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St Mary's, Redcliff, Rowley chests

St Mary's, Redcliff, Rowley chests

Artist: Grimm, Samuel Hieronymus

Medium: Ink wash on paper

Date: 1788

Shelfmark: Additional MS 15540

Item number: f.153

Length: 189

Width: 268

Scale: Millimetres

Genre: Manuscript

These three boxes in the north tower of St Mary's Church at Redcliff are said to have contained the manuscripts of Thomas Rowley, forged by Thomas Chatterton, poet and forger (1752-1770). He found the chests containing historical documents written on old parchment paper at the church where his uncle was Sexton. Thomas began to write poems on these scraps of parchment and then claimed to have discovered lost poetry of a 15th-century monk and poet, Thomas Rowley.

Encouraged by local scholars' belief in the authenticity of these manuscripts, Thomas became increasingly ambitous to promote his fraudulent literature. He approached the popular author Horace Walpole to become his patron. Walpole, eventually not convinced by the young boy's claims, dismissed the works as forgeries and denounced Chatterton in the process.

Thomas soon became severely depressed and committed suicide by drinking poison. He was still only seventeen. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that the literary world unanimously dismissed these papers as forgeries, and the existence of the monk Rowley as entirely fictitious.

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