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7 posts from January 2022

29 January 2022

How to be an effective ruler: the Basilikon Doron of King James VI and I

The British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, charts the relationship and the lives of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the significant figures who were part of their courts and inner circles. One of the concluding sections of the exhibition explores the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and looks ahead to the accession of Mary’s son James to the English throne following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The exhibition features a significant item written by James himself: a work known as the Basilikon Doron (literally meaning the ‘King’s Gift’ in Ancient Greek.

The opening page of the Basilikon Doron

The opening of the Basilikon Doron, written by King James for his son Henry Frederick, the future Prince of Wales: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. 3r

The Basilikon Doron is a treatise on government. Written in the form of a letter addressed to his eldest son Henry Frederick (1594–1612), James’s work sets out the guidelines for how to be an effective monarch. The text is divided into three books. The first is concerned with being a good Christian, love and proper respect for God, and the study of Scripture. The second is focused on the law, the nature of justice and the practical mechanisms of governance. The third is devoted to the daily life of the monarch and the strict codes of conduct that a ruler should follow, covering everything from sleeping habits and wardrobe choices to personal grooming.

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick, for whom the Basilikon Doron was written, painted by Robert Peake the Elder, c. 1610: National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4515

The British Library is home to an autograph copy of this work, written in King James’s own hand. It was most likely a working copy of the text: there are numerous erasures, corrections and revisions visible throughout. After James’s accession to the English throne, this autograph manuscript became part of the Royal library (now Royal MS 18 B XV), where it was given an elaborate binding, made from purple velvet, and featuring the royal initials ‘IR’, and the Scottish lion and decorative thistles in gold (though some of these elements have since been lost). The book can now be read in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, lower cover

James had an unusually high literary output for a king. He was known to retreat to his study regularly to read and write. He was a patron of poets and playwrights. On his accession to the English throne in 1603, he granted the royal patent which authorised the formation of the King’s Men, the acting company of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). James was also a poet in his own right, and in 1584, at the age of only 19, he set out the rules and traditions of Scottish poetry in a work known as the Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie.

The opening of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron is prefaced by one of James’s sonnets, written in Middle Scots. Addressed to Henry Frederick, it reads:

Loe heir my son a mirror viue and fair

Quhilk schwa is the shadow of a vorthie King;

Loe heir a booke, a paterne dois zow bring

Quhilk ze sould preas to follow mair and mair.

This trustie friend the treuthe will never spair,

Bot give a guid advyse unto zow heir.

How it sould be zour chief and princelie cair

To follow vertew, vyce for to forbeare:

And in the booke zour Lesson vill ze leire

For gyding of zour people great and small;

Than, as ze aucht, gif ane attentive care

And paus how ze thir preceptis practise sall:

Zour father biddis zow studie heir and reid

How to become a perfyte King indeid.

(Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto)

A manuscript page containing the dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto

In addition to this handwritten draft of the text, printed copies of the Basilikon Doron were also produced. The first edition of the work was made in Edinburgh in 1599 by the English printer Robert Waldegrave (1554–1603), who had previously worked on several of the king’s other texts, including his literary thesis Poetical Exercises (1591) and his Daemonologie (1597), a treatise concerning the practices of necromancy and black magic. Only seven copies of the Basilikon Doron were made in this initial print run, one of which can now be found at the British Library (G.4993).

A second edition of the text was published in London in 1603, immediately after the death of Elizabeth I and James’s accession to the thrones of England and Ireland. Unlike the 1599 edition, which was clearly intended for a select, private audience within the king’s inner circle, this edition was intentionally public, circulating widely in England, Scotland and across Europe, with thousands of copies sold.

The first printed edition of the Basilikon Doron

The first edition of the Basilikon Doron, printed by Robert Waldegraue in Edinburgh in 1599: G.4993, sig. [A]3v-[A]4r

Unfortunately, Henry Frederick did not live long enough to be able to put his father’s instruction into practice. In 1612, eight years after the second printing of the text, James’s son died from typhoid fever, at the age of only 18, leaving his brother Charles to take his place as Prince of Wales and eventually become James’s successor as King of England and Scotland, taking the throne in 1625.  

You can see both the autograph and printed copies of James’s Basilikon Doron in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, on at the British Library until 20 February.


Calum Cockburn

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20 January 2022

‘As goodly a child as I have seen’

In March 1543, King Henry VIII sent Sir Ralph Sadler as ambassador to Scotland. A protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Sadler had his first audience with the dowager queen, Mary of Guise, within days of arriving. The subject of their interview was the new Queen of Scots, the 4-month-old Mary. Afterwards, Sadler was taken to see the child for himself. In this letter to Henry, written in his own hand, Sadler declared Mary to be ‘as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age’.

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

For Henry, the infant queen offered a golden opportunity to unite the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland under one monarchy by means of a ‘godly’ marriage to his heir, Prince Edward (Add MS 32649, f. 173r).

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist, c. 1540: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in the depths of winter on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise. The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens displays an oak panel of the arms of Scotland, carved and hung in Linlithgow Palace during these years, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland, Linlithgow Palace, mid-16th century: Image © National Museums Scotland

In summer 1542, war had broken out between England and Scotland after Henry VIII failed to persuade his nephew, James V, to repudiate Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and the Pope’s authority. Two weeks before Mary’s birth, an opportune raid into northern England had gone disastrously wrong when the Scottish army surrendered at the Battle of Solway Moss. James returned from the frontier in a disconsolate state. He visited his wife briefly at Linlithgow, dying at Falkland Palace 6 days after the birth of his daughter and heir. 

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility: Harley MS 115, f. 16r

Under the circumstances, the English warden of the marches, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, called off a counter-raid into Scotland, saying it would be dishonourable to ‘make warre or ynvade vppon a dedd bodye or vppon a wydowe, or on a yonge sucling his doughter’ (Add MS 32648, f. 225r). Henry duly negotiated a truce with the Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was described in contemporary reports as ‘delyueryd before hir tyme[,] … a vereye weyke childe and not like to lyve’ (Add MS 32648, f. 199r-v). Within days of her father’s funeral, she was baptized in January 1543, named for her mother Mary of Guise and for the Virgin Mary. Unusually for the time, Mary was ‘nurssed in her [mother’s] owne chambre’, rather than separately (London, The National Archives, SP 1/175, M. f. 17r). This was because Mary of Guise feared for her daughter’s safety in the turbulent first months of her reign, when various Scottish prelates and nobles vied for control of the regency government established in the young queen’s name. In early January 1543, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, emerged victorious, being appointed governor of Scotland and granted custody of the queen. A great-grandson of James II, Arran was also declared heir presumptive.  On arriving in Scotland in March, Sadler had his first interview with the new regent, a 23-year-old who Sadler thought ill-prepared for the great responsibility he was undertaking.

A few days later, on 22 March 1543, Sadler visited Mary of Guise at Linlithgow, hoping to learn if she favoured the marriage between Edward and her daughter. He ‘founde her most wyllyng and conformable in apparence’, and wrote to Henry the following day describing how she had asserted that her ‘chief suretie’ was to have her daughter ‘delyuered fourthwith’ into the king’s hands (Add MS 32650, f. 72r). ‘It is the woorke and ordinance of god for the coniunction and vnyon of bothe thies Realmes in one’, she said. But she warned Henry to beware of Arran’s motives, telling him through Sadler that the governor was only using marriage negotiations as a delaying tactic to preclude renewed war and to consolidate his own position. Arran would ultimately never consent to the union. Although Sadler listened intently, he told Henry that he did not believe everything Mary of Guise said, including her protestations that Cardinal David Beaton supported the marriage. Beaton’s longstanding hostility to English influence in Scotland was well-known. Mary of Guise then claimed that Arran had said that

'The chylde was not lyke to lyve[.]  but yow shall see … whither he saye trew or not[.]  And therwith she caused me to go with her in to the chamber where the chylde was, and shewed her vnto me and also caused the Nurice [nurse] to vnwrapp her oute of her clowtes that I myght see her naked[.]  I assure your Maieste it is as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age and as lyke to lyve with the grace of god.'

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

This kind of display was common practice, in case of future marriage negotiations, to show that the infant was without deformity. (In April 1534, Princess Elizabeth had also been presented, both richly dressed and naked, to the French ambassadors Louis de Perreau, sieur de Castillon, and Gilles de la Pommeraye.) Sadler duly took his leave of Mary of Guise in order to report back to his master.

Events would prove that, in supporting marriage between Edward and her daughter, Mary of Guise had been playing for time. In March 1543, Beaton and she engineered the return from exile of Arran’s greatest rival, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who also had a strong claim to be recognized as heir presumptive. Together, in late July, they forced Arran to concede custody of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her mother. On 27 July, Lennox escorted both queens to the safety of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds and part of Mary of Guise’s jointure. Mary of Guise retained firm control of her daughter from then onwards, determined to prevent her falling into anyone else’s hands.

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2022

Portraits of Elizabeth I

The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens offers visitors the opportunity to see five portraits of Elizabeth I. At the start of the exhibition, Elizabeth’s beautiful mother of pearl locket ring is displayed open to reveal enamelled miniature portraits of her and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth is depicted in profile as she looked in the mid-1570s; her mother’s likeness is similar to a portrait medal struck in 1534. 

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, c. 1575: The Chequers Trust

Inside the ring there is a small oval plate of gold ornamented in enamel, with a phoenix rising in flames. A mythological bird reborn from its own ashes, the phoenix became associated closely with Elizabeth after her accession to the throne of England in 1558. It symbolised the virtue of chastity, but also Elizabeth’s reversals of fortune under her father, brother and sister, and her restoration of Protestantism from the ashes of the persecutions of Mary I’s reign. Elizabeth had endured her deepest calamity when not yet 3 years old. In July 1536, she was declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession, following Anne’s execution on charges of adultery and incest. The locket ring suggests that Elizabeth never accepted the guilty verdict and found ways to honour the memory of her mother.

On a number of occasions when she was a child, marriage negotiations were opened on Elizabeth’s behalf, only for them to collapse due to her illegitimacy. But, from autumn 1542, Henry VIII made gestures towards rehabilitating his daughter, describing her as ‘endewed with vertues and qualities agreable with her estate/ whom we esteme and regarde, as natural inclination with respecte of her place and state doth of congruence require’ (Add MS 32650, f. 127r). As a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war with France, in spring 1544 Henry restored both his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, but did not legitimate them. Among the most striking pieces of evidence for Elizabeth’s new-found status is a portrait of her by the court painter Guillim Scrots. Commissioned in about 1546, it is one of the few likenesses of Elizabeth made before she became queen. Dressed in crimson silk and the cloth-of-silver ‘tissued’ with gold that was restricted to the royal family, she is portrayed as self-possessed, pious and scholarly. She marks her place in the book she is holding, possibly a primer. Another book, a Bible perhaps, sits on a lectern in the background. The portrait may, in fact, have been completed during the reign of her brother, Edward VI, which is probably also when the near-contemporary copy on display in the exhibition was made.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

At her brother’s request, in May 1551 Elizabeth sent Edward another portrait of herself, telling him ‘for the face, I graunt, I might wel blusche to offer, but the mynde I shal neuer be asshamed to present’. 

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]: Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 48r

Made by the court painter Levina Teerlinc for marriage negotiations underway between Elizabeth and a French prince, the portrait itself does not appear to have survived. But another likeness of her from this time does, at least in a mid-17th-century copy generously loaned to the exhibition. Elizabeth appears in a family portrait, the original of which probably dated to Edward’s reign because of the prominent position he occupies in the centre of the composition, with Henry VIII to his right, and both his sisters to his left. The figure standing behind Edward and his father has been identified as the court fool Will Somer, who served in the royal household for many years. Somer’s presence here, and in a number of other royal portraits, perhaps represents continuity between reigns or offers ways of interpreting each image allegorically.

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist, 17th century: By kind permission of His Grace, the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, KBE, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even after she became queen in November 1558, Elizabeth’s reluctance to sit for her portrait continued. Most early portraits of her as queen are simple images depicting her in black, some of them poorly executed. In April 1565, during an audience with the English ambassador, Catherine de’ Medici had complained ‘by that that everie bodie telleth me [of Elizabeth’s beauty], and that which I see painted, I must say she hath no good painters’. ‘I will send my self a painter ouer’ to England, she concluded (London, The National Archives, SP 70/77, M. f. 125v). Over the next few years Elizabeth’s portraiture changed, with the production of more realistic likenesses for the purpose of marriage negotiations. These include a full-length and a small portrait bust, both recently attributed to the English painter George Gower, and made directly from life. The portrait bust, currently on loan to the exhibition, may have been commissioned specifically for presentation to Archduke Charles II of Austria, with whom marriage negotiations were underway. In June 1567, Elizabeth sent the chief proponent of the Austrian match, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd earl of Sussex, as her ambassador to the Hapsburg court. He probably carried this portrait bust with him, which he showed to Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s courtiers declared that the portrait ‘lacked but speche’ (London, The National Archives, SP 70/92, M. f. 19r). Capturing her guarded self-possession, it is among the very best likenesses of Elizabeth, then aged about 34.

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c. 1567: Private Collection

As Elizabeth aged, her portraiture became more elaborate and less lifelike, as realistic depictions of her were no longer required for the purpose of marriage negotiations. The queen was still occasionally painted from life, as for instance in the ‘Darnley portrait’ of about 1575 (London, National Portrait Gallery, 2082). But most works were based on patterns. One imposing example, displayed in the exhibition, dates to the late 1580s. Elizabeth is shown in her Parliament robes of ermine-lined crimson velvet, which create an exaggerated silhouette, subsuming her as an individual into an icon of queenship. Demand from her loyal subjects for Elizabeth’s portrait was growing, particularly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, and this painting may have been commissioned for a public space like a guildhall.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, late 1580s: Private Collection

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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07 January 2022

Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

The British Library has loaned five manuscripts to Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, which is on display in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery until 27 February 2022. The exhibition traces the travels across Europe of the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), including his journeys to the Alps, Italy, Venice and the Netherlands, through his works and journals. The exhibition follows on from its successful opening at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. For more about the manuscripts included in that venue, see our blogpost on Dürer in the Low Countries

The curators Susan Foister and Peter Van den Brink explore various aspects of Dürer's art and interests, and elaborate on them in the accompanying publication. One aspect of this is Dürer's theories of proportion and perspective, and features one of his drawings of infants to illustrate this point (British Library, Add MS 5228).   

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer's proportion drawings of infants, before 1513: Add MS 5228, ff. 186v–187r

Other evidence comes from Dürer's own letters and his travel journal. Many of Dürer's letters from his travels survive, including those to his friend, the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530). One of the Library’s letters is included in this section of the exhibition (Harley MS 4935).

Dürer travelled to the Low Countries in 1520–21, where he made many drawings in different techniques, such as silverpoint and leadpoint, chalk and charcoal, ink applied with pen and brush, and watercolour.  He kept a journal of his visit, which survives in two copies' at least one page of his original journal remains, with sketches of pieces of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a woman’s cloak (Add MS 5229).  

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520: Add MS 5229, f.50r

Dürer’s interest in Martin Luther (1483–1546) is also documented in his journals. Dürer owned a number of Lutheran tracts, as well as recording a list of Luther’s works, which dates from around 1520 (Add MS 5231). 

List of works by Martin Luther

List of works by Martin Luther: Add MS 5231, f.115r

On his travels Dürer met several other artists, including Gerard Horenbout (1465–1541) and Horenbout’s daughter Susanna.  Dürer and Horenbout met in Antwerp in May 1521, shortly before Horenbout moved to England to the court of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547). Two leaves from the Sforza Hours painted by Horenbout around this time are featured in the exhibition: the Virgin and Child and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. 

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours: Add MS 34294, volume 2, f. 133v

The Sforza Hours is a complicated manuscript, first made for the Duchess of Milan, Bona Sforza, who died in 1503. The miniatures made for Bona were painted by the Milanese court painter and miniaturist Giovan Pietro Birago (active 1471–1513). On her death, her nephew Philibert II, Duke of Savoy (1497–1504), and subsequently his widow, Margaret of Austria (d. 1530), inherited the book. Margaret served as regent of the Netherlands on behalf of her nephew, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1556), and at this point Horenbout added 16 full-page illustrations of the life of the Virgin, including the two images featured in the exhibition. 

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, volume 3, f. 177v

We hope you enjoy the opportunity to see these fascinating documentary and artistic manuscripts at the National Gallery, together with the many other loans and paintings on display there.


Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 January 2022

Our digitised collection keeps on growing

Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in January 2021. With the arrival of the New Year, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online. We also want to share some updates on our digitisation progress over the last year. 

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer
A historiated initial containing a portrait of the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) holding an open book, from a copy of Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r (detail)

There are now over 4,800 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of the items currently available, as of January 2022: 

PDF: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2022

Excel: Download Full-list-digitised-mss-jan-2022 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

Opening of Psalm 1 with decorated initials and borders
The opening of Psalm 1 in the Breviary of Renaud de Bar: Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 7r

Over the last year, the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been as busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. During this period, we have published over 250 items, from medieval Books of Hours and Psalters to early modern rolls and atlases. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since January 2021. Here is a list of manuscripts that we digitised in the past twelve months:

PDF: Download Digitised_mss_jan_2021_jan2022

Excel: Download Digitised_mss_jan_2021_jan2022 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers).

Pope Joan giving birth
The legendary Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from Des cleres et nobles femmes, an anonymous French translation of Boccacio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r (detail)
Gaston Fébus with his retinue and hunting dogs
The French author Gaston Fébus seated, surrounded by his retinue and hunting dogs, from the opening of his Livre de la chasse: Add MS 27699, f. 3r (detail)

We have continued to make progress on the major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Many of the manuscripts included in the project also feature in our current exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (Open until Sunday 20 February 2022). As of January 2022, over three quarters of these manuscripts have now been published online.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
A drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1, f. 650*r
Designs for swan marks
A late 16th-century collection of swan marks from Norfolk, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire: Add MS 44986, f. 7r

One of the items we have digitised in the past year is our most recent acquisition, the Lucas Psalter. This deluxe Psalter, which includes the book of Psalms and other devotional material, was made in Bruges for an English patron in the 1480s. It features beautiful decorated initials and borders by an artist known as the Master of Edward IV, and it possesses a contemporary 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses. The Lucas Psalter can now be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

God the Father and Christ, from Psalm 109 in the Lucas Psalter
A decorated initial depicting God the Father and Christ, from Psalm 109 in the Lucas Psalter: Add MS 89428, f. 140r (detail)
The Lucas Psalter's red velvet binding
The Lucas Psalter, with its 15th-century binding of red velvet with metal bosses: Add MS 89428

Meanwhile in August, we announced the digitisation of an important medieval Irish manuscript (Harley MS 5280), regarded as an invaluable source for early Irish literature, which features over 30 different literary works in the vernacular. These texts range from stories of miraculous events and creatures, including giant ants, golden apples and a killer cat, and tales of voyages across the sea, to ancient battles and accounts of mythical figures from Ireland’s past. The volume is also visually striking, with numerous decorated initials, as well as a number of shorter poems and notes that have been wrapped into intricate shapes on the page, with others forming borders in margins. The manuscript can now be viewed in full on our Universal Viewer.

An Irish text with poems written in the margins
Poems written in the margins of a collection of Irish historical, mythological and religious texts: Harley MS 5280, f. 46v

Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.

A map of Italy
A map of Italy, from Henricus Martellus Germanus’ Insularium illustratum (Illustrated Book of Islands): Add MS 15760, ff. 63v-64r

We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections in 2022! 

Calum Cockburn

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01 January 2022

Celebrating the New Year Elizabethan style

For many of us, New Year is a time to celebrate with friends and family, enjoy extravagant firework displays, and sing Auld Lang Syne. At the Tudor court, in contrast, the monarch and other courtiers participated in a ritual New Year’s gift-giving ceremony. This process of gift exchange was recorded in a New Year gift-roll.

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584: Egerton MS 3052, f. 3r (detail)

Elizabeth I presided over 45 New Year gift-giving ceremonies and a remarkable 24 gift-rolls survive from her reign, several of which are held at the British Library. Typically, the Elizabethan New Year gift-rolls consist of 4 or 5 parchment membranes sewn end to end and measure 3 to 4 metres in length. On one side they list the names of donors — in order of social rank and official status — with a description of their gifts to Elizabeth. The reverse contains a corresponding list of those who received gifts (usually gilt plate) from the Queen.

Visitors to our exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be able to see the 1567 New Year’s gift-roll, displayed to show the entry for a gold font, weighing 333 ounces, which Elizabeth sent to Mary, Queen of Scots, for the baptism of Prince James in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on 17 December 1566. As this gift was given outside of the New Year gift-giving ceremony, it is listed under ‘Sundry Gifts’ at the end of the roll.

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567: Add MS 9772, f. 10v

The surviving gift-rolls provide a fascinating insight into the variety of gifts presented to Elizabeth over the course of her reign, from elaborate jewellery, gold plate and luxury clothing to finely embroidered cushions, handkerchiefs, gloves, slippers and confectionary. For example, the 1562 New Year’s gift-roll records that Kat Ashley, who was Elizabeth’s governess and Lady of the Bedchamber, gave her 12 handkerchiefs edged in gold and silver. In 1576, Lady Mary Gray, the Queen’s first cousin once removed, gifted a cushion of purple and crimson velvet, embellished with pearls, spangles and 4 tassels. Sir Philip Sidney, the soldier and poet, presented the Queen in 1584 with a pair of black slippers embroidered with Venice gold, pearls, and small garnets.

In 1562, Sir William Cecil, Principal Secretary and Elizabeth’s most trusted and influential councillor, gave her a silver ink well and stand, with a set of matching silver gilt weights and measures, a pen knife and seal. The gift-roll records that the Queen gifted Cecil and his wife Lady Mildred Cecil a gilt cup and cover at the baptism of his son William Cecil, who, like his elder brother and namesake, died young.

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562: Harley Roll V 18, f. 10v 

The 1588 gift-roll records that the Queen’s great favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, gave her an elaborate gold carcenet (richly bejewelled necklace) of letters and his emblem of ragged staves, as well as a sun design set with Elizabeth’s picture and garnished with diamonds and a large ruby. This was Leicester’s last New Year’s gift to Elizabeth. 

In the same year, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, gave Elizabeth a gold bodkin, with a gold flower hanging from it covered in diamonds, 2 pendants of diamonds and 1 pearl pendant. Charles, 2nd Lord Howard of Effingham and Lord High Admiral, gave a black velvet sea cap embroidered with ships and anchors in ragged pearl, with an agate, diamonds and a ruby.

The gift-rolls also reveal that the Queen received many gifts of confectionary, designed to appeal to her sweet tooth. The sergeant of the pastry John Bettes gave her a quince pie in 1562 and in 1588 Mr Morgan, the queen’s apothecary, presented his traditional gift of candied sugar and dried plums, while John Dudley, sergeant of the pastry, baked an ‘oringed pie’.

The New Year’s Gift Rolls are a major source for the history of royal culture, gift-exchange, the court and its personnel, as well as Tudor costume and jewellery. We hope you will enjoy looking at them in more detail using the links below:

  • New Year's gift-roll of Mary I, 1 January 1557: Add MS 62525
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562: Harley Roll V 18
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567: Add MS 9772 
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1576: Add MS 4827
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584: Egerton MS 3052
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1588: Add MS 8159 
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1589: Lansdowne Roll 17 

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Anna Turnham and Andrea Clarke

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