THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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47 posts categorized "Early modern"

23 August 2017

Colin Tite: a tribute

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We were extremely sorry to hear of the recent death of Colin Tite. Colin was, without question, the greatest scholar ever to work on the history of the Cotton collection of manuscripts, housed here at the British Library. Over a number of years, Colin delivered the Library's Panizzi lectures (1993), compiled an invaluable record of the early modern history of the Cotton manuscripts, and wrote a number of insightful studies of individual volumes in the collection. But Colin was perhaps best known, for those fortunate enough to encounter him at work in our Manuscripts Reading Room, as the most generous of all men, generous with his time, generous with his support, and generous with sharing his knowledge.

Colin Tite's research had as its primary focus the formation of the Cotton library in the late 16th and early 17th century. His Panizzi lectures dealt with that subject in three stages: (1) The Development of the Manuscript Collection, 1588–1753; (2) Librarians and Aspiring Librarians; and (3) Cotton House and the Reputation of Sir Robert. His investigations were always meticulous, based on first-hand scrutiny of the early, handwritten catalogues of the Cotton library, on the papers of Sir Robert Cotton and his contemporaries, and on the later plans for housing the manuscripts. He argued persuasively that Robert Cotton, an antiquary and Member of Parliament, was the first 'librarian' of his own collection; and he uncovered little-known nuggets about those who used (and abused) the manuscripts. The story of Humfrey Wanley's interest in the library is recounted in these lectures, including the infamous reaction by Thomas Smith, the then Cotton librarian, to Wanley's request to borrow the Augustus charters (among them, perhaps, one of the original copies of Magna Carta, 1215): 'the mountaine cannot come to Mahomet, Mahomet must condescend to go to the mountaine'. Colin Tite then moved on to completing his seminal survey of the early modern formation, cataloguing and use of the Cotton collection (The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library, 2003), before devoting his attention to locating Cotton's surviving printed books.

In tribute to Colin Tite, we publish here a selection of images from some of the Cotton manuscripts which meant so much to him. Everyone who works on the Cotton collection is deeply indebted to Colin's work, and we remember him with the deepest gratitude.

Cotton

Portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (d. 1661)

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An original Cottonian binding, 17th century: Cotton MS Domitian A VII

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A Cottonian binding instruction: Cotton MS Caligula A VII, f. 1r

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 A preparatory sketch for a Cottonian title-page: Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII/1, f. 2r

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 A fire-damaged Cottonian title-page, from the Beowulf manuscript, 17th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 2r

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The opening page of Matthew Paris's Liber Additamentorum, with Sir Robert Cotton's signature in the lower margin: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 2r 

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A letter of Sir Edward Dering, 30 May 1630, sending an original manuscript of Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143

 

Colin G. C. Tite: A Select Bibliography

‘The early catalogues of the Cottonian library’, The British Library Journal, 6, (1980), 144–157

Thomas Smith, Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum Bibliothecæ Cottonianæ (Oxford, 1696): facsimile edited by C. G. C. Tite, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Cottonian Library, 1696 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1984)

‘A catalogue of Sir Robert Cotton’s printed books?’, The British Library Journal, 17 (1991), 1–11

‘Sir Robert Cotton and the gold mancus of Pendraed’, The Numismatic Chronicle, 152 (1992), 177–81

[with James P. Carley] ‘Sir Robert Cotton as collector of manuscripts and the question of dismemberment: British Library MSS Royal 13 D. I and Cotton Otho D. VIII’, The Library, 14 (1992), 94–99

The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton, The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London: The British Library, 1994)

‘“Lost or stolen or strayed”: a survey of manuscripts formerly in the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London: The British Library, 1997), pp. 262–306

[with James P. Carley] Books and Collectors 1200-1700: Essays presented to Andrew Watson (London: The British Library, 1997)

The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: The British Library, 2003)

'The Durham Liber Vitae and Sir Robert Cotton', in David Rollason et al. (eds.), The Durham Liber Vitae and its Context (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 3–15

‘The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal’, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (eds.), Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections (London: The British Library, 2009), pp. 43–75

'The printed books of the Cotton family and their dispersal: additions', Electronic British Library Journal (2011), article 15

 

 

Julian Harrison

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27 June 2017

Curator, Early Modern Collections

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The British Library is recruiting for a Curator of Early Modern Collections. This is a full time, fixed term position, for six months. Full details of the post and how to apply can be found here.

As Curator of Early Modern Collections, you will assist lead curators in the Department of Western Heritage Collections with preparations for an exhibition on 16th-century British History to be held at the British Library in 2020–21. You will also use your specialist knowledge to catalogue early modern manuscripts and will help to interpret and present the Library’s early modern collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users.

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Detail from Elizabeth I’s autograph speech dissolving Parliament, in which she rebukes ministers for their unwelcome ‘lip-laboured orations’ on the matter of her marriage and succession, January 1567: British Library Cotton Charter IV. 38 (2)

With a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in 16th-century British history, you will have research experience using early modern manuscripts and printed books and a personal area of expertise relevant to the British Library’s collection. Strong palaeographical skills, excellent written and oral communication skills in English and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

The deadline for applications is 11 July 2017, and interviews will be held on 20 July  2017.

Curator, Early Modern Collections (reference COL1309)

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The first page of William Cecil’s paper on ‘Things to be considered upon the Scottish Queen coming into England’, May 1568: British Library Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 97.

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14 June 2017

Written in the stars

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Have you ever read a pop-up book or a book with moving parts? Today, such books are usually associated with children, but a rather fiendishly complicated example has just been digitised by the British Library. This is a set of volvelles (moving paper or parchment wheels) and a parchment astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, the first officially appointed lecturer in mathematics in England.

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A volvelle and a tulip-rete astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, 1597, Add MS 71495 

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An astrolabe and a volvelle, London, 1590s, Add MS 71494

Astrolabes are used to measure the position of celestial bodies in the night sky. The best known examples are often made out of metal, but these parchment ones also work. Their latitude suggests that it was designed to be used just south of London. The ‘tulip’-shaped cutouts of the most elaborate astrolabe note the position of no fewer than 190 fixed stars. Astrolabes can be used for navigation, but the texts associated with these  astrolabes and volvelles texts show that they were primarily concerned with astrology. The text revealed by the astrolabe pertains to the 12 ‘houses’ of the zodiac. The positions of stars was used to predict the outcomes of illness and other such events. For example, the ‘fifth house’ is associated with good fortune for Venus but bad fortune for Mars.

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‘Thomas Hood made this, 1597’, Add MS 71495 

We know who made at least one of the astrolabes because he signed his name: Thomas Hood. Hood had trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and been granted a licence to practise medicine by the university. Between 1588 and 1597, when the astrolabe was made, Hood was living in London, teaching and writing about mathematics. After the Spanish Armada of 1588, English leaders decided that their military and naval commanders needed to broaden their grasp of mathematics and navigation. Therefore, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Lumley invited Hood to become the first ‘Mathematical Lecturer to the City of London’. 

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Detail of Andromeda and other constellations, Add MS 71495, f. 2r

In his lectures, Hood emphasised that it was important for all different sorts of people to know maths. As well as teaching, he also designed new navigational instruments such as Jacob’s Staff and a Sector and wrote textbooks on globes and astronomy. However, it seems that Hood really wanted to be a doctor. Although he failed his first attempt to get a licence to practice medicine in London (apparently he didn’t know enough about Galen), he was eventually given a medical licence by the Royal College of Physicians in 1597. Hood then became a doctor in Worcester, where he and his wife Frances lived for the next 20 years.

Astrolabe dismantling
A conservator carefully works on the astrolabe before photography

Digitising the astrolabe was a laborious process, since the instruments were designed to move and to be read from all sorts of different angles. The writing behind each of the rotating devices was photographed, so that it can easily be read online, and each rotating wheel or ‘rete’ was also photographed separately. The assembled astrolabe was then photographed, as well. This required a great deal of patience, skill and cooperation from the British Library’s conservators and photographers. Let’s take a moment to thank to them for all their hard work.

Thomas Hood's volvelles and astrolabes can be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Add MS 71494 and Add MS 71495.

Alison Hudson

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28 May 2017

Guess whose handwriting

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A major part of the manuscript curator's job involves analysing the age of handwriting and, if possible, identifying its scribe. (Handwriting analysis, along with our love of filter coffee, is only one of the ways in which the British Library's curators resemble the hardbitten detectives from 1950s crime novels.) It is rare to be able to identify the name of a scribe, and even rarer that they are a well-known historical figure: it does sometimes happen, however, that surviving manuscripts allow us an insight into famous people's writing, book collecting and annotating habits. For this week's competition, therefore, can you guess who is the serial scribbler in the margins of these manuscript? Hint: don't let the promises of eternal love fool you! 

If you'd like to check if you have got the correct answer, just click on the links below. The annotator is listed in the 'Provenance' section of each manuscript. Alternatively, you can wait until we update this post with the answer.

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Detail of an annotation, from Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 59r

One of the volumes in which this person's writing appears in the margins is a Psalter. Their writing appears throughout the volume, commenting on the contents of Psalms and matters of faith. 

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Page from a Psalter, England (London), c. 1540–41, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 59r

Their writing also appears in the margins of this prayerbook. This time, however, they were not focusing on their devotions but composing a love letter. Writing to the prayerbook's owner, they said, 'If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. [Name redacted] forever' ('Si silon mon affection la sufvenance sera en voz prieres ne seray gers oblie car vostre suis [name redacted] a jammays.') 

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Later annotations in a Book of Hours which had been made c. 1500, Kings MS 9, f. 231v

____________

Answer:

...

...

...

...

...

Well done to everyone who guessed Henry VIII! He was indeed the annotator who made notes in the Psalter (known as the Psalter of Henry VIII) and who penned love letters in the margin of Anne Boleyn's prayerbook. One of the Psalter's opening images portrays the king holding a book. Elsewhere in the Psalter, Henry and his fool appear, with Henry being depicted as King David. 

Royal 2 A XVI f. 3
Miniature of Henry VIII reading, from the Psalter of Henry VIII, Royal MS 2 A XVI, England (London), c. 1540–41, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3r

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17 May 2017

Digging for the past at Norton Priory

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Despite the trail of desolation left by the dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales beginning in 1536, former monastic sites remain among the most beautiful places to visit in Britain. The Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, thought to be the most extensively excavated monastic site in Europe, has long been known for its spectacular grounds. In August 2016, the museum opened an entirely new building, adding a fascinating interpretation of the site that shows just how much we can understand about the past, even when it appears that little is left on the surface.

Plan of Norton Priory by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

Plan of Norton Priory, probably by Randle Holme: Harley MS 2073, f. 107r.

The dissolution of the monasteries in England and Wales was one of the most significant upheavals of British society — it is estimated that one in fifty adult males were in religious orders at the outset of the 16th century, and within a generation these people, their functions, and their lands had to be absorbed elsewhere. Nonetheless, the process of the dissolution is still little understood. Although it has often been thought to have been a decisive blow, executed purely out of the greed of King Henry VIII, the reality is somewhat more complicated and was the result of years of agitation. This is exemplified in a letter of Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, on loan from the British Library and now on temporary display at Norton Priory.

Sir Piers Dutton claimed descent from the same Dutton family that had been a supporter of the priory (and later abbey) since the 12th century, but sought to take control of Norton for his own purposes. The first Act for the Suppression of the Monasteries applied only to houses worth £200 or less, under which Norton fell. It seems unlikely that this could have occurred without falsification of documentary evidence, which Sir Piers could have accomplished as a royal commissioner for Cheshire.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August 1536: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

Letter from Piers Dutton to Thomas Cromwell, 3 August [1535?]: Harley MS 604, f. 60r.

The chronology of the letter has been debated, as Dutton only gives the date as 3 August: it was first published as being from 1534, but has been proposed to be from 1535 or even 1536. Certainly, when it was written, the closure of Norton was not yet finalized. It has recently been emphasized that the initial Act of 1536 should be read as aiming at the reform of the monastic system, and not its total destruction.

Sir Piers writes to Cromwell that he has arrested the abbot of Norton, Thomas Birkenhead, and other canons, though he does not explain why. It may relate to his attempt in 1535 to accuse the abbot of counterfeiting money. Meddling with Norton is not enough: he also seeks to put forward Dom ‘Rondull Wilmyslow’ (or Randulph Wilmeslowe) as abbot of Vale Royal, a Cistercian monastery, after the death of its abbot in 1534 or 1535:

Please it \your/ gud mastership my duetie remember this to aduertise you that I haue taken the bodies of thabbot of Norton Robert Jannyns and the straunger a connyng Smythe two of the seid abbottes seruantes also Randull brereton baron of the kynges excheker of chestre and John hale of chestre merchuant and haue theym in my custody and kepyng⸝ And the rest I entende to haue as spedely as I can and to be with you with theym god wylling in all convenyent spede as I possiblie may. Moreouer I haue causet dan Rondull wilmyslow the moncke of the Valle royall to cum vp to you⸝ for whom I spake vnto your gud mastership whiche is a gud religious man dyscrete and wel groundet in lernyng and hathe many gud qualites most apte to be a master of a religious howse then any other moncke of that howse Wherfore it may \please/ your gud mastership to be his gud master toward his preferrement that he may be admitted master of the same And that I did promyse your mastership this seid Moncke will accomplishe accordyngly. Wherfore I beseche your mastership that this berer and the seid moncke may resorte vnto you from tyme to tyme to knowe youre pleasure therin ensuryng you what ye do for me or my frende all is your owne as knowithe our lord god who mercifully preserue you At dutton the iiide day of auguste By youres assured

                                                         Perus
                                                         Dutton K.

He did not achieve his aims: the abbot was cleared of charges, and John Harware (or Harwood) instead became the new abbot of Vale Royal. Sir Piers attempted to have Abbot Thomas executed at the dissolution of the priory, but eventually he became a secular priest, and like other monastics was paid off with a state pension. This letter is a glimpse into the complexity of the often undocumented machinations that surrounded abbeys leading up to their closure.

Norton Priory itself had a tumultuous few centuries ahead of it, but today makes a delightful visit. It is still graced by a splendid 14th-century statue of St Christopher, and the grounds cover nearly fifty acres. The gardens from the monastery and later residents are now kept in top condition. Its new museum is truly innovative, combining cutting-edge archaeological, historical, and even medical research, and presenting it in accessible terms to both young and advanced audiences. We very much hope that you are able to visit Norton Priory, and to see our wonderful document while it is on display until 1 August 2017.

Updated 30 May 2017 to reflect debates surrounding the dating of the letter; thanks to Dr Andrew Abram of Manchester Metropolitan University for pointing out references earlier omitted.

Andrew Dunning

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21 April 2017

Digitised Manuscripts hyperlinks Spring 2017

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From ancient papyri to a manuscript given by the future Queen Elizabeth I to King Henry VIII for New Year's Day, from books written entirely in gold to Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, there is a wealth of material on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. At the time of writing, you can view on Digitised Manuscripts no fewer than 1,783 manuscripts made in Europe before 1600, and more are being added all the time. For a full list of what is currently available, please see this file: Download PDF of Digitised MSS Spring 2017. This is also available in the form of a spreadsheet (although this format can not be downloaded on all web browsers): Download Spreadsheet of Digitised MSS Spring 2017 .

Cotton_ms_tiberius_a_iii_f002v
Image of St Æthelwold, King Edgar and St Dunstan, at the beginning of a copy of the Regularis Concordia, England (Canterbury?), mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 2v

If you are looking for something more specific, there are separate lists of Greek manuscripts, pre-1200 manuscripts digitised thanks to funding from the Polonsky Foundation and manuscripts written or owned in England before 1066.

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Image of the patron, Lord Lovell, and possibly the artist, John Siferwas, from the Lovell Lectionary, Southern England (Glastonbury?), c. 1400–1410, Harley MS 7026/1, f. 4v

If you'd like to know how to make the most of Digitised Manuscripts, we highly recommend this blogpost. Downloadable images of portions of our manuscripts can also be found on our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (which allows for searches by image content, origin, scribe, etc) and on the British Library's Collection Items pages, which includes the only known playscript to contain William Shakespeare's handwriting and the burnt copy of Magna Carta

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The Anastasis, from the Melisende Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), c. 1131–1140, Egerton MS 1139, f. 9v  

Please follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, to get the latest news about our digitisation projects, exhibitions and events. 

11 April 2017

Scandal, espionage, treason: discover Renaissance writers

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Which Renaissance playwright killed an actor in a duel? Which Tudor poet narrowly escaped the executioner's block for an alleged affair with Anne Boleyn? Which 17th-century writer was reputedly a 'great visitor of ladies'?

You can find answers to these and other questions on the new Renaissance module of the British Library’s Discovering Literature site. From espionage and imprisonment to a secret marriage and an untimely death, the site allows you to uncover the colourful lives and works of key poets and playwrights including John DonneBen JonsonChristopher Marlowe and John Webster.

On the site you can find out more about the scandalous life and ignoble death of Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593). Marlowe wrote seven plays and three poems in a brief period in his 20s, before he was killed in a brawl, on 30 May 1593, at the age of 29. Earlier that month, Marlowe had been arrested and charged with heresy. The case against him was supported by the testimony of the double agent and informer, Richard Baines. You can see the document in which Baines makes damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love for ‘Tobacco & Boies [boys]’. (Those words are visible in the 4th line of the image below.)

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Richard Baines' accusations against Marlowe, Harley MS 6848, f. 185v

Also on the site, you can read about a manuscript notebook compiled by Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618) during his imprisonment for treason in the Tower of London. In July 1603 Ralegh was arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot against the new king, James I (r. 1603–1625). He would spend 13 years in incarceration, during which time he wrote several prose works, including the History of the World (1614), and this notebook  contains his research for that work. On the final page is one of Ralegh's poems, written in his own hand, which has been identified as one of the ‘Cynthia poems’, in praise of Queen Elizabeth I. His fortunes had taken a turn for the worse since the accession of James I, so the poem of praise addressed to the now-dead queen is an intriguing addition to the notebook's final pages.

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The last page of Raleigh’s notebook, containing one of the Cynthia poems, ‘Now we have present made’ which he addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Add. MS 57555, f. 172v

Another writer whose life and work you can discover more about is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542). Wyatt was a diplomat, courtier, poet and possibly a murderer. The opening lines of one of his poems reads, 'What wourde is that that chaungeth not/Though it be tourned and made in twain?'. The lines mean, ‘what word is there that does not change, even when it is turned and cut in half?’ Wyatt’s point is about how words can be turned and changed easily. He knew this better than many. In May 1534 he was imprisoned after a fight he was involved in resulted in the death of one of the sergeants of London. The circumstances of the fight are unclear and we can only speculate on what words were said — or turned — to lead to the death of a man.

Wyatt spent his adult life in the court of Henry VIII. This was an environment of intrigue and danger, where words could turn, and turn against you. On 5 May 1536, he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on charges of treason. There were rumours that he had had an affair with Anne Boleyn. On the 17th of that month, Anne’s supposed lovers were executed at the Tower. Wyatt may have seen their deaths from his cell window. In the end, he escaped their fate and was released from the Tower.

 There are several manuscripts containing Wyatt's poems which survive, but the British Library holds arguably the most important one, Egerton MS 2711, which contains around 100 of his poems. This is the key manuscript because some of the poems are written in Wyatt’s own hand and he has gone through the manuscript, marking the poems which are his and making changes. In one poem he makes reference to 'her that did set our country in a rore', which some scholars have interpreted as a reference to Anne Boleyn. Intriguingly, however, the line has been revised in Wyatt's hand so that the lines seem to refer to a generic brunette. The altered line reads, 'Brunet that set my welth in such a rore'.  

 

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Wyatt’s translation of one of the poems which intersperses the sonnets in Petrarch’s ‘Canzionere’,  Egerton MS 2711, f. 67

Another writer who was also imprisoned more than once in his lifetime was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. In September 1598 Jonson killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He only escaped being hanged by reciting Psalm 51 (colloquially known as ‘neck verse’), a loophole in the law available to anyone who could read. In 1605 he was imprisoned again, this time for contributing to the comedy Eastward Ho, which was deemed offensively anti-Scottish by the new king, James I (James VI of Scotland). Jonson wrote that he feared execution yet again and recounts a story of his mother preparing poison for him to make his death less painful.

Jonson was released and returned to royal favour, writing entertainments for the monarch, including the Masque of Queenes, written in 1609 and performed at Whitehall Palace in honour of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594–1612), the king's eldest son.

 

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Page from the autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queenes’, executed in a stylish Italian cursive hand, Royal MS 18 A XLV, f. 3v

Manuscripts like these are a window into the literary culture of Renaissance England. This was an environment in which poems often circulated in manuscript form rather than being printed. On the Discovering Literature site you can find out more about the enigmatic Devonshire Manuscript, compiled by various noblemen and ladies in the Court circle of Henry VIII and the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and the literary activities of 16th-century women.

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The first two stanzas of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s poem ‘O, happy dames’ inscribed by his sister Mary, Duchess of Richmond, Add. MS 17492, f. 55

Another poet whose poetry was circulated in manuscript form was John Donne (1572–1631). Donne was famous in his own day for his sermons, which are rhetorical masterpieces largely written when he was Dean of Saint Paul's in London. Today he is more famous as a poet who wrote complex, cryptic and often erotic verse. In his youth, Donne had a reputation as a womaniser. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was 'a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses'. When he did marry at the age of 29, it was in secret. In 1601 he wed the niece of his employer, Sir Thomas Egerton. Egerton was horrified that one of his juniors had presumed to marry into his own family. Donne was sacked and briefly imprisoned, before he was barred from public office altogether.

On the site you can find articles about Donne and his work, including material about The Newcastle Manuscript, an anthology of verse and prose made for Sir William Cavendish (1592–1676), the first Duke of Newcastle. It includes 98 poems by John Donne and masques and poems by Ben Jonson.  

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Copy of John Donne’s poem ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’, Harley MS 4955, f. 95v

While these manuscripts tell us about the kind of literature that people were reading and copying, we also have links to the only known copy of William Scott’s (c. 1570–1612) The Modell of Poesye. Written in the summer of 1599, it is one of the earliest examples of English literary criticism. It has much to tell us about what people thought about literature itself in this period.  

 

The-modell-of-poesye-c13599-02

Scott's dedicatory letter to Sir Henry Lee, introducing his treatise on the art of poetry, Add. MS 81083, f. 2

The Renaissance module is the latest phase to be added to Discovering Literature, which will continue to expand in the near future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day.

Mary Wellesley & Andrea Clarke

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16 November 2016

‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’

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On 15 November 2016, Sky Arts aired the latest episode of ‘Treasures of the British Library’, with poet Benjamin Zephaniah. This is one of the books he chose.

At Wymondham, Norfolk, a multi-day play was performed annually during the Middle Ages, commemorating the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Although the play was banned by King Henry VIII (1509–47) when he broke with Rome, it was revived on 6–8 July 1549. The suppression of their cultural and spiritual lives exacerbated the audience's unrest, since their livelihoods had been threatened by ‘enclosure’, a process of fencing in common land by landowners to transform it into private property. The loss of commons made small farming unsustainable.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Benjamin Zephaniah at the British Library.

The performance of this play in 1549 turned into a uprising, and the crowds began tearing down the hedges that enclosed the land. Robert Kett, one of the landowners originally targetted, became leader of the cause, helping to tear down his own fences. Kett led a march to Norwich, and set up camp in the open space of Mousehold Heath, just outside the city walls. It grew quickly, with accounts estimating that it numbered as many as 16,000 people. This was one of many similar camps across the country.

Kett drew up a list of twenty-nine demands to present to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, then Lord Protector of England (for the minor King Edward VI). The demands were also signed by Thomas Codd, mayor of Norwich, who had a reputation as a moderate, as well as the past mayor, Thomas Aldrich. A simple plea ‘that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more’ heads the list, but this was not the rebels' only concern, which extended to improving education and reducing corruption. The movement was nonetheless suppressed and Robert Kett was hanged for treason on 7 December 1549; but the Mousehold manifesto endures as a witness to this attempt to propose reasonable solutions to deep-seated problems in society.

We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

‘We pray your grace that no lord of no manor shall common upon the commons’: Harley MS 304, f. 75v.

The document in question is preserved in a small bundle of worn paper, folded probably to be delivered by a messenger, now British Library Harley MS 304, ff. 75r–78v. It opens with a list of the names of hundreds and their representatives in Norfolk, Suffolk and the city of Norwich, and the signatures at the end appear to be autographs.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The signature of Robert Kett: Harley MS 304, f. 77r.

The document is given the title ‘Keates demaundes beinge in Rebellyon’ (on the final page, f. 78v). Corrections by the scribe show revisions still being made as the sheets were written out from another copy.

There are errors in all published versions of Kett’s demands; the edition below has been corrected against the original manuscript, using the original spelling. Sections of the text whose reading is unclear due to damage are written in square brackets, while corrections are in angle brackets; these draw on earlier published versions of the text (see the bibliography below). Each of the demands is set out in paragraphs as below, but the numbering is editorial.

The Text

  1. |f. 75v| We pray your grace that where it is enacted for Inclosyng that it be not hurtfull to suche as haue enclosed saffren groundes for they be gretly chargeablye to them and that ffrome hensforth noman shall enclose eny more.
  2. We certifie your grace that where as the lordes of ther manours hath byn byn Charged with certen ffre rent the same lordes hath sought meanes to charge ther ffreholders to pay the same rent contrarye to right.
  3. We pray your grace that no lord of no mannor shall comon uppon the Comons.
  4. We pray that prestes frome hensforth shall purchase no londes neyther ffre nor Bond and the londes that they haue in possession may be letten to temporall men as they haue byn wer in the ffyrst yere of the reign of kyng henry the vijth.
  5. We pray that Rede ground and medowe grounde may be at suche price as they wer in the first yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  6. We pray that all marshysshe that ar holden of the kynges maiestie by ffre rent or of eny other may be ageyn at the price that they wer In the ffirst yere of kyng henry the vijth.
  7. We pray that all Busshelles within your realme be of one stice that is to sey to be in mesure viij gallons.
  8. |f. 76r| [W]e pray that [any prest] or vicars that be nat able to preche and sett forth the woorde of god to hys parissheners may be clerely putt from hys benyfice and the parissheners there to chose an other or elles the pateron or lord of the towne.
  9. We pray that the paymentes of castillward rent and blanche fferme and office landes whiche hath byn accostomed to be gathered of the tenamentes where as we suppose the lordes ought to pay the same to ther balyffes for ther rentes gatheryng and not the tenantes.
  10. We p⟨r⟩ay that noman vnder the degre of a knyght or esquyer kepe a dowe howse except it hath byn of an ould anchyent costome.
  11. We pray that all ffreholders and copieholders may take \the/ profightes of all comons and ther lordes to comon and the lordes not to comon nor take profightes of the same.
  12. We pray that no ffeodarye within your sheres shalbe a counceller to eny man in his office makyng wherby the kyng may be trulye serued so that a man beeng of good consyence may be yerely chosyn to the same office by the comons of the same sheyre.
  13. We pray that copie your grace to take all libertie of lete into your owne handes wherby all men may quyetly enioye ther comons with all profightes.
  14. We pray that copiehould londes that is onresonable rented may go as it dyd in the ffirst yere of kyng her henry the vij and that at the deth of a tenante or of a sale the same landes to be charged with an esey ffyne as a capon or a resonable […]ss some of money for a remembraunce.
  15. |f. 76v| We pray that a prest sh[all be a chaplaine] nor no other officer to eny man of honor or wyrshypp but only to be resydent vppon ther benefices wherby ther paryssheners may be enstructed with the lawes of god.
  16. We pray thatt all bonde men may be made ffre for god made all ffre with his precious blode sheddyng.
  17. We pray that Ryvers may be ffre and comon to all men for ffysshyng and passage.
  18. We pray that no man shalbe put by your Eschetour and ffeodarie to ffynde eny office vnles he be holdeth of your grace in cheyff or capite aboue x li by yere.
  19. We pray that the pore mariners or ffyssheremen may haue the hole profightes of ther ffysshynges in this realme as purpres grampes whalles or eny grett ffysshe so it be not preiudiciall to your grace.
  20. We pray that euery propriatorie parson or vicar havyng a benifice of x li or more by yere shall eyther by themselues or by some other parson teche pore mens chyldren of ther parisshe the Boke called the p cathakysme and the prymer.
  21. We pray that it be not lawfull to the lordes of eny mannor to purchase londes frely and to lett them out ageyn by copie of court roll to ther gret advaunchement and to the vndoyng of your pore subiectes.
  22. We pray that no propriatorie parson or vicar in consideracon of advoydin[g] trobyll and sute bet⟨w⟩yn them and ther pore parisshners whiche they daly do procede and attempt shall from hensforth take for the full contentacon of all the tenthes which nowe they do receyue but viij d of the noble in the full discharge of all other tythes.
  23. |f. 77r| [We pray that no man] vnder the degre of es[quyer] shall kepe any conyes vpon any of his owne ffrehold or copiehold onles he pale them in so that it shall not be to the comons noysoyns.
  24. We pray that no person of what estate degre or condicion he be shall from hensforth sell the adwardshyp of eny chyld but that the same chyld if he lyf lyve to his full age shalbe at his owne chosyng concernyng his marriage the kynges wardes only except.
  25. We pray that no matter mannor of person havyng a mannor of his owne shall be non other lordes balyf but only his owne.
  26. Item We pray that no lord knyght nor gentleman shall haue or take in ferme any spirituall promocion.
  27. We pray your grace to gyve lycens and aucthorite by your gracious comyssion under your grett seall to suche comyssioners as your pore comons hath chosyn or to as many of them as your maiestie and your counsell shall apoynt and thynke mete for to redresse and refourme all suche good lawes statutes proclamacions and all other your procedynges whiche hath byn hydden by your Justices of your peace Shreues Escheatores and other your officers from your pore comons synes the ffirst yere of \the reign of/ your noble grandfather kyng henry the seventh.
  28. We pray that those your officers which \that/ hath offended your grace and your comons and so provid by the compleynt of your pore comons do gyue onto those pore men so assembled iiij d euery day so long as they \haue/ remayned ther.
  29. We pray that no lorde knyght esquyer nor gentleman do grase nor fede eny bullockes or shepe if he may spende fforty pou[nds] a yere by his landes but only for the provicion of his howse.

By me Rob’t Kett           Thomas Cod

By me Thomas Aldryche

Further Reading

Fletcher, Anthony, and Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Robert Kett and the “rebellions of Commonwealth”’, in Tudor Rebellions, 6th edn (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 66–89.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, ‘Kett’s Rebellion in Context’, Past & Present, 84 (1979), 36–59, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/84.1.36.

Russell, Frederic William, Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk (London: Longmans, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1859), pp. 48–56 [text with commentary].

Andrew Dunning
@BLMedieval/@anjdunning