Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

25 November 2020

900 years since the White Ship disaster

900 years ago today a tragedy took place which would dramatically alter the course of British history. On the evening of the 25th November 1120, a recently renovated ship of the finest construction set sail from the port of Barfleur on the Normandy coast. The White Ship, as it was named, had on board around 300 people, including an a-list of English nobles and the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England, the 17-year-old William Adelin. But when the sun rose the next day, the fishermen of Barfleur found that only a few pieces of floating wreckage and one clinging survivor were all that remained of the White Ship.

A page from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of a grief-stricken King Henry I and the White Ship.
Illustration of King Henry I and the White Ship from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

What happened?

There are many accounts of the sinking of the White Ship, many of them written long after the event. One of the earliest and most detailed accounts is in William of Malmesbury’s History of the English Kings, the first surviving version of which is thought to have been written around 1126. William of Malmesbury paints a vivid picture of the young prince, showered with every privilege, the great hope for the kingdom’s future, who was tragically cut off before his prime.

A detail from a manuscript of William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings, showing an account of the White Ship disaster.
Account of the White Ship disaster by William of Malmesbury in Gesta regum Anglorum, Cotton MS Claudius C IX, f. 98r

William of Malmesbury tells how Henry I and his followers were returning from a trip to France, during which William Adelin paid homage to King Louis VI of France and was made Duke of Normandy. King Henry’s ship departed first and reached England safely. But William Adelin, with ‘almost all the young nobility flocking around him’, led a second vessel, the White Ship. The young nobles, left to their own devices, started drinking and partying. The sailors also joined the fun, and after a few drinks too many they started boasting that they would overtake the king’s ship. When the White Ship launched after dark, the crew rowed as fast as they could, ‘swifter than an arrow’, straight into a rock offshore.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the White Ship.
Detail of the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

The White Ship instantly began to sink. In a bid to save the prince, the crew launched a small boat and set William Adelin inside it. He would have escaped had he not heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda, countess of Perche, still on board the sinking vessel. William ordered the oarsmen to go back for her, at which the small boat was overwhelmed by frightened people trying to clamber aboard and sank as well. The only survivor, a ‘rustic’, managed to cling to the floating mast all night.

A significant proportion of the English royal household and aristocracy died that night, and most of the bodies were never recovered. As William of Malmesbury famously summed it up, 'no ship ever brought England so much misery'.

Other accounts provide additional details. Most notably, Orderic Vitalis, writing around 20 years after the event, reported that priests had tried to bless the travellers before they set sail, but the rowdy company had laughed and driven them away. He adds that a number of people, including Stephen of Blois, were due to board the White Ship but decided against it when they saw the state of inebriation of them all. The sole survivor was identified by Orderic as a butcher from Rouen named Berold, who lived for a further 20 years. He also described how the captain of the ship, Thomas Fitzstephen, deliberately allowed himself to drown to avoid facing King Henry’s anger. Apparently, no one dared tell the king the news and, when he finally learned of it from a boy, his grief was immense.

A detail from a manuscript of Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, showing an illustration of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief at the death of his son.
Detail of King Henry I wringing his hands in grief, from Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle: Royal MS 20 A II, f. 6v

Was it murder?

The sinking of the White Ship has been the focus of several conspiracy theories. The idea that the ship was deliberately sabotaged was suggested by the novelist Ken Follett in Pillars of the Earth (1989), and by the scholar Victoria Chandler in her article ‘The Wreck of the White Ship: A Mass Murder Revealed?’ (1998).

None of the medieval sources imply that there was anything suspicious about the disaster. It’s difficult to imagine that such an act of mass murder could have been committed without raising any suspicions at the time, and any intrigue would almost certainly have been reported by the chroniclers. It’s also questionable how the ship could have been effectively sabotaged without the saboteurs themselves dying, and who stood to clearly gain from the disaster.

A medieval manuscript page with an illustration of Henry I and the White Ship
Henry I and the White Ship, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 45v.

What were the consequences?

While the sinking of the White Ship was a personal tragedy for those involved, it was also a political disaster which caused a succession crisis and civil war in England, a period known as the Anarchy. The death of William Adelin on the White Ship left King Henry I without a legitimate male heir. Although he remarried soon afterwards, Henry was unable to have any more children. As a result, he declared his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. But on Henry’s death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized power. Matilda fought back, and period of long and devastating civil war ensued. Peace was only achieved in 1153, when Stephen agreed to recognise Matilda’s son as his heir, the future King Henry II.

A detail from a genealogical roll, with roundels featuring portraits of King Henry I, Queen Matilda, their children William Adelin and Matilda, their nephew Stephen and Henry II.
Detail of the royal family tree from Henry I to Henry II, showing King Henry I, his wife Matilda of Scotland, their children William Adelin and Matilda, Henry’s nephew Stephen, and Matilda’s son, Henry II, from a Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Royal MS 14 B V, Membrane 5 (image 'f. 5r')

Ultimately, the White Ship disaster is a reminder of how one tragic event could change the course of history. On the 900th anniversary of the event, spare a thought for the victims of the disaster, both the people who died on the ship and the many thousands who suffered in the civil war that followed.

Eleanor Jackson

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23 November 2020

The Polonsky project's two year anniversary

Today is the two year anniversary of our launch of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200, in which we collaborated with the Bibliothèque nationale to digitise and make available 800 medieval French and English manuscripts from our two collections.

We have two websites: one, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale, in which you can view all 800 manuscripts in an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer, and a curated website hosted by the British Library on which you can read articles, view individual manuscript descriptions and watch videos and animations. Both are bilingual, in English and French.

A phoenix rising from the flames
A phoenix rising from the flames: Harley MS 4751

We recently participated in an online seminar sponsored by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) that celebrated five digitisation projects sponsored by the Polonsky Foundation, some completed and others ongoing. The seminar was oversubscribed, so the presentations were recorded and may be watched here:

(Note: videos of the six presentations will automatically play in sequence, one after the other. Alternatively, you can click the 'playlist' button near the top right to select individual videos to play).

The Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website has been very well received, with over 150,000 individual users from all over the world. The majority of those are from the UK and the US, but there are thousands of viewers from France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Spain and Italy making up the top ten countries by use.

So far, the most popular article is on how to make a medieval manuscript, in which you can watch seven videos on different aspects of manuscript production, such as parchment preparation, ink, pigments and applying gold leaf. Viewers spend an average of eleven minutes on this article. Other popular articles are featured in the Science and Nature theme, including those on mathematics, medicine, bestiaries and calendars. Articles discussing the use of Latin, Anglo-Norman French and Old English are also popular.

If you haven’t yet checked it out, or if you are amongst the 30% returning users, do explore the website. You may be interested in watching Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. Or perhaps you'll enjoy the animated features on the whale and the crane from the bestiary. The project book has just been reprinted, too, if you would like to buy a copy.

You can read about the work of the Polonsky Foundation on their newly launched website, including about the England and France project.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

The Polonsky Foundation logo

21 November 2020

Camden's Annals PhD studentship

The First History of Elizabethan England: The Making of William Camden’s Annals

The British Library is pleased to invite applications for an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) PhD studentship, on the making of William Camden's Annals. The studentship will start in the academic year 2021/22 and is funded through the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. 

The successful applicant will be based at the University of Oxford, and will be supervised jointly by Dr Alexandra Gajda (Oxford), Dr Neil Younger (Open University) and Julian Harrison (The British Library). This doctoral project will be the first comprehensive study of the making of William Camden’s Annals, one of the most valuable sources on early modern Britain and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. For more details, please see the advert on the Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership website.

The opening page of Camden's Annals

The opening page of William Camden's Annals: Cotton MS Faustina F I, f. 3r

The thesis will focus initially on the drafts of Camden's Annals held in the Cotton collection here at the British Library. William Camden (d. 1623) had taught Robert Cotton (d. 1631) at Westminster School. They shared the same antiquarian interests, and Camden bequeathed his own manuscripts to Cotton, including the earliest full-scale history of Elizabeth I's reign, known as his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha (abbreviated commonly to Camden's Annals). The Cotton library is now recognised as one of the most important collections in Britain, and was entered on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register in 2018.

The award holder will carry out a thorough study of the manuscripts, with the intent of producing an assessment of the authorship of the Annals, looking at the drafting process and identifying the scribes involved and the corrections and additions made in other hands. The project will open up many avenues of research into the intellectual and political culture of the 16th century, including antiquarian and historical study, and the formation of the Cotton collection.

The student will be based at the British Library for a significant proportion of the studentship, where they will have a dedicated workspace, access to office equipment and services, and privileged staff-level access to the manuscripts collections, learning more about curatorial activities and the wider collection. The Library is actively involved in a range of collaborative doctoral research programmes across several disciplines and provides a broad range of professional development opportunities for doctoral students.

Applicants should have knowledge of Latin to A Level or above. Knowledge of early modern palaeography and history is desirable but not essential. Potential applicants are encouraged to contact Dr Alexandra Gajda with questions and for any guidance before submitting their application.

The deadline for applications is 12:00 (midday) on 8 January 2021. Please refer to the advert here for full details of how to apply.

 

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