Medieval manuscripts blog

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6 posts from May 2021

22 May 2021

Gold and Glory at Hampton Court

The exhibition Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King opens this week at Hampton Court Palace. It celebrates the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, one of history’s most famous and spectacular peace summits at which rival Renaissance rulers Henry VIII of England (1509–1547) and Francis I of France (1515–1547) met in person. The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of manuscripts to be displayed alongside an array of treasures from 1520, including works of art, gold, weapons and textiles. Together they tell the story of a dazzling spectacle of diplomacy, pageantry and magnificence.

A detail of a coloured manuscript drawing showing an armoured knight holding a lance and sitting on a horse

Detail of a figure wearing armour, perhaps King Henry VIII, at the Field of Cloth of Gold: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 35r

Henry and Francis’s legendary encounter inaugurated a new Anglo-French alliance that was signed in 1518 as part of a European-wide Treaty of Universal Peace. The treaty was negotiated by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s brilliant administrator and trusted adviser, in response to Pope Leo X’s call for universal peace the previous year. As a result, Wolsey succeeded in reasserting his master’s status as a powerful European prince through peaceful means rather than warfare.

In the wake of the Treaty of Universal Peace, preparations got underway for the kings to meet in person.  Initially planned for 1519, the peace summit was postponed following the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Henry expressed his disappointment by gallantly promising not to shave his beard until he and Francis were able to meet face to face and the French king agreed to do the same. One of the British Library loans, a letter sent by Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey in November 1519, records that Henry later reneged on his vow because Queen Katherine ‘desired hym to putt yt of for her sake’. The French delegation was appeased by Thomas Boleyn’s assurance that Henry felt more affection for Francis than for any other king or prince and agreed that ‘their love is nat in the berdes but in the hartes’.

A manuscript page containing a letter in English from Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey. The edges of the paper page have been burned and remounted in paper frames.

Letter from Sir Thomas Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey, recording how Henry VIII had reneged on his earlier promise not to shave off his beard until his meeting with Francis I (16 November 1519): Cotton MS Caligula D VII, f. 164r

Henry departed for France on 31 May 1520, accompanied by Queen Katherine, his sister Mary Tudor, dowager Queen of France, Cardinal Wolsey, and some 6,000 subjects, courtiers and English nobility. The two kings met on 7 June 1520 in the Val Doré, a small valley equidistant between the French town of Ardres and the English headquarters at Guînes in the Pale of Calais, a territory held since 1347 by the kings of England as part of their claim to the kingdom of France. Another British Library loan provides visitors with a contemporary view of the English castle of Guînes, where Henry lodged for the duration of the peace conference.

A pen-and-ink drawing of the castle at Guînes, showing its towers and ramparts

View of the keep and part of the walls of the English castle at Guînes (2nd quarter of the 16th century): Cotton MS Augustus I II 12

Both kings viewed the summit as an opportunity to impress those in attendance with magnificent displays of their wealth and culture; everything was done on a grand scale. A temporary town of tented pavilions that replicated royal palaces was built to accommodate their vast entourages. Constructed of canvas, the tents were dressed in rich fabrics, including cloth of gold, which gave the event its name: the Field of Cloth of Gold or ‘Camp du Drap d’Or’. A stunning tent design on loan from the British Library illustrates the size and splendour of the accommodation erected for Henry’s court.

A design for the red tents erected for King Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold

Manuscript tent design for the Field of Cloth of Gold, showing red tents with gold detail and crowned with fleur-de-lis, Tudor roses and heraldic beasts: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 18r

After their initial meeting on 7 June, Henry and Francis demonstrated their princely power and military prowess in a daily round of tournaments involving jousting, mock battles, archery, wrestling matches and other feats of arms lasting more than two weeks. Both kings participated in the jousting competitions. Henry VIII in particular was renowned as a skilled jouster, and it is possible that in one drawing loaned by the British Library, the figure shown on horseback with a broken jousting lance is Henry himself.

A coloured drawing of a man wearing armour and carrying a lance, sitting upon a horse

Drawing of a figure on horseback, possibly of Henry VIII, with a broken jousting lance: Cotton MS Augustus III/1, f. 35r

The Field of Cloth of Gold was also a spectacular festival of entertainments. Henry and Francis hosted sumptuous feasts and banquets and laid on lavish entertainments with music, singing, dancing and masques. Choristers from the English Chapel Royal were in attendance and performed at the great liturgical feasts and the public Mass led by Cardinal Wolsey on the summit's final day. Shown below is a beautiful choirbook from the British Library on display in the exhibition. It was produced sometime between 1513 and 1525 for Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in the workshop of Petrus Alamire, contains 28 motets, and is magnificently decorated with Tudor heraldic emblems and Katherine of Aragon’s pomegranate.

An opening of a manuscript choirbook, with decorated initials on each page and the staves laid out for the music

A book of choral music made for Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, decorated with the Tudor royal arms and heraldic emblems: Royal MS 8 G VII, ff. 2v–3r


Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King runs at Hampton Court from 20 May to 5 September 2021. 


Andrea Clarke

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20 May 2021

Thomas Becket: manuscripts showing the making of a saint

Having seen all of the five-star reviews, like many of you we are looking forward to seeing the new exhibition at the British Museum, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint, which opens on 20 May for three months to 22 August. If you visit, you’ll see five British Library manuscripts in various sections (these are some five-star items too!). In the words of Naomi Speakman, co-curator of the exhibition: ‘The British Library manuscripts are some of the highlights of the exhibition, and help to illuminate the Becket story’. 

Thomas Becket (1120–1170) was an archbishop of Canterbury who came into conflict with King Henry II of England over the rights of the Church. In The Rise and Fall of Thomas Becket section, a 14th-century English manuscript depicts Becket, wearing his bishop’s mitre and holding the staff of office, in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table. In the caption, Henry is called ‘the son of Queen Matilda’, indicating his right to the throne through his mother. 

A medieval manuscript page showing Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table
Thomas Becket in conversation with King Henry II, above a genealogical table: Royal MS 20 A II, ff. 7v-8r

On 29 December 1170, a group of Henry’s knights murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, causing great outrage across Europe. For more on why they were there, and whether they were acting on the King’s orders, read the British Museum’s blogpost: Who killed Thomas Becket? After his death, Becket was honoured as a saint and Canterbury became a major pilgrimage centre.

One of the most famous images of the murder itself is featured in the Murder in the Cathedral section of the exhibition. In a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters, the story of Becket’s murder is told in four scenes, beginning with a messenger announcing the knights’ arrival while Becket is at table, with the knights conversing outside. In the register below is the murder itself, with one of the knights slicing through the bishop’s skull with his sword. A bear on this knight’s shield may indicate that this is Reginald Fitzurse (ursus is ‘bear’ in Latin). Finally pilgrims kneel before Becket’s shrine, seeking to get as close to the saint as possible. This image accompanies a letter of John of Salisbury (d. 1180), who was one of the eye-witnesses to the murder.

This manuscript was digitised recently as part of the Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200 project, and you can read more about it on the project website.

Medieval manuscript page with the story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes
The story of Becket’s murder told in four scenes, in a 12th-century collection of Becket’s letters: Cotton MS Claudius B II, f. 341r

Another well-known image features in the Making of a Saint section, in which Becket is laid in his tomb. It is one of five full-page miniatures (another is a scene of his murder) inserted into a Latin Psalter, to which a translation in Anglo-Norman French was added above the Latin to the first part of the Psalms. In the exhibition, the pages on display show the entombment of Becket opposite the beginning of Psalm 18, with the French added above the text.

Medieval manuscript double-page showing the Psalter text and a picture of the entombment of Becket
Becket being laid in his tomb, in a Psalter: Harley MS 5102, ff. 16v-17r

The 14th-century Stowe Breviary, a service book adapted for use in Norwich, is also displayed in this section. The Sanctorale section of the book includes images of saints next to their relevant feasts. It is imperfect, so the feast of Becket’s martyrdom on 29 December is lacking, but the feast celebrating the translation (or transfer) of Becket’s body to the new Trinity Chapel in July 1220 is illustrated with monks lowering his body into the new shrine.

Detail of the initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel
Initial letter containing a scene of the translation of Becket’s body to the Trinity Chapel, in the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r (detail)

However, Becket’s cult was eventually suppressed by King Henry VIII of England. A Royal Proclamation of 16 November 1538 issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell denied that Becket was a saint and ordered that his images should be removed from churches, that his feast should not be observed, and that his name should be ‘rased and put out of all [of] the books’. This proclamation has been applied to the text (but not the image) of the July feast in the Stowe Breviary, with the name of the saint ‘Thomas’ erased in the red rubric right next to the initial and throughout the text, although it is still visible as light brown letters.

The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary
The page for the feast of Becket’s translation, with his name erased, from the Stowe Breviary: Stowe MS 12, f. 270r

The fifth British Library manuscript reflects this edict even more vividly, appearing in the Becket and the Tudors section. In this 15th-century Book of Hours, the full-page image of Becket has survived, but the facing prayers to the saint have been more than erased, and instead were cut out completely to remove them from the book.

Medieval manuscript double-page with a picture of the martyrdom of Becket on the left and the parchment cut away at the right
Image of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket with prayers cut out, from a Book of Hours: Harley MS 2985, ff. 29v-30r

Together, these manuscripts show how Becket rose to prominence as a major saint during the Middle Ages and then fell from favour during the reforms of the Tudor period. You can view them in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website. If you can make it to London, we hope you enjoy the wonderful exhibition!

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 May 2021

The Master of Edward IV

The British Library continues to acquire medieval manuscripts with important research potential to enhance the national collection. You may have seen that last year we announced the acquisition of the Lucas Psalter (Add MS 89428), a fascinating late medieval Psalter made in Bruges for an English patron, which contains the added arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas (1460-1539) of Suffolk, the secretary to Jasper Tudor, and Solicitor General under Henry VII. Now that the Library has reopened, we have digitised the manuscript which you can view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

A page from the Lucas Psalter with the arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas
A hymn from the Lucas Psalter with the arms of Thomas Houchon Lucas: Add MS 89428, f. 12r

The Psalter includes eight large finely painted initials that are hitherto unknown examples of the work of an artist known as the Master of Edward IV. The Master of Edward IV was first identified by art historian Friedrich Winkler in 1915 and named by him after two volumes of a Bible historiale produced for Edward IV in 1479, now in the British Library (Royal MS 18 D ix and Royal MS 18 D x). Subsequently, the Master of Edward IV was credited with the illustration of many other manuscripts ranging in date from the 1470s to 1500. A study by Bodo Brinkmann in 1997 attributed forty-seven manuscripts and twenty separate leaves to him. 

Miniature of a king on horseback with an entourage in a scenic landscape
Adonijah, the fourth son of King David, assuming a royal state, with decorated borders and the arms of Edward IV: Royal MS 18 D X, f. 68r

The large majority of these works are illustrations of vernacular and often historical texts. The Master of Edward IV is known for his finely painted figures and landscapes, and his talent for compositional invention and concise narrative. His work is clearly identifiable in the Lucas Psalter, in the distinctive carefully executed figures in groups and in a wide range of poses. His figures typically have well-defined faces, with full red lips, rouged cheeks, and distinctive, somewhat messy or unkempt hair, even on royal figures. In the Psalter, for example, these facial features and hairstyles are apparent in the figure of King David and even of God the Father.

King David with a fool, dressed like a jester
King David and the Fool at Psalm 52 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 72r (detail)

The Master’s characteristic and relatively narrow palette of salmon pink, green lake, grey-blue, and a fully saturated azure is also apparent throughout the miniatures. These colours often are supplemented by brown highlighted in gold, to imitate gold cloth or in backgrounds. Most colours were applied with prominent brushstrokes that add texture and bulk to the forms.

Moreover, even though the miniatures are typically only six lines long, they are delicately and precisely executed, with attention to interior architectural features in atmospheric perspective. The landscape background of Psalm 68 is particularly fine, with a supplicant figure immersed in water, illustrating the Psalm text, ‘Save me, O God: for the waters are come in even unto my soul’. Here we see the artist’s mastery of mirror-like water, distinctive rocks in the path, and bushes with subtle gold highlights. 

A figure submerged in water to the waist, holding up his arms in supplication before God
King David in water at Psalm 68 in the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 84v (detail)

The composition and subject of these initials often are innovative and unusual. For example, the Beatus initial of Psalm 1 features God the Father with a grey beard and wearing a papal tiara in heaven being worshipped by standing angels, with finely painted red cherubim surrounding a golden background. 

Decorated initial containing a picture of God the Father surrounded by angels
Figure of God the Father at the beginning of Psalm 1 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 12v (detail)

A much more common subject for this Psalm is David with his harp in prayer before God, reflecting an interpretation of the Blessed Man as David, or David as the author of the Psalms. This is the image that appears in a contemporaneous Hours, also made in Bruges for an English patron, painted by the Master of Anthony of Burgundy (Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis MS E 182, f. 7r).

Picture of David praying to God in the Lewis Psalter
David praying to God at the beginning of Psalm 1: Philadelphia, Free Library, Lewis MS E 182, f. 7r (Public Domain)

Similarly, the depiction of David in the water clothed and without a crown at Psalm 68 is unusual, and may allow the reader to imagine himself as the supplicant praying for deliverance (see image above).

As in Psalm 1, the image illustrating Psalm 109 pictures God the Father, here with Christ, but against a shimmering gold background rather than in the more common micro-architectural setting (as in the Lewis Psalter, above), indicating that this is an otherworldly image of heaven. 

Illustration of God the Father and Christ
God the Father and Christ from Psalm 109 of the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 140r (detail)

Now that the Lucas Psalter is in the collection of the British Library and fully digitised online, it is possible to admire and compare the works of the Master of Edward IV as never before. We hope that this will inspire new research into this fascinating artist in the future. 

The Lucas Psalter was purchased by the British Library with generous support from Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Bernard H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library and the British Library Collections Trust.

For the most recent discussion of this Master’s work, we recommend Scot McKendrick’s article ‘Contextualising the art and innovations of the Master of Edward IV in the Blackburn Hours (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Hart MS 20884)’, in A British Book Collector: Rare Books and Manuscripts in the R.E. Hart Collection, ed. by Cynthia Johnston (London: University of London, 2021), and his earlier exhibition catalogue with Thomas Kren, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, ed. by Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003), pp. 295-305, which is freely available from the Getty Publications Virtual Library.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

14 May 2021

Hot off the press

Today sees the publication of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections. This new book brings together 14 essays based on papers delivered at the British Library conference held in December 2018, in conjunction with the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

Book cover with a medieval illustration of a scribe and the title Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections
Front cover of Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections

All the essays in the book focus on manuscripts produced between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Like the exhibition, they explore the artistic, literary and historical connections between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their neighbours, and the scribal and artistic networks that developed across Britain, Ireland and much of early medieval Europe.

A striking feature of several papers at the conference was the use of multispectral imaging to enhance texts and images damaged by fire or the use of reagents in the past. This imaging was undertaken by the Library’s imaging scientist, Christina Duffy, and the results feature in three essays which span the artistic, literary and historical themes of the conference and exhibition.

Bernard Meehan’s essay on ‘The Royal-Otho-Corpus / Cambridge-London / Parker-Cotton-Wolsey Gospels’ includes new multispectral imaging of Cotton MS Otho C V, which was badly damaged in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. This image shows the lion – the evangelist symbol for St Mark – as it appears to the naked eye:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark, darkened and damaged by fire
The fire-damaged lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Multispectral imaging reveals significant new details in this black and white image:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark in black and white, enhanced by multispectral imaging
Black and white multispectral image of the lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

And the psychedelic colours of this enhanced multispectral image show the dotting on the lion’s lower front legs and paws:

Medieval illustration of the lion of St Mark in vibrant colours, enhanced by multispectral imaging
Coloured multispectral image of the lion evangelist symbol: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

Jonathan Wilcox’s essay, ‘The Wolf at work: uncovering Wulfstan’s compositional method’, draws on multispectral imaging of two pages in Add MS 38651 which have been treated with blue reagent in the past:

A medieval manuscript page that was previously treated with blue reagent, which obscures most of the text
One of the pages previously treated with blue reagent, which obscures most of the text: Add MS 38651, f. 58r

The multispectral imaging reveals texts by Archbishop Wulfstan which Jonathan uses as new evidence to explore Wulftan’s compositional method:

A medieval manuscript page that was previously treated with blue reagent, with the texts revealed by multispectral imaging
New texts by Wulfstan revealed by multispectral imaging: Add MS 38651, f. 58r

Winfried Rudolf, who has an essay in the book on the Italian provenance of the Vercelli Book, has also been working on these images in parallel, to publish an edition and commentary of the newly revealed texts.

And Simon Keynes draws on several further multispectral images in his essay, ‘The “Canterbury letter-book”: Alcuin and after’. His essay includes this page from the letter-book, Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, before and after multispectral imaging:

A page from the Alcuin letter-book, with faded text
The Alcuin letter-book before multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 172v
A page from the Alcuin letter-book, with the text recovered through multispectral imaging
The Alcuin letter-book after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Tiberius A XV, f. 172v

The imaging published today adds to Christina Duffy’s earlier multispectral imaging of erased additions to the Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381). The imaging of these erasures, which record the freeing of slaves in early medieval Cornwall, was shown on a video in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, next to the manuscript itself.

All of these examples show the power of multispectral imaging to recover evidence previously obscured by the effects of fire-damage, the use of reagents and erasure. You can read more about the new imaging in the book, as well as the eleven other essays by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Richard Gameson, Larry Nees, Joanna Story, Rosamond McKitterick, David Johnson, Tessa Webber, Winfried Rudolf, Francesca Tinti, Susan Rankin and Michael Gullick.

We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for funding the Insular Manuscripts: Networks of Knowledge international research network, which ran from 2016 to 2019 and supported research opportunities for Bernard Meehan, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and Joanna Story. We also thank the British Library Collections Trust for their generous subvention towards this publication, Martin Fanning at Four Courts Press, Christina Duffy for her multispectral imaging, Ellie Jackson for all her editorial support and Jessica Hodgkinson for compiling the indices. And I would especially like to thank Joanna Story for her tireless collaboration over the last five years in preparing for the exhibition and the conference, and for co-editing the exhibition catalogue and this new book of conference essays with me.

Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Cultures and Connections is available through the Four Courts Press website, and the publisher is offering a 20% discount until Tuesday 18 May.

Claire Breay

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03 May 2021

Food scribes, food lives online event

Are you hungry for some culinary history? Join us for the free online event, Food Scribes, Food Lives, on Tuesday 11 May 2021, 17:30–18:30 (BST), as part of the British Library Food Season. We are going to be uncovering food manuscripts from the British Library’s medieval, modern and Turkic collections, and examining what these items can tell us about cooking, diet and attitudes to food across time and place.

The forme of Cury, a medieval recipe book written on a roll
Recipes from the Forme of Cury, 1420s: Add MS 5016

The event will feature a panel of three expert manuscript curators from the British Library who will be talking about their favourite historical food manuscripts. Michael Erdman will be looking the Turkish and Turkic collections, Jessica Gregory will be examining the modern collections, and Eleanor Jackson will be exploring our medieval manuscript collections.

You might know Ellie’s impressive medieval cookery skills from our Great Medieval Bake Off blogposts (the original medieval bake off, Christmas bake off and Lent bake off).

A medieval illustration of a feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals
A feast scene in the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300-40: Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 236r

You can sign up for this free online event on the British Library website. Bookers will be sent a link in advance giving access and will be able to watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.

We also recommend taking a look at the mouth-watering menu of digital events for the British Library Food Season, featuring an array of chefs, historians and food writers for a series of live conversations that you can tune into wherever you are.

Bon Appétit!

Food Season is supported by:

Kitchen Aid logo

01 May 2021

Caption this

Have you missed our caption competitions? In that case, you're in for a treat today. The rules are simple. Come up with a witty caption for the image below, and send it via the comments section at the foot of this blogpost or on Twitter to @BLMedieval. There are no prizes, only the kudos of showing off your incredible wit/imagination/creativity.

The page in question is found in the spectacular Maastricht Hours (Stowe MS 17, f. 273r), made in Liège in the 14th century. You can explore the entire manuscript for yourself on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Good luck!


A manuscript illumination showing the king of love sitting in a tree. He is flanked by two musicians, and aims his arrows at a couple sitting below

Marginal miniature of the king of love sitting in a tree with two musicians, aiming his arrows at a couple sitting below: Stowe MS 17, f. 273r


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