Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

9 posts from November 2015

24 November 2015

Beware the Sybil's Prophecy!

The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a medieval best-seller, surviving in over 100 manuscripts from the 11th to the 16th century, predicts, among other things, the reign of evil despots, the return of the Antichrist and the sun turning to blood.

This, and our earlier two posts on Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts, focus on the tales that Ward classified as ‘CLASSICAL ROMANCES’. He lists 11 manuscripts of the Sibyl’s prophecy in our collections, but there are 15 in all.

Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Book of Hours, use of Rome, Master of James IV of Scotland, Bruges or Ghent, circa 1510, Add MS 35313, f. 90r

The Text

The Tenth or Tiburtine Sibyl was a pagan prophetess perhaps of Etruscan origin. To quote Lactantus in his general account of the ten sibyls in the introduction, ‘The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the Anio in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand’. (Tibur is the modern Tivoli: at the Villa d'Este, built in the 16th century, murals depict her prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.)

The work interprets the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world; 9 suns appear in the sky, each one more ugly and bloodstained than the last, representing the 9 generations of mankind and ending with Judgment Day. The original Greek version dates from the end of the 4th century and the earliest surviving manuscript in Latin is dated 1047 (Madrid, Escorial ms &.1.3). There are a small number of vernacular manuscripts, including an Anglo-Norman version by Philippe de Thaon (BnF fr. 25407). The Tiburtine Sibyl is often depicted with Emperor Augustus, who asks her if he should be worshipped as a god. This image from the margins of a Dutch prayerbook is an example:

Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v-18r E093635
Augustus kneeling, with the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesying, in the lower right border (f. 18r); a miniature of the Annunciation; historiated initial 'H'(ere) with Virgin and Child shown as the woman of the Apocalypse; John on Patmos in the border (f. 17v), at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, Netherlands, N. (Haarlem? or Beverwijk?), 1486, Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v - 18r.

Early English transmission of the prophecy is often linked to the larger monastic houses such as Rochester and Canterbury, where political prophecies such as the Prophecies of Merlin were popular works. Included in the text is a list of the succession of Roman emperors, and medieval scribes added to this and inserted significant political events from their own times into the prophecy. It is a short text of 3 or 4 folios, usually found in collections of chronicles and historical material, sometimes incorporated into other historical works, including those of Godfrey of Viterbo (12th century) and Matthew Paris (13th century). The emphasis on role of the emperors and kings in the history of the world made this an ideal tool of political propaganda and this may have accounted for its popularity.

The Latin text was often attributed to Bede, and was first printed among his works in Basel in 1563, and later among the works of Pseudo-Bede in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (PL 90, 1181B-1186C).

The Manuscripts

Ward lists the following manuscripts:

Royal MS 15 A XXII from Rochester Cathedral Priory and Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV from Christ Church, Canterbury, for which the former was the exemplar, are the earliest manuscripts in our collections, copied in the first quarter of the 12th century. Both also contain Solinus Collectanea and Dares Phrygius Historia Troianorum:

Initial 'P'(eleus) at the beginning of the introductory epistle of Dares Phrygius, England, S.E. (Rochester) 1st quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 15 A XXII, f. 73v

Royal MS 15 B XI (12/13C), closely related to the Royal and Cotton manuscripts above, and is again from Rochester Cathedral Priory.

Zoomorphic initial 'Q'(uo) with outline drawing of a dragon and foliate decoration from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which follow the Prophecy in this manuscript, England, S.E., 4th quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 15 B XI, f. 70v

Royal MS 13 A XIV, an Irish volume from the late 13th or early 14th century that formerly belonged to the Dominican Friary at Limerick and contains a version of the Topographia Hibernica of Giraldus Cambrensis.

Puzzle initial 'O'(mnibus), at the beginning of the Historia Mongalorum, Ireland, last quarter of the 13th century, or 1st quarter of the 14th century Royal MS 13 A XIV, f. 198r

Arundel MS 326: This historical and theological miscellany includes the annals of Abingdon and the Historia Regum Britanniae and is thought to be from Abingdon Abbey. For some reason Ward describes this manuscript in a later section dealing with the English chronicles, but does not include it in the list for the present text.

Egerton MS 810, from Germany in the late 12th or early 13th century and includes Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

Text page with a decorated initial from the beginning of the Life of Charlemagne, Germany, W. 1125-1174, Egerton MS 810, f. 94r.

Cotton MS Titus D III, a 13th-century copy in a collection with the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo and Apollonius of Tyre.

Cotton MS Claudius B VII, a 13th-century Litchfield manuscript that again includes Dares Phrygius, along with Turpin’s Chronicle and the Prophecies of Merlin.

Cotton MS Vespasian E IV, a 13th-century collection of chronicles and genealogies including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britannie

Cotton MS Caligula A X, an early 14th century manuscript containing a Chronicle of Worcester Cathedral Priory up to 1377 and other material relating to Worcester .

Cotton MS Domitian A XIII, a composite manuscript in which a version of the prophecy from the 13th century (ff. 104-107) is bound with a later 14th century copy (ff. 132v-134v).

Manuscripts not in Ward’s catalogue:

In her study, The Sibyl and Her Scribe, Anke Holdenried lists further copies of the text, now in the British Library, that were either not known to Ward or were acquired after his catalogue was published:

Add MS 50003

Add MS 50003_f. 220v
The tripartite prologue to the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, with a historiated initial ‘I’(heronimus) at the beginning, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 220v

This manuscript was one of seven manuscripts bequeathed to the British Museum by Charles William Dyson Perrins, collector and bibliophile (1914-1958). An illuminated Bible from Spain, copied by Johannes Poncii, canon of Vich in Catalonia in 1273, it provides one of the most fascinating contexts for the text and images of the Tiburtine Sibyl. The prophecy has been inserted into the biblical text in between the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs.

Add MS 50003_f.221r
Historiated initial ‘F’(uit) depicting the Tiburtine Sibyl, with the words ‘Decima tiburtina Grece’ in the lines above, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 221r.

Add MS 38665

In this early 15th-century collection, including Aesop’s fables, in the hand of John Streech, canon of the Augustinian Priory of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, the prophecy follows an excerpt of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Ymago Mundi.

Sloane MS 156, a 15th-century miscellany and Sloane MS 289, a direct copy from Arundel MS 326.

Other images of the Sibyl

The collections of chronicles and prophecies in which the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl is often found tended to be for practical use and therefore are not lavishly illustrated, but images of Tiburtina and her fellow sibyls appear in other contexts where their prophecies are alluded to.

This is an opportunity to display an image from the fabulous Harley MS 4431, produced by Christine de Pizan for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (b. 1371, d. 1435) and illuminated by two of the leading Parisian artists of the early 15th century. Included in this collection of Christine’s works is L'Épître Othéa (The Epistle of Othea to Hector), in which the goddess teaches Hector the art of chivalry, providing examples from characters in mythology, including the Tiburtine Sibyl.

Miniature of the Tiburtine Sibyl revealing to Caesar Augustus a vision of the Virgin and Child, in 'L'Épître Othéa', France (Paris), 1410-1440, Harley MS 4431, f. 141r.

Finally, a search for ‘sibyl’ in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives a number of results, including this French image of the Erithrean Sibyl, who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Erythrae in Ionia. It is from a copy of a French translation of Boccaccio’s work, Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées:

Detail of a miniature of the Erithrean Sibyl writing, with a partial border and a foliate initial 'E'(rithire), at the beginning of chapter XXI, France, N. (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 23.

Footnote: The Tiburtine Sibyl makes an appearance in the National Gallery’s current Botticini exhibition, ‘Visions of Paradise’, which we featured in a recent post.  There is an engraving of her, attributed to Baldini, which is compared to the Sibyl represented in Botticini’s painting. The catalogue points to the distinctive headdress of the Sibyls in both images, not dissimilar from the one in our image from a Flemish Book of Hours, shown above (Harley 2943, f. 1).

Further reading

L. D. Ward , Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1883-1910), I (1883), pp. 190-95.

Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin ‘Sibylla Tiburtina c.1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

- Chantry Westwell

21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

19 November 2015

Anglo-Saxon Digitisation Project Now Underway

The British Library possesses the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world. Many of these manuscripts are already available via our Digitised Manuscripts website, and we are delighted to announce that dozens more will be added in the coming months as part of a new digitisation project.  These manuscripts will include the B, D, and F versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, manuscripts with early musical notation, Archbishop Wulfstan’s letter book, laws, saints’ lives, early manuscripts of Ælfric’s writings, charms, and medical recipes.  This digitisation has been generously funded by a donation made in memory of Melvin R Seiden.

Zoomorphic pen-drawn initial from the beginning of a book in an Old English translation and compilation of Orosius, from the Tollemache Orosius, Add MS 47967, f. 48v

The first five manuscripts have gone already gone online.  These include the earliest copy of the Old English version of Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos, an early eleventh-century schoolbook, and two manuscripts associated with Bishop Leofric of Exeter.  So click over to Digitised Manuscripts for images of fantastical creatures in interlace initials, an imaginary dialogue between a monk, a cook, and a baker, and early musical notation! 

Zoomorphic initial ‘H’ at the beginning of a text, Harley MS 110, f. 3r

Add MS 28188:  Pontifical with litanies and benedictional (imperfect), England (Exeter), 3rd quarter of the 11th century

Add MS 32246:  Fragment of Excerptiones de Prisciano with the 'Elegy of Herbert and Wulfgar', glossaries, and Ælfric's Colloquy, England (Berkshire?), 1st half of the 11th century

Add MS 47967:  Orosius, Historia adversus paganos ('The Old English Orosius' or 'The Tollemache Orosius' ), England (Winchester), 900-1000

Harley MS 110:  Glossed copy of Prosper, Epigrammata ex sententiis S. Augustini, Versus ad coniugem, Isidore, Synonyma de lamentatione animae peccatricis; two leaves from a gradual, England, 975-1060

Harley MS 2961:  Leofric Collectar, England (Exeter Cathedral), 1050-1072

Text page with musical neumes, from the Leofric Collectar, Harley MS 2961, f. 10r

Additionally, as this project continues, some manuscripts may be unavailable as they are being digitised.  Readers intending to consult Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that have not already been made available on Digitised Manuscripts should therefore please contact the British Library's Manuscripts Reference Team ([email protected]) before planning a visit.

Detail of a text page with a sheep drawn around a hole in the parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius,
Add MS 47967, f. 62v

-  Alison Hudson, Project Curator, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

17 November 2015

Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Hungerford Hours

Cataloguing a manuscript often demands a little detective work, and even more so when the original book is no longer intact. An important 14th-century English Book of Hours has provided a particularly intriguing project of reconstitution. Produced around the year 1330, the Hungerford Hours now exists in a fragmentary form, with leaves scattered around the world in both private and public collections.


A historiated initial 'D'(eus) of the Resurrection of Christ, depicting Christ with stigmata holding a cross and an angel in colours and gold, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 62106, f. 1r

The Hungerford Hours is one of a handful of surviving English Books of Hours produced between the 13th and mid-14th centuries. Other English examples from this period are the De Brailes Hours, the Neville of Hornby Hours, the Harley Hours, the Egerton Hours, and the Taymouth Hours. These books of private devotion are principally formed of a series of eight short services to be read at different times of the day and night, modelled on the Divine Office. The first item is usually a calendar, detailing the religious feasts and saints’ days of each month. Other content includes extracts from the Gospels, Hours in honour of the Cross and the Holy Spirit, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and prayers to the Virgin, the Holy Trinity and different saints.


Miniature of the Annunciation, with the Virgin reading, from the 'Neville of Hornby Hours', England, S. E. (?London), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 2781, f. 71r

The British Library holds eight leaves from the now dismembered Hungerford Hours: six from the Calendar (Add MS 61887), a leaf from the hour of None in the Hours of the Virgin (Add MS 62106), and a leaf from the Litany (Add MS 72707). These leaves are now available to consult in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.


Calendar page for November, with roundels depicting the slaughter of a lamb and Sagittarius, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 61887, f. 6r

The Calendar provides many clues to the history of the book. Its origin has been located to the dioceses of Lincoln or Ely because of the inclusion of the feast days of St Guthlac of Croyland (f. 2v), and Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (b. 1135, d. 1200) (f. 6r) (who features in this blog post).


Detail of the feast day of St Guthlac on the calendar page for April, Add MS 61887, f. 3r

The book is named after the 15th-century owner of the manuscript, Robert Hungerford, 2nd Baron Hungerford (b. c. 1400, d. 1459), whose obit is added to the Calendar on f. 3r.


Detail of the obit of Robert Hungerford, 2nd Baron Hungerford (b. c. 1400, d. 1459), added to the calendar page for May, Add MS 61887, f. 3r

Part of our research into the Hungerford Hours has involved revising the list of identified leaves compiled by M. A. Michaels (‘Destruction, Reconstruction and Invention’ (1990)). Since the publication of his article, a number of leaves have been sold at auction. The British Library acquired Add MS 72707 and two further leaves entered university libraries in the USA: Stanford University Library and the Lilly Library, Indiana University. The leaf held by the Lilly Library bears the probable arms of the Pattishall family, who held land in the East Midlands. Robert Hungerford's sister was married to a descendant of John Pattishall, the possible 14th-century owner of the book, which offers a potential explanation for how it entered the hands of the Hungerford family in the 15th century.  


A leaf from the Litany, from ‘The Hungerford Hours’, E. England (?Lincoln or Ely), c. 1330, Add MS 72707, f. 1r

There still remains much work to do on the post-medieval provenance of this manuscript and deciphering when it was dismembered. We will keep you updated as we continue to work on the puzzle of the Hungerford Hours and do let us know if you have any insights to share on its intriguing history!

Further Reading

Janet Backhouse, ‘An English Calendar circa 1330’, in Fine Books and Book Collecting, ed. by Christopher de Hamel and Richard A. Linenthal (Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981), pp. 8-10.

M. A. Michael, ‘Destruction, Reconstruction and Invention: The Hungerford Hours and English Manuscript Illumination of the Early Fourteenth Century’, in English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700, Volume 2, ed. by P. Beal and J. Griffiths (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 33-108.

Christopher de Hamel, Gilding the Lilly: A Hundred Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts in the Lilly Library (Bloomington, IN: Lilly Library 2010), p. 97.

- Hannah Morcos

13 November 2015

Visions of Paradise

It is our great pleasure to announce that the British Library’s exquisite copy of Dante’s Divina Commedia is on display at the National Gallery in London.


Miniature of Beatrice explaining to Dante that the universe is a hierarchy of being, with creatures devoid of reason in the early 'sea of being', and heaven as nine spheres ruled by the figure of love, from Divina Commedia, Italy (Tuscany, Siena?), 1444-c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r

This wondrous manuscript (discussed in more detail here) is being exhibited as part of the free exhibition Visions of Paradise, which centres on Francesco Botticini’s resplendent Assumption of the Virgin (1475-76). Botticini’s altarpiece was commissioned by Matteo Palmieri (b. 1406, d. 1475) for his funerary chapel in the church of San Pier Maggiore, Florence. Palmieri was an influential Florentine humanist and a big Dante fan. He even composed a poem based on the Divina Commedia, entitled La Città di vita (1465), which describes a journey through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

To celebrate the exhibition of Yates Thompson MS 36 we have compiled some of the most spectacular visions of Paradiso in this manuscript. Let us know your favourites by tweeting us @BLMedieval

Images from this manuscript are also available in our online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts


Detail of a miniature of five Just Princes, atop the eagle of Justice, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 164r


Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice witnessing the Triumph of Christ, with Christ looking down on a group of kneeling souls, enclosed in a circle of stars, in illustration of Paradiso XXIII, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 170r


Detail of a miniature of Beatrice watching as Dante kneels before the orders of angels, who are kneeling before the Trinity; on the right, Dionysius sits, with an open book on his knee, in illustration of Paradiso XXVIII, Yates Thompson MS 36,  f. 180r


Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Empyrean, the Heavenly City, with the congregation of the blessed seated on benches surrounding an empty imperial throne, in illustration of Paradiso XXX, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 184r


Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before the Virgin and Child, seated in a garden and surrounded by angels and a kneeling Bernard, in illustration of Paradiso XXXIII, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 186r


Detail of a miniature of Dante and Beatrice before Dante's vision of the Virgin, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 190r

You now have until 28 March 2016 to enjoy this manuscript, the Botticini altarpiece, and many other works of art on display in the National Gallery's Visions of Paradise exhibition.

- Hannah Morcos

07 November 2015

Caption Competition 4

We know you've all been waiting for another caption competition! 

Today's contender comes from a manuscript made in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at the end of the 13th century. It contains the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, an incredibly popular universal chronicle discussed in this blog post. You can also explore this manuscript in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Send your suggestions to @BLMedieval or add a comment at the end of this post.

The winner will be announced at the beginning of next week.* Good luck!


 Detail of a miniature of Polibus finding Oedipus hanging in a tree, from the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), before 1291,  Add MS 15268, f. 75v


* There is no official prize, but as victor you will be the envy of your peers and inaugurated into the elite clan of caption competition winners.


Update 12 November 2016

Thank you for all of your entries. We are delighted to announce our 4th Caption Competition Winner! 

M. Mitchell Marmel: 'O dear! Verily, this shalt cost the establishment at least one Star of Michelin...'


We've listed below some of the captions we received via Twitter:

@laevisiloki: 'You've put your Christmas tree decorations up *already*?'

‏@Montalmano: '(Looking at man in tree) “See? That's what happens if Santa's in a bad mood. Now don't make him angry when you see him."'

 @luke_baugher: 'Geoff's first hunt didn't end so well...'

@SlCathy: 'Junior doctors' representatives report a very successful outcome to their meeting with Jeremy Hunt.'

@slewisimpson: '"Who's that?" "That's just Odin, he's studying for exams."'

‏@feastandphrase: 'Fresher student initiation: 13th century edition.'

@sheenaghpugh: 'The things you see when you haven't got your camera...'

@ShelbyLynnLFC: 'Happy Birthday Your Majesty. It's called a "piñata".'

@thepaleographer: 'We should play hangman more often.'



05 November 2015

A V.I.P.O.W. (Very Important Prisoner of War)

Last Sunday was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, a key English victory over the French in the Hundred Years War.  We’re very lucky here at the British Library to be responsible for a number of wonderful manuscripts concerning the event itself, key figures at the battle, and its aftermath.  Some of these are now on loan to a fantastic exhibition at the Tower of London that commemorates the battle as part of the ‘Agincourt 600’ celebrations.  The exhibition is on until 31st January 2016, so don’t miss out!  You’ll have the chance to see the pictorial book of arms of the Order of the Garter that belonged to William Bruges, herald to Henry V, and a beautifully written and illuminated manuscript of poetry written by Charles of Orléans during his captivity in England.

Cotton ms vesp f iii_f. 8
 Letter from Henry V, probably by his hand, Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 8

Charles of Orléans is the subject of another exhibit loaned from the British Library: a letter from Henry V himself, most probably written out by his hand, around 1418.  Henry sent orders that the key northern nobles – his cousins Ralph Neville, 1st earl of Westmorland and Henry Percy, 2nd earl of Northumberland; and Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham – should ‘set a gode ordinance for my north marches’, for the duke of Orléans and for other remaining French prisoners.  War on the Continent always left England vulnerable to incursions from Scotland; here Henry made clear that they should prepare against any possible attacks while he himself was preoccupied conquering Normandy.

Cotton ms vesp f iii_f. 8 close up2

Detail of letter from Henry V, Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 8 

The order was prompted by reliable intelligence supplied by ‘a man of ryght notable estate’, who had ‘secretly enfourmed’ Henry of meetings in Scotland between a man in the service of Charles of Orléans and Robert Stewart, 1st duke of Albany.  After being taken prisoner, Charles had initially been held in the Tower of London.  When Henry left for France in late July 1417, he had Charles moved north to Pontefract Castle to lessen the likelihood of his rescue or escape. 

Cotton ms vesp f iii_f. 8 close up3

Detail of letter from Henry V, Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 8 

Now he was worried that the Scots might try to spring Charles from his imprisonment and so ordered a curtailment of his liberties: that he ‘be kept stille within the Castil’ and not go out to ‘Robertis place’.  This was a reference to Methley Hall, a few miles away to the north-west.  It was the seat of Robert Waterton, chief steward of the duchy of Lancaster, whose administrative base was Pontefract Castle and who was in effect Charles’s gaoler.  ‘Bettre he lak his disport,’ Henry concluded, ‘then we were deceyved.’


Coloured drawing of Henry V, with verses recording his capture of the duke of Orléans at Agincourt, from Sir Thomas Holme’s Book of Arms, England (probably London), c. 1445-c. 1450, Harley MS 4205, f. 7v

While there is no evidence of duplicity on Robert’s part, it is clear gaoler and gaoled became friends.  An inquest was prompted when it came to light that Waterton’s wife and children had received gifts from the duke.  Fearing that the security of Charles’s imprisonment was becoming compromised by this friendship, Henry had him moved to Tutbury in Staffordshire in 1419 and then Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire the year after that.  Had Charles escaped, it would have been a serious embarrassment for the king.  It would have cost him the substantial ransom money that Charles’s release could have commanded and would have allowed an important French noble to return to the resistance to English expansionism on the Continent.

This letter is fascinating for how it weaves together matters of national security and the custody of a high-profile prisoner.  Henry’s words are formal and direct.  ‘I wole’, he wrote twice in his letter, which is also peppered with imperatives: ‘set a gode ordinance’, ‘dothe as ye thenketh’.  It exemplifies Henry V’s firm grasp of royal government: his ability to delegate, to issue clear instructions, and his command of administrative details, even in the midst of the second campaign in France. 


- James Freeman


03 November 2015

Worcester Rental Acquired by the British Library

The British Library holds one of the largest collections of medieval monastic records from the British Isles. And we have just added to that, with the acquisition of an important 13th-century rental from Worcester Cathedral Priory. The whole manuscript has also been fully digitised, and is now available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Add MS 89137).


The opening page of the Worcester rental, newly acquired by the British Library (Add MS 89137, f. 2r)

The rental in question was made at Worcester in 1240 (there is a contemporary rubric giving this date on f. 2r), and it contains further additions to the 14th century. Its contents include charters issued in the names of the kings of England, of Popes and bishops, and of the prior and convent of Worcester. Perhaps most significantly, a previously unattested copy of a charter of King Edgar for Worcester, dated 964, is found on ff. 8v-9r.


A copy of a charter of King Edgar for Worcester, 964 (Add MS 89137, f. 8v)

The contents of this rental are incredibly similar to those of a 14th-century Worcester Cathedral register, known as the 'Registrum Prioratus' (Worcester, Dean and Chapter, Muniments A2). It is highly likely that Add MS 89137 was the exemplar of the Registrum Prioratus. It was also made about the same time as another cartulary (Worcester, Dean and Chapter, Registrum I (A4)), with both manuscripts probably being made for Prior William of Bedford (1224–1242).


Magna Carta in the Worcester rental (Add MS 89137, f. 62v)

Our new acquisition had previously been deposited on loan at the British Library in 1976. It was withdrawn and sold at auction at Sotheby's in 2014, with the Library being the successful bidder. We are delighted to have this volume in our collections, where it complements other items associated with the history of Worcester Cathedral Priory (including the oldest-surviving English cartulary, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, dating from the 11th century). The Worcester rental is now exceedingly fragile, on account of its medieval binding (the upper cord of which is broken), but it can be examined on special application in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library.


The medieval binding of the Worcester rental (Add MS 89137)