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

08 October 2021

Elizabeth and Mary, Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Curators’ Picks

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the first major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, together, is now open at the British Library. After the delays, challenges and uncertainties of the last 18 months, the curatorial team is delighted to see the exhibition finally come to fruition and to welcome the public to it! To mark this event, Alan, Anna, Karen and Andrea have each selected a personal highlight from the show.

Alan writes, 'One of the most unprepossessing objects on display in the exhibition is a small letter. You might walk past it, having given it barely a glance. However, it is among four letters recently discovered in the British Library, all written by Elizabeth before she became queen. Such letters are comparatively rare. And this one, written from Enfield on 31 December 1547, to ‘M[aste]r Cycell attendinge vpon the Lorde Protector’, is more important than it at first might appear. In her letter Elizabeth petitioned one of the rising stars in government, William Cecil, to ‘commend’ her servant Hugh Goodacre to Edward Seymour, who was the lord protector during the minority reign of Edward VI. Cecil would become Elizabeth’s most trusted minister as queen. This letter is their first known contact, written when she was 14. Significantly, it shows how they were already bound together by their shared Protestant faith. It is also one of the earliest examples of Elizabeth’s famous italic signature.'

A letter written by Princess Elizabeth to Robert Cecil, with her signature in the upper left-hand corner

Letter addressed by Princess Elizabeth to William Cecil, 31 December 1547: Add MS 70518, f. 11r

Anna has selected as her favourite item the 1558 ‘false arms’ of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, the French dauphin François. 'Not only is it visually stunning, with bold colours that will catch the eye of any passing visitor, but it also illustrates the issue of the English succession that underpinned the personal and political rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth for almost three decades. As a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Mary had a strong claim to the English and Irish thrones. Following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, François and Mary began quartering the arms of England with their own and styling themselves ‘King and Queen Dauphins of Scotland, England and Ireland’. This act of provocation originated the distrust between Elizabeth and Mary that would culminate in Mary’s execution in 1587 for plotting Elizabeth’s death in order to seize the throne.'

A manuscript illustration of the coat of arms of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, coloured in red, yellow and blue

The arms of Mary, Queen of Scots and the French dauphin, and of Scotland, France and England, sent from France, July 1559: Cotton MS Caligula B X/1, ff. 17v–18r

Karen has chosen the papal bull, known as Regnans in Excelsis, which was issued by Pope Pius V and printed in Latin in February 1570. 'Written in support of the Northern Rebellion, it proved too late to affect its outcome. The decree, calling Elizabeth ‘the pretended Queen of England’, excommunicated her from the Catholic Church and threatened her Catholic subjects with the same fate should they disobey the pope. This created a problem for English Catholics: should they be loyal to the queen or to the pope? The papal bull is one of a number of books and broadsides displayed in the exhibition to show the importance of printing at the time and its ability to spread information far and wide. It is not clear how far the bull circulated in England, but it is possible that Mary, who had been in captivity in England for about two years by this point, saw a copy of it.'

A page from a printed item issued by Pope Pius V in 1570

S.D.N. Pii Papæ V. Sententia declaratoria contra Elisabeth prætensam Angliæ Reginam, Rome?, 1570: C.18.e.2.(114*).

For her curators' pick, Andrea has chosen a letter written by Mary to Elizabeth in May 1568 following her deposition as Queen of Scots, her escape from captivity and subsequent flight across the English border. 'Writing in her native French tongue, Mary describes the treasonable actions of her enemies, who ‘have robbed me of everything I had in the world’ and expresses her confidence in Elizabeth ‘not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’. Describing herself as Elizabeth’s ‘very faithful and affectionate good sister, cousin and escaped prisoner, Mary begs for an audience; ‘I entreat you to send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can’, for ‘I am’, she bemoans, ‘in a pitiable condition, not only for a queen, but for a gentlewoman, for I have nothing in the world but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling sixty miles across the country the first day, and not having since ever ventured to proceed except by night, as I hope to declare before you if it pleases you to have pity, as I trust you will, upon my extreme misfortune.’'

A handwritten letter of Mary, Queen of Scots, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I, 17 May 1568, Workington, Cumberland: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

The exhibition explores how Mary’s arrival on English soil plunged Elizabeth and her government into a political predicament that would not end until Mary’s execution in 1587. On display is a magnificent array of letters and papers, books, maps, paintings, sculptures, textiles and jewellery, creating a tangible connection to unfolding events and inviting visitors to step back into a world of religious turmoil, espionage, treason and war.

 

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 

The British Library, London

8 October 2021–20 February 2022

 

Alan Bryson, Andrea Clarke, Karen Limper-Herz and Anna Turnham

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01 October 2021

The travelling Bibles

What would a manuscript tell us if it could recount its travels and describe the places where it lived? The Locating a National Collection project, led by a team at the British Library, is exploring what place references can reveal about the ‘biography’ of historic objects. Does knowing that a precious manuscript is linked to a particular medieval abbey make it more interesting and relatable to us? Similarly, does knowing that a castle or a palace is connected to a rare medieval book help us to see it in a different light, and ultimately maybe even make us want to visit it?

To test this idea, and to discover how far following the footsteps of a manuscript can take us, the Locating a National Collection project has joined forces with the British Library’s medieval manuscript curators to dive into the Library's records and explore an exceptional story filled with great journeys, fortuitous discoveries and joyful reunifications. We thought that the best way to tell it was to use a map, or, better, an interactive one: a StoryMap. Scroll down to follow the tales of the travelling Bibles, click on the dots on the map to find more information about the places we mention along the way, and, if you are left wanting more, follow the links to other articles and resources.

We hope you enjoy your (virtual) journey.

Valeria Vitale and Gethin Rees

Locating a National Collection

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27 September 2021

A figured poem

The poem De Laudibus sancte crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross) is the work of Rabanus Maurus (b. 780/781, d. 856), one of the greatest teachers and scholars of the Carolingian age. Rabanus Maurus was in charge of the imperial abbey school of Fulda in central Germany, and he was later archbishop of Mainz. While in Fulda, he composed this poem which comprises a set of verses where the words both embody and celebrate the cross, drawing on an Antique tradition of arranging words and phrases within figures.

A number of copies of this work survive, including one made in the Premonstratensian Abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas, Arnstein, in around the 1170s, now in the Harley collection in the British Library (Harley MS 3045). In all but one copy, the figured poem or carmina figurata is on the left, with an explanatory commentary in prose on the right-hand page. Most of the figures are in the form of a cross.

Figured poem in the shape of a cross from De Laudibus sancte crucis
The sixteenth figural poem of book 1, bordered by a twining pattern, depicting a cross composed of overlapping quatrefoils in yellow and blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 21v

Rabanus Maurus dedicated one of his copies to Louis the Pious, King of the Franks and Emperor of the West from 814 to 840, and this dedication and image of the king is preserved in later copies. In the Harley copy, for example, Louis is depicted as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), at the beginning of the work, with a cross, a shield and a halo. The inscriptions place the Emperor under the protection of Christ, while recalling his role as a defender and promoter of the Faith.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious
Figural poem with foliate border dedicating Hrabanus's work to Emperor Louis the Pious, shown with nimbus, shield, and cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 2v

Some of the figures are in the form of letters rather than images, as in this one, which includes the words ‘Crux’ (cross), reading downwards, and ‘Salus’ (salvation), reading across. This poem is about angels, and the names of some of them are included in the figured letters. For example, the ‘u’ (shaped as a ‘v’) of Crux is formed from the word ‘arcangeli’ (archangels).

Figured poem spelling out 'Crux salus' in the shape of a cross
The third figural poem of book 1, bordered by foliage and coloured roundels, depicting the epigram, 'Crux salus' (The salvific Cross) in blue, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 8v

The author included an image of himself as well, portrayed as a kneeling monk below an image of a cross. His identity is made clear by the inclusion of his name ‘Rabanus’ in red letters visible on his face and habit.

Figured poem with a cross and a portrait of Rabanus Maurus
The twenty-eighth figural poem of book 1, bordered by an inhabited vine scroll with birds, animals, and human figures, depicting Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v
 
Detail of the portrait of Rabanus Maurus
Hrabanus Maurus kneeling beneath a gold cross, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Harley MS 3045, f. 33v (detail)

Another elegant copy of De Laudibus sancte crucis was made in the abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris around the middle of the 11th century (now Paris, BnF, MS latin 11685). This manuscript was digitised recently as part of The Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France 700-1200 project.

Figured poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious from BnF MS Lat. 11685
Figural poem with an image of Emperor Louis the Pious, Rabanus Maurus, De Laudibus sancte crucis: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 11685, f. 5v

You can can also find out about some of the other manuscripts made in Arnstein in our previous blogpost about the Arnstein Bible.

Kathleen Doyle

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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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