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

29 January 2022

How to be an effective ruler: the Basilikon Doron of King James VI and I

The British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, charts the relationship and the lives of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the significant figures who were part of their courts and inner circles. One of the concluding sections of the exhibition explores the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and looks ahead to the accession of Mary’s son James to the English throne following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The exhibition features a significant item written by James himself: a work known as the Basilikon Doron (literally meaning the ‘King’s Gift’ in Ancient Greek.

The opening page of the Basilikon Doron

The opening of the Basilikon Doron, written by King James for his son Henry Frederick, the future Prince of Wales: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. 3r

The Basilikon Doron is a treatise on government. Written in the form of a letter addressed to his eldest son Henry Frederick (1594–1612), James’s work sets out the guidelines for how to be an effective monarch. The text is divided into three books. The first is concerned with being a good Christian, love and proper respect for God, and the study of Scripture. The second is focused on the law, the nature of justice and the practical mechanisms of governance. The third is devoted to the daily life of the monarch and the strict codes of conduct that a ruler should follow, covering everything from sleeping habits and wardrobe choices to personal grooming.

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick, for whom the Basilikon Doron was written, painted by Robert Peake the Elder, c. 1610: National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4515

The British Library is home to an autograph copy of this work, written in King James’s own hand. It was most likely a working copy of the text: there are numerous erasures, corrections and revisions visible throughout. After James’s accession to the English throne, this autograph manuscript became part of the Royal library (now Royal MS 18 B XV), where it was given an elaborate binding, made from purple velvet, and featuring the royal initials ‘IR’, and the Scottish lion and decorative thistles in gold (though some of these elements have since been lost). The book can now be read in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, lower cover

James had an unusually high literary output for a king. He was known to retreat to his study regularly to read and write. He was a patron of poets and playwrights. On his accession to the English throne in 1603, he granted the royal patent which authorised the formation of the King’s Men, the acting company of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). James was also a poet in his own right, and in 1584, at the age of only 19, he set out the rules and traditions of Scottish poetry in a work known as the Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie.

The opening of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron is prefaced by one of James’s sonnets, written in Middle Scots. Addressed to Henry Frederick, it reads:

Loe heir my son a mirror viue and fair

Quhilk schwa is the shadow of a vorthie King;

Loe heir a booke, a paterne dois zow bring

Quhilk ze sould preas to follow mair and mair.

This trustie friend the treuthe will never spair,

Bot give a guid advyse unto zow heir.

How it sould be zour chief and princelie cair

To follow vertew, vyce for to forbeare:

And in the booke zour Lesson vill ze leire

For gyding of zour people great and small;

Than, as ze aucht, gif ane attentive care

And paus how ze thir preceptis practise sall:

Zour father biddis zow studie heir and reid

How to become a perfyte King indeid.

(Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto)

A manuscript page containing the dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto

In addition to this handwritten draft of the text, printed copies of the Basilikon Doron were also produced. The first edition of the work was made in Edinburgh in 1599 by the English printer Robert Waldegrave (1554–1603), who had previously worked on several of the king’s other texts, including his literary thesis Poetical Exercises (1591) and his Daemonologie (1597), a treatise concerning the practices of necromancy and black magic. Only seven copies of the Basilikon Doron were made in this initial print run, one of which can now be found at the British Library (G.4993).

A second edition of the text was published in London in 1603, immediately after the death of Elizabeth I and James’s accession to the thrones of England and Ireland. Unlike the 1599 edition, which was clearly intended for a select, private audience within the king’s inner circle, this edition was intentionally public, circulating widely in England, Scotland and across Europe, with thousands of copies sold.

The first printed edition of the Basilikon Doron

The first edition of the Basilikon Doron, printed by Robert Waldegraue in Edinburgh in 1599: G.4993, sig. [A]3v-[A]4r

Unfortunately, Henry Frederick did not live long enough to be able to put his father’s instruction into practice. In 1612, eight years after the second printing of the text, James’s son died from typhoid fever, at the age of only 18, leaving his brother Charles to take his place as Prince of Wales and eventually become James’s successor as King of England and Scotland, taking the throne in 1625.  

You can see both the autograph and printed copies of James’s Basilikon Doron in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, on at the British Library until 20 February.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 January 2022

‘As goodly a child as I have seen’

In March 1543, King Henry VIII sent Sir Ralph Sadler as ambassador to Scotland. A protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Sadler had his first audience with the dowager queen, Mary of Guise, within days of arriving. The subject of their interview was the new Queen of Scots, the 4-month-old Mary. Afterwards, Sadler was taken to see the child for himself. In this letter to Henry, written in his own hand, Sadler declared Mary to be ‘as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age’.

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

For Henry, the infant queen offered a golden opportunity to unite the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland under one monarchy by means of a ‘godly’ marriage to his heir, Prince Edward (Add MS 32649, f. 173r).

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist, c. 1540: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in the depths of winter on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise. The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens displays an oak panel of the arms of Scotland, carved and hung in Linlithgow Palace during these years, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland, Linlithgow Palace, mid-16th century: Image © National Museums Scotland

In summer 1542, war had broken out between England and Scotland after Henry VIII failed to persuade his nephew, James V, to repudiate Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and the Pope’s authority. Two weeks before Mary’s birth, an opportune raid into northern England had gone disastrously wrong when the Scottish army surrendered at the Battle of Solway Moss. James returned from the frontier in a disconsolate state. He visited his wife briefly at Linlithgow, dying at Falkland Palace 6 days after the birth of his daughter and heir. 

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility: Harley MS 115, f. 16r

Under the circumstances, the English warden of the marches, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, called off a counter-raid into Scotland, saying it would be dishonourable to ‘make warre or ynvade vppon a dedd bodye or vppon a wydowe, or on a yonge sucling his doughter’ (Add MS 32648, f. 225r). Henry duly negotiated a truce with the Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was described in contemporary reports as ‘delyueryd before hir tyme[,] … a vereye weyke childe and not like to lyve’ (Add MS 32648, f. 199r-v). Within days of her father’s funeral, she was baptized in January 1543, named for her mother Mary of Guise and for the Virgin Mary. Unusually for the time, Mary was ‘nurssed in her [mother’s] owne chambre’, rather than separately (London, The National Archives, SP 1/175, M. f. 17r). This was because Mary of Guise feared for her daughter’s safety in the turbulent first months of her reign, when various Scottish prelates and nobles vied for control of the regency government established in the young queen’s name. In early January 1543, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, emerged victorious, being appointed governor of Scotland and granted custody of the queen. A great-grandson of James II, Arran was also declared heir presumptive.  On arriving in Scotland in March, Sadler had his first interview with the new regent, a 23-year-old who Sadler thought ill-prepared for the great responsibility he was undertaking.

A few days later, on 22 March 1543, Sadler visited Mary of Guise at Linlithgow, hoping to learn if she favoured the marriage between Edward and her daughter. He ‘founde her most wyllyng and conformable in apparence’, and wrote to Henry the following day describing how she had asserted that her ‘chief suretie’ was to have her daughter ‘delyuered fourthwith’ into the king’s hands (Add MS 32650, f. 72r). ‘It is the woorke and ordinance of god for the coniunction and vnyon of bothe thies Realmes in one’, she said. But she warned Henry to beware of Arran’s motives, telling him through Sadler that the governor was only using marriage negotiations as a delaying tactic to preclude renewed war and to consolidate his own position. Arran would ultimately never consent to the union. Although Sadler listened intently, he told Henry that he did not believe everything Mary of Guise said, including her protestations that Cardinal David Beaton supported the marriage. Beaton’s longstanding hostility to English influence in Scotland was well-known. Mary of Guise then claimed that Arran had said that

'The chylde was not lyke to lyve[.]  but yow shall see … whither he saye trew or not[.]  And therwith she caused me to go with her in to the chamber where the chylde was, and shewed her vnto me and also caused the Nurice [nurse] to vnwrapp her oute of her clowtes that I myght see her naked[.]  I assure your Maieste it is as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age and as lyke to lyve with the grace of god.'

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

This kind of display was common practice, in case of future marriage negotiations, to show that the infant was without deformity. (In April 1534, Princess Elizabeth had also been presented, both richly dressed and naked, to the French ambassadors Louis de Perreau, sieur de Castillon, and Gilles de la Pommeraye.) Sadler duly took his leave of Mary of Guise in order to report back to his master.

Events would prove that, in supporting marriage between Edward and her daughter, Mary of Guise had been playing for time. In March 1543, Beaton and she engineered the return from exile of Arran’s greatest rival, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who also had a strong claim to be recognized as heir presumptive. Together, in late July, they forced Arran to concede custody of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her mother. On 27 July, Lennox escorted both queens to the safety of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds and part of Mary of Guise’s jointure. Mary of Guise retained firm control of her daughter from then onwards, determined to prevent her falling into anyone else’s hands.

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.

 

Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2022

Portraits of Elizabeth I

The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens offers visitors the opportunity to see five portraits of Elizabeth I. At the start of the exhibition, Elizabeth’s beautiful mother of pearl locket ring is displayed open to reveal enamelled miniature portraits of her and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth is depicted in profile as she looked in the mid-1570s; her mother’s likeness is similar to a portrait medal struck in 1534. 

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, c. 1575: The Chequers Trust

Inside the ring there is a small oval plate of gold ornamented in enamel, with a phoenix rising in flames. A mythological bird reborn from its own ashes, the phoenix became associated closely with Elizabeth after her accession to the throne of England in 1558. It symbolised the virtue of chastity, but also Elizabeth’s reversals of fortune under her father, brother and sister, and her restoration of Protestantism from the ashes of the persecutions of Mary I’s reign. Elizabeth had endured her deepest calamity when not yet 3 years old. In July 1536, she was declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession, following Anne’s execution on charges of adultery and incest. The locket ring suggests that Elizabeth never accepted the guilty verdict and found ways to honour the memory of her mother.

On a number of occasions when she was a child, marriage negotiations were opened on Elizabeth’s behalf, only for them to collapse due to her illegitimacy. But, from autumn 1542, Henry VIII made gestures towards rehabilitating his daughter, describing her as ‘endewed with vertues and qualities agreable with her estate/ whom we esteme and regarde, as natural inclination with respecte of her place and state doth of congruence require’ (Add MS 32650, f. 127r). As a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war with France, in spring 1544 Henry restored both his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, but did not legitimate them. Among the most striking pieces of evidence for Elizabeth’s new-found status is a portrait of her by the court painter Guillim Scrots. Commissioned in about 1546, it is one of the few likenesses of Elizabeth made before she became queen. Dressed in crimson silk and the cloth-of-silver ‘tissued’ with gold that was restricted to the royal family, she is portrayed as self-possessed, pious and scholarly. She marks her place in the book she is holding, possibly a primer. Another book, a Bible perhaps, sits on a lectern in the background. The portrait may, in fact, have been completed during the reign of her brother, Edward VI, which is probably also when the near-contemporary copy on display in the exhibition was made.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

At her brother’s request, in May 1551 Elizabeth sent Edward another portrait of herself, telling him ‘for the face, I graunt, I might wel blusche to offer, but the mynde I shal neuer be asshamed to present’. 

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]: Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 48r

Made by the court painter Levina Teerlinc for marriage negotiations underway between Elizabeth and a French prince, the portrait itself does not appear to have survived. But another likeness of her from this time does, at least in a mid-17th-century copy generously loaned to the exhibition. Elizabeth appears in a family portrait, the original of which probably dated to Edward’s reign because of the prominent position he occupies in the centre of the composition, with Henry VIII to his right, and both his sisters to his left. The figure standing behind Edward and his father has been identified as the court fool Will Somer, who served in the royal household for many years. Somer’s presence here, and in a number of other royal portraits, perhaps represents continuity between reigns or offers ways of interpreting each image allegorically.

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist, 17th century: By kind permission of His Grace, the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, KBE, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even after she became queen in November 1558, Elizabeth’s reluctance to sit for her portrait continued. Most early portraits of her as queen are simple images depicting her in black, some of them poorly executed. In April 1565, during an audience with the English ambassador, Catherine de’ Medici had complained ‘by that that everie bodie telleth me [of Elizabeth’s beauty], and that which I see painted, I must say she hath no good painters’. ‘I will send my self a painter ouer’ to England, she concluded (London, The National Archives, SP 70/77, M. f. 125v). Over the next few years Elizabeth’s portraiture changed, with the production of more realistic likenesses for the purpose of marriage negotiations. These include a full-length and a small portrait bust, both recently attributed to the English painter George Gower, and made directly from life. The portrait bust, currently on loan to the exhibition, may have been commissioned specifically for presentation to Archduke Charles II of Austria, with whom marriage negotiations were underway. In June 1567, Elizabeth sent the chief proponent of the Austrian match, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd earl of Sussex, as her ambassador to the Hapsburg court. He probably carried this portrait bust with him, which he showed to Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s courtiers declared that the portrait ‘lacked but speche’ (London, The National Archives, SP 70/92, M. f. 19r). Capturing her guarded self-possession, it is among the very best likenesses of Elizabeth, then aged about 34.

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c. 1567: Private Collection

As Elizabeth aged, her portraiture became more elaborate and less lifelike, as realistic depictions of her were no longer required for the purpose of marriage negotiations. The queen was still occasionally painted from life, as for instance in the ‘Darnley portrait’ of about 1575 (London, National Portrait Gallery, 2082). But most works were based on patterns. One imposing example, displayed in the exhibition, dates to the late 1580s. Elizabeth is shown in her Parliament robes of ermine-lined crimson velvet, which create an exaggerated silhouette, subsuming her as an individual into an icon of queenship. Demand from her loyal subjects for Elizabeth’s portrait was growing, particularly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, and this painting may have been commissioned for a public space like a guildhall.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, late 1580s: Private Collection

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.

 

Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval