Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

18 April 2024

A knight's tale

In medieval England, land was conventionally held in return for either rent (in the form of money or other items) or service (acts performed by one party to the other). These items could range from token gifts like a rose or an arrowhead to valuable crops or produce. A typical service might entail a tenant serving in a jury or attending upon their lord in times of war. But some land was held on more unusual terms, and these more specific duties reveal fascinating details about medieval life and society. For instance, one Norfolk knight held his land from King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) for the service of carrying twelve fish pasties to the king wherever he was in England (Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, I, London, 1904, no. 849).

A small parchment charter recording Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu

Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu: Cotton Ch XXII 3

The service recorded in one small document (Cotton Ch XXII 3) has been identified as some of the earliest evidence of English knights fighting in tournaments, and also of such events being held in England. Dating to between 1124 and 1139, it is a grant by Osbert of Arden giving Thurkil Fundu land in Ashbrook and a meadow in Kingsbury, both in Warwickshire. In return, Thurkil was to do service of carrying Osbert’s dyed lances from London or Northampton to Osbert’s house in Kingsbury, all on Osbert’s horses and at Osbert's expense. Thurkil would also attend upon him at tournaments overseas, again at Osbert’s own cost. He was effectively promising to be Osbert’s squire.

Within an enclosure, Ponthus, on the left, kills the duke of Burgundy on the right with his lance. Each combatant is flanked by retainers. Above, the French king and his courtiers watch.

A 15th-century depiction of a tournament from the romance Ponthus: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Popular imagination holds tournaments as contests between kings, dukes and earls, full of elaborate pageantry and ceremony. In fact, the earliest tourneys were usually more simple contests between knights. The great magnates would not fight in them until later in the 1100s. Henry I (r. 1100–1135) had even banned tournaments late in his reign and the Church regularly railed against them, bemoaning knights wasting their energies or even losing their lives in these mock combats when they could be going on crusade.

Dyed or painted lances like those owned by Osbert were typically used for parade and tournaments, with bare lances used for war. The references to London and Northampton suggest that these towns also staged tournaments at this time.

Thurkil, as his name suggests, was English, not Norman. Thurkil, or Turchil, was a Saxon name with Norse origins. Osbert is a Norman name, but his father was called Siward, another English name, and his great-grandfather was Æthelwine, a sheriff under Edward the Confessor. Here we have an English knight, less than a century after the Norman Conquest, fighting in tournaments in England and on the Continent.

Two men with helmets, lances, and shields jousting on rams against a background of flowers. The man on the left has struck his opponent and knocked him from his mount.

Two men jousting on sheep: Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

It may have been at one of these tournaments that Osbert would later meet his patron, David I of Scotland (r. 1124–1153). The Scottish king, who had his own English ancestry, surrounded himself with many English and Norman knights from his time as Earl of Huntingdon in Henry I’s court. David was also interested in tournaments and had participated in a few in northern France in the 1120s. Osbert would go on to become one of David’s courtiers, joining his court in Scotland by the 1140s.

This charter was published first in 1903 by George F. Warner & Henry J. Ellis (Facsimiles of Royal and Other Charters in the British Museum, I, plate IX), and it was discussed in more detail by David Crouch, Tournament (2005), pp. 41, 64. You can read more about Osbert here.

Osbert of Arden's charter is just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are adding to the British Library's online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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01 April 2024

Annual manuscripts weigh-in

It's that time of year when we carry out our annual manuscripts weigh-in.

The Bedford Hours on a weighing scale

The weighing of the Bedford Hours

In keeping with tradition, teams work overnight to weigh every manuscript in our collection. They then compare the results with the famous table compiled by Sir Horace Round (after whom the British Museum Round Reading Room was named). This enables scholars worldwide to embellish their papers with little-known facts that no-one could possibly verify, along the lines 'the Luttrell Psalter weighs as much as next door's dog'.

The Splendor Solis on the weighing scales

The weighing of the Splendor Solis

Here are some results from this year's survey. Note: manuscripts tend to gain an extra gram or two during Leap Years.

  • The Bedford Hours, a masterpiece of 15th-century Parisian illumination: 9.0114 kg, or the same as a baby Pygmy Hippo (unwashed);
  • Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise made in Germany in the 1580s: 3.067 kg, or a flamingo standing on one leg;
  • A charter of Raymond of Toulouse, with a wax seal: 0.0925 kg, or half a dormouse.

A charter placed on the weighing scales

The weighing of the charter

All measurements have been scrutinised by the Guinness Book of Records, who have kindly asked us never to bother them again.


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21 March 2024

Henry VIII’s pastry tent

One of the lesser known items at the British Library is a map of an army encampment of King Henry VIII (Cotton Roll XIII 41), probably dating to one of the invasions of northern France that he led in 1513 and again in 1544. It shows a camp with all the essentials for supporting an army on campaign: a kitchen, storage for weapons and ammunition, quarters for officers and men, and … a pastry tent?

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’ between tents labelled ‘skolerie’ and ‘kechin’

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’: Cotton Roll XIII 41

At the centre of this coloured map is the king’s own tent, by far the largest tent shown. It is made up of three pavilions joined together by corridors leading to an elaborate house with windows and a chimney. This timber house accompanied Henry on both of his invasions of France. It had a fireplace, two rooms, and windows made of horn instead of glass. When the house was dismantled, the pieces filled twelve cartloads.

Drawing of the king’s tent, beginning with a timber house on the left, connected by a long cross-shaped corridor to three different tents

Henry VIII’s tent at the centre of the map

Around the king’s tent are two horseshoe rings of tents. The inner ring is mostly labelled with simple one-word names: bathhouse, kitchen, scullery, pantry and ‘pastry’. What exactly a pastry tent was for is unclear. It is possible that it was used to store pastries but more likely it housed Henry’s baker, the Groom of the Pastry. The other tents here also match the titles of other household officials like the Grooms of the Kitchen, Scullery, Pantry and Ewery. There are also tents for the king’s doctors and the clerk of the kitchen.

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The tents of the king and important officers and officials at the centre of the camp

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The second ring of tents was for the king’s bodyguards and other senior officials, mostly labelled ‘cursers’, i.e. coursers, a horse, probably housing knights, as well as tents for the Captain of the Guard and the Knight Harbinger, whose role was to arrange accommodation for the king and his court while travelling. These two rings of tents exit onto an open square to the right with groups of soldiers marching back and forth. This was probably the parade or assembly ground, called a ‘market’ or ‘place’ in Harley MS 846, a mid-16th century English guide to setting up an army encampment. The soldiers carry halberds and have swords belted at their waists. A few of them are accompanied by child-sized figures carrying weapons, probably squires or pages.

An open area with groups of soldiers armed with halberds on parade

The parade ground

The rest of the map is taken up with ordered rows of tents with those of other military officials and important figures scattered across the map, including the Provost Marshal, who was in charge of military discipline, a surgeon’s tent, chaplains, a Master of the Horse and a tent for ‘strange’ (foreign) ambassadors.

Cooks chopping meat at a long table, with baskets of loaves nearby, two men turning meat on a spit, and a man carrying a basket

Cooks preparing food for the army

A scene on the far-right side of the map shows men at a table chopping and preparing meat. Nearby, two others turn a pig on a spit over a fire while one man carries a large basket of bread and another carries an animal carcass on his back.

There are no latrines depicted on the map. This probably wasn’t the cartographer being puritanical. The guide to encampments in Harley MS 846 says that soldiers shouldn’t ‘take their easement’ within 200ft of the camp. This rule did not apply to Henry, of course, who had a chamberpot enclosed in a stool in his tent. Only a few other individuals were so privileged, including the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, the Master of the Horse, and the Treasurer-at-War.

Cannon pointing northwards, with ammunition and other equipment piled nearby, rows of tents below

Cannon set to defend on the north-eastern edge of the camp

The camp is defended not by ditches or earthworks, which would only be dug when the army was meant to stop for more than one night, but by cannon and a river encircling it to the west and south. On each side, cannon and other guns have been set up facing outwards, often with piles of ammunition nearby. The man responsible for the army’s artillery was the Master of the Ordinance, whose tent is in the top right of the map. His subordinates and supplies are nearby: a tent for storing ordinance, another for storing bows, a powder tent, and four tents for the army’s four Master Gunners.

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance and other officials, surrounded by rows of unlabelled tents

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance, other military officials, and storage

The presence of so many tents for important army officers and their supplies may make the tent for Henry’s personal baker seem out of place or eccentric. But a royal army camp would include many non-combatant members of the royal household, both to maintain the essential functions of government by issuing royal writs, proclamations, grants and other documents, and to maintain the ruler’s daily routine. A king would not be separated from his comforts just because he was on campaign.

The Groom of the Pastry is a role that still exists today. For the last two hundred years, it has been held by the head of the bakery at Fortnum & Masons, though the position probably no longer comes with its own tent.

This item has been catalogued as part of the British Library's Hidden Collections programme devoted to the Cotton charters and rolls


Rory MacLellan

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