Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

12 posts from May 2015

09 May 2015

Magna Carta and the King's Forests

In medieval England, forest wardens were an important part of the administration of the kingdom, especially since hunting was a favourite royal pastime. According to Richard fitz Nigel, royal treasurer during the reign of Henry II (r. 1154-1189):

... in the forests are the kings’ retreats and their greatest delights. For they go there to hunt, leaving their cares behind, to refresh themselves with a little rest. There, setting aside the turmoil of serious matters intrinsic to the court, they breathe fresh air freely for a little while; and that is why people who violate the forest are punished solely at the king’s will.

(Dialogue of the Exchequer, trans. E. Amt)

Although regularly depicted enthroned, you may be familiar with this famous image of King John from the early 14th century showing him out hunting on horseback in the forest. The crowned king sits on a grey horse.  His pack of hounds pursues a stag, while a number of rabbits bolt into their holes and several birds watch the hunt from the safety of the trees.

Miniature of King John hunting from a fourteenth-century London manuscript (he probably needed the break!) (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r)

A comprehensive body of laws and administrative machinery protected the royal forests where kings could enjoy this recreation. And in individual forests wardens were nominated by the king and directly answerable to him. The sign of their office was a hunting horn which they carried and sounded while attending the king during a hunt.

BM-Savernake Horn
The Savernake Horn, an ivory hunting horn that belonged to the forest’s warden (courtesy of the British Museum)

This magnificent hunting horn, on loan from the British Museum, appears in our Magna Carta exhibition. It belonged to the Wardens of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire and was made in Italy of elephant ivory and later embellished in England with intricate silver and enamelled bands. The upper band near the mouth of the horn, thought to be the oldest, is probably 14th century, maybe from London and includes a representation of a king and bishop, each with a hand raised, while a forester blows his horn. Today, Savernake Forest is a conservation zone and a herd of 7 white park cattle are allowed to graze on the land to help maintain the woodland!

A white park steer in Savernake Forest (from the Grazing Advice Partnership)

Herds of this rare and ancient breed of cattle were enclosed in parks across Britain following the removal of many forest areas from the protection of the Forest Laws under the Forest Charter of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272).

C13550-78 - Copy
The Forest Charter, 11 February 1225 (British Library Additional Charter 24712)

This example of the 1225 Forest Charter, one of three surviving originals, also appears in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. In 1217, Henry III issued, alongside his new version of Magna Carta, a charter to deal specifically with the royal forest. It was in a February 1218 proclamation that the name ‘Magna Carta’ is first used to distinguish the Forest Charter from the longer and more comprehensive Great Charter.

Magna Carta, as originally issued by King John in 1215, had contained several clauses (44, 47–48 and 53) to reform the application of forest law and the forests themselves, promising to disafforest the forests John had created to extend his hunting privileges and unenclose the riverbanks he had enclosed to extend his fishing privileges. During his reign, the royal forest accounted for roughly a third of the kingdom and the penalties imposed for forest offences were a major source of revenue for the king. John was addressing long standing grievances which went back to the Norman Conquest in 1066 when King William I (r. 1066-1087) designated large swathes of land as special royal forests for the first time. As the Peterborough Chronicle put it:


He made great protection for the game

And imposed laws for the same,

that who so slew hart or hind

Should be made blind.


He preserved the harts and boars

And loved the stags as much

As if he were their father.

Moreover, for the hares did he decree that they should go free.

Powerful men complained of it and poor men lamented it,

But so fierce was he that he cared not for the rancour of them all,

But they had to follow out the king’s will entirely

if they wished to live or hold their land,

Property or estate, or his favour great.

(Peterborough Chronicle/Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1087; trans. D. Whitelock)

This changed royal hunting rights from an extension of what any landowner could do on their land to a specifically royal institution, established by arbitrary decrees. The royal forests continued to expand with each successive reign, and while the land enclosed did include infertile and uninhabited areas, it also covered large regions of sparsely populated land where people lived under onerous restrictions to things like the cutting down of trees for buildings or creating farmland and breaches of forest law were punished severely.

While there were some efforts to curtail the effects of forest law or the extent of the royal forests, any successes were temporary and this continued to be a contentious issue. As mentioned above, clauses for forest reform made their way into the 1215 text of Magna Carta. In 1216, the issue of ‘forests and foresters, warrens and warreners’ was important enough to be deferred for fuller considered at a later date before finally being addressed with the Forest Charter of 1217. The strenuous efforts by local communities subsequently to implement the reductions in the size of the forest promised in Henry III’s Forest Charter show how important this document was thought to be.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta, is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

Katherine Har

06 May 2015

Register for the Magna Carta Conference

The British Library has been a partner in the Magna Carta Project since 2012. This AHRC-funded research project culminates this summer in a three-day conference in London in the week of the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. The conference, which is being held at King's College London (17-18 June) and at the British Library (18-19 June), will be an opportunity to find out more about the new research and discoveries of the project. Full details of the programme and how to register are available here.

A charter issued by King John to Robert of Braybrooke, 25 July 1208, with the Great Seal attached, currently on display in the British Library's Magna Carta exhibition

Day two of the conference includes an evening private view of the British Library's exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, with an introduction to the exhibition by Claire Breay.

The Magna Carta Project's website provides a new English translation of Magna Carta and expert commentaries on each clause of the charter. The project has also sought out the surviving originals of King John's charters, and charters not found on the surviving charter rolls of John's government, as well as producing John's itinerary for 1214-15 and resources on Magna Carta for use in schools.

Members of the project had the opportunity to see the four surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts side-by-side on 4 February this year as part of the Magna Carta unification events at the British Library.


Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia), Tessa Webber (Trinity College, Cambridge) and David Carpenter (King's College London) examining the 1215 Magna Cartas with conservator Chris Woods

As well as the 17-19 June conference, there will be a further opportunity to find out more about the discoveries of the Magna Carta Project at a British Library panel discussion on Revelations of the Magna Carta Project on 5 June.

05 May 2015

An Even More Giant List of Manuscript Hyperlinks: Spring Update

The trees are blossoming and so too is our giant list of manuscript hyperlinks.

Download BL Ancient Medieval and Early Modern Digitised Manuscripts Master List 28.04.15

Miniature of a group of angels singing and scattering flowers, from Divina commedia, Italy, N. (Emilia or Padua), late 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 118r


The British Library’s website of Digitised Manuscripts has been flourishing over the last few months. It now features a second illustrated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Egerton MS 943), an 11th-century Mozarabic liturgy (Add MS 30845) and psalter (Add MS 30851), a treatise in French written by a young Edward VI (Add MS 5464), and the Hours of René of Anjou (Egerton MS 1070).

Mozarabic Liturgy, Spain, North (Burgos, ?Santo Domingo de Silos), 11th century, Add MS 30845, f. 42r

There was cause for cheer (and the most incredible cake) when we published the long-awaited manuscripts of the Lancelot-Grail cycle (Add MS 10292, Add MS 10293, Add MS 10294 and Add MS 10294/1).

The Greek Digitisation Project also came to a triumphant close with the upload of the final 75 manuscripts, which were featured in a recent blog post.

Some other early highlights from 2015 include three monumental Romanesque Bibles: the Parc Abbey Bible (Add MS 14788, Add MS 14789 and Add MS 14790), the Stavelot Bible (Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107, find out more here), and the Arnstein Bible (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799), with its famous depictions of the monstrous races. In addition, we published the British Library’s volumes of the Paris-Oxford-London Bible moralisée (Harley MS 1526 and Harley MS 1527, discussed here) and a rather wonderful Apocalypse manuscript (Yates Thompson MS 10).

St Luke's ox introduces the final horseman: he emerges from a gaping monster's mouth riding a pale horse and holding a sword (Revelation, 6: 7-8), from Apocalypse, France (Paris), c. 1370–c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 10r


And the first batch of Paston letters recently went live too!

But of course our work does not end here. As well as more letters from the Paston volumes, the summer months will bring six manuscripts with French prose romances, two incredible Biblical picture books and the 15th-century illustrations of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels. Watch this space!

- Hannah Morcos

01 May 2015

A Calendar Page for May 2015

To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for May, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and roundels, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

The Zodiac sign for May is Gemini, portrayed here unusually as conjoined twins (cephalothoracopagus twins, to be precise, who are joined at the thorax and share a single head). May is the month in which the Finding of the Holy Cross is celebrated. The event is depicted in one of the roundels, with the Pope and other figures standing as witnesses. In the scene below, the gentlewoman and her lapdog make a reappearance, boating on a river. She is playing music on a lute, while one of her companions accompanies her on an instrument resembling a recorder. In the background, two gentlemen are out hunting: they are riding on horseback, one of them bearing a hawk on his wrist. A servant follows, carrying a lance and also a hunting bird. 

Detail of the Zodiac sign for Gemini, portrayed as conjoined twins,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

Detail of a roundel depicting the Finding of the Holy Cross,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of boating and hunting,
Add MS 35313, f. 3v

- James Freeman