Who was the Good Lady Meux?

By Professor Richard Pankhurst
Dec. 07 2010

Ethiopian ecclesiastical manuscripts, dear reader, have long exercised an immense fascination in the West. Many Europeans were much taken by the strength of the Ethiopian parchment, the pure jet black of the Ge’ez writing and the beauty of the Byzantine-style illustrations, as well as by the manuscripts’ well-executed wooden covers and their attractively tooled brown leather bindings.

Interest in such manuscripts and their illustrations and bindings increased greatly as a result of the British looting of Emperor Tewodros’s mountain fortress of Maqdala, in 1868, when that Emperor’s Palace, Treasury and Church of Medhane Alam were virtually all stripped of the entirety of their possessions. Tewodros had built up a collection, of around one thousand manuscript volumes. Almost half of these were taken to Britain, while the remainder were doled out to churches or individuals the British wished to favour.

The largest collection of manuscripts were transported from Maqdala to the Dalanta plain for a two-day auction. They were carried on fifteen elephants and no fewer than two hundred mules.

The largest private collection of Maqdala manuscripts (other than that acquired by Queen Victoria) came into the possession of a beautiful British woman – and society hostess: Valorie Susie Bruce, Lady Meux of Theobold’s Park. She was the wife of the prominent British brewer of that name. She was a keen collector of Ethiopian manuscripts.
The manuscripts in question had been purchased at the Maqdala auction by a British officer, who duly disposed of them to the renowned London antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch. The latter duly offered them to Lady Meux.

Deeply interested in this offer Lady Meux immediately telegraphed to Sir Wallis Budge, the British Museum (later British Library) expert on Ethiopian manuscripts , asking for details about the proposed sale.

Budge responded by sending her detailed description of the manuscripts on sale.

“The oldest of them”, he wrote, “was a small 4to volume containing a Life of Hanna, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary; it was illustrated with archaic pictures of Hanna and her husband Joachim, the Birth of the Virgin, etc. and was written in the XVth century. It was and still is the only copy of the Life of Hanna in Ethiopic known to me. Two of the [other] manuscripts were large handsome volumes about 16 inches square, and each containing a good selection of the Miracles of the Virgin Mary, illustrated with many full-page pictures painted in bright colours which were intended to illustrate the texts of the Miracles. The older of these MSS was written in the XVIth century and the other a century later; each had been made for the use of a royal personage. Another manuscript contained the Life of Maba’a Seyon, a comparatively modern Ethiopian saint, and the Life of Gabra Krestos, a
prince who abandoned his royal state and home and parents, and became a mendicant monk. These Lives are illustrated by a large series of coloured pictures, which are of special interest as they portray events in the daily life of the modern Abbyssinians”.

Budge was himself so thrilled with this collection of manuscripts that he wanted to purchase it for the Museum – but he could not raise the sum required by the good Mr Quaritch.

The five manuscripts, together with a few smaller ones of lesser importance, thus came into the possession of Lady Meux, who felt they should be widely known. To that end she had facsimile copies of four manuscripts published, with colour reproductions. They appeared as The Lives of Maba Seyon and Gabra Krestos, with ninety-two coloured illustrations, in 1898; and The Miracles of the Virgin Mary and the Life of Hanna, containing over a hundred illustrations, two years later.

Emperor Menilek was much pleased with this initiative, so when Lady Meux sent him copies of the two reprints he at once wrote back to her in England, saying: “because it is very well done I send you this letter and my seal”.

Menilek’s Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen (father of the subsequent Emperor Haile Selassie) was also pleased with the reproduction. Arriving in London with three archbishops in 1902 to attend the Coronation of King Edward VII he visited Lady Meux’s residence at Theobald’s Park. According to The Times, on seeing the Miracles of the Virgin Mary he “knelt down and prayed… Then he burst into tears. Never, he said, had he seen any such beautiful manuscripts in the country he and they had come from, and he would ask the Emperor to bring them back”.

Later that day Makonnen’s secretary approached Dr. Budge, and offered him “a handsome bribe” if he would persuade the owner to sell.
But in vain!

And what of the beautiful Lady Meux?

She was, we can say, no friend of the looters of manuscripts. The Times quotes her saying, quite frankly, if sarcastically:

“What a beautiful thing it is for your horrid people to go about the world stealing these books! What is the use of them? [to you]”.

Her opposition to looting is no less apparent from her Will, dated 23 June 1910. In it she unambiguously bequeathed all her Ethiopian manuscripts to Emperor Menilek. The Times reported that before her death she had informed Menilek’s people of her intention of doing so. Lady Meux reckoned, however, without the British establishment!

No sooner had The Times heard of the Will than it launched a campaign against it.

Lady Meux died on 20 December 1910, whereupon her Will was read – and encountered immediate opposition. The Times of 7 February 1911 reported that “Many persons interested in Oriental Christianity will view with extreme regret the decision of Lady Meux to send her valuable MSS once and for all out of the country”.

The manuscripts were valuable – therefore, The Times reasoned, they should be retained in Britain and not be returned to the country to which they belonged and from which they were looted!

The Will was clear and unambiguous – so it had to be overthrown. This was done by stating in Court that Menilek was dead – which was untrue. He did not in fact die for over two years (until December 1913), and in any case he had an appointed heir – but the manuscripts were “valuable”, as The Times put it, and could not be allowed out of the country – even if they belonged elsewhere.

So we may be entitled to ask: Was it better for Ethiopia to be robbed at Maqdala, in the late 19th century, or defrauded by a British Court of Law in the early 20th century?

Perhaps not much difference you may say – but the battle of Maqdala was accompanied by mass slaughter of Ethiopian warriors, whereas the decision of law court, though apparently highly questionable, involved no bloodshed.

Property, declared Proudhon, is theft. You may say Tut, Tut, dear Reader, but the present whereabouts of the Lady Meux manuscripts – in the British Library in London and in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin – is known; and one wonders who will be the first to repatriate what was wrongly acquired.