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15 February 2023

Alexander the Great: a life in pictures

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Royal MS 15 E VI) is a remarkable work of art produced in Rouen in the mid-15th century. Comprising 15 texts, mostly legends and chansons de geste in French, it begins with the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Roman d’Alexandre en prose.

A landscape with a castle and a city, a stream and waterwheels in the foreground.  In the city, a king and courtiers are shown in a throne room; a windmill on a hill and starry sky in the background.

Nectanebus enthroned in his palace at Babylon, with the ‘chastel du chaire (Cairo)’, the ‘jardin du baulme’, and waterwheels on the stream: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 4v

The glorious frontispiece of this manuscript shows the Egyptian pharoah, Nectanebo, enthroned in his magnificent palace in the midst of the fairy-tale landscape of Babylon. This the first of 82 miniatures illustrating the life of Alexander the Great. The border contains the arms of Margaret of Anjou, the future wife of King Henry VI of England, and the arms of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who presented this manuscript to her.

According to legend, Nectanebo seduced Alexander’s mother, Olympias, taking the form of the god Ammon while her husband Philip was away.

A naked man and woman embrace in a bed with a canopy; a dragon stands at the foot of the bed, watching

Nectanebo and Olympias lying naked in bed, watched by a dragon, which represents Nectanebo in disguise: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r

Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, appointed as his tutor the famous scientist and philosopher, Aristotle, who instructed him on topics ranging from astrology and alchemy to statecraft and ethics. They then corresponded while Alexander was on his travels.

A king and a young boy present books to a seated scholar with an open book; two courtiers stand behind the king

Philip taking the young Alexander to Aristotle: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v

As a young man, Alexander formed a bond with an extraordinary stallion who was to accompany him to the ends of the world. Bucephalus, whose name means ‘ox-horned’, was so violent that he was locked in a cage, but he recognised his true master in Alexander, who was immediately able to subdue him.

A young man talks to a horse lying in a cage; he leads the horse and kneels before an enthroned king, who holds out his hand

Alexander tames Bucephalus, and is granted ownership of the proud stallion by his father, Philip: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7r

Alexander was crowned King of Macedon in 336 BC after the assassination of his father. He immediately set off on his journey of conquest across Asia.

A king seated on a throne in ermine robes holds and orb and is crowned by two bishops; he is surrounded by courtiers in  a palace.

The coronation of Alexander by two bishops: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 7v

Three sailing ships at sea with Alexander and his army aboard; an army of knights led by a king (Alexander) and a trumpeter ride out from a city

Alexander's army marching and  at sea: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 9r

In time, Alexander founded more than 20 cities which took his name, including Alexandria in Egypt.

A king (Alexander) instructs men who are cutting stones and building a city with towers

Alexander at the building of Alexandria: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 9v

He defeated King Darius of Persia, taking control of this vast empire and, according to some accounts, marrying his daughter, Roxana.

A battle between two armies of knights with standards and trumpets; bodies lie on the ground A crowned king and queen are seated together in a palace holding hands

The battle with Darius and Alexander’s marriage to Roxana: Royal MS 15 E VI, ff. 12r, 13v

Alexander marched on to India, defeating the ruler, Porus, and exploring the far reaches of this wonderful region. According to the legends, there he met the famous female warriors, the Amazons, besides battling flying dragons and beasts and encountering many strange creatures and peoples.

An army of men and women on horseback meet; knights on horseback with spears, led by a king (Alexander) confront flying dragons (above) and three crab-like creatures (below)

The Queen of the Amazons meeting Alexander; Alexander battling flying dragons and beasts; Alexander and crab-like creatures: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 15v

As Alexander’s power increased, he became obsessed with his own mortality, seeking comfort from various oracles. In a frequently illustrated episode, he was taken to a sanctuary of the Sun and the Moon, where two trees, one male (Sun) and the other female (Moon), prophesied his death in Babylon.

Alexander with others behind, kneels before a figure in robes, who is talking to him; behind are two trees, one with a sun and one with a moon among the branches; a large bird perches in a leafless tree between them

Alexander and the soothsayer at the trees of the Sun and Moon: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v

Determined to explore the outer reaches of the world, Alexander used griffins to ascend into the skies and a diving bell to explore the depths of the ocean.

Four griffins lift a wooden cage with Alexander seated inside into a starry sky, while people watch from a landscape below.  Two figures in a boat with flags lower a barrel containing Alexander on chains into the sea, with large fish swimming about

Alexander’s flight with griffins, and his submarine adventure: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

Alexander on a white horse, meets people with faces in their chests and horse-like creatures (left); a white horse is buried in a tomb outside a city; Alexander and elephants are present; Alexander stands before two sick people with birds perched on their beds; Alexander on a white horse meets a man with beasts and a dragon

Alexander meets blemmyae and horse-like creatures; the burial of Bucephalus; Alexander sees caladrius birds with sick people; a two-headed serpent, elephants and other beasts: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 21v

Having arrived at the ocean, Alexander’s men were exhausted. They turned towards home, finally reaching the city of Babylon, where they were presented with an ill omen, a child with the legs of a wild beast, which foretold Alexander’s death.  According to legend, he was given a poisoned drink at a banquet.

Having bid farewell to his men, who filed past his deathbed, Alexander died shortly afterwards and was buried in a golden sarcophagus, whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

Alexander and a queen are seated at a table laid with a feast and a figure kneels, presenting a goblet  Alexander is ill in bed with a man in attendance; two figures place his body in a coffin in a room; outside a king and other figures talk (right)

Alexander is served a poisoned drink at a feast in Babylon: his death and burial: Royal MS 15 E VI, ff. 22v, 23v

In the battle over Alexander’s succession, his mother Olympias was captured by Cassander, who seized the crown by having Alexander’s son murdered. Olympias was cruelly put to death, denied burial and her body left out to be devoured by dogs and birds, as described and illustrated on the final page of the Alexander legend in this manuscript.

Outside a city, two dogs bite a woman’s head which is severed from her body, and another bites her neck, with blood spurting rom it; a man enters the city gate

The death of Olympias, with her corpse eaten by dogs: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 24v

The Talbot Shrewsbury Book can be seen in our Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth exhibition until 19 February 2023.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


Chantry Westwell

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