Medieval manuscripts blog

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7 posts from October 2021

31 October 2021

Afterlives and otherworlds: three ghost stories from medieval Ireland

Masks, murder and medieval Irish literature — these were the three passions of Michael Myers, primary antagonist of the Halloween movies. In John Carpenter's 1981 horror classic, Halloween 2, Myers took a short break from his Halloween massacre to break into a school and write ‘SAMHAIN’ in blood on a blackboard. His psychiatrist, Dr Sam Loomis, explained that this was a Celtic word meaning ‘Lord of the dead. The end of summer. The festival of Samhain, October 31st’. This is not entirely accurate: the Dictionary of the Irish Language instead defines samain as 1 November or All Saints’ Day.

Three characters from the film Halloween 2 investigate the word ‘Samhain’ written in blood on a blackboard

The police officers and Dr Loomis looking at the word ‘Samhain’ written in blood on a blackboard, from the film Halloween 2

Given this connection, we thought it would be fitting to celebrate Halloween with some spooky Irish stories from British Library manuscripts. Although there were no masked murderers prowling the suburbs in medieval Ireland, these tales of the supernatural should satisfy fans of horror and medieval literature alike.

An image of a crowned skeletal figure, Death, waving in the right-hand margin beside a page of text

An image of Death crowned, in the Carthusian Miscellany (England, 15th century): Add MS 37049, f. 31v

Our first Irish ghost story, Echtra Nerai ('The Adventures of Nera'), is set on the eve of Samhain, 31 October. King Ailill and Queen Medb (Maeve) were at Ráth Cruachan with their household, playing an appropriately ghastly game — whoever could tie a withy round the foot of either of the two men hanged outside would win a prize. True to all good horror stories, it was a dark night of great horror on which demons always appeared. This was enough to scare all the men, who ran back inside the house in fright.

A page from an Irish manuscript, with a blank space at the beginning left for a decorated initial

The opening lines of The Adventure of Nera, with space for the opening initial left unfilled (Ireland, 16th century): Egerton MS 1782, f. 71v

Nera braved the night, but the withy fell from his grasp three times. Fortunately, the corpse was surprisingly helpful despite his recent execution, and advised Nera to put a peg on the withy to keep it in place. The corpse then complimented Nera on his courage and asked for a drink, as he had been very thirsty when he was hanged. Nera agreed and gave the dead man a piggy-back ride to a nearby house surrounded by a lake of fire. The corpse complained that this house was no good, and neither was the next house surrounded by a lake of water. The third house, much like the story of Goldilocks, was just right. Unfortunately for its occupants, the corpse spat out the lost drops of his drink on them, killing them all.

Unperturbed, Nera brought the corpse back to the gallows, but on his return he saw Ráth Cruachan burning and the decapitated heads of its residents on the ground. Nera followed the otherworldly army responsible for this carnage into a síd, or fairy hill, which led him to the Otherworld. There he was ordered by the king to live with a single woman and to bring him firewood every day. This woman revealed in turn that the destruction Nera had seen was only a vision, and that he must warn his people to be on guard the next Samhain.

A page of a manuscript containing Irish script

The Adventure of Nera, when Nera's wife warns him that the Otherworld host will attack next Samhain when the ‘fairy-mounds’ of Ireland are open: Egerton MS 1782, f. 73r

Nera learned that no time had passed in Ráth Cruachan, despite spending three days in the Otherworld. His warnings were heeded and on Samhain the following year he was sent back to rescue his new family from the síd. After discovering he had a son, he returned to the mortal realm telling of the wonders of the Otherworld and the coming attack next Samhain. The following year the men of Ailill and Medb raided the síd, destroying it and taking three treasures: the crown of Briúin, the mantle of Lóegaire in Armagh, and the shirt of Dunlaing in Kildare. Nera, in contrast, returned to the síd where he would remain with his wife until Doomsday.

Other medieval Irish ghosts tended to be friendly, albeit a bit of a nuisance. Often they were simply looking for somebody to pray for them to get into Heaven. This was the case in our second ghost story, recounted in Egerton MS 92, which describes how a recently-deceased nun had appeared to Maol Póil úa Cináetha. After staying up late to discuss astrology with a fellow monk, Maol Póil had tried to sleep, but he was interrupted by a nun who had died 6 days earlier, who appeared and chastised him for discussing astrology instead of praying for her. When Maol Póil asked which prayer she would like, she requested the Bíait, possibly Psalm 118 or Psalm 32, one of the Seven Penitential Psalms. Her final destination is not revealed, but the efficacy of prayer for helping ghosts is attested elsewhere.

The same manuscript tells of Coirpre Crom (Coirpre the Stooping), bishop of Clonmacnoise. One night after vespers, a dark, shadowy figure appeared to him, with a bright circle around its neck and wearing a shirt with one sleeve. The figure revealed itself to be the soul of Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, a 9th-century Irish king. He claimed that his darkened appearance was the result of his sins staining his soul. The circle round his neck came from a ring he had given to a priest who failed to pray for him, and the one-sleeved shirt was the one he had given to pupils of the church who came to him, while he was alive, looking for a cloak for a poor student. The ghost revealed that he was in Hell and was being carried through the air, tormented by demons who were frightened away by the sound of Coirpre’s prayers.

A manuscript illumination depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a human soul in a hellmouth

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a soul in a hellmouth (Germany, 14th century): Add MS 15243, f. 12r

Coirpre agreed to pray for Máel Sechnaill and enlisted the twelve priests of the church to pray for his priest, who was also in Hell. A year later, Máel Sechnaill’s soul reappeared, visibly less stained by sin. Máel Sechnaill told Coirpre again of the horrors of Hell and asked him to continue praying and fasting. The next year he returned, radiant in appearance, and announced that Coirpre’s prayers had saved him from Hell and both he and his priest would ascend to Heaven.

Hundreds of years before M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter, the Irish were telling stories of restless spirits, murderous corpses and otherworldly invaders. As Nera’s wife said, ‘the fairy-mounds of Ireland are always open on Samhain’.


Seosamh Mac Cárthaigh

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28 October 2021

Into the inferno

700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.

A poster for the exhibition Inferno.
The exhibition poster for Inferno, curated by Jean Clair, at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.

The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.

A representation of the Last Judgement from the Winchester Psalter, showing an enormous hell-mouth swallowing demons and the souls of the damned, and an archangel locking the gates of Hell.
The Last Judgement, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.

The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing a crowd of sinners swallowed by the Mouth of Hell during the Last Judgement.
A crowd of sinners in the Mouth of Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail)

Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing an archangel locking the door to Hell, during the Last Judgement.
An archangel locks the doors to Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail).

You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.

Calum Cockburn
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25 October 2021

More Harley manuscripts online

Two years ago, we announced that we had started to revise the online descriptions of manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection. At that point, back in May 2019, relatively few of the Harley manuscripts were included in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (, and so readers had to rely in most part on the entries in the old published catalogue, printed in 1808–12.

A page from an illuminated manuscript, decorated in blue, yellow, red and other colours, depicting the Tree of Jesse, and with a decorated border including flowers, a bird, and a butterfly

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse at the beginning of Psalm 1 (Rouen, around the 1490s, with additions made in England or the southern Netherlands): Harley MS 1892, f. 31v

Today, we can tell you that more than 3,500 Harley manuscripts, charters and rolls can now be found in our online catalogue, the result of many months of patient research and cataloguing, much of it done under the pressures of lockdown. Given that there are more than 7,600 Harley manuscripts, there is still some way to go, but a significant number of those written before the year 1600 (and many written after that date) now have updated records. You can read more about the Harley collection in our online guide.

A text page written in Irish, in Irish script, with larger letters in black marking the beginning of new paragraphs

A page at the beginning of An Senchas Már (Ireland, c. 1578): Harley MS 432, f. 4r

So which manuscripts have been added to our catalogue most recently? A brief list of their contents will give you some flavour of the range of the Harley collection, and the complexities of providing modern, accurate entries for them. For example, Harley MS 432 contains An Senchas Mára 16th-century legal text written in Irish. We know that its scribe was Gilla na Naem Ó Deoráin, according to an inscription in ogham on f. 14r, and he was writing at Aninsi art Labadrais, possibly Inch Saint Lawrence (Co. Limerick). Harley MS 4775 contains the Gilte Legende, a Middle English prose translation of the Legenda Aurea. Its scribe was 'Ricardus Franciscus', who may have copied the text directly from another manuscript, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 372. Harley MS 4313 is a formulary for legal process in the Court of Arches at London, begun in the 1560s, and is typical of the sorts of administrative manuscripts that most interested Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer under Queen Anne, and his son, Edward. Harley MS 1892, in turn, is a beautiful illuminated Psalter, made in Rouen in the late-15th century for an English patron, and subsequently heavily refurbished.

A decorated page from an illuminated manuscript, with the text arranged in 2 columns and with gold initial introducing different sections of text

A page from the Gilte Legende (London, middle of the 15th century): Harley MS 4775, f. 237r

The credit for cataloguing the pre-1600s Harleys over the past 18 months should go to Clarck, Calum, Ellie, Peter, Kathleen, Seosamh, Chantry and other members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team. Despite the issues brought on by Covid, they were able to produce draft Harley records in many instances, which were then enhanced and completed when they returned to the office. We hope that this in turn will support other people's research and pleasure, and that it leads to us gaining a better understanding of medieval and early modern manuscript culture.

You can search for the Harley manuscripts on our online catalogue, and you can also browse the collection available so far.


Julian Harrison

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21 October 2021

Treasures on Tour in Cornwall

The latest leg of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme sees the loan of the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth, a medieval Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ, to a new exhibition in Redruth. These manuscripts are on display from 23 October 2021 until 22 January 2022 at Kresen Kernow (‘Cornwall Centre’), in an exhibition entitled ‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’.

The Bodmin Gospels (Add MS 9381) is the earliest surviving manuscript known to have been in use in Cornwall. It was produced in Brittany towards the end of the 9th century, but by the 940s it had been taken to the Cornish priory of St Petroc. The priory was initially in Padstow, but subsequently relocated to Bodmin following Viking attacks.

A page from the Bodmin Gospels, with large decorated initials IN, decorated in red, beginning the word 'Initium' at the start of the Gospel of Mark

The opening of the Gospel of Mark in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 50r

From the mid-10th to the 11th centuries, numerous scribes copied documents onto blank pages and into the margins around the text of the Gospels. These documents, known as manumissions, record the freeing of many enslaved individuals whose existence in Cornwall is not noted in any other sources. The text of some of the documents was erased in the past by scraping the ink off the parchment, but in recent years multispectral imaging has made these texts legible again.

The Bodmin Gospels is open at ff. 8v–9r in the exhibition in Redruth, showing a page with four added manumission documents on the left, opposite the first canon table, listing parallel passages in the four Gospels.

A page from the Bodmin Gospels containing the manumissions of four slaves

Copies of four manumission documents in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 8v

A decorated page from the Bodmin Gospels containing an arch with three columns, painted in red, and the text of the canon tables

The first canon table in the Bodmin Gospels: Add MS 9381, f. 9r

On display alongside the Bodmin Gospels is Pascon Agan Arluth, a Cornish poem on the Passion of Christ (Harley MS 1782). This manuscript was written in the 15th century, and appears to be a copy of a text originally composed in the previous century, making it the earliest surviving complete Cornish text. It also includes 10 coloured drawings in the lower margins, and is the earliest known illustrated manuscript written in Cornish.

A page from the Cornish Passion Poem with an illustration in the lower margin, showing Herod sitting on the left in a red chair, with 5 figures to his right coloured in red, black and green

Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ before King Herod: Harley MS 1782, f. 9r

The narrative of the poem, written in 259 8-line stanzas, focuses on the story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, drawing on the accounts found in the Gospels, with other additional material.

A page from the Cornish Passion Poem with an illustration in the lower margin, showing Christ on the left in a red robe holding the Cross, coloured in yellow, and followed by two figures coloured in black and green

Pascon Agan Arluth, a Passion Poem in Cornish, with a coloured drawing of Christ carrying the Cross: Harley MS 1782, f. 14v

The project to develop Kresen Kernow, where the manuscripts are on display, was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Cornwall Council, to create a new home for Cornwall’s archives and gallery spaces, within the walls of the former Redruth Brewery. It opened in September 2019 and houses over 1.5 million manuscripts, maps and documents from Cornwall Record Office, as well as photographs, books and newspapers from the Cornish Studies Library, and the archaeological records and photographs from the Historic Environment Record.

A photograph of Kresen Kernow

The Kresen Kernow building in Redruth © Phil Boorman

The new exhibition in Redruth includes medieval items from Kresen Kernow’s own collection. It follows on from the display this summer of four early Cornish language play-scripts on loan from the Bodleian Library and the National Library of Wales: the Cornish Ordinalia; the Creation of the World; the Life of St Meriadoc (Bewnans Meriasek); and the Life of St Kea (Bewnans Ke).

‘Treasures from Medieval Cornwall’ opens to the public on Saturday 23 October 2021 and runs until Saturday 22 January 2022. More information on opening times and how to book free tickets is available on the Kresen Kernow website.

The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year, as part of this programme, we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as George Eliot’s manuscript of Middlemarch to Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.


Claire Breay

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19 October 2021

Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours

Long celebrated for its superb illuminations, the Saluces Hours (Add MS 27697) has been described by the art historian John Plummer as ‘one of the finest and most inventive manuscripts illuminated during the 15th century’. Yet it was only in 1989 that the art historian François Avril identified most of its miniatures as the work of Antoine de Lonhy, a prolific, multifaceted and well-travelled artist of the 15th century.

Antoine de Lonhy is the subject of a new exhibition, Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy (The European Renaissance of Antoine De Lonhy), which opened at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin on 7 October 2021, and will run until 9 January 2022. The Saluces Hours is a focal point of the exhibition, appearing in the first room together with a painting of Lonhy in the collection of the Palazzo Madama. Other works by Lonhy and his contemporaries include manuscripts, panel paintings, stained glass, sculptures and textiles. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view other miniatures from the manuscript shown digitally beside it. 

Miniature of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r

The Saluces Hours is a manuscript with a complicated genesis. It was produced in Savoy, which in the 15th century was in independent duchy, and today comprises an area of southeast France and northwest Italy. The manuscript was originally begun around the 1440s, several decades before Lonhy’s involvement in the project. In this first stage, the text was probably completed and the process of illuminating the book begun. Some of the pictures and borders from this phase are attributed to Peronet Lamy (d. before 1453), an artist who worked for the court of Savoy from around 1432 to 1443, whose work is particularly apparent in the miniature of St John the Evangelist (f. 13r).

Miniature of St John the Evangelist
St John the Evangelist writing his Gospel on the island of Patmos, by Peronet Lamy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 13r

Another contemporary artist, known as the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy (after Paris, BnF, MS Lat. 9473) also contributed eight miniatures, as well as the historiated initials which accompany them. He might have done this concurrently with the original campaign of work, or perhaps he took over when Peronet Lamy stopped working on the book.

Miniature of the Wedding at Cana
The Wedding at Cana, by the Master of the Hours of Louis of Savoy, retouched by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 49r

But for some reason, the project stalled and for over a decade the beautiful book was left unfinished. Then in around 1460-1470, Antoine de Lonhy took it up and completed it. As well as adding lots of new pictures, he also retouched the earlier artworks to increase the impression of stylistic coherence, and in some cases he may have painted on underdrawings made by the previous artists.

Although the book was originally intended for a male owner, as suggested by the inclusion of prayers which are grammatically phrased for the use of a man, Lonhy seems to have completed the new work for a woman. He painted her in an owner portrait, kneeling before the Virgin and Child and followed by two Franciscan saints, perhaps St Bernardino and St Anthony of Padua. She is gorgeously dressed in a fur-trimmed dress, a weighty gold collar, and a towering conical hat (know as a hennin).

Detail of the Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman
The Virgin and Child with an owner portrait of a woman, presented by two Franciscan saints, by Antoine de Lonhy: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

Yet the identity of this glamorous owner has proved puzzling. The borders of the manuscript regularly feature the coat of arms of the Saluces family of Piedmont (argent a chief azure), as well as in two places the coat of arms of the d'Urfé family (vair a chief gules). Based on this heraldic evidence, it used to be thought that the owner was Aimée (or Amadée) de Saluces (b. 1420, d. 1473), daughter of Mainfroy de Saluces of Piedmont. Aimée married Guillaume-Armand de Polignac around 1441, and their daughter Catherine married Pierre d'Urfé in 1489.

However, scholars no longer agree with this identification because the manuscript does not contain the Polignac arms, despite dating stylistically from the period after Aimée’s marriage. Further, the coats of arms appear to be later additions to the manuscript, and probably do not refer to the woman who Lonhy worked for at all. It is more likely that both the original and later patrons of the Book of Hours, with its close similarities to the Hours of Louis of Savoy, were members of Savoy's Ducal family. It is now thought that the woman is possibly Yolande of France (b. 1434, d. 1478), wife of Duke Amadeus IX of Savoy. 

Illuminated Arms of Saluces
Arms of Saluces, argent a chief azure: Add MS 27697, f. 19r (detail)

We know more about the artist, Antoine de Lonhy, thanks to the work of art historians who have meticulously identified his works and reconstructed his career, now further elucidated in the exhibition and exhibition catalogue. Apparently French by birth, he seems to have started his career in the Duchy of Burgundy in the 1440s. By the 1450s he was documented working in Toulouse, and in 1460-62 he was working in Barcelona. He seems to have settled in Piedmont around 1462, and he worked on commissions in Savoy and Piedmont in around 1470-90. Dozens of his attributed artworks survive in a surprisingly wide variety of media, including panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass.

Despite his wide-ranging travels, Antoine de Lonhy’s style is closely linked to the northern European Gothic art in which he was trained. The ornamental architecture in his pictures is always Gothic rather than Classical, although Classical architecture was flourishing in Italy at the time. His pictures show a depth of space and an interest in sweeping landscapes that suggests he was well versed in the work of great Flemish artists of the first half of the 15th century such as Jan Van Eyck and Roger Van der Weyden. His figures are softly modelled with sensitive faces, draperies that fall into elaborate deep folds, and sometimes strikingly lifelike anatomy, as illustrated in the picture of the naked Adam and Eve in the Saluces Hours.

Miniature of God with Adam and Eve
God speaking to Adam while Eve sleeps: Add MS 27697, f. 213r

To discover more about Antoine de Lonhy and see a great range of his works, visit the exhibition Il Rinascimento Europeo di Antoine De Lonhy at the Palazzo Madama—Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin, from 7 October, 2021 to 9 January, 2022.

You can read more about the subject in exhibition catalogue, Il Rinascimento europeo di Antoine De Lonhy, ed. by Simone Baiocco e Vittorio Natale (Genova: SAGEP, 2021), and you can find further bibliography in our catalogue record. You can also view the Saluces Hours online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. 

Eleanor Jackson

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08 October 2021

Elizabeth and Mary, Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Curators’ Picks

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the first major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, together, is now open at the British Library. After the delays, challenges and uncertainties of the last 18 months, the curatorial team is delighted to see the exhibition finally come to fruition and to welcome the public to it! To mark this event, Alan, Anna, Karen and Andrea have each selected a personal highlight from the show.

Alan writes, 'One of the most unprepossessing objects on display in the exhibition is a small letter. You might walk past it, having given it barely a glance. However, it is among four letters recently discovered in the British Library, all written by Elizabeth before she became queen. Such letters are comparatively rare. And this one, written from Enfield on 31 December 1547, to ‘M[aste]r Cycell attendinge vpon the Lorde Protector’, is more important than it at first might appear. In her letter Elizabeth petitioned one of the rising stars in government, William Cecil, to ‘commend’ her servant Hugh Goodacre to Edward Seymour, who was the lord protector during the minority reign of Edward VI. Cecil would become Elizabeth’s most trusted minister as queen. This letter is their first known contact, written when she was 14. Significantly, it shows how they were already bound together by their shared Protestant faith. It is also one of the earliest examples of Elizabeth’s famous italic signature.'

A letter written by Princess Elizabeth to Robert Cecil, with her signature in the upper left-hand corner

Letter addressed by Princess Elizabeth to William Cecil, 31 December 1547: Add MS 70518, f. 11r

Anna has selected as her favourite item the 1558 ‘false arms’ of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, the French dauphin François. 'Not only is it visually stunning, with bold colours that will catch the eye of any passing visitor, but it also illustrates the issue of the English succession that underpinned the personal and political rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth for almost three decades. As a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Mary had a strong claim to the English and Irish thrones. Following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, François and Mary began quartering the arms of England with their own and styling themselves ‘King and Queen Dauphins of Scotland, England and Ireland’. This act of provocation originated the distrust between Elizabeth and Mary that would culminate in Mary’s execution in 1587 for plotting Elizabeth’s death in order to seize the throne.'

A manuscript illustration of the coat of arms of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, coloured in red, yellow and blue

The arms of Mary, Queen of Scots and the French dauphin, and of Scotland, France and England, sent from France, July 1559: Cotton MS Caligula B X/1, ff. 17v–18r

Karen has chosen the papal bull, known as Regnans in Excelsis, which was issued by Pope Pius V and printed in Latin in February 1570. 'Written in support of the Northern Rebellion, it proved too late to affect its outcome. The decree, calling Elizabeth ‘the pretended Queen of England’, excommunicated her from the Catholic Church and threatened her Catholic subjects with the same fate should they disobey the pope. This created a problem for English Catholics: should they be loyal to the queen or to the pope? The papal bull is one of a number of books and broadsides displayed in the exhibition to show the importance of printing at the time and its ability to spread information far and wide. It is not clear how far the bull circulated in England, but it is possible that Mary, who had been in captivity in England for about two years by this point, saw a copy of it.'

A page from a printed item issued by Pope Pius V in 1570

S.D.N. Pii Papæ V. Sententia declaratoria contra Elisabeth prætensam Angliæ Reginam, Rome?, 1570: C.18.e.2.(114*).

For her curators' pick, Andrea has chosen a letter written by Mary to Elizabeth in May 1568 following her deposition as Queen of Scots, her escape from captivity and subsequent flight across the English border. 'Writing in her native French tongue, Mary describes the treasonable actions of her enemies, who ‘have robbed me of everything I had in the world’ and expresses her confidence in Elizabeth ‘not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’. Describing herself as Elizabeth’s ‘very faithful and affectionate good sister, cousin and escaped prisoner, Mary begs for an audience; ‘I entreat you to send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can’, for ‘I am’, she bemoans, ‘in a pitiable condition, not only for a queen, but for a gentlewoman, for I have nothing in the world but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling sixty miles across the country the first day, and not having since ever ventured to proceed except by night, as I hope to declare before you if it pleases you to have pity, as I trust you will, upon my extreme misfortune.’'

A handwritten letter of Mary, Queen of Scots, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I, 17 May 1568, Workington, Cumberland: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

The exhibition explores how Mary’s arrival on English soil plunged Elizabeth and her government into a political predicament that would not end until Mary’s execution in 1587. On display is a magnificent array of letters and papers, books, maps, paintings, sculptures, textiles and jewellery, creating a tangible connection to unfolding events and inviting visitors to step back into a world of religious turmoil, espionage, treason and war.


Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 

The British Library, London

8 October 2021–20 February 2022


Alan Bryson, Andrea Clarke, Karen Limper-Herz and Anna Turnham

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01 October 2021

The travelling Bibles

What would a manuscript tell us if it could recount its travels and describe the places where it lived? The Locating a National Collection project, led by a team at the British Library, is exploring what place references can reveal about the ‘biography’ of historic objects. Does knowing that a precious manuscript is linked to a particular medieval abbey make it more interesting and relatable to us? Similarly, does knowing that a castle or a palace is connected to a rare medieval book help us to see it in a different light, and ultimately maybe even make us want to visit it?

To test this idea, and to discover how far following the footsteps of a manuscript can take us, the Locating a National Collection project has joined forces with the British Library’s medieval manuscript curators to dive into the Library's records and explore an exceptional story filled with great journeys, fortuitous discoveries and joyful reunifications. We thought that the best way to tell it was to use a map, or, better, an interactive one: a StoryMap. Scroll down to follow the tales of the travelling Bibles, click on the dots on the map to find more information about the places we mention along the way, and, if you are left wanting more, follow the links to other articles and resources.

We hope you enjoy your (virtual) journey.

Valeria Vitale and Gethin Rees

Locating a National Collection

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