Alice Thornton's Books: Remembrances of a Woman's Life in the Seventeenth Century

The autobiographical writings of Alice Wandesford Thornton (1626-1707) were recently rediscovered by Dr Cordelia Beattie in Durham Cathedral.

HCA Alice Thornton manuscript Durham Cathedral
Alice Thornton's manuscript, Durham Cathedral

While by no means the only 17th-century woman to write her own life story, Alice Thornton is unusual in having written four different versions of her autobiography. Collectively, her books offer an extraordinarily rich insight into gentry life in 17th-century Yorkshire, at a tumultuous time of civil war and plague. Thornton’s writings discuss her childhood in Dublin, her return to Yorkshire during the civil war, her strong Church of England and royalist views, and the births of nine children (only three of whom made it to adulthood). 

Thornton’s books were first edited in 1875 for the Surtees Society and for many years this edition was the only reference, since the whereabouts of Thornton’s original manuscripts was unknown. In 2009, the British Library bought books one and three at auction. Then, in 2018-19, Professor Cordelia Beattie traced the other two manuscripts. In 2021 she was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to run a project to make these manuscripts publicly accessible in the form of a digital edition.

The Alice Thornton Books team has already launched a 100 page sample of their digital edition that is set to be released in full next year. For the first time, the digital edition will make all four of Thornton’s books available to read, compare and search. 

The Thornton’s Books team spent the latter part of 2023 engaging with audiences across Edinburgh and Durham, giving talks and meeting community groups. In October, a series of Thornton-themed events took place at Durham Cathedral, the project partner. ‘The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton’, a dramatization of Alice Thornton’s writing which was funded and developed through the project, was revised and performed in Durham after a sell-out first run at the Being Human Festival 2019. Audience reactions to the play, written and performed by Debbie Cannon (Green Knight, winner of Female Actor Award, Buxton Fringe 2018) and directed by Flavia D’Avila of Fronteiras Theatre Lab, were very enthusiastic. In November, the team held an event at Starbank Park in North Edinburgh, part of the Being Human Festival 2023. They also gave a talk for a local writers’ group, part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Citizen project. The writers had all written short pieces inspired by Alice Thornton, which third-year students from Edinburgh College of Art then illustrated. It is hoped that ‘The Remarkable Deliverances of Alice Thornton’ will have further runs. More community events and workshops are also planned.

In addition to the digital release, the staged dramatization of Thornton’s work, and community events, Alice Thornton’s Books have been collaborating with colleagues from across the humanities, preparing to publish a book that will highlight the wide-reaching relevance of Thornton’s material (forthcoming 2025). You can keep up to date with the Alice Thornton’s Books team on their website and social media channels.

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