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What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

13 October 2018

The last Anglo-Saxon kings

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This weekend marks two important anniversaries. 13 October is the feast-day of King Edward the Confessor, who ruled England from 1042 until his death in January 1066. His successor, King Harold II, was killed 952 years ago at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066. In the week that our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, opens at the British Library, here is some of the manuscript evidence for these last kings of Anglo-Saxon England.

Hastings is often cited as ‘the end of Anglo-Saxon England’. But how ‘English’ were these last Anglo-Saxon kings? Harold had a Norse name, and his parents were closely linked to King Cnut, who ruled England and Scandinavia; while Edward the Confessor spent most of his formative years in exile in Normandy.

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Seal of Edward the Confessor: LFC Ch XXI 5

Although Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, his saint’s day was eventually set for 13 October: the last day England was ruled by an ‘English’ king, as opposed to a Norman. (A handy tip: you can enter Westminster Abbey for free on this day, since Edward’s shrine is there.) But Edward had many close connections to Normandy. His parents were Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, the daughter of Richard I, duke of Normandy. During Edward’s childhood, England was repeatedly attacked by Scandinavian forces.When he was about 10, he fled to Normandy wih his mother, his brother Alfred and his sister Godgifu. After Æthelred died, Emma returned to England to marry the conquering King Cnut, but Edward and his siblings remained in Normandy, probably living with their relatives.

When King Cnut died in 1035, Alfred and Edward, now in his 30s, invaded England in order to claim the throne. They were probably supported by Norman forces and possibly encouraged by Emma. After being defeated, Edward escaped but Alfred was captured, blinded and killed by Cnut’s son, Harald Harefoot. Edward seems never to have forgiven his mother for marrying Cnut or for her role in their failed coup.

Harald Harefoot died in 1040 and Emma’s son by Cnut, Harthacnut, succeeded to the throne. Harthacnut and Emma had trouble retaining power, so Emma invited Edward to return from Normandy and rule as king alongside Harthacnut. Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast and died, and Edward was crowned as sole king of England in 1043, when he was around 40 years old. Up to that point, he had spent three-quarters of his life outside England.

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Portrait of Emma being presented with the Encomium Emmae Reginae, while Harthacnut and Edward look on, c. 1041: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

One of Edward’s first actions within a few months of becoming king was to deprive Emma of her property. He still had many Continental connections. His inner circle included his relative Ralph of Mantes, who stationed troops in England. Edward also promoted the interests of the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges, who was eventually made archbishop of Canterbury. He also promoted Leofric, a Cornishman educated in Liège, to be his bishop of St Germans and Crediton (Exeter). In 1051, Edward even hosted a visit from his cousin, William, duke of Normandy.

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The only record of William the Conqueror visiting England before the Conquest, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 74r

Another close advisor to Edward was his father-in-law, Earl Godwine. Godwine was an English noble, but he had risen through the ranks of Cnut’s regime and had married a Scandinavian woman. A sign of these connections is the Norse names he gave some of his sons: Swein (Sven), Tostig and Harold. While Harold may not have grown up outside England, he still travelled widely and his family relied on the support of Continental powers.

In 1051, after Earl Godwine had a dispute with Eustace of Boulogne and Edward's other Continental advisors, his family fled to Bruges. His sons travelled to Flanders and Scandinavia to raise a fleet to force Edward to allow them to return, and Harold travelled to Ireland, also seeking support. The family succeeded in being reinstated. Harold also travelled much further afield, to Flanders, the German lands and Rome, where he collected relics.

Further evidence of connections on both sides of the English Channel, even before the Norman Conquest, is that Harold had probably stayed at the court of William of Normandy. In 1064, two years before they faced off across the battlefield at Hastings, William and Harold may have even fought together during William’s campaigns in Brittany. Later Norman sources made much of this meeting, claiming that Harold swore on relics to allow William to succeed Edward as king of England. These claims seem slightly too convenient in light of the later Norman Conquest. However, The Life of King Edward commissioned by Harold’s sister mentioned that ‘Harold had a tendency to be too generous with his promises. Alas!’

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Opening page from the Vita Ædwardi Regis: Harley MS 526, f. 38r

Whatever happened between Harold and William, when Edward died in 1066, Harold was swiftly elected king by the English nobility, who claimed that Edward has nominated Harold on his deathbed. Harold’s 10-month reign was dominated by warfare, first with the Welsh kings and then with challengers for his own throne. England was attacked from the sea by the Scandinavian leader Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig. Harold defeated Harald Hardrada and Tostig was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English king then immediately marched South, since William of Normandy had landed on the coast and was devastating the surrounding countryside.

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Account of Harold Hardrada's and Tostig’s attacks, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 162v

On 13 October 1066, as Harold marched to confront William's invading forces, few could have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur when William won the Battle of Hastings. English government, the aristocracy, architecture and the English language would undergo radical change in the following decades. But some things did not change. English rulers, nobles and tradespeople had close links to the Continent before the Norman Conquest, and there was already cultural and artistic exchange between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider world.

You can discover more about these connections in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 October 2018

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the New York Historical Society

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Many of you will remember the British Library’s blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, which explored the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories. Our North American readers may be excited to know that, like the self-renewing phoenix on the poster, the exhibition has been born again in New York. The new exhibition is now open at the New-York Historical Society, featuring rare books and manuscripts on loan from the British Library.

Here’s a selection of magical manuscripts that you can see in the show. All of these should be on the reading list of any aspiring student of witchcraft and wizardry.

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An alchemist: Harley MS 3469, f. 4r

Harry Potter fans will know that the plot of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, centres on the use of alchemy. This beautifully illustrated manuscript, known as Splendor Solis (Splendour of the Sun), was made in Germany in 1582. This image shows an alchemist holding a flask filled with a golden liquid. A scroll fluttering from the flask bears the mystical inscription, ‘Eamus quesitum quatuor elementorum naturas’ (Let us ask the four elements of nature), which reflects the Classical idea that all earthly substances are made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Alchemists attempted to imitate the creative processes of nature to transform matter and even to restore life.

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A centaur with the plant centaury: Harley MS 5294, f. 22r

Students at Hogwarts School take classes in Herbology to learn about which plants are most useful for potions and medicine. The manuscript shown above is a 12th-century herbal, describing different kinds of plants and their medicinal properties. This page describes the plant centauria minor, the lesser centaury, named after the wise centaur Chiron from Greek mythology. In the picture, Chiron hands some centaury plants to his pupil and foster son Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. The inscription below the snake explains that, ground to a powder or mixed in wine, centaury is a potent remedy against snake bites.

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Harvesting a mandrake: Harley MS 3736, f. 59r

One of the most notorious plants listed in medieval herbals was the mandrake. The plant’s roots often resemble miniature humans, which were said to shriek when they were pulled out of the ground. According to ancient and medieval folklore, mandrakes could cure headaches, earaches, gout and insanity, but anyone who heard the mandrake’s scream would die. To harvest the mandrake without succumbing to its fatal shrieking, some herbals recommended a handy trick, as illustrated in this herbal made in the late 15th or early 16th century. You can read more about this process in our blogpost How to harvest a mandrake.

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A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

In the Harry Potter universe, witches and wizards learn about magical creatures by consulting the book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander. Medieval people learned about marvellous creatures by reading a bestiary, or book of beasts. This page in a 13th-century English bestiary describes and illustrates the phoenix. The text explains that this remarkable bird has the ability to resurrect itself in old age. It creates its own funeral pyre from branches and plants, then fans the flames with its own wings until it is consumed by the fire. After the ninth day, the phoenix rises again from the ashes.

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The constellation Canis Major: Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

The names of many characters in the Harry Potter books, such as Sirius Black and Draco Malfoy, were inspired by stars in the night sky. Medieval people also placed great importance on the stars, which they used for navigation, calculating dates and predicting the future. This 12th-century English manuscript contains a copy of Cicero’s Aratea, a Roman book about the stars. The page above shows the constellation Canis Major (the Greater Dog), in which is found Sirius, the 'dog star', the brightest star in the night sky.

The writing inside the dog’s body gives further information about the constellation, including its origin story from ancient Greek mythology. According to the tale, there was once a hound so swift that no prey could escape it, and also a fox so swift that it could never be caught. When the huntsman Cephalus sent the hound to catch the fox, it created such a paradox that the god Zeus had to turn them both to stone. Zeus then placed the hound in the sky where it became Canis Major.

To learn more about these manuscripts, please visit the Harry Potter exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, from 5 October 2018 until 27 January 2019. All the manuscripts described above are also featured on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. There are lots of other ways to learn more about Harry Potter: A History of Magic, including the exhibition book, television documentary and our own pages hosted by Google Arts and Culture.

 

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 October 2018

Jim Carter meets Bede

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The second series of the Sky Arts documentary Treasures of the British Library concludes tonight with an episode following Jim Carter, the actor, as he explores items in the British Library’s collections. Since childhood, Jim has been fascinated by the early history of the British Isles, and particularly the history of Roman Britain. Jim was eager to discover what Julius Caesar found when he landed in Britain, and how this period of Roman rule left its mark on the British landscape. 

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Jim Carter of Downton Abbey fame at the British Library

A fascinating resource for the history of Roman Britain is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede in 731. Although Bede was a scholar with many strings to his bow, the Ecclesiastical History is undoubtedly his most famous work, earning him the unofficial title the ‘Father of English History’. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is written in five books, beginning with an account of Roman Britain and ending with a summary of events in Bede’s own day.

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Late 12th-century image of a scribe, possibly representing Bede himself, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

During his visit to the British Library, Jim was able to view one of the earliest surviving copies of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This manuscript was copied in the first half of the 9th century in a southern English scriptorium, most likely Canterbury. The manuscript features a distinct style of insular interlace decoration, cleverly interwoven with the heads of small beasts, which is used to write the first letter of each of the five books in Bede’s narrative. This wonderfully decorated letter ‘B’ begins the opening passage of the whole text, Brittania Oceani insula ('Britain, an island of the Ocean').

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The beginning of Book I of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

The first book of the Ecclesiastical History begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar, and charts the successes and failures of the Roman campaigns in Britain. Bede vividly described the advancement of Caesar’s cavalry as they marched north. Upon reaching the River Thames, they encountered the sharp, wooden defensive stakes which the native Britons had laid into the riverbank. According to Bede, traces of these stakes were still visible in his own day, and he compared them to the thickness of a man’s thigh.

Bede also described the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Bede stated that the Wall was 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, and marvelled that it, too, was still standing in his own day. Bede’s knowledge may have been drawn from first-hand observation, since he was writing from his monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow, located a few miles from the Wall itself. The two Roman walls in the north of Britain would later be depicted in the map of Britain produced by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

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Matthew Paris’ map of Britain: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

When speaking of his visit to the British Library, Jim was amazed by what he had learned from the venerable Bede. This lavishly decorated copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History will be on display in the Library's forthcoming Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Visitors may be able to discover, just as Jim did, what Bede and this splendid manuscript can reveal about the early history of Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019, and you can book tickets here.

 

Becky Lawton

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval