavendish family since the time of the first Earl, some 400 years ago.

A page from the Wheldon catalogue, ca. 1657. Note the reference to Calvini Institutionis Epitome at shelfmark a.3.8.



And here is the work at Chatsworth today: John Calvin’s, Institutionis Christianae religionis a Ioanne Calvino conscriptae, Epitome (London, 1583). It still carries Wheldon’s shelfmark in the top right-hand corner of the title page proving that it has been in the possession of the Cavendish family for at least 385 years!



[i] Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (2002), p. 4.
[ii]Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (2008), p. 551.
[iii] Noel Malcolm, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Hobbes, 2 vols (1994)

Latest news

Book tickets Read more articles
Stay in touch with Chatsworth

Newsletter sign-up

Never miss a thing. Stay up to date with our latest news, offers and events by entering your details below: