Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

24 August 2011

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

A highly illuminated page from a Bible Historiale, showing an illustration of God the Creator and a decorated border.

Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, Vol. I, f. 3

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is the British Library’s first major exhibition to bring together the Library’s Royal collection, a treasure trove of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th centuries. These dazzling artistic artefacts will debunk the myth that these were ‘the Dark Ages’.

Curated by Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics, Professor John Lowden, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the exhibition showcases stunning manuscripts that are outstanding examples of royal decorative and figurative painting from this era, their colours often as vibrant as when they were first painted. Beyond declaring the artistry of their makers, these luxurious manuscripts unlock the secrets of the private lives and public personae of the royals throughout the Middle Ages and provide the most vivid surviving source for understanding royal identity. As well as providing clear instruction on appropriate regal behaviour they give a direct insight into royal moral codes and religious belief and shed light on the politics of the day. 

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to get up close to the manuscripts and learn how, and by whom, they were created. In addition, visitors will be introduced to the background of the collection, including how and why Edward IV turned the collection into a library after years of personal collecting by English monarchs. Other sections of the exhibition will explore:

  • how manuscripts reveal the role of religion in royal life, from public worship to private devotion
  • the right to rule as defined by royal lineage and traditions such as the coronation process
  • how manuscripts shaped the education and knowledge of the royal family, from scientific learning to etiquette
  • the close affinity of English royalty with fashionable Continental artistic styles and their appropriations of the art and culture of their longstanding political rival, France, to which English kings laid claim throughout much of the 14th and 15th centuries

Exhibition highlights include the following:

A page from Vincent of Beauvais's Miroir historial, showing an illustration of the book's author within a border containing the arms of King Edward IV.

Miniature of the book’s author, Vincent of Beauvais, within a border containing the arms of Edward IV, to whom this manuscript belonged. Miroir historial, vol. 1 (Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, trans. into French by Jean de Vignay), Bruges, c. 1478-1480, Royal MS 14 E I, Vol. I, f. 3

A page from the Psalter of Henry VIII, showing an illustration of Henry VIII praying in his bedchamber.

Miniature of Henry VIII praying in his bedchamber in a Psalter that he commissioned and annotated himself. Henry VIII’s Psalter, London, c. 1540, Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3

A detail from a genealogical roll chronicle of the Kings of England, showing the ancestry of William the Conqueror, with portraits of the Norman king and his descendants.

Detail from a genealogical roll recording the Norman ancestry of William the Conqueror. Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England (East Anglia?), c. 1300-1307, Royal MS 14 B VI

A page from a manuscript of The Regiment of Princes by Thomas Hoccleve, showing a portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales, presenting the book to John Mowbray.

Miniature of Henry, Prince of Wales, presenting this book to John Mowbray. Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, London, c. 1411-1413, Arundel MS 38, f. 37

A detail from an illustrated itinerary from London to the Holy Land by Matthew Paris, showing the road from London to Beauvais.

The route from London to Beauvais, part of an illustrated itinerary from London to the Holy Land, formerly bound at the beginning of Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum and Chronica maiora. St Albans, c.1250, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2

A page from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book, showing an illustration of John Talbot presenting the book to Queen Margaret of Anjou, enthroned beside King Henry VI.

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, presents this book to Margaret of Anjou, enthroned beside Henry VI. The Shrewsbury Book, Rouen, 1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

Since December, the Royal project team has been posting images and descriptions of other manuscripts that will be featured in this exhibition. If you wish to see more of the books included in the exhibition, select the ‘Royal’ tag below.


too good to be true

at a time when booksellers are facing
stiff competition from kindles, e books and print on demand I applaud the British Library for reminding us of the beauty of books.

From Sarah Goodman, owner of Garden City Books @gardencitybooks

Eleven years ago I came into the British Library and just looked in wonder at the manuscripts on display and I used them in my work in making an illuminated manuscript of the Bible, the Authorized Version; I call it the Pepper Bible. In the Gospel According to Saint John, I used a lot of this leaf work, which is incredibly decorative and actually very easy to make it look fantastic! The American Bible Society made a film about my work and you can see it at my website I was blessed for this work by Pope John Paul II and the John Sentamu the Archbishop of York and I believe you may have some of my pages on deposit at the Library when I last visited. How would I go about to find out if you still have them and if they are properly indexed?

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