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7 posts from November 2021

25 November 2021

Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor

Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).

Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower
Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower, Langtoft’s Chronicle of English History (N. England, 1307–27): Royal MS 20 A II, f. 3v

As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.

Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge
Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge, Estoire de Merlin (St Omer or Tournai, 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 76r

They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.

Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess
Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 77v

The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.

Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.

Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons
Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 25r

Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.

Merlin helps build Stonehenge
Merlin helps build Stonehenge, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.

Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest
Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest, Livre de Merlin (Arras, 1310): Add MS 38117, f. 76r

Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.

Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast
Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 160v

When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.

Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane
Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane, Livre de Merlin: Add MS 38117, f. 186r.

In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.

Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Dragons heroes myths magic cover


18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

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16 November 2021

The archive of Zenon

In the 1910s an exceptional lot of more than 1,800 papyri was unearthed by the ‘sebakhin’ (local diggers searching for decayed mudbricks used as a fertilizer) in the ancient site of Philadelphia in the northeast of the Fayum region, in Egypt. This collection of documents constitutes the richest Greek archive on papyrus hitherto unearthed and dates from the mid-3rd century BC. These papers, collected in ancient times and kept together for more than 2000 years, are today held in different collections around the world. While the vast majority were acquired by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the rest entered European and American collections, from London and Manchester to Florence and Paris, from Ann Arbor to New York.

Map of a district of Egypt including its subdivisions and showing the village of Philadelphia on the north-eastern border.
Map of the Arsinoite nome taken from The Fayum Project. Philadelphia was located on the north-eastern border.

These precious survivals have allowed scholars to reconstruct the phases of the career of the owner of these papers: Zenon, son of Agreophon, born around 285 BC and originally from Caunus (modern Dalyan), in ancient Caria (southwest of modern Turkey). Covering a period of some thirty years (261-229 BC), the archive includes private and official letters, accounts, contracts, petitions as well as a few literary texts. Besides dealing with official and business matters, some correspondence from this archive is more personal in tone, providing details on Zenon’s life, family and friends.

The documents reveal that from around 261 BC, Zenon served as a business agent and private secretary of Apollonius, the finance minister (dioiketes) of the country, advisor to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285 BC – 246 BC). In the first phase of his career, Zenon was travelling as a representative of Apollonius to Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Ptolemy.

Well preserved papyrus sheet containing a complete letter from 257 BC.
Complete letter from Glaucias to Apollonius, reporting on various business matters and dated 257 BC (British Library, Papyrus 2661)

Apollonius also owned property in Palestine. In a letter from May 257 BC (Papyrus 2661), addressed to the finance minister himself, one of his agents reported that his Palestinian estate was being well cultivated under the management of his local agent, Melas, and the vines amounted to 80,000. The agent even tasted the wine, but could hardly say whether it was Chian wine (one of the most prized wines in classical antiquity) or a local one. He concluded: ‘So your affairs are prospering, and fortune is favouring you in everything’. 

Concluding line from a letter on papyrus.
Conclusion of the letter from Glaucias (British Library, Papyrus 2661).

In the spring of 258 BC, Zenon returned to Egypt and travelled on a few occasions on inspection tours around the Nile Delta. Following a long and apparently serious illness, from which he recovered sometime in 256 BC, Zenon settled down in Philadelphia and became overseer of Apollonius’ large estate (c. 2750 hectars!). Ptolemy II had gifted the estate to Apollonius in the winter of 259 BC, and Zenon succeeded a certain Panacestor as its manager.

Zenon kept this role until 248 BC, when he was discharged from his duties and focused on managing his own businesses in Philadelphia. Having been engaged in various enterprises over the years, such as money-lending, tax farming and renting of animals, he had now become a wealthy and influential businessman. The number of documents relating to Zenon decreases after 240 BC, and the latest dated text mentioning him is from 229 BC. 

With the archive held in various collections worldwide, it is no surprise that even fragments belonging to the same papyrus are now housed at different institutions. However, digitisation and cross-institutional collaboration can help overcome the limits of time and space. For example, a letter from Philinus, a friend of Zenon’s, survives in two fragments, one at the British Library (Papyrus 2351) and one at the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York (P.Col. IV 114d).

Fragmentary papyrus sheet, lacking the bottom and right-hand half
Fragmentary letter from Philinus to Zenon (British Library, Papyrus 2351)

In this letter, Philinus advises Zenon that he has despatched five shields of extraordinary quality: ‘I have sent you the five shields so highly prized by me that not even in Aetolia are there any such.’ The Columbia fragment perfectly joins the British Library portion to the right, containing the ends of the first seven lines of the letter, as shown on the image below.

Two papyrus fragments from different collections now joined.
The two fragments now joined: on the left, British Library Papyrus 2351; on the right, the Columbia portion, P.Col. IV 114d. The image of the Columbia fragment is courtesy of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

In another interesting case, a receipt written in duplicate form has ended up in the British Library and in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Nechthembes, apparently a small contractor employing a group of men for the cultivation of an estate, acknowledges that he received money for twenty workmen for the levelling of a vineyard. The British Library holds the upper receipt (Papyrus 2340), representing the inner text, which was originally rolled up and sealed to serve as the authoritative copy. The seal, in this case not preserved, would usually carry the impression of the man acknowledging receipt of payment. The Michigan fragment (P.Mich.inv. 3151), on the other hand, constitutes the outer text that was left open and visible.

Two fragments from the same papyrus, now belonging to different collections.
Two fragments from the same papyrus sheet, the upper being British Library Papyrus 2340 and the lower the Michigan fragment P.Mich.inv. 3151 (© Regents of the University of Michigan)

Our Greek papyri cataloguing project, generously sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library, has focused on fragments shared by the British Library and American collections. You can read about two other examples of such joins in our previous blog posts: A letter of recommendation split between two continents and Defying the Emperor. You can also learn more about the Zenon archive on the Trismegistos dedicated page. All the Zenon papyri from the British Library collections have been digitised and catalogued and will be made available on the British Library new IIIF viewer in the coming months.

Federica Micucci

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13 November 2021

'Strangers' in Tudor England and Stewart Scotland

In Tudor England and Stewart Scotland foreigners were termed ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’. They settled mainly in southern and eastern England and eastern Scotland, either for short periods or more permanently. While often welcomed for their skills and experience or because they filled a gap in the labour market, immigrants could find themselves subject to both prejudice and discriminatory legislation. In 1521, for example, the mayor of London forced an Italian immigrant to place a lattice over his shop window and hang no sign above, as ‘he is but a Foreiyn’ (London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/01/01/005, f. 182r). 15 years later the printer Jean le Rous, originally from Normandy, found himself targeted during an anti-French riot on Fleet Street, in which the native Londoners shouted ‘down[e,] down[e] w[i]t[h] the frenshe dogg[e]s’ (London, The National Archives, SP 1/112, M. f. 223r). (In the late Elizabethan play, The Book of Thomas More, there is a scene set in the year 1517, and reputed to have been written by William Shakespeare, which describes a mob of Londoners demanding that the 'wretched strangers' in their midst be expelled.) After she returned to her homeland in summer 1561, many of her protestant subjects regarded Mary, Queen of Scots, with suspicion and hostility as both French and catholic.

The manuscript of a letter written by William Cecil to Nicholas Throckmorton in 1561

A letter from Sir William Cecil to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 26 August 1561, describing the arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her French servants in Scotland: Add MS 35830, f. 189r

Yet, England and Scotland could be surprisingly diverse and tolerant places. Contemporary records suggest that 1% of Tudor England’s population was immigrant (a figure not exceeded until 1901). Lack of evidence makes it impossible to determine immigration levels in Stewart Scotland, but foreigners were certainly present. For example, they could be found at court, both as visitors and as permanent household members. Many of Mary’s servants had been with her since her days in France.  Similarly, the English crown welcomed talent from abroad, like the Bassano family of Venetian Jewish musicians and instrument makers. One of the Bassano brothers, Baptista, taught Princess Elizabeth Italian and how to play the lute between 1545 and 1552. In 1537 another Italian immigrant was even licenced to open a tennis court in London. Immigrants also prospered beyond the capital and the court. The Spanish goldsmith Martín Soza, who was probably a converso (a Jewish convert to Christianity) became sheriff of York in 1545.

Most immigrants came from neighbouring countries: in England they were from France, the Netherlands, and Scotland; while in Scotland they were usually English, Irish and Netherlandish in origin. Individuals from further afield like Luke de la Ark, who said he was from Cappadocia in Ottoman Turkey when he became an English denizen in 1541, were very rare. He was probably Orthodox Greek and perhaps originally named Loukios tis Erkilet. French people living in England traditionally held a wide variety of occupations, including as priests, servants, tailors and ironworkers. A significant number were skilled masters like surgeons, clockmakers, and bookbinders. One was a parchment maker, Guillaume du Quesnay. The Netherlanders, though more numerous, usually made more modest livings, for example as coopers and brewers, cobblers, weavers, and the like. Scots worked as farmhands, shepherds, labourers, and servants, mainly in the north-east. Immigrants in Scotland are mostly recorded as servants, but there were some masters like artists, moneyers, and gun founders.

A coloured map of England and Scotland, with the northern coastlines of Flanders and France

Part of a map of Ireland, England and Scotland, c. 1564–65, made by Lawrence Nowell for William Cecil, entitled ‘A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning’: Add MS 62540, f. 4r

During Elizabeth I’s reign many immigrants were protestant refugees who had fled their homeland after the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion or the Dutch Revolt. Most were skilled craftsmen and women working in the cloth industry and the cloth trade.  Natives generally remained tolerant of these newcomers.

A manuscript map showing the extent of the whole world as it was known in 1558

Diego Homem, ‘Map of the Whole World’, from the Mary I Atlas, 1558: Add MS 5415 A, f. 8r

The expansion of English overseas exploration during the 16th century, from its origins in coastal trading at the beginning to Francis Drake’s voyage of circumnavigation in 1580, led to direct encounters with people from distant lands. The first native Americans were brought on return voyages from Newfoundland in 1501 or 1502. But Africans were already settled in the British Isles by the 11th century; and there is growing archaeological evidence of Africans in Roman Britain. During the early 16th century most Africans came to the British Isles from the Maghreb, Northwest Africa, via Spain and Portugal — like John Blanke, trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII between 1507 and 1512. Blanke seemingly arrived from Spain in Katherine of Aragon’s household in 1501. Like Catalina de Motril, one of Katherine’s servants, he too may have been an enslaved person, whose origins were morisco (a Muslim Moor convert to Christianity). Because the condition of their enslavement was not recognized in English common law, Blanke, de Motril, and presumably other moriscos would have become free when they landed in England. The same appears to have been true in Scotland, where Scots law permitted native serfdom but not enslavement. In 1549 a Moor was recommended to Mary of Guise’s service in the war against England, being as ‘scharp ane man as rydis [rides]’ (Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 1543-60, ed. A. I. Cameron (1927), no. 206).

A manuscript showing three men mounted on horseback, each blowing a trumpet from which hangs the royal standard of England, coloured in red, blue and yellow

Detail of John Blanke from the Westminster Tournament Roll, by an unknown artist, 1511, by courtesy of London, College of Arms

Over the course of the 16th century people from South, East and Central Africa, as well as from the Maghreb, could be found in the British Isles. A man called Diego, probably originally from Senegambia in West Africa, joined Drake’s crew in the Caribbean in July 1572, returning with him to England as his servant. Africans dwelt in London, Edinburgh, and other big settlements, but also in towns and villages like Blean in Kent. By the close of the century we know that people of African descent were born, lived, and died in England, among them Helen Holman, who was baptised in St Andrew, Plymouth, on 2 May 1593.

The reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Mary, queen of Scots, and the relationship between these two rulers, are the subject of a major British Library exhibition. Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on in London until 22 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

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10 November 2021

The Floreffe Bible on exhibition

This year is the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, in 1121. The anniversary is being celebrated in Namur at TreM.a: the Museum of Ancient Arts, with the exhibition Grandeur et déchéance. L’héritage patrimonial de l’abbaye de Floreffe which opened in late October.

The exhibition features the second volume of the enormous (480 x 335 mm) two-volume Bible made in Floreffe in around 1170, now in the British Library’s collection. The manuscript is open at the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, which features a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’ [quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem] (Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration).

The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke with a large illuminated miniature above the first word of the text ‘Quoniam’
The beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r

Like the other miniatures in the Bible, this one provides a sophisticated visual commentary on the accompanying text. In part, the image relates to the Evangelist’s symbol of St Luke. From an early date, Church Fathers associated symbols with the Four Evangelists, derived from Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures with four faces (Ezekiel 1:5-11), and from St John’s vision of the four living creatures before the throne (Revelation 4:6-8). St Luke’s symbol is an ox or calf, while the others are a man for St Matthew, a lion for St Mark and an eagle for St John.

In the lower register of the miniature, a priest is sacrificing a calf on an altar. On either side are figures holding scrolls bearings texts from the Old or New Testament. To the left, King David, the supposed author of the Psalms, holds a scroll with Psalm 68:32: ‘[et] placebit Deo super vitulum novellum, cornua producentem et ungulas’ ([And] it shall please God better than a young calf, that bringeth forth horns and hoofs). To the right, St Luke, holding his symbol, which resembles the calf being sacrificed, holds a scroll with verses from Luke 15:22-23: ‘Dixit autem pater ad servos suos: . . . et adducite vitulum saginatum, et occidite’ (And the father said to his servants: . . .And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it).

Detail of the miniature, showing the priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side
The priest sacrificing a calf, with King David and St Luke on either side, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

The upper scene of the miniature is the Crucifixion of Christ, with the soldier Longinus on the left, piercing Christ's side with his spear, and the soldier Stephaton on the right, holding a sponge filled with vinegar. Just above the transverse beam of the cross, the Old and New Testament quotations and supposed authors are reversed in order. On the left, St Paul holds a scroll with a verse from Hebrews 9:12: ‘[neque per sanguinem hircorum aut vitulorum, sed] per proprium sanguinem introivit semel in Sancta’ ([Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but] by his own blood, entered once into the holies). On the right, a crowned King David points directly at Christ; his scroll contains a verse from Psalm 109:4: ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech).

Detail of the miniature, showing the Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David
The Crucifixion of Christ, with St Paul and King David, from the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 187r (detail)

Rhymed verses inscribed on the arch above summarise the significance of the images:

Pro nevo fraudis vitulus datur hostia laudis
Quod Christus vitulus sit docet hic titulus

For the blemish of the fraud [i. e., of the devil] a calf is given as the sacrifice of praise [c.f. Hebrews 13:15]
That this calf is Christ is what this inscription shows.

(Translation by Peter Toth).

Each of the Gospels in the Floreffe Bible opens with a similar image with layered interpretations and visual commentaries. For example, you can read about the opening of the Gospel of St Mark, which explores the relationship between the lion and Christ’s Resurrection, in our previous blogpost.

Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, with a miniature showing the Resurrection of Christ and a lion
Opening to the Gospel of St Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Add MS 17738, f. 179v

Another of the images in the manuscript, at the beginning of the Book of Job, connects the family of Job to the three theological virtues and the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. You can also read about this page in a previous blogpost.

The first volume of the Floreffe Bible is also on public display, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London, where it is open to St Jerome’s letter to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, in which he urges Paulinus to make a diligent study of the Scriptures. Both volumes are also available online on our Digitised Manuscript website.

Kathleen Doyle
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06 November 2021

Investigating the origins of the Cotton collection: call for academic partners

The British Library is pleased to invite academics at UK universities and Higher Education Institutions to collaborate with us on two jointly-supervised doctoral research projects. One research topic is entitled Investigating the origins and development of the Cotton collection; the other is Football fanzines and fan communities in the digital age. You can read more about them on the Library's website.

Both studentships will be fully funded for up to four years through the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme. The research projects draw directly on the Library's collections, expertise and resources, and are closely aligned with our vision statement, key programmes and overall purpose as a national library. Prospective HEI partners are invited in an open competition to submit proposals to further develop and bring their own expertise and perspective to our research themes.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, dressed in black and with a white collar, with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis; the inscription is in gold ink, written in Latin

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, with his hand resting on the manuscript known as the 'Cotton Genesis': courtesy of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon

We would welcome applications from academics of postgraduate status currently employed at UK universities/Higher Education Institutions, who would be interested in joint supervision of a collaborative doctoral project on the Cotton collection, beginning in October 2022. The library put together by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and his descendants was once described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual’. It contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. The Cotton collection was presented to the nation in 1702 and is one of the foundation collections of the British Library. In 2018, it was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.

A letter in brown ink written in 1630, sending Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton

A letter of Sir Edward Dering, sending to Sir Robert Cotton the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

There has been no detailed investigation of how Sir Robert Cotton and his son and grandson assembled their library. This Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project aims to address this gap, investigating for example when and from whom Cotton acquired his manuscripts, what his collecting principles were, whether there were specific networks of patronage or patterns of previous ownership, and how the creation and use of the collection can be situated within a wider historical context. Valuable information can be deduced from inscriptions in the manuscripts themselves, from the early handwritten catalogues of the collection, and from Cotton’s own correspondence, all of which are held at the British Library.

The Library’s curators are experts in book history and manuscript culture, but would be keen to collaborate with academics specialising in late Elizabethan and early Stuart politics and cultural history, and in the book collecting practices of this period. This project will also offer significant opportunities for wider outreach and engagement, ranging from blogposts for more general audiences and content creation on the Library’s website to resources or events for specialist researchers.

A page from the Gawain manuscript, showing Sir Gawain dressed in red, wielding an axe, and the Green Knight sitting on horseback, holding his decapitated head in his hand

The only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is found in the Cotton library: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Completed application forms and brief CVs must be submitted to [email protected] by 5pm on Friday, 10 December 2021. Late applications cannot be accepted.

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Julian Harrison

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04 November 2021

'Not lawful nor tolerable'

1567 was an unlucky year for Mary, Queen of Scots. February saw the dramatic end of her second husband Lord Darnley at Kirk o’ Field, when a group of Scottish nobles murdered him and his servant (either by suffocation or strangulation), before blowing up the house where they had been staying and leaving their bodies for discovery in an orchard nearby. In April, Mary was abducted by the chief suspect in Darnley’s murder, Lord Bothwell, who became her third husband in May. After a clash at Carberry Hill between her supporters and the lords clamouring for the punishment of Darnley’s killers, Mary was captured and imprisoned at Lochleven Castle on 17 June. Finally, on 24 July, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, Prince James.

Visitors to the British Library's major new exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, can see the detailed drawing of the Darnley murder scene, made for Sir William Cecil, together with a bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Carberry Hill in 1567. Both are display in the exhibition thanks to a generous loan from The National Archives.

A bird’s-eye view showing the murder scene of Lord Darnley

Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Lord Darnley, February 1567: reproduced with the permission of The National Archives, MPF 1/366/1

A bird’s-eye view showing the Battle of Carberry Hill, 1567

Bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Carberry Hill, 1567: reproduced with the permission of The National Archives, MPF 1/366/2

In the midst of this upheaval, Mary’s sister queen, Elizabeth I, took up her pen to offer some ‘plain reprehension of that which we find therein amiss’. Add MS 88966 is the original letter of instructions sent to her ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton on 27 July, and is on public display for the first time in the exhibition. It is a remarkable statement of Elizabeth’s vision of monarchy as well as her views on Scottish politics.

The first page of Elizabeth I's letter to Nicholas Throckmorton

Letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Windsor Castle, 27 July 1567: British Library, Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Elizabeth had already instructed Throckmorton to gain an audience with Mary, to advise a separation from Bothwell, something she regarded as ‘most to the safety of her honour and quietness of her realm’. The Scottish lords, however, had no intention of allowing Throckmorton to see Mary.

Their intransigence and flimsy excuses prompted a stern response from Elizabeth. Throckmorton was now tasked with rebuking the lords for their illegal and irreligious conduct in imprisoning Mary and addressing their claims that she had been a poor ally to them. Should the Scottish Lords depose Mary, she and other Christian monarchs would make themselves ‘a plain party against them … for example to all posterity’. God would undoubtedly support such an action: indeed, St Paul had commanded the Romans to be obedient to secular and religious authorities. Similarly, Christian law condemned rather than empowered subjects to depose their ruler. Any possible examples they might find in support of their actions, as they had published in ‘seditious ballads’, were none other than acts of rebellion.

Although Elizabeth detested Darnley’s murder and the Bothwell marriage just as much as the lords, it was ‘not lawful nor tolerable’ for inferiors to call their superiors to account by force, since it was not ‘consonant in nature that the head should be subject to the foot’. She countered the claims of some of the Lords that she had supported them without enthusiasm or only for self-interested reasons. Had the Earl of Morton forgotten that she had allowed him to take refuge in England during his political exile in the mid-1560s, when she could easily have delivered him to his death? With all this in mind, Throckmorton was forbidden to attend Prince James’s coronation.

A manuscript of Elizabeth I's letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton

A detail of Elizabeth I's letter to Nicholas Throckmorton

Elizabeth I’s letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, with a detail showing the words ‘for we do not think it consonant in nature that the head should be subject to the foot’: Add MS 88966, f. 2v

Elizabeth’s powerful rhetoric had little effect. Throckmorton remained unable to see Mary, and two days after Elizabeth’s letter was sent the one-year old James was crowned. The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth was far from harmonious, but this letter shows that Elizabeth always respected Mary’s divinely ordained position, so much so that she was willing to go to war with Scotland to defend it. These sentiments were not shared by her leading councillors, who had begun to see Mary as a dangerous threat. When they brought about her execution in 1587, they tarnished these ideals forever.


Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 

The British Library, London

8 October 2021–20 February 2022


Jessica Crown

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