26 January 2012
Genealogy of a Royal Bastard
It may seem somewhat obvious to state that the majority of medieval manuscripts were created in codex (or book) form, but it is important to remember that this was not always the case. Rolls were the preferred, and most prestigious, form throughout the classical period, only being supplanted by the codex in the Christian era. Nonetheless, rolls (or more familiarly, scrolls) remained in use in medieval Europe, particularly for special projects. Visitors to our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination can see prayer rolls such as those created for Margaret of Anjou (MS 124, on loan from Jesus College, Oxford) and that owned and used by Henry VIII when he was Prince of Wales (British Library Additional 88929). Also displayed are two of the treasures of the Royal collection, a pair of genealogical chronicles of the English kings (Royal 14 B. v and Royal 14 B. vi, both now fully digitised and available online).
The roll format was ideal for the presentation of history as genealogy or a royal family tree, with detailed long diagrams of royal descent featuring kings and members of their families in roundels. The images are accompanied by short captions and commentary on the royal portraits, mostly variants on text from an anonymous Anglo-Norman chronicle. The ultimate source of this particularly diagrammatic history of the English monarchy may be Matthew Paris, the monk and historian of St Albans (d. 1259) whose works feature elsewhere in the exhibition; for a much more detailed description of the history please see Joanna Frońska's essay on the rolls in the exhibition catalogue, or her virtual exhibition Writing and Picturing History: Historical Manuscripts from the Royal Collection.
These rolls were particularly popular in England in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, with around forty surviving from the time of Edward I's accession in 1272 to the end of Henry V's reign in 1422. Probably created for the aristocracy or other wealthy patrons, these genealogical chronicles sought to emphasize the legitimacy of the Plantagenets through their connections to both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal dynasties.
Royal 14 B. vi is nearly five metres long, formed of seven membranes (sheets of parchment) glued end-to-end. It begins, as many like rolls do, with a large circular diagram of the Heptarchy, which represents the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex; see above). The first king depicted is 'Ecgberht' (Egbert, d. 839), the King of Wessex who was said to have united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. A series of Anglo-Saxon kings are followed by Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy (d. c. 932) and descending to William the Conqueror, or 'William the Bastard' as he was then known and thus labelled in the roll.
William the Bastard had an unenviably difficult status, as both illegitimate and the usurper of the English throne, but efforts were made to reconcile him with 'English royalty' through the House of Plantagenet. The blue genealogical line which can be seen along the left of this section (see below) stretches nearly a metre long, linking St Margaret, the grand-daughter of the Anglo-Saxon Edmund Ironside (half-brother of Edward the Confessor) to Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I and grandmother of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king. (This link can be dramatically seen in the first episode of the BBC 4 programme Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, available on BBC iPlayer, during which Janina Ramirez and Dr Frońska unroll the chronicle to examine this complex genealogy.)
Detail of roundels of the dukes of Normandy, ancestors of William the Conqueror ('William Bastard'), and descendants of Wililam the Conqueror, from a genealogical chronicle of the kings of England, England (East Anglia?), c. 1340-1342, Royal 14 B. vi, membrane 5
- Sarah J Biggs