Medieval manuscripts blog

16 posts from February 2012

29 February 2012

Things to do tonight

1. Put out the cat.

2. Put out the rubbish.

3. Make a nice cup of tea (you wouldn't want a horrible cup of tea, would you?).

4. Double-check that you haven't confused the cat with the rubbish.

5. Tune into BBC HD at 19.00 for Ruling by the Book, the first episode of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.

6. Phone all your friends and tell them to watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

7. Feel justifiably pleased with yourself.


27 February 2012

Illuminations on BBC HD

K90058-24 19 D iii f. 3 for Twitter

For those of you who missed Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings the first time round, or who are simply missing your fix of beautiful manuscripts, fear not! All three episodes of this BBC series, presented by Dr Janina Ramirez and featuring treasures from the British Library exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, are to be shown again on BBC HD, starting on Wednesday, 29 February (19.00).


Janina Ramirez standing beside King Athelstan's tomb at Malmesbury Abbey

The first showing of Illuminations on BBC Four attracted over 700,000 viewers. A DVD of the entire series is available from the British Library shop, priced £15.

Meanwhile, Royal Manuscripts closes on 13 March 2012, catch it while you can at the British Library.

26 February 2012

Help Us Save the St Cuthbert Gospel for the Nation

CF034939 jpgcropped

Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has endorsed the British Library’s appeal to acquire the 7th-century St Cuthbert Gospel for the nation, as we enter the final phase of our £9million appeal.

Bragg featured the Gospel on his recent Radio 4 series, In Our Time: The Written World, which charted the development of the written word throughout history. As the earliest surviving intact Western book, the St Cuthbert Gospel is the starting point for the history of the book as we know it today. He has described it as “unique, British and one of the great glories among books”. Read the blog entry by Tom Morris, producer of The Written World, which describes the first time he and Melvyn Bragg set eyes on the St Cuthbert Gospel.

The Gospel, which retains its original red leather binding, looks exactly the same today – inside and out – as it did to the monks who created it fourteen centuries ago.


Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library, says “By acquiring the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Library will be able to preserve and provide access to it for present and future generations. We have also developed an innovative display partnership with partner organisations in the North East which will allow the Gospel to be exhibited in the region where it was created for 50% of the time that it is on display.”

The appeal has already received outstanding support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Garfield Weston Foundation, and it has also resonated with donors across the country. £7.25million has been raised in less than a year and the Library is now working to close the remaining gap by the end of March.

This is your chance to get involved. For more information about the St Cuthbert Gospel appeal and to give online, please visit You can read more about the St Cuthbert Gospel here.

UPDATE (17 April 2012) The St Cuthbert Gospel has now been acquired by the British Library, following a successful fundraising appeal. Thank you to all our supporters for making this possible.


24 February 2012

The Wheel of Fortune

E027044 Royal 18 D. ii f. 30v

Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune with a crowned king at the top, from John Lydgate's Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 30v.

Historical and legendary figures were often used as models in the education of princes and other young nobles. See our Facebook page for the Instruction section of our Royal exhibition, which features many of these so-called 'Mirrors for Princes'.  The legend of Troy was particularly popular because all European royalty traced their descent from Trojan heroes.  In the fifteenth century the poet John Lydgate (d. c. 1451) provided an English version of these stories, which had previously only circulated in French and Latin.

The present manuscript (Royal 18 D. ii) was commissioned by Sir William Herbert (d. 1469) and his wife Anne Devereux (d. c. 1486), who are depicted in a large image with their arms and motto, kneeling before an enthroned king (see below).  It is likely, therefore, that the Herberts presented the copy to a king, although opinions differ about whether this was the Yorkist Edward IV (r. 1461-1483) or the Lancastrian Henry VI (r. 1422-61, d. 1471).  Lydgate himself was a Lancastrian supporter, as is clear from the text of his prologue, which praises Henry V.  The inclusion of this prologue makes it more likely that this book was intended as a gift to Henry's son, Henry VI.

The illumination pictured above - the Wheel of Fortune - is unique amongst the seven extant illuminated copies of the Troy Book.  The Rota Fortunae was a concept familiar to the medieval reader, and this image would have reminded the viewer of the fragility of power, a lesson appropriate to either of the manuscript's possible royal recipients.  In the miniature, a crowned king is shown sitting atop a gold wheel, which is being turned by a crowned personification of Fortune. Other richly dressed figures are toppling from the wheel - a fitting metaphor for the shifting fortunes of the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings.

E071486 Royal 18 D. ii f. 6

Detail of a miniature of a king enthroned surrounded by courtiers with Sir William Herbert and his wife, Anne Devereux kneeling before him, wearing clothes decorated with their coats of arms, from John Lydgate's Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 6.

Royal 18 D. ii is currently on display in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (until 13 March 2012), and is also featured in the Royal app, available for iPhone, iPad or Android.

- Royal Project Team

23 February 2012

Which Royal Manuscripts Should We Digitise?

K90058-24 Royal 19 D iii f. 3

Miniature of God the Creator, from a Bible Historiale, France (Clairfontaine and Paris), 1411, Royal 19 D. iii, vol. 1, f. 3

We are pleased to announce that the British Library has recently been awarded a research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to facilitate on-going research for the Royal project.  Each year the AHRC provides funding from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities.  Only applications of the highest quality are funded and the range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. 

The British Library's Royal project is funded by the AHRC as part of its Digital Transformations in Arts and Humanities theme and contributes to a package of measures aimed at developing innovative approaches to archiving, accessing and using data in the arts and humanities.  This package of measures is supported as part of the additional investment to enhance the national e.infrastructure for research, announced by the Government in October 2011.

An important part of this new research grant will enable us to digitise fully a number of the manuscripts that are currently featured in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination; these manuscripts will soon be freely available to all on our Digitised Manuscripts site.   So far we have selected 41 manuscripts from the current Royal exhibition to be included on Digitised Manuscripts; please see the list below.

One of the principal goals of our follow-on Royal project is to be responsive to current research needs, and to select manuscripts for digitisation that will have the biggest impact in these areas. To that end, we would like to invite your thoughts and ideas about which manuscripts should be included in our final list.   It will be possible to select another 6 - 10 manuscripts to be digitised in full (depending, of course, on their length); we would love to hear your feedback.

We have already selected for digitisation the 41 items in the list below.  Please send your suggestions for other candidates to [email protected] or in the comments to this post.  The only 'rule' is that the manuscript should be one that is currently on display in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination; for more details on the manuscripts please see our Facebook albums.


Royal Manuscripts for Digitisation

Royal 1 C. vii

The Rochester Bible, England (Rochester), second quarter of the 12th century

Royal 1 D. ix

The Cnut Gospels, England (Christ Church, Canterbury), c. 1020

Royal 10 E. iv

The Smithfield Decretals, France (Toulouse?), c. 1300 and London, c. 1340s

Royal 12 C. viii

Pandolfo Collenuccio, Apologues, Italy (Rome and Florence), c. 1509 – c. 1517

Royal 13 B. viii

Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 - c. 1223

Royal 14 E. iii

Estoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), first quarter of the 14th century

Royal 14 E. iv

Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre, France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 – c. 1480

Royal 15 D. i

Guyart des Moulins, Bible Historiale (Bible Historiale of Edward IV, part 4), Netherlands (Bruges), 1470 and c. 1479

Royal 15 E. iv

Jean de Wavrin, Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1471 - 1483

Royal 15 E. vi

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445

Royal 16 F. ii

Poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, Netherlands (Bruges), third quarter of the 15th century (before 1483)

Royal 16 G. vi

Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France (Paris), between 1332 – 1350

Royal 16 G. viii

Bellum Gallicum (Les commentaires de Cesar), France (Lille) and Netherlands (Bruges), 1473-1476

Royal 17 D. vi

Thomas Hoccleve, The Regement of Princes, England, second quarter of the 15th century

Royal 17 E. vii

Guyart des Moulins, Bible historiale complétée (Genesis - Psalms), France (Paris ?), 1357

Royal 17 F. ii

La grant hystoire Cesar, i.e. Les faits des Romains, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479

Royal 18 D. ii

John Lydgate, Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, England (London?), c. 1457-1460

Royal 18 D. ix

Guyart des Moulins, Bible Historiale (Bible Historiale of Edward IV, part 1), Netherlands (Bruges), 1479

Royal 18 D. x

Guyart des Moulins, Bible Historiale (Bible Historiale of Edward IV, part 2), Netherlands (Bruges), 1479

Royal 18 E. ii

Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Netherlands (Bruges), last quarter of the 15th century (before 1483)

Royal 18 E. iii

Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479

Royal 19 B. xiii

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, France (Paris), c. 1320 – c. 1340

Royal 19 C. iv

Le Songe du Vergier, France (Paris), 1378

Royal 19 D. ii

Guyart des Moulins, Bible Historiale (Bible Historiale of John the Good), France (Paris), c. 1350 – before 1356

Royal 19 D. iii

Guyart des Moulins, Bible Historiale, France (Paris and Clairefontaine), 1411

Royal 2 A. xviii

The Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, England (London), c. 1430, before 1443

Royal 2 A. xxii

The Westminster Psalter, England (Westminster or St Albans), c. 1200

Royal 2 B. i

The Psalter of Humfrey of Gloucester, England (London), second quarter of the 15th century (before 1447)

Royal 20 A. xvii

Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, Thomas de Bailleul, Roman de la Rose and la Bataille d'Annezin, France (Artois or Picardy), c. 1340

Royal 20 D. i

Histoire ancienne jusq'à César, Italy (Naples), second quarter of the 14th century

Royal 20 D. iv

Lancelot du Lac, France (Arras ?), first quarter of the 14th century


Add 18850

The Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410 - 1430

Royal 1 E. vi

The Canterbury Royal Bible, England (Canterbury), first half of the 9th century

Royal 11 E. xi

Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp?), 1516

Royal 14 B. v

Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, England, last quarter of the 13th century

Royal 14 B. vi

Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings. England, c. 1300

Royal 14 C. vii

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora, Part III, England (St Albans), 1250 – 1259

Royal 2 A. xvi

The Psalter of Henry VIII, England (London), c. 1540

Royal 2 B. vii

The Queen Mary Psalter, England (London / Westminster or East Anglia?), between 1310 - 1320

Harley 1498

Quadripartite Indenture for Henry VII’s Chapel (The Harley Indenture), England (London), 1504

Egerton 3277

The Bohun Psalter and Hours, England (London?), after 1356 and probably before 1373


AHRC logo

21 February 2012

Magna Carta in 500 Words

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in history, and is among the British Library's greatest treasures. See our dedicated Magna Carta webpages to view the original manuscript, watch our virtual curator answer frequently asked questions, and read a translation into English.

Magna Carta in a 14th century English legal compilation, currently on show in our Royal exhibition: London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D. II, f. 139r.

In the meantime, how many of these Magna Carta facts did you already know?

1. Magna Carta (‘The Great Charter’) was so-named in the thirteenth century, to distinguish it from the shorter ‘Charter of the Forests’.

2. King John did not sign Magna Carta. Instead, the royal chancery affixed the king’s seal to each copy of the document, made from beeswax and resin and attached with plaited cords.

3. Four contemporary copies (or exemplifications) of Magna Carta survive: two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and the other at Salisbury Cathedral.

4. The Salisbury copy is presumably that sent in 1215 to either Bishop Herbert Poore (1194–1217) or the sheriff of Wiltshire; that now at Lincoln is the copy sent to Bishop Hugh (1209–35) or the sheriff of Lincolnshire. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln is named in Magna Carta as one of the king’s advisers.

5. Both British Library copies of the 1215 Magna Carta were owned by the Parliamentarian and antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631): one was found by Humphrey Wyems of the Inner Temple in a London tailor’s shop; the other was sent to Cotton in 1630 by Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644), Lieutenant of Dover Castle.

Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), owner of two of the four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta.

6. The original version of Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III on 24 August 1215, on the grounds that it was ‘as unlawful and unjust as it is base and shameful’. It had been legally valid for just ten weeks.

7. Magna Carta was re-issued with adaptations by King John’s successors. The 1225 version was copied onto the first English statute roll in 1297.

8. Three clauses of the 1215 Magna Carta remain valid:

(1) the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired;

(2) the city of London shall enjoy all its ancient liberties and free customs ... all other cities, boroughs, towns and ports shall enjoy all their liberties and free customs;

(3) to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

9. Among King John’s advisers named in Magna Carta are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and Alan of Galloway, Constable of Scotland. The king was opposed by twenty-five barons, listed in a separate document drawn up in 1215 (the Articles of the Barons), also preserved at the British Library.

10. Magna Carta has echoes in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It formed the basis for parts of the laws of Pennsylvania, drawn up by William Penn (d. 1718).

17 February 2012

A Book of Two Princes

C13015-01 Cotton Domitian A. xvii f. 50

Miniature of Henry VI / Dauphin Louis with St Louis before the Virgin & Child, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. xvii, f. 50

This justly famous image is from a deluxe Psalter that served as both a French and an English royal book.  The manuscript is suitably grand - almost every page is ornamented with a border of gold ivy leaves, and it is decorated by a series of large illustrations in the most fashionable style of the period (some of which can be seen at the bottom).  These paintings include six of a young boy engaged in devout prayer before the Virgin and the Christ Child.  At the beginning of Psalm 26 (above) this boy is accompanied by St Louis, while in another he is attended by St Catherine.

Since he is wearing a crown and is accompanied by the arms of England and France, the prince in these miniatures is often identified as the young Henry VI (r. 1422-61 & 1470-71).  However, the arms of England were a later addition to the manuscript.  Given his apparent age, royal status, and his attendance by St Louis, it is rather more likely that this boy is in fact the Dauphin Louis, Duke of Guyenne (b. 1397, d. 1415).  In around 1405-10 Louis's mother, Isabel of Bavaria, is recorded as having devotional manuscripts made for her other children.  This opulent book may also have been commissioned by the Queen as a very personalised devotional book for her young son.

The circumstances and timing of the modification of the royal arms (which took place at the same time as the addition of several other illuminations) is unclear.  One possibility is that the Psalter was acquired by Louis's sister, Catherine of France, who married Henry V in 1420.  Perhaps Catherine had the luxurious book modified for her own young son, Henry VI.

C13033-02 Cotton Domitian A xvii f. 122v

Miniature of monks in a choir, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. xvii, f. 122v

C13033-03 Cotton Domitian A. xvii f. 123

Miniature of Christ and his Apostles in a ship during a storm at sea, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10 (with later additions), Cotton Domitian A. xvii, f. 123

The Psalter of Henry VI (or perhaps it should be called the Psalter of 'Henry VI') is currently on display in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.  The exhibition closes on 13 March, so plan your visit soon!

- Royal project team

15 February 2012

Turn the Pages of Our Royal Manuscripts

F. 256v
The Bedford Hours: London, British Library, MS Additional 18850, f. 256v

Recently added to our Royal Manuscripts website are more books viewable using the award-winning Turning the PagesTM software. "Turning the Pages" does exactly what it says: it enables you to scroll through the leaves of a virtual book, and you can also zoom in on the finer details.

Four manuscripts in our exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (11 November 2011-13 March 2012) are available on Turning the Pages. Sit back in the comfort of your living room or office and browse the pages of some of our beautiful books.

1.  Henry VIII's Psalter

2.  Medieval Bestiary

3.  The Bedford Hours

4.  Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

Psalter of King Henry VIII: London, British Library, MS Royal 2 A. XVI, f. 3r

More British Library books available on Turning the Pages can be viewed here. They include Handel's Messiah, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, and a selection of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci.