Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

14 posts from December 2011

13 December 2011

Rival Queens, Precious Books

Along with dozens of newly catalogued manuscripts and hundreds of new images, we have recently uploaded two fully digitised prayer books to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, which belonged to two very different Tudor queens.


Text page with marginal inscription by Lady Jane Grey to Sir John Bridges, Lady Jane Grey's Prayer Book, England, 1st half of the 16th century, Harley 2342, ff. 74v-75.

The first of these is Lady Jane Grey's Prayer Book (Harley 2342), a tiny volume (85 x 70 mm) which she is said to have carried to her execution. Lady Jane was a cousin of Henry VIII's son Edward VI. After his death in 1553, the 15-year-old Lady Jane, who was a devout Protestant, was convinced by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, that she should claim the throne of England in order to forestall the accession of the Catholic Princess Mary. Lady Jane's reign, however, lasted only nine days before she was overthrown in favour of Mary and sent to the Tower of London. She was eventually executed there on 12 February 1554.

According to an account of her execution published several months after her death, Lady Jane carried a small prayer book in her hands as she went to the scaffold. She is said to have read her final prayers from it, and then to have given it to Sir John Bridges, who was the lieutenant of the Tower of London. The book referred to is almost certainly Harley 2342, which is inscribed with a message from Jane to Sir John Bridges on ff. 74v-75v (above): 'Forasmutche as you have desired so simple a woman to wrighte in so worthye a booke (good) mayster lieutenaunte therefore I shall as a frende desyre you and as a christian require you to call uppon god to encline youre harte to his lawes to quicken you in his waye and not to take the worde of trewthe utterlye oute of youre mouthe...'.

C13488-96 Harley 2342 f. 78Text page with marginal inscription by Lady Jane Grey, Lady Jane Grey's Prayer Book, England, 1st half of the 16th century, Harley 2342, f. 78

There is also a moving message to Jane's father, the Duke of Suffolk, written across the margins of several pages. It begins on f. 78 (above): 'the lorde comforte youre grace and that in his worde whearen all creatures onlye are to be comforted and though it hathe pleased god to take awaye ij of youre children yet thincke not I moste humblye beseche youre grace that you have loste them but truste that we by leasinge this mortall life have wanne [won] an immortal life and I for my parte as I have honoured youre grace in thys life will praye for you in this life, youre gracys humble daughter Jane Duddley'.

Lady Jane Grey was succeeded on the throne by Mary Tudor, for whom our next manuscript was named. The Queen Mary Psalter (Royal 2 B. vii) has a complicated provenance, however; despite the name, it was not made for Mary Tudor, but came into her possession more than 200 years after it was created. The Psalter (or book of Psalms) was produced in England, probably London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. Scholars believe that it was designed for an aristocratic patron, and possibly a royal one, but unusually the manuscript contains no evidence (such as a colophon or coats of arms) that would point to its original owner. 

Although it is unclear who owned the Psalter for its first two centuries, by the 1550s it belonged to Henry Manners, the 2nd Earl of Rutland, who was arrested upon the accession of Queen Mary in July 1553. What happened to the Psalter in the next few months is unknown, but in October of that year the Psalter was seized by a customs officer named Baldwin Smith as it was evidently in the process of being removed from the country. Smith then presented the Psalter as a gift to Queen Mary. Queen Mary valued the book highly; she had it rebound with her device of a pomegranate (inherited from her mother, Catherine of Aragon), embroidered in gold thread on velvet. 

Binding of the Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1553-1558, Royal 2 B. vii

The Queen Mary Psalter is no simple prayer book; it contains a nearly unparalleled programme of illumination, all designed and executed by a single artist. There are more than 800 miniatures, historiated initials and bas-de-page (bottom of the page) images; sometimes all three kinds of decoration can be found on the same page.


Miniature of the Baptism of Christ, Queen Mary Psalter, England (London / Westminster or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal 2 B. vii, f. 190v

Above is a page with the beginning of Psalm 80 ('Exultate Deo aduitori nostro iubilate Deo Iacob', 'Rejoice to God, our helper; sing aloud to the God of Jacob'). The miniature shows the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, assisted by a helpful angel. Below is a historiated initial of King David playing the bells, and beneath is a bas-de-page scene of a unicorn and a lion (animals that were, probably not coincidentally, symbols both of Christ and of England).

The Queen Mary Psalter is currently on display in the Royal exhibition, and it is also featured in the Royal app.


- Sarah J Biggs


09 December 2011

Gaston Fébus at the Musée de Cluny


Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Bruges, c. 1470-1472: London, British Library, MS. Harley 4379, f. 125v

If you happen to be in Paris this winter, take the opportunity to visit the exhibition dedicated to Gaston Fébus at the Musée National du Moyen Age. Housed in the former buildings of Cluny Abbey, close to Notre-Dame, this exhibition focuses on the life of one of the most colourful medieval French aristocrats.

Gaston III, count of Foix and viscount of Béarn (d. 1391), was nicknamed Fébus (after Phoebus, one of the epithets of Apollo, god of the light). Gaston was renowned for his love of hunting, even to his dying day -- he collapsed and died while washing his hands after a bear hunt -- and wrote a popular treatise on the subject, Livre de Chasse (The Book of the Hunt).

Gaston was a great bibliophile, and doubtless would have been hugely impressed by the illuminated manuscripts assembled in his honour at Cluny. Among them is a 15th century copy of Froissart's Chronicles (Harley 4379), which illustrates Gaston on his sickbed, having been poisoned by his own son, also named Gaston. In a twist of fate, Gaston Fébus survived his poisoning, and later stabbed his son to death during a quarrel. Another illegitimate son died in 1393 when his costume caught fire in a masquerade organised by the Queen of France, known as the Bal des Ardents (the Ball of the Burning Men). King Charles VI of France (1380-1422) almost died in the same fire.

Gaston Fébus: prince Soleil will be on display at the Musée National du Moyen Age until 5 March 2012. It features loans from the British Library, the British Museum, the Louvre and other institutions.

06 December 2011

Apocalypse Now

A casual glance at the current list of best-selling books reveals that cookery, biography and natural history whet the modern appetite. Modern readers can learn about global warming, 20th century warfare and vegetarian cooking, while simultaneously reading Gangsta Granny to their children.

In medieval England, in contrast, illustrated copies of the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) were amongst the most popular books. The manuscripts in question are richly illustrated, with the text supplying captions to the images. Most of the surviving copies are in French (the language of the English aristocracy of the time), which suggests that they were intended for a wider audience than if they had been written in Latin.


Miniature of Christ enthroned with the twenty-four elders and, in the lower register, the door opened in Heaven, illustrating Revelation 4:2-9: Royal 15 D. ii, f. 117v

Royal 15 D. ii is one such illustrated Apocalypse, made in England during the 14th century. Its original owner is unknown, but by 1430 it was included in an inventory of the books of Leo, 6th Baron Welles (d. 1461). Leo’s son, John, Viscount Welles (d. 1499), married King Edward IV’s daughter Cecily (d. 1507) in 1488; and Cecily clearly used this Apocalypse, since her name (subsequently erased) is found at the front of the book. The Welles estates were seized by Henry VII (r. 1485-1509), and the manuscript may have become part of the Old Royal Library at this time.

Typically Apocalypses have large illustrations, either running along the upper portion of each page or, as in this manuscript, integrated within the text. The biblical verses are highly abridged, and are coupled with simplistic commentaries. This points to an aristocratic lay audience, who may have derived as much pleasure from the images as from the text itself.

This beautiful manuscript and many others are featured in our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012).

05 December 2011

More Royal events

From now until March 2012, the British Library is hosting a series of events to celebrate our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. You can see the full list and make your bookings here.

SOLD OUT 12 December The Story of a Book Television presenter Michael Wood tells the story of one manuscript's journey from France to Italy and Anglo-Saxon England. Please note: this event is already sold out.

12-13 December Royal Manuscripts Conference An international conference featuring 18 speakers over 2 days, offering fresh insights into some of the manuscripts displayed in the exhibition. 


SOLD OUT 13 December The English Castle Expert John Goodall narrates the history of the use and development of castles in medieval England. Please note: this event is already sold out.

16 December The King of Beasts Author and researcher Deirdre Jackson presents a lavishly illustrated talk on the lion, a symbol of royalty for millennia.


9 January The Death of King Arthur Join acclaimed poet Simon Armitage as he reads from his new translation of The Alliterative Morte Arthure, in discussion with Erica Wagner, Literary Editor, The Times.

13 January Sacred Monarchy in Medieval England Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, considers the nature of medieval holy kingship and its implications for the sixteenth-century Reformation of the Church.


20 January Royal Manuscripts: The Making of an Exhibition Curators Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle discuss their experiences of mounting this major exhibition. Please note: this event is free of charge.

20 January Monarchs and their Books A rare opportunity to visit the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, and to visit the Royal bindery, where the sovereign's books have been repaired for many centuries. Please note: this event should be booked directly via Windsor Castle, where it takes place.

30 January Towton 1461 and the Destruction of Medieval Kingship George Goodwin, author of Fatal Colours: Towton 1461, charts Henry VI's tragic reign, culminating in medieval England's most brutal battle.


3 February Sublime Words, Ridiculous Images During the Middle Ages books containing sacred texts often featured playful and shocking images, as Alixe Bovey explains.

10 February The Royal Library: Old and New Discover the stories of the royal libraries now housed at the British Library and Windsor Castle, in conjunction with Kathleen Doyle, John Goldfinch and Jane Roberts.


10 February The Sixteen: Musical Illuminations Internationally-renowned choir The Sixteen, led by their founder and conductor Harry Christophers, present a programme of late medieval music, including pieces by King Henry VIII. Please note: this will be an unseated performance.

17 February Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination Study Day A day of fascinating talks and workshops related to the exhibition, including a demonstration by Patricia Lovett of how to make a medieval manuscript. Please note: includes entry to the exhibition.

2 March Late at The British Library: Illuminate! A late event showcasing graphic novelists, cartoonists, children's books illustrators, calligraphers and contemporary illuminators, with a bar, DJs and VJs.


9 March New Learning Out of Old Books: Henry VIII and the Invention of the Royal Library Celebrated historian David Starkey explains how Henry VIII turned the Royal collection into a working library, laying the foundations for a national book repository.

02 December 2011

Seal of Approval: A Medieval Mystery

At a current estimate, the British Library's collections number 170 million books, manuscripts, newspapers, stamps and other related material. Our medieval curators are responsible for the Library's wax seals, most of which were once attached to old documents. These seals were transferred to the British Library at its incorporation in 1973; the British Museum still holds many of the matrices from which the seals were made.

Matrix BL Seal Copy

We recently heard about the discovery of a medieval seal matrix, found in a field in Surrey. The matrix is made of bronze, dates from the 13th century, and belonged to the Augustinian canons of Stone Priory in Staffordshire. The British Library holds a sulphur cast made in the 19th century from a Stone Priory seal (Detached Seal LXXII. 43); and we were very fortunate that the owner of the matrix brought it in to show us, so that we could place the two objects side-by-side. As you can see, they are a perfect match.

Matrix BL Together

The matrix (on the right) is approximately 7 cm long and 5 cm wide, and weighs 84 grams. Like many ecclesiastical seal matrices, it depicts the Virgin and Child, with an inscription revealing that it belonged to the church of SS Mary and Wulfad of Stone.

It's still a mystery how a seal matrix from Staffordshire should have found its way into a Surrey field. Stone Priory was dissolved by King Henry VIII's commissioners in 1536, at the time when the smaller monasteries were suppressed. Did one of the last canons take the matrix with him, perhaps to Newark Priory in Surrey, which is near the find-site? The British Library and the matrix's owner would love to know if you have any suggestions.

01 December 2011

A Calendar Page for December

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


Additional 18851, f. 7: calendar page for December

On this calendar page for the month of December, the zodiac sign for Capricorn is more prosaic than usually depicted; the traditional half-goat, half-fish figure has lost its piscene lower half.  Below him, and under a wintry sky, the work of slaughtering, butchering, and cooking the fattened hogs of November is taking place in the courtyard of a brick building.