Medieval manuscripts blog

7 posts from August 2021

24 August 2021

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens

Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (8 October 2021–20 February 2022). This will be the first exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting both women centre stage and giving them equal billing.

Using original documents and contemporary published sources, the exhibition will take a fresh and revealing look at the extraordinary story of two powerful women, bound together by their shared Tudor heritage and experience as fellow sovereign queens, but divided by their opposing Protestant and Catholic faiths and their rivalry for the English and Irish thrones.

Elizabeth I’s signature
Detail showing Elizabeth I’s signature: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 367r
Mary, Queen of Scots’ signature
Detail showing Mary, Queen of Scots’ signature: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

Despite their fates being intertwined, the two queens never met in person. Instead, their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter. These thrilling documents, written in their own hands and recording their speeches, lie at the heart of the exhibition and will enable visitors to step back into their world and understand how, from amicable beginnings, Elizabeth and Mary's relationship turned to suspicion, distrust and betrayal. 

The exhibition will demonstrate how the queens’ relationship also reflected a much broader story. It will explore the context of the religious reformation that divided Europe between Catholics and Protestants, revealing how Elizabeth and Mary’s battle, first for dynastic pre-eminence within the British Isles, and then for survival, became inseparable from the national religious struggles of their respective kingdoms. The exhibition will further show how the queens’ rivalry over the throne profoundly shaped England and Scotland’s relations, both with each other, and with France and Spain.

Elizabeth and Mary will highlight the rise of state surveillance and the development of a sophisticated intelligence network during a time of plots, treason and rebellion, and the ever-present fear of international conspiracy and foreign invasion.

At the core of the exhibition will be highlights from the British Library’s outstanding collection of 16th-century royal autograph manuscripts, historical documents, printed items, maps and drawings. These will be accompanied by a number of exceptional paintings, objects, jewellery and textiles borrowed from collections across the UK.

To whet your appetite, here is a small selection of some of the items that will be on display: 

• Elizabeth’s handwritten trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII: British Library, Royal MS 7 D X

Elizabeth’s handwritten trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545)

• Elizabeth I’s mother of pearl locket ring (c. 1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn: ©The Chequers Trust

Queen Elizabeth’s locket ring  c.1575 (c) The Chequers Trust

• Bird’s-eye view map of London, Westminster in Middlesex, and Southwark in Surrey, by William Smith, 1588: British Library, Sloane MS 2596, f. 52*r

Bird’s-eye view map of London, Westminster in Middlesex, and Southwark in Surrey, by William Smith, 1588

• Richard Lee, bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh (May 1544): British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I II 56

Richard Lee, bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh (May 1544)

• Letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I to announce her arrival on English soil (1568): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

Letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I to announce her arrival on English soil (1568)

• Portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower, 1567: © Private collection

Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower  c.1567  on loan to the exhibition from a Private Collection

• Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567, in which she attacked MPs' questions about the succession as ‘lip-laboured orations out of such jangling subjects’ mouths’: British Library, Cotton Ch IV 38 (2)

Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567

• Rare printed copy of the papal bull known as Regnans in Excelsis, issued in Latin in 1570, announcing Elizabeth I’s excommunication on grounds of heresy: British Library, 18.e.2.(114*)

Rare print survival of the papal bull known as Regnans in Excelsis, issued in Latin in 1570

• Ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1570): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 74r

Ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1570)

• Mary, Queen of Scots’ longest letter, sent to Elizabeth I to complain about her sufferings in prison (1582): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C VII, f. 81v

Mary, Queen of Scots’ longest letter, sent to Elizabeth I to complain about her sufferings in prison (1582)

• Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington (1586): ©The National Archives, Kew, SP 12/193/54, f. 123r

Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington (1586)

• The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22) © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)

The Blairs Reliquary (front), containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots

• Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587), depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block: British Library, Add MS 48027, f. 650*r

Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587)

• Drawing of Elizabeth’s funeral procession (early 17th century): British Library, Add MS 35324, f. 37v

Drawing of Elizabeth’s funeral procession (early 17th century)

• James VI, Basilikon doron (1599), written for Prince Henry, on successful kingship and printed in Edinburgh: British Library, G.4993., sig. [A]3v–[A]4r

James VI, Basilikon doron (1599)

The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly-illustrated catalogue, edited by Professor Sue Doran, and available for purchase from the Library’s online shop from 8 October.

The cover of the illustrated catalogue, edited by Professor Sue Doran

A full programme of public lectures, talks, panel discussions and cultural events will also accompany the exhibition.  Tickets for the first three events are now on sale:

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be on show at the British Library from 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022. For more information and tickets, visit


Andrea Clarke

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23 August 2021

Follow up: Important information for email subscribers

We want to acknowledge the response to our blogpost on the 19 August, in which we announced that the email notifications for the blog will be ending shortly, owing to changes made by the third-party platform. Many thanks to everyone who got in touch to let us know their views about this change. We really value hearing from you. It is heartening to know how many people appreciate getting our blog notifications in their inbox and we understand that other ways of finding out about blogposts aren't always as convenient or relevant for you.

We also want to assure you that we are actively looking into this issue and working to implement a solution which will continue your email notifications, however we do not know whether you will continue to receive notifications about new posts before we are able to implement this. But we promise to update the blog with further information as soon as we have it. Thank you for your patience and understanding while we resolve this.

Detail of an illuminated initial 'E', with scrolls of foliage and intertwining beasts
Detail of an illuminated initial 'E', from a Psalter (Paris, around 1220s): Add MS 47674, f. 46v

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22 August 2021

Richard III: fact and fiction

On 22 August 1485, the last English king to be killed in combat died at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was none other than Richard III, a monarch whose reputation is still debated, known variously as the King under the Carpark, Shakespeare's hunchback ruler, and the (alleged) murderer of his young nephews, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. In this blogpost, we set out some of the manuscript evidence for the reign of this controversial sovereign.

One of the earliest notices of the Battle of Bosworth is found in the calendar of an early 15th-century Book of Hours known as the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours'. This calendar contains a number of added notices of births, deaths and other notable occurrences, extending as far as the deaths of Queen Jane Seymour in 1536 and Elizabeth Lucar in 1537. In the margin of the calendar page for August, the same scribe has made retrospective notes of two significant events:

7 August: 'This day landed King Harry the viith at Milfoord Haven, the yere of our Lord m.cccc.lxxxv.'

22 August: 'This day King Harri the viith wan the feeld wher was slayn King Richard the third. Anno domini 1485.' 

A calendar page in a Book of Hours, with added notices in the left-hand margin

The calendar page for August in the 'Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours', with added notices of the landing of Henry Tudor at Milford Haven and the death of Richard III at Bosworth: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 31v

We can tell immediately that these notes were made after the Battle of Bosworth Field, since Henry Tudor is described prematurely at his landing as 'King Harry the 7th'. Richard is styled 'king' in the notice of his death, which does at least acknowledge the legitimacy of his rule. The lack of space in the margins of this calendar doubtless prevented the annotator from recording a more detailed description of Richard's personality and achievements.

Another posthumous report of Richard III's reign is found in an early 16th-century chronicle that extended originally as far as the rule of Henry VII. This chronicle supplies a dispassionate account of Richard's life, set out as part of a genealogical tree of the English rulers:

'Richard that was sonne to Richard Dewke of Yorke and brother unto Kyng Edward the iiiith was Kyng after hys brother and raynyd .ii. yeres and lyth buryd at Lecitor.'

A page from a geneaological chronicle, with coloured roundels containing illustrations of members of the English royal family

A genealogical chronicle of the rulers of England, including an account of the reign of Richard III: King's MS 395, f. 33r

Richard is also illustrated in a roundel that accompanies the text, wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. This cannot be considered a realistic likeness, since all the portraits in this manuscript are similar in style and have the same palette of colours. But it is an antidote to the conventional image of King Richard, represented in the more famous painting held at the National Portrait Gallery. What is also noteworthy in the same manuscript is that no mention is made of the succession and brief reign of Edward V, Richard's nephew, or of the mysterious disappearance of the young princes.

A manuscript portrait of King Richard III, wearing a crown and with the English coat of arms to his right

The portrait of Richard III in the genealogical chronicle: King's MS 395, f. 33r

So what can we glean about Richard III from other manuscript sources? Like his predecessors, Richard was renowned as a law-giver. In one English statute book made in 1488 or 1489, just a few years after his death, Richard is shown in an historiated initial crowned and robed, holding a sceptre and orb, and surrounded by leading clerics and other courtiers. There is nothing to suggest here that his rule was considered illegitimate in any way. Indeed, at the time that this manuscript was produced, Henry VII's position on the throne was still precarious, since he was being challenged first by Lambert Simnel and then, in the 1490s, by Perkin Warbeck. Henry is illustrated in the same volume in exactly the same way as Richard III (f. 339v). You could not tell from this book alone that one of these kings had overthrown the other in battle.

A page from an illuminated lawbook, with a decorated initial R enclosing Richard III surrounded by his courtiers, and a decorated border

The statutes issued by King Richard III in a legal manuscript made in London: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

A detail of the portrait of King Richard III, throned and crowned

Detail of the portrait of Richard III in this legal manuscript: Hargrave MS 274, f. 328v

Another visual statement of the legitimacy of Richard III's rule, this time dating from his own reign, is found in a manuscript of the English translation of De re militari by Vegetius. The decorated initial that opens this volume contains the royal coat of arms supported by two boars (Richard's emblem) and surmounted by a crown. At the foot of the same page is the griffin of Salisbury, perhaps to denote that the book was made for Edward of Middleham, prince of Wales and earl of Salisbury, Richard's son and heir apparent until his untimely death in 1484. On another page of the same manuscript is the coat of arms of Anne Neville, Richard's wife and queen of England (f. 49r).

A page from an illuminated manuscript, with a decorated initial H containing two boars and the English coat of arms, a griffin in the lower border, and a decorated border enclosing the text

The royal arms of King Richard III in a manuscript of De re militari: Royal MS 18 A XII, f. 1r

A final and contemporary indication of Richard's own personality is provided by books that belonged to him, including before he became king. One manuscript of the Romance of Tristan bears the inscription 'Iste liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre'. After his death it passed into the hands of his niece, Elizabeth of York, who was married to Henry VII in order to unite the two dynasties. Her inscription, 'sans remevyr Elyzabeth', is found at the bottom of the page. This evidence reminds us that Richard was styled 'duke of Gloucester': in the wake of the discovery of his skeleton, York and Leicester waged claims to being the appropriate home for his reburial, while Gloucester was largely overlooked. It also suggests that he may have had an interest in courtly literature, some indication of the circles in which he moved and what was required of a Renaissance prince. This would also have extended to having knowledge of ancient and more recent history. Among the other manuscripts known to have been owned by Richard is a copy of the Chroniques de France, from 1270 to 1380, which is inscribed part-way down one page 'Richard Gloucestre'.

A manuscript page containing the ownership inscription of Richard, Duke of Gloucester

'This book belongs to Richard, duke of Gloucester', in a manuscript of Roman de Tristan: Harley MS 49, f. 155r

A page from an illuminated manuscript, in 2 columns, with a miniature of knights fighting in the right-hand column, and the name Richard Gloucester added part-way down the left-hand column

A manuscript of the Chroniques de France owned by 'Richard Gloucestre': Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

The name 'Richard Gloucestre' added to a medieval manuscript

Detail of Richard's name in Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

Of course, there are other aspects of Richard's rule that we have not considered here. One of these is the sinister removal from power of his nephew, King Edward V, and the subsequent (assumed) deaths of the two princes in the Tower. To be accused of regicide and infanticide, even in an era when rulers were prepared to do anything to secure their position, is a massive stain on Richard III's reputation. The fate of Edward and his younger brother must always be set against attempts to rehabilitate Richard, and cannot be easily argued away. Equally, we are lacking a full understanding of Bosworth Field itself, and of how Richard's fortunes swayed on the battlefield. It is sometimes difficult to dislodge Shakespeare's account of the battle, and of Richard himself, from the popular memory. But the surviving manuscripts from his lifetime do at least provide us with a much more rounded vision of this most disputed of English monarchs.


Julian Harrison

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21 August 2021

Giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat

A letter from Heaven, fantastic voyages, mythical battles. All of these can be found in the recently digitised 16th-century Irish manuscript Harley MS 5280, which can now be viewed in full online. Is cúis áthais dúinn a fhógairt go bhfuil an lámhscríbhinn Ghaelach, Harley LS 5280, le fáil ar líne anois.

The volume in question was written in Ireland in the 16th century by Gilla Riabach son of Tuathal son of Tadhg cam Ó Cléirigh, and is an excellent example of medieval Irish scribal and literary culture. It is written mostly in a single column on parchment, and it contains over thirty different texts and a number of beautiful decorative initials. 

A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript with a large decorative initial ‘R’, formed out of a twisting animal at the beginning of the text. Coloured in red and yellow.

A zoomorphic initial ‘R’, coloured in red and yellow, in Airce menman Uraird maic Coisse: Harley MS 5280, f. 59r

The manuscript is visually striking. Some of the shorter poems and notes have been wrapped into intricate shapes on the page and others form borders running along multiple margins.

Alt text: A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript on which a series of marginal verses are written in an interwoven diamond pattern.

Four quatrains interwoven into a strange pattern: on disqualifying properties; on the location of the deaths of Aaron and Moses; on secrecy; on a wicked woman: Harley MS 5280, f. 24r

Ownership inscriptions reveal that this manuscript passed through the hands of Hugo Casserly and Henry Spelman in the 17th century. It was then acquired by Robert Harley and his son Edward Harley, Earls of Oxford, in the late 17th or 18th century. The Harley manuscripts were sold to the British government by Edward’s widow, Henrietta Cavendish Harley, and his daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, in 1753, under the Act of Parliament that established the British Museum, and they form one of the foundation collections of the British Library. You can read more about the Harley collection here.

a page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript with the ownership inscription of Henry Spelman

The ownership inscription of Henry Spelman (d. 1641) above a zoomorphic initial at the opening of The Voyage of Mael Dúin’s Currach: Harley MS 5280, f. 12r

The texts contained in this manuscript are equally exciting and diverse. Stories of apples miraculously growing on alder trees, of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and a commentary on the Psalter are found alongside accounts of mythical figures from Ireland’s past. The manuscript includes two Immrama or voyage tales: The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Currach (Immram curaig Mail Dúine) and The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain). Máel Dúin sets off to avenge his father’s murder and ends up travelling to a number of wondrous islands, encountering giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat. Bran’s travels take him to the eerie Island of Joy and a paradisiacal island inhabited by otherworldly women.

Many of the texts discuss incredible events to happen on the island of Ireland. The only extant Middle Irish version of the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh (Cath Maige Tuired) is preserved in the manuscript. It is an account of the conflict between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians culminating in Lug Lámfhada killing Balor, his grandfather. The story contains more than the battle between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians. One example is the account of Dían Cécht giving Núadu a fully functioning hand of silver. When his son, Míach, outperforms him by turning the silver hand to flesh, Dían Cécht kills him out of jealousy. It also tells of the Dagda putting gold coins in the satirist Cridenbél’s food as part of a cunning plan to kill him without facing punishment.

A page from a 16th-century Irish manuscript. The space for the initial is left unfilled.

The opening page of Cath Maige Tuired: Harley MS 5280, f. 63r

This exciting manuscript also contains stories of love, like Créde’s lament for Dinertach (the unique copy), a legal text known as Cáin Domnaig, and The Story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig (Scéla Muice meic Da Thó), in which deciding how to carve a pig leads to chaos. A medieval Irish tale list is included in The Stratagem of Urard mac Coise (Airec menman Uraird maic Coisse). A full list of the manuscript's contents can be found in the updated online catalogue record.

Harley MS 5280 is an invaluable source for early Irish literature and we are delighted that it is now available to view online. Táimid thar a bheith sásta go mbeidh daoine ar fud na cruinne in ann breathnú ar an lámhscríbhinn iontach seo. Tá súil againn go mbainfidh sibh tairbhe agus taitneamh aisti ('We are delighted that people all over the world will be able to look at this wonderful manuscript. We hope that you find benefit and pleasure in it').


Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

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19 August 2021

Important information for email subscribers

Unfortunately, the third-party platform that the British Library uses for email notifications for our Blogs is making changes to its infrastructure. This means that, from mid-August 2021, we anticipate that email notifications will no longer be sent to subscribers.

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We apologise for any inconvenience caused and hope you will continue to keep up with the latest stories on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog.


Miniature of the evangelist Luke depicted as a scribe, with his evangelist symbol, the bull, in the Grimbald Gospels (Christ Church Canterbury, early 11th century): Add MS 34890, f. 73v


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14 August 2021

Caption competition August 2021

Periodically we ask our lovely readers (that's you) to come up with a witty caption for an illustration in one of our manuscripts.

This month we have selected a page from a 13th-century copy of the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César (Add MS 15268, f. 242v). So what exactly is going on here?

Send your suggestions to us via Twitter (@BLMedieval) or using the comments box below. We'll publish the best. It's that simple.


An illustration in a medieval manuscript, showing the city of Rome with a two-headed statue on a plinth and people feasting


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05 August 2021

A mariner's handbook from the library of Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh (b. 1552, d. 1618) was a pivotal figure in the history of Elizabethan England. A spy, a soldier and an infamous favourite of the Tudor queen, he is perhaps best known as an explorer who founded colonies in the New World and who supposedly brought back tobacco to England. But Raleigh was also a prolific poet and writer, who collected hundreds of books and manuscripts in his lifetime. We have now digitised one of his prized possessions, a rare finely illuminated mariner’s handbook, originally made in Portugal in the 16th century.

A 16th-century portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, wearing a fur-lined cloak, decorated with pearls, with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner.
Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by an unknown English artist; oil on panel, 1588; NPG 7 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

The manuscript (now Cotton MS Tiberius D IX) is known as the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, literally meaning ‘Rutter of the Red Sea’ in Portuguese. A rutter is a type of nautical handbook that gives guidance about various aspects of the art of sailing. Navigators from across Europe compiled their own versions of these handbooks throughout the 16th century.

The contents of surviving rutters vary considerably. Many are devoted to collections of maps, naval charts, and astronomical and mathematical tables that were used to plot a course or calculate the relative position of a ship at sea. Others contain information relating to the movement of the tides, instructions on how to use navigational instruments, and how to repair damaged ships, as well as logbooks and itineraries of notable journeys made to the far side of the world. Some even include suggestions on how to avoid dangerous coral reefs, and lists of cures for diseases caught by crewmembers during a voyage. In essence, these books had everything you might have needed to navigate the oceans successfully: an invaluable resource for any sailor or explorer.

The title page of the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, with headings and initials in red ink, partially damaged by fire.
The title page of De Castro’s Roteiro do Mar Rozo: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 5v

The Roteiro do Mar Roxo was made by the Portuguese nobleman João de Castro (b. 1500, d. 1548) during his 1541 expedition to Suez under Estêvão da Gama (b. c. 1505, d. 1576). By the 16th century, this region had long been established as the site of a major trade route between Europe and the Middle East, which the Portuguese and other European powers sought to control. De Castro’s work is principally devoted to an account of his voyage, supplemented with a wealth of nautical and geographical information, including observations of the islands and surrounding landscape he and his companions discovered, and notes and descriptions of coastlines, ports, and bays found along the Sinai Peninsula.

One of the highlights of de Castro’s account is a series of finely painted watercolour illustrations and charts (known as tabuas) that accompany the text, which are thought to have been originally drawn by the Portuguese nobleman while on-board his flagship.

An opening from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, showing a view of an island, with a fleet of ships in the foreground and by the shore.
A view of an unidentified coast of Socotra Island, near the Arabian Sea, from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, ff. 11v-12r

Many of the illustrations are meticulously observed, recording not only the various topographic features of the islands and landscapes the fleet passed but also views of ports and cities on their journey. In the chart below, De Castro includes a depiction of the port of Suakin in Sudan, showing his fleet moored around it.

Text: A detail from the Roteiro do Maro Roxo, showing a watercolour illustration of a port city, with various fleets moored around it.
A depiction of the port of Suakin in Sudan, from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 36v

The Portuguese expedition fleet was comprised of 12 large galleons and carracks and at least 60 galleys, many of which are featured in De Castro’s illustrations. The ships are painted in minute detail, providing us with an invaluable insight into early modern naval design, with De Castro accounting for everything, from their sails, oars, and rigging, to the banners and heraldry flying from their masts, while tiny figures of sailors are shown clambering over the decks.

A detail from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, showing a Portuguese galleon, with sailors climbing on the decks and rigging, and furled sails.
A galleon in the Portuguese fleet, depicted in the Roteiro do Mar Roxo: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 11v
A detail from the Roterio do Mar Roxo, showing three galleys, their oars in the water, and two with their sails aloft.
Galleys depicted by De Castro in his Roteiro do mar Roxo: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 14v

De Castro also included depictions of other ships and fleets the company encountered during their voyage, most notably those belonging to the Ottoman Empire, a major rival for Portuguese power in the Mediterranean. Here, the Portuguese fleet is shown encountering the Ottoman forces around the Strait of Suez, with a land battle ensuing soon after.

A detail from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, showing a fleet moored at a port, the Portuguese army engaged with the forces of the Ottoman Empire.
The Portugueuse company in battle with the army of the Ottoman Empire, from a view of part of the Strait of Suez: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 76r

The Cotton volume is one of only two manuscripts of the Roteiro to survive from the 16th century (the other is now housed at the James Ford Bell Library, at the University of Minnesota). Its layout, illustrations, and delicately written script all suggest that it served as the presentation copy of the work, gifted by de Castro to the Infante Luis (b. 1506, d. 1555), younger brother of the Portuguese king, to whom he also dedicated the text.

The story of the manuscript’s subsequent journey from Portugal to England remains a mystery, though some have speculated that it was seized from a Portuguese ship during a battle with English privateers towards the end of the 16th century. At the very least, we know that by the early 1600s it had come into the possession of Sir Walter Raleigh, who apparently bought it in London for £60, a small fortune at that time.

A page from the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, showing De Castro’s dedication to Infante Luis, with headings in red ink and an initial in gold.
De Castro’s dedication of the work to Infante Luis: Cotton MS Tiberius D IX, f. 3r

That Raleigh was willing to spend so much on the volume is unsurprising, as he was an avid collector of manuscripts, printed books, maps, and sea charts. His notebook (now Add MS 57555), written when he was put in the Tower of London by King James I in 1606, contains an alphabetised shelf-list and inventory of the hundreds of volumes that made up his library, many of which accompanied him during his imprisonment. It also includes a series of comprehensive notes and hand-drawn maps that he used to write his History of the World, in Five Books, first published in London in 1614. There is even an annotated sketch of the Red Sea itself, its inclusion perhaps inspired by the Portuguese Roteiro Raleigh had purchased for his collection.

A page from the notebook of Sir Walter Raleigh, with a map of the Red Sea, painted in watercolour.
A page from the notebook of Sir Walter Raleigh, showing a map of the Red Sea and the surrounding Sinai Peninsula: Add MS 57555, f. 23v

Raleigh actually makes a reference to his copy of De Castro’s Roteiro in his History of the World, and this lends us an important clue as what happened to the volume in the years that followed. The explorer states that he had given the rutter to Richard Hackluyt (b. 1553, d. 1616), apparently with an instruction to adapt and publish an English paraphrase of the text. At the time, Hackluyt was an editor, translator, and travel writer, whose works were well-known for promoting the English colonisation of America.

However, Hackluyt did not complete Raleigh’s project and it seems that the Roteiro never returned to the library of its former owner. After Hackluyt's death in 1616 and Raleigh’s execution on the order of James I in 1618, Hackluyt’s son Edmond inherited the manuscript and he subsequently gave it into the keeping of the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton. Unfortunately, the Roteiro suffered the fate of many of the manuscripts in Cotton’s collection and was heavily burned in the Ashburnham House Fire in 1731, though thankfully much of the text and many of De Castro’s watercolour illustrations did survive intact. The volume can now be read in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Calum Cockburn

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