Medieval manuscripts blog

10 January 2023

Jane Segar, an artist at the Elizabethan court

For modern readers, New Year is a time of reflection and resolution, as we bask in the aftermath of the Christmas celebrations and look ahead to the work of the coming months. But for the Elizabethans, New Year was also a time for gift-giving. Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth presided over 45 New Years gift-giving ceremonies, where she was the recipient of numerous extravagant gifts from her courtiers and admirers. This blogpost looks back over 400 years to the New Year period of 1589 and a particularly special present intended for the Tudor Queen herself. This gift is a beautiful slim volume (now Add MS 10037) called ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’, made by the hand of a woman called Jane Segar. The manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project thanks to the generous funding of Joanna and Graham Barker.

The upper cover of Jane Segar's gift volume, embroidered in red velvet and gold and silver lace, featuring painted enamel panels.

The upper cover of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

Little is known about the identity of Jane Segar, except that she seems to have been part of a family of artists and creatives active around the turn of the 17th century. Her brothers were the painter Francis Segar (b. 1563, d. 1615), and the herald and officer of arms Sir William Segar (b. c. 1554, d. 1633), who painted a number of surviving portraits of high-profile members of the Elizabethan court. William walked in the Queen’s funeral procession upon her death in 1603.

A portrait of William Segar from an illustrated depiction of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I.

A portrait of William Segar in the funeral procession of Elizabeth I: Add MS 35324, f. 36v

Although Jane herself is almost wholly absent from the historical record, it is clear she was an accomplished artist in her own right. Not only was she the scribe of Add MS 10037, she was most likely responsible for its illumination, as well as its beautiful embroidered binding.

Four details from the upper and lower covers of Jane Segar's embroidered and painted volume.

Details within the binding of Jane Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037

The binding itself is made from red velvet, handstitched in gold and silver lace, together with enamelled and gilt glass panels that enclose inset illuminated paintings. The paintings teem with decorative elements: laurel wreaths and golden foliage; Roman soldiers sat beneath green pavilions; a nude woman and a satyr (a mythological woodland spirit with goat's ears, legs and a tail, but a human torso), as well as pairs of leopards, small dogs and putti (nude male children, conventionally depicted with wings). The lower cover (whose panel is now unfortunately damaged) also features the date of the manuscript’s production, ‘1589’. Meanwhile, at the very centre of each panel appears a large cartouche, inscribed with a cluster of strange symbols painted in gold, whose appearance is closer to that of runic or Arabic characters than Roman letters. (For a description and discussion of the iconography, see Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), pp. 90-92.)

The central cartouche of the upper cover of Jane Segar's gift, featuring mottos written in Charactery.

The symbols of Charactery painted in the central cartouche on the upper cover of Jane’s book: Add MS 10037

The meaning of these symbols is revealed at the very beginning of the book, in a prose preface to the main text written and signed by Jane herself and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Jane explains that her gift to the Queen is her own work, ‘the handyworke of a maiden your majesty’s most faithful servant … graced with my pen and pencell’, and that it is written in a script she has only recently learnt, which she describes as ‘that rare Arte of Charactery’.

The opening dedication to Jane Segar's Prophecies of the Divine Sibylls.

Jane Segar’s Prologue to ‘The Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’: Add MS 10037, f. 1r

‘Charactery’ was a system of scribal shorthand (the ancestor of our own modern-day shorthand), a method of writing rapidly that substitutes characters, abbreviations or symbols for sounds, words and phrases. It was invented by Timothie Bright (b. 1551, d. 1615), a physician and clergyman. Bright published a treatise on the subject called Characterie. An Arte of shorte, swifte, and secrete writing by charactere in 1588, only a year before Jane made her own gift; like her, he also dedicated his work to the Elizabethan monarch. Bright's treatise seems to have been popular at Elizabeth’s court, at a time when ciphers and coded language were standard elements of diplomatic communications and spycraft.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher.

A contemporary letter by Mary, Queen of Scots, written in cipher: Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 67r

Evidently, Bright’s shorthand had enough of a recognisable audience at the royal court for Jane to use it in her own work. The cartouches on the enamelled panels of her gift to the Queen use the symbols of his treatise to encode a pair of mottoes — ‘God and my right’ and ‘Evil be to him that evil thinks’ — as well as the initials of the Queen’s royal title ‘E.R.’ (Elizabeth Regina). Although the enamel panel on the book’s lower cover is now damaged and its cartouche obscured, similar encoded mottoes must once have been painted there as well.

The appearance of Bright’s shorthand is not limited to the volume’s decorative covers alone. It also forms an integral element of the text. Segar’s ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ consists of a set of 11 poems written in English. Ten of these poems purport to be verse 'translations' of prophecies concerning the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ, each attributed to one of the Sibyls, legendary prophetesses from Greek and Roman legend and literature. The subject of prophecy (or divination) was one particularly favoured by Queen Elizabeth, who often consulted with astronomers, alchemists and occultists, most prominent among them her advisor John Dee (b. 1527, d. 1608/09).

One of the 'Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls', transliterated into Charactery.

One of the ‘Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls’ written in Charactery: Add MS 10037, f. 5r

In her volume, Jane provides the English text for each verse prophecy alongside a facing transliteration in Charactery, the initial letters and symbols of both versions lined with gold ink, along with the purported date each prophecy was made (for a further discussion of the poems, see Deirdre Serjeantson, 'Translation, Authorship, and Gender: The Case of Jane Seager’s Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibills', in Elizabethan Translation and Literary Culture, ed. by Gabriela Schmidt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), pp. 227–54). The ‘prophecy’ below, for example, is attributed to the Sibyll Cimmeria and details elements of the reception of Christ’s birth. It specifically mentions the Adoration of the Magi, who came to Bethlehem and lay before Christ gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, the theme of gift-giving an appropriate one for a book itself intended as a gift by its maker. 

An opening from the Divine Prophecies of the Ten Sibylls, showing the prophecy for Cimmeria in English and Charactery.

The prophecy of the Sibyll ‘Cimmeria’ in English and Charactery: Add MS 10037, ff. 4v-5r

The final poem in the volume is an address from Jane directed to Elizabeth herself. It similarly features the two versions of the verse text in English and Charactery side-by-side, but here Jane expresses her admiration for the Queen and wishes that she could divine for her a happy future:

    Lo thus in breife (most sacred Maiestye)
    I haue sett downe whence all theis Sibells weare:
    what they foretold, or saw, wee see, and heare,
    and profett reape by all their prophesy.
    Would God I weare a Sibell to divine
    in worthy vearse your lasting happynes:
    then only I should be Characteres
    of that, which worlds with wounder might desyne
    but what need I to wish, when you are such,
    of whose perfections none can write to much.

(Edited in Jessica L. Malay, 'Jane Seagar's Sibylline Poems: Maidenly Negotiations through Elizabethan Gift Exchange', English Literary Renaissance, 36 (2006), 173-93)

The final poem in the manuscript, written in English and a facing transliteration in Charactery.

The final poem in the manuscript, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth by Jane and dated 1589: Add MS 10037, ff. 11v–12r

We know little of what happened to Jane Segar after 1589 or whether her embroidered book ever reached Elizabeth. But it remains a remarkable testament to the skill of a female artist and scribe on the fringes of the Elizabethan court, and a gift that we would all be lucky to receive. We hope you enjoy reading through its pages online.


Calum Cockburn

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