Finding Mr. Jodrell: Lost for 235 years

Posted on
May 11, 2021

This post is written by Bill Cole, '70.

Recently, I began a process to show my appreciation to William & Mary, in a modest way, for my education and to give something back to the College as I approached the 50th anniversary of my graduation in 1970.

With the encouragement and support of Jay Gaidmore, Director of Special Collections, I began to research, seek, and acquire 17th- and 18th-century images of the 10 British chancellors of the College. Completing that task, I then expanded my search to include the rectors and the 75 or so men who were awarded honorary degrees from 1756 to 1859.

My particular interests were the awards made to Benjamin Franklin in 1756 and General Lafayette in 1824—the 200th anniversary of the Lafayette award will occur in 2024 and the 275th anniversary of the Franklin award will occur in 2031. I have already gotten the ball rolling to encourage the College to borrow the Lafayette award for display in the Wren Building on October 21, 2024. Franklin is next!

Both degrees were authorized by the “President and Masters” of the College, and the Latin texts for the presentation pieces were specified in the minutes, which survive in the University Archives.

I have no facility in Latin whatsoever, so the Latin text was Greek to me.

I spent many hours comparing the text for the minutes with the text on the actual presentation piece for Franklin. The Lafayette degree is held by the Chambrun Foundation in Paris, and I have seen neither the actual document nor a transcription, only the Latin preliminary version with which I have become familiar.

However, I became very familiar with the similar Latin words that appeared in both, as well as in others such as those for Thomas Jefferson and Bishop James Madison. I also recognized the order of the words in these declarations and with many other similarities among all I was able to find.

One day, I scrolled past page 314, the last numbered page of the 1754-dated minute book, and I noticed a document in Latin and, surprisingly, Greek, not preceded by minutes or within any other context before or after. As I looked over the document, I immediately recognized the text as a near match for the texts in the other honorary degrees I had been studying so assiduously. My eyes went to where the date should appear, and I saw February 6, 1786, written in Latin—Google translate can be very helpful sometimes. I then went to where the name of the recipient should have been and the name in Latin appeared—Richardum Paulum Jodrell. I had never heard of him, and his name had not appeared on any of the College's lists of recipients of honorary degrees. He was a complete mystery to me! The document was “signed by J.M. Pr,” who was soon-to-be Bishop James Madison, President of the College 1777-1812, and three professors, including George Wythe.

I checked for Jodrell's name on the College website, and the title of one book that he authored appeared, but that entry made no reference to any connection between the author and the College.

I Googled Richard Paul Jodrell and found that in 1786 he was a 41-year old British classical scholar and dramatist.  There was no mention of a connection between Jodrell and the College, Virginia, or the fledgling United States on this or any other website I found.

At this point, I wondered if Mr. Jodrell even knew that he'd been awarded this diploma!

Digging a bit deeper, I found a February 10, 1786 letter to Thomas Jefferson from George Wythe, professor of law at W&M and one of the names on the Jodrell degree, stating in part:

I also desired a copy of the book which i had seen in the hands of your friend M. I now beg an other favour of you: it is, that you will send a copy of the same book to Richard Paul Jodrell esq. F R S. Berners street, London. This liberty requires an apology. Will that it may begin a correspondence which i believe which i almost dare to say i know, will be pleasing to both parties, be allowed? It is the only apology which i can make; although i have a further reason for asking the favour, which is that such a present, at my request, would be a requital of that gentleman’s kindnesses to me. In truth, my dear sir, i have been so free in a letter as to mention you to him, and propose introducing him to your acquaintance.

The letter to Jefferson was written just a few months after the date on the degree, but no mention of it is noted in the letter. What “kindnesses” Jodrell performed for Wythe, or for the College for that matter, that elevated Mr. Jodrell to the level to be honored with the high approbation of an honorary degree from the esteemed College of William and Mary must have been great indeed! But, alas, they were unknown to me.

Upon checking with the British National Archives and our own National Archives I was able to acquire other correspondences to piece together more of the story, but major gaps still remained.

Jefferson followed through with Wythe's request and sent Jodrell a copy of Jefferson's own Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785. He confirmed his actions to Wythe in a letter dated August 13, 1786:

I availed myself of the first opportunity which occurred, by a gentleman going to England, of sending to Mr. Joddrel a copy of the Notes on our country, with a line informing him that it was you who had emboldened me to take that liberty.

Jefferson inscribed it “Mr. Wythe of Virginia has encouraged Mr. Jefferson to take the liberty of presenting a copy of these Notes to Mr. Joddrell Esq.”

I then explored and found this in an article in the September 16, 1786, London Public Advertiser:

The University of William and Mary, in Virginia, has by Diploma, dated the 6th of February last, unanimously conferred the degree of Master of Arts upon Richard Paul Jodrell, Esq.; author of the Illustrations on Euripides and the Persian Heroine...This is the first instance of any literary honour bestowed on any Englishman, unconnected with America, since the independence of the United States.

On February 28, 1787, Jodrell replied to Jefferson's after receipt of the book:

The Author of The Persian Heroine, having received from Mr. Jefferson Mr. Wythe’s book of Virginia, intreats his acceptance of the inclosed Tragedy.  

His tragic play entitled “The Persian Heroine,” had just been published in London in 1786.

Perhaps it was William Stephens Smith, husband of John Adams's daughter and secretary to the American Legation in London, who was the carrier of the book from Jefferson to Jodrell as well as Jodrell's gift to Jefferson, because he later wrote on May 19, 1787:

...I brought with me a small present of some books from Mr. Hollis and a Play wrote by Mr. Joddrell, which are at your Hotel...

Smith may also have delivered that message to the London paper with enough knowledge to state that no other Englishman had been awarded such a degree since American independence. But how did the reporter, Smith or whoever he was, know that this was a “literary” award? And was it really a “literary” award since neither this nor any of the other honorary degrees noted any particular “honor” as reason for the award?

Finally, on July 2, 1787, Jefferson apologized for his delay in thanking Jodrell, stating that he found the book:

...on his return from a journey of 3. or 4. months. Not having yet had a moment to look into a book of any kind he has still to come the pleasure of reading this, which he is persuaded from it’s reputation, and that of it’s author, will be great.

Wythe must have held Jodrell in high esteem to wish that he and his former student and now colleague would profit from a correspondence. There are no further letters between them that I am aware of, although Jodrell's brother indicated that letters could be sent by way of him in a letter of September 25, 1789.

In 1807, Jefferson inherited Wythe's library, which included a book Jefferson noted in the inventory as “Jodrell's Illustrations of Euripides on the Alcestis,” one of Jodrell’s three commentaries on the Greek playwright.

If Wythe thought so highly of Jodrell, why did he not have more than one of his books?

I thought that was the end of the story, and then I found another letter from Jodrell in 1815, 28 years after the date of the degree. Clearly, Jodrell had both confused and lost touch with his Virginia connections, because he mistakenly wrote a letter to President of the United States James Madison but intended for his acquaintance, Bishop James Madison, who had died in 1812.

In the letter, he introduced to Madison the grandson of John and Lucy Ludwell Paradise, a Williamsburg woman who lived in London. John had been acquainted with Jodrell, and the couple knew Madison who was there to be confirmed as bishop in 1790.

The end of the letter states that it was John Paradise who:

introduced me to the honor of your [Bishop Madison's] acquaintance, which led to that of the diploma of a degree in your University of Williamsburgh.

Unfortunately, “the mind of Mr. Jodrell had become obscured” by 1822, according to his obituary. He spent his last nine years at his home under constant legal care for the protection of his life and property. Despite the plethora of letters and documents, I still have so many questions remaining while I search for hitherto unseen documents that may shed light on this mystery.

The question I have is how could this man's honorary degree have escaped researchers in the past and no mention of him be made in any other College materials for 235 years?

I am now awaiting a translation of the Latin and Greek text of the degree, which may answer some of my many questions. Yet it's just as likely to produce more questions!