Medieval manuscripts blog

5 posts from February 2011

21 February 2011

Henry VIII Prayer Roll

The British Library has recently acquired a unique medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII, and contains one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession in 1509. Produced in England in the late 15th century, it is one of the finest English prayer rolls, and consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end that measure some four metres long when fully unrolled. The roll contains thirteen illuminations -- images of Christ, focusing on the Passion, its Instruments and the Sacred Blood, as well as depictions of various saints and their martyrdoms. Accompanying these are prayers in Latin and rubrics (religious instructions) in English. The rubrics promise that the recital of certain of the prayers will offer safety from physical danger, sickness or disease; others will shorten, by specified amounts, the agony of Purgatory, while the placing of the roll on the belly of a woman in labour will ensure a safe childbirth.

A section of the Henry VIII Prayer Roll, showing an illustration of the Crucifixion. 

The prayer roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry, evidenced by the inclusion of his royal badges at the head of the roll. These include two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather, as well as Katherine of Aragon's personal symbol of the arrow-sheaf of Aragon. At some point prior to 1509 Henry presented the roll to William Thomas, a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, and added an inscription at the top of the second membrane, under the central image of Christ's Passion: 'Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry'.

The Henry VIII Prayer Roll is now London, British Library, MS Additional 88929. It is currently on display in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and will also be displayed in our Royal exhibition which opens in November 2011.

Andrea Clarke

14 February 2011

The Oldest Valentine?

In February 1477, Margery Brews, a Norfolk gentlewoman, sent her beloved John Paston two Valentine letters. They were written on the eve of their marriage and, besides expressing Margery's undying love for John, reveal the couple's concerns for their future.

The first letter is on display until 3 April 2011 in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition. The second, reproduced here, was written in reply to John's response. Margery confides that her father is unable to provide as substantial a dowry as they had expected, "weche causyth myn herte to be full hevy". She continues, "yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good [the sum of 100 pounds and 50 marks] and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde [on earth]." The letter (written on Margery's behalf by Thomas Kela, a clerk of Sir Thomas Brews), is signed

"Be your Voluntyne / Mergery Brews"

A letter from Margery Brews to her husband John Paston, dated to 1477.
A letter of Margery Brews to her husband John Paston, February 1477 (Add MS 43490, f. 24)

11 February 2011

Medieval Masterpieces

A quick reminder that episode two of The Beauty of Books, entitled "Medieval Masterpieces", airs on BBC4 next Monday, 14 February, at 20.30.

This episode stars the stunning Luttrell Psalter and the exquisite Bedford Hours, both in the keeping of the British Library: view the trailer.

An opening from The Luttrell Psalter, showing its distinctive marginal illustrations.

The Luttrell Psalter, made in Lincolnshire, c. 1320-1340 (Add MS 42130, f. 170).

Selected images of the Luttrell Psalter can be seen on the British Library's Online Gallery, Turning the Pages.

Episode one of The Beauty of Books, "Ancient Bibles", featuring the Codex Sinaiticus, drew 468,000 viewers on its first showing, and remains available via the BBC iPlayer.

04 February 2011

The Beauty of Books

The Beauty of Books, a major new BBC4 documentary series featuring the British Library's unrivalled collections, begins at 20.30 on Monday, 7 February (available in the United Kingdom only).

Episode one, "Ancient Bibles", stars the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the oldest surviving complete New Testament. Future episodes will focus on the fifteenth-century Bedford Hours, the magnificent Luttrell Psalter (commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, d. 1345, a Lincolnshire landowner), and Chaucer; on Alice in Wonderland; and on the design of Penguin Books.

A decorated page from the Bedford Hours, showing a portrait of the Duke of Bedford kneeling before St George. 
The Bedford Hours (Add MS 18850, f. 256v)

The Bedford Hours, depicted here, is one of the masterpieces of fifteenth-century Parisian art. This exquisite manuscript was probably made for the dauphin, Louis de Guyenne (d. 1415), and was subsequently owned by John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford, who was English Regent in France from 1422 to 1435. The Bedford Master, perhaps to be identified as the Alsatian artist, Haincelin of Hagenau (recorded in Paris from 1403 to 1424), also worked with the Limbourg brothers on their famous Très Riches Heures (Chantilly, Musée Condé, ms. 65). The Bedford Hours will be displayed in the Royal exhibition, which opens at the British Library in November 2011.

The Beauty of Books, episode one: 7 February 2011, 20.30 (BBC4).

Episodes two to four will appear at weekly intervals.

You may be interested in Eberhard König's prize-winning study The Bedford Hours: The Making of a Medieval Masterpiece (London: The British Library, 2007: ISBN 9780712349789), available from the British Library shop. Also available is the stunning facsimile of the Luttrell Psalter (London: The British Library, 2006: ISBN 9780712349345), and Michelle Brown's The World of the Luttrell Psalter (London: The British Library, 2006: ISBN 9780712349598).



01 February 2011

A Calendar Page for February

For a further discussion of medieval calendars, as well as the Isabella Breviary itself, please see the post for January.

  The calendar page for February, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, showing an illustration of a winter scene, with a group of labourers chopping and gathering wood.

The calendar page for February, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Add MS 18851, f. 2

This page, from the calendar for February, shows the zodiac sign for Pisces (as two fish, facing in opposite directions) in the upper right of the folio.  Below is a winter scene similar to January's, with a group of men busy chopping and gathering wood.