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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

19 October 2019

Drawing a blank: an attempt to save the life of Charles I?

Leafing through Harley MS 6988, it would be easy to flick past an unobtrusive empty page towards the end of the manuscript. Upon closer inspection, however, this ‘blank’ may be one of the central documents of the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Harley MS 6988 contains royal letters and warrants from between 1625 and 1655, chronicling the reign of King Charles I from his accession to his execution for treason, along with the development of the Civil War. Although one page towards the end of the manuscript is empty, this ‘blank’ is nevertheless as revealing as it is enigmatic.

On the right-hand side is the signature ‘Charles P’, while the left bears the Prince’s seal. In the hand of William Oldys (1696–1761), a previous owner of the document, is written: ‘Prince Charles his Carte Blanche to the Parliament to save his Father’s Head 1648’. A carte blanche is a blank paper on which a recipient can write their own conditions, essentially a pre-signed offer of full discretionary power.

A blank paper with Prince Charles’s signature and seal

The suspected carte blanche sent by the Prince: Harley MS 6988, f. 222r

Is this empty sheet a carte blanche sent by Prince Charles (the future King Charles II) to Parliament as a last-ditch offer in exchange for his father’s life?

The question has been discussed in an article by T.C. Skeat, who notes that several early historians thought it probable that the paper was genuine: according to an account in the 1663 book Flagellum: or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of Oliver Cromwell, ‘a Blank with the Kings Signet, and another of the Princes’ was given to Colonel John Cromwell, ‘for [Oliver] Cromwell to write his own conditions in, if he would now preserve the life of the King’.

In 1766 the story was linked to the blank pages of Harley MS 6988, when William Harris wrote in his biography of Charles II that, ‘I know there is in the British Museum a blank paper, at the bottom of which, on the right hand, is written Charles P. and on the left, opposite thereunto, a seal is affixed’.

However, it is questionable whether Prince Charles would have made such an offer on the eve of his father’s execution. Letters from the King to his son had instructed against any concessions on religion. Earlier in Harley MS 6988, King Charles I wrote to the Prince, ‘I command you to do nothing, whether it concerns war or peace, but with the advice of your council, and that you be constant to those grounds of religion and honour, which heretofore I have given you’ (f. 208r).

A letter addressed to Prince Charles, signed by King Charles I

The King instructs his son to be constant in religion and honour: Harley MS 6988, f. 208r

On the other hand, as Skeat noted, the offer of a carte blanche was a familiar strategy during the period. Soon after the King’s execution, James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, was also sentenced to death for treason. His family protested, but Parliament refused to ‘hearken to the Earl of Denbigh, who proposed, on behalf of Duke Hamilton his brother-in-law, to give them a blank signed by the said Duke, to answer faithfully to such questions as should be there inserted’.

Royal figures are also found appending their signatures and seals to documents containing blank spaces to be filled in later, such as the 1601 licence in the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS X.d.70) signed by King James I, and the c. 1648 bond signed by Prince Charles now in the National Archives (SP 16/516 f. 225).

Although the empty page in Harley MS 6988 may have been ‘intentionally left blank’ by Prince Charles, it is not certain whether it was indeed a carte blanche intended to ‘save his Father’s Head’. Skeat concluded that the story was genuine, writing that ‘it seems almost perverse to refuse to accept the Carte Blanche as the very document with which the Prince of Wales sought to preserve his father’s life’. Despite uncertainties around its original purpose, the surviving leaf in Harley MS 6988 is a tantalising witness to a tempestuous historical moment, as well as a reminder of the potential of the blank page.

 

Amy Bowles

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11 October 2019

The Nine Worthy Women

In the late medieval and early modern eras, heraldic collections often contained, alongside contemporary examples, the imaginary coats of arms of men from medieval romance and legend or of kings who lived before the age of heraldry. Prominent among these attributed coats of arms were those of the so-called ‘Nine Worthies’ (Les Neuf Preux), a group of three pagan (Classical), three Jewish, and three Christian leaders first described in the early 14th-century French poem Les Voeux du Paon by Jacques du Languon (found, for example, in Harley MS 3992). The Nine Worthies personified the ideals of chivalry and military excellence. At the beginning of one late 15th-century book of heraldry (Harley MS 2169), they were introduced as ‘The IX Worthy Conqwerourys’, and were identified (from left to right) as Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon (one of the leaders of the First Crusade).

Image 1 - Nine Male Worthies

The arms of the Nine Worthies (4th quarter of the 15th century): Harley MS 2169, f. 5v

In the late 14th century, a group of female worthies joined their male counterparts. The Nine Worthy Women (Les Neuf Preuses) consisted of queens and female leaders who were also associated with military prowess. This grouping was much less fixed than that of the male worthies. For instance, the majority of the Nine Worthy Women who were part of the pageant for the coronation of King Henry VI at Paris in 1431 were queens of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women from Greek mythology who, according to medieval sources such as the legendary travel memoir of John Mandeville, governed the land of Amozoyne where ‘dwellyth no man’. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe), who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV.

Image 2 - Amazons

The Amazons in Mandeville’s Travels (1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 30r

Another version of the Nine Worthy Women features at the beginning of Harley MS 6090, a late 16th- or early 17th-century English heraldic collection. In that manuscript the three Classical queens and female leaders are: Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, whose arms feature the ‘Aegis’ (a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa) of her Greek equivalent Athena; Semiramis, a mythical queen of Babylon; and Tomyris, a legendary ruler of the Massagetae, who defeated Cyrus the Great. 

Image 3 - Nine Worthy Women [1]

The arms of Minerva, Semiramis and Tomyris (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 3v

The three Jewish queens and female leaders are Deborah, a prophetess and judge of the Israelites; Jael, who killed the commander of an enemy Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg (of which six are displayed on her arms) into his temple; and Judith, who decapitated Holofernes (his head is displayed on her arms), the leader of an Assyrian army that occupied Israel.

Image 4 - Nine Worthy Women [2]

The arms of Deborah, Jael, and Judith (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4r

The three Christian queens and female leaders are Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of King Henry I, who initiated a war against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, after he usurped the throne; Isabel I of Castile [also known as Elizabeth I of Spain] (1451–1504), under whose rule Spain was united and the Emirate of Granada conquered; and Joanna II (1371–1435), Queen of Naples, who managed to re-establish herself as Queen after she had been imprisoned by her husband, James of Bourbon.

Image 5 - Nine Worthy Women [3]

The arms of Empress Matilda, Isabel I of Castile, and Joanna II of Naples (late 16th or early 17th century) (late 16th or early 17th century): Harley 6090, f. 4v

The arms of the Nine Worthy Women in Harley MS 6090 were most likely copied from John Ferne’s The Blazon of Gentrie, first printed in 1586. Their audience would have been familiar with these women through contemporary and medieval works that praised their achievements, such as De Mulieribus Claris (About Famous Women) by Giovanni Boccaccio (as in Harley MS 4923) and the works of Christine de Pizan (for example, Harley MS 4431).

Image 6 - Minerva

Minerva giving arms to her followers in Christine de Pizan’s L'Épître Othéa (c. 1410–1414): Harley MS 4431, f. 102v

Why are the female worthies so prominent in Harley MS 6090, while the male worthies are absent? Perhaps they were particularly popular among English authors. In an article published in 1946, Celeste Turner Wright pointed out that, during and following the reigns of Queen Mary I (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), English authors often cited the Nine Worthy Women to justify female governance, to prove women's ability in national affairs, and to attack the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne ('The Elizabethan Female Worthies', Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628–43).

 

Clarck Drieshen

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05 October 2019

Medieval saints as protectors of animals

St Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1225) is traditionally known as the patron saint of animals and the natural environment. During the Middle Ages, however, other saints were sometimes associated with protecting animals, particularly in magical texts or ‘charms’.

One such charm is found in an 11th-century Psalter from Winchester (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII), recently digitised as part of The Polonsky England and France Project. This manuscript features a number of magical remedies for healing animals, written in Old English. The book also contains instructions for making a magical device known as 'St Columcille’s Circle', used to protect bees and keep them in a bee-enclosure (‘apiary’) when they were swarming. The text advised that you should use the point of a knife to draw a circle on a malmstone, and to inscribe Roman numerals and a Latin text inside the circle: ‘contra apes ut salui sint et in corda eorum scribam hanc’ (‘[This circle is] in case of a swarm of bees so that they may be safe, and in their hearts I will write my law’). One should then drive a stake into the ground at the centre of the apiary, and place the stone on top of the stake, so that the stone disappeared into the ground while its surface with the magical circle remained visible. You can read more about this in Martha Dana Rust's article, 'The Art of Beekeeping Meets the Arts of Grammar: A Gloss of "Columcille's Circle"', Philological Quarterly, 78 (1999), 359–87.

St Columcille’s Circle

St Columcille’s Circle (3rd quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 15v

It is not clear why the charm associates St Columcille (521–597), also known as Columba — one of Ireland’s three patron saints — with the protection of bees. Martha Dana Rust has suggested that the author of 'St Columcille’s Circle' may have been influenced by the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by Bede (673/4–735). Bede interpreted the name ‘Columcille’ as a compound of the name Columba and the Latin cella (‘cell’), which could refer both to the monastic cell or the wax cell of a honeycomb. For example, in one 12th-century English bestiary, Add MS 11283, it is noted that bees use flowers to create ‘small and rounded cells’ ('minutae atque rotundae cellulae').

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary

A swarm of bees in an English bestiary (4th quarter of the 12th century): Add MS 11283, f. 23v

Another saint associated with the protection of animals is named in a 12th-century scientific and magical manuscript from southern France (Egerton MS 821). This collection contains various charms for healing cattle, including a charm for protecting an animal that invokes a certain ‘St Silvanus’. The text includes prayers to Christ and the Virgin Mary for support, but also instructs the reader to give three sticks to three men, and then say to them: ‘I appeal to you, [?named] men, that you should defend this animal from thieves or malign animals’ (‘apello homines nom[?ine] ut cum baculos defendatis hanc bestia a latronibus vel a malis bestiis’). Finally, the reader was instructed to invoke St Silvanus himself to protect the animal in question from thieves, dangerous animals and all ‘evil things’ (‘malos omnes’).  

St Silvanus charm

An ‘animal-charm’ invoking St Silvanus (12th century): Egerton MS 821, f. 56r

The Silvanus who is invoked in the charm has not been identified. He may represent a Christianised version of the Roman wood deity, Silvanus, who was venerated as a protector of animals and a patron of shepherds and their herds in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. The cult of Silvanus may have been recast into Christian form by missionaries during the Middle Ages, while retaining aspects of its pre-Christian identity. (You can read more about this in Peter F. Dorcey's book, The Cult of Silvanus: A Study of Roman Folk Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1992)). It is possible that Silvanus, whose cult flourished particularly in southern France, continued to be invoked as a protector of animals during the Middle Ages alongside other saints who were closely linked with the natural world.

We have digitised 800 manuscripts dating from pre-1200, in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France. You can see some of the highlights on this dedicated webspace, including articles, videos and links to all the manuscripts in the project.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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