Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

4 posts from March 2024

21 March 2024

Henry VIII’s pastry tent

One of the lesser known items at the British Library is a map of an army encampment of King Henry VIII (Cotton Roll XIII 41), probably dating to one of the invasions of northern France that he led in 1513 and again in 1544. It shows a camp with all the essentials for supporting an army on campaign: a kitchen, storage for weapons and ammunition, quarters for officers and men, and … a pastry tent?

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’ between tents labelled ‘skolerie’ and ‘kechin’

A tent labelled ‘pastrie’: Cotton Roll XIII 41

At the centre of this coloured map is the king’s own tent, by far the largest tent shown. It is made up of three pavilions joined together by corridors leading to an elaborate house with windows and a chimney. This timber house accompanied Henry on both of his invasions of France. It had a fireplace, two rooms, and windows made of horn instead of glass. When the house was dismantled, the pieces filled twelve cartloads.

Drawing of the king’s tent, beginning with a timber house on the left, connected by a long cross-shaped corridor to three different tents

Henry VIII’s tent at the centre of the map

Around the king’s tent are two horseshoe rings of tents. The inner ring is mostly labelled with simple one-word names: bathhouse, kitchen, scullery, pantry and ‘pastry’. What exactly a pastry tent was for is unclear. It is possible that it was used to store pastries but more likely it housed Henry’s baker, the Groom of the Pastry. The other tents here also match the titles of other household officials like the Grooms of the Kitchen, Scullery, Pantry and Ewery. There are also tents for the king’s doctors and the clerk of the kitchen.

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The tents of the king and important officers and officials at the centre of the camp

Henry’s tent encircled by two horseshoes of tents, with three cannon defending the entrance to the horseshoes.

The second ring of tents was for the king’s bodyguards and other senior officials, mostly labelled ‘cursers’, i.e. coursers, a horse, probably housing knights, as well as tents for the Captain of the Guard and the Knight Harbinger, whose role was to arrange accommodation for the king and his court while travelling. These two rings of tents exit onto an open square to the right with groups of soldiers marching back and forth. This was probably the parade or assembly ground, called a ‘market’ or ‘place’ in Harley MS 846, a mid-16th century English guide to setting up an army encampment. The soldiers carry halberds and have swords belted at their waists. A few of them are accompanied by child-sized figures carrying weapons, probably squires or pages.

An open area with groups of soldiers armed with halberds on parade

The parade ground

The rest of the map is taken up with ordered rows of tents with those of other military officials and important figures scattered across the map, including the Provost Marshal, who was in charge of military discipline, a surgeon’s tent, chaplains, a Master of the Horse and a tent for ‘strange’ (foreign) ambassadors.

Cooks chopping meat at a long table, with baskets of loaves nearby, two men turning meat on a spit, and a man carrying a basket

Cooks preparing food for the army

A scene on the far-right side of the map shows men at a table chopping and preparing meat. Nearby, two others turn a pig on a spit over a fire while one man carries a large basket of bread and another carries an animal carcass on his back.

There are no latrines depicted on the map. This probably wasn’t the cartographer being puritanical. The guide to encampments in Harley MS 846 says that soldiers shouldn’t ‘take their easement’ within 200ft of the camp. This rule did not apply to Henry, of course, who had a chamberpot enclosed in a stool in his tent. Only a few other individuals were so privileged, including the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, the Master of the Horse, and the Treasurer-at-War.

Cannon pointing northwards, with ammunition and other equipment piled nearby, rows of tents below

Cannon set to defend on the north-eastern edge of the camp

The camp is defended not by ditches or earthworks, which would only be dug when the army was meant to stop for more than one night, but by cannon and a river encircling it to the west and south. On each side, cannon and other guns have been set up facing outwards, often with piles of ammunition nearby. The man responsible for the army’s artillery was the Master of the Ordinance, whose tent is in the top right of the map. His subordinates and supplies are nearby: a tent for storing ordinance, another for storing bows, a powder tent, and four tents for the army’s four Master Gunners.

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance and other officials, surrounded by rows of unlabelled tents

Tents for the Master of the Ordinance, other military officials, and storage

The presence of so many tents for important army officers and their supplies may make the tent for Henry’s personal baker seem out of place or eccentric. But a royal army camp would include many non-combatant members of the royal household, both to maintain the essential functions of government by issuing royal writs, proclamations, grants and other documents, and to maintain the ruler’s daily routine. A king would not be separated from his comforts just because he was on campaign.

The Groom of the Pastry is a role that still exists today. For the last two hundred years, it has been held by the head of the bakery at Fortnum & Masons, though the position probably no longer comes with its own tent.

This item has been catalogued as part of the British Library's Hidden Collections programme devoted to the Cotton charters and rolls


Rory MacLellan

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09 March 2024

Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts

The British Library holds an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts relating to the ancient and medieval worlds. We are currently recruiting for a Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts to join our team, with a special responsibility for Classical, Biblical and Byzantine manuscripts.

A page of a manuscript of Virgil's Aeneid

The opening of Book XII of Virgil's Aeneid, from the 'King's Virgil': Kings MS 24, f. 227r 

Among other responsibilities, the post-holder will be required

  • to use innovative and traditional ways of interpreting and presenting our collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users
  • to manage projects relating to ancient and medieval manuscripts
  • to use their specialist knowledge to support the development, management and promotion of our ancient and medieval collections

A page from the Theodore Psalter

Depiction of the Call of David from his flocks accompanying Psalm 151, from the 'Theodore Psalter': Add MS 19352, f. 189v

Applicants should have a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject; experience of research in Classical, Biblical and/or Byzantine Studies; and a personal area of expertise relevant to the collection. Strong knowledge of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek, excellent written and oral communication skills in English, and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

For more information and to apply for this position, please visit

Closing date: 7 April 2024.

Interview date: 29 April 2024.


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08 March 2024

Medieval Women exhibition

We have some exciting news — pass it on! In October 2024, our major exhibition Medieval Women: In Their Own Words opens at the British Library in London. The exhibition will explore the challenges, achievements and daily lives of women in Europe from 1100 to 1500. It will tell the history of medieval women through their own words and uncover their lives through manuscripts, documents and artefacts.

Women’s lives during the Middle Ages were rich and varied. The exhibition will reveal that women exerted great influence across private, public and spiritual realms. It will delve into the lived experiences of medieval women, including their beauty regimes and healthcare, their personal relationships and the running of their homes. It will shed light on their work in a wide variety of trades and professions, their role in medieval politics, the power and influence they wielded as spiritual visionaries or nuns, and the art, music and literature that they created.

Medieval illustration of a group of women in a richly decorated room. Christine de Pizan, dressed in blue, kneels on the ground and offers a large red book to Isabeau, dressed in pink and seated on a sofa
Christine de Pizan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, in the Book of the Queen, France, c. 1410-1414: Harley MS 4431, f. 3r

Visitors will discover objects related to inspiring figures such as: Joan of Arc, the religious visionary and military leader; Christine de Pizan, the first professional woman author in Europe; and Shajar Al-Durr, the female ruler of Egypt who defeated Louis IX of France in the Seventh Crusade.

The exhibition will take visitors on a journey through the lives of medieval women across cultures, religions and class. Exploring both their struggles and successes, the exhibition prompts visitors to discover how medieval women’s voices still resonate across the centuries and speak powerfully to our world today.

Medieval illustration of a woman scattering food from a bowl, feeding a very large chicken and its chicks
A woman feeding chickens, in the Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-1340: Add MS 42130, f.166v

Medieval Women: In Their Own Words is on show at the British Library from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025. Keep checking this blog for more information about the exhibition and our events programme, as well as details of when tickets will go on sale. 

This exhibition is made possible with support from Joanna and Graham Barker, Unwin Charitable Trust, and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts: a donor advised fund held at the London Community Foundation.

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06 March 2024

Chaucer at the Bodleian

The British Library is delighted to be a lender to the exhibition Chaucer Here and Now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The exhibition runs until 28 April 2024 and is free to visit, so don't delay!

On display in the introductory section is our manuscript of the Prologue of the Wife of Bath's Tale, with marginal annotations by the scribe giving their own (misogynistic) commentary on the text. The accompanying label not surprisingly titles this 'Mansplaining', and it echoes the exhibition's overall theme, which examines how different generations have reinterpreted Geoffrey Chaucer's works.

The British Library's manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, on display at the Bodleian Library

The annotated Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale, part of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, on loan from the British Library

We very much admire the exhibition's fetching design and the wonderful array of objects on show, including manuscripts loaned by the National Library of Wales, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and our friends in Oxford. The curator, Professor Marion Turner, has unearthed some incredible items and stories. We particularly like the cases devoted to modern translations of Chaucer, as well as to film and stage adaptations of his works. The graphics at the entrance to the exhibition invite visitors to consider whether this famous Middle English poet was 'multicultural, conservative, irreverent, comic, rude, respectful, imperial', and a host of similar terms.

International translations of Chaucer's works

The display of translations of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer

Display of film and theatrical adaptations of Chaucer's works

The colourful display of cinematic and theatrical productions of Chaucer's works


This loan is one of many organised by the British Library's curators, conservators and Registry, as part of our ongoing commitment towards national and international cultural partnerships. In the next few months we are lending other manuscripts to exhibitions in France, Germany, Scotland and England, so keep an eye on this Blog for more details about how you may be able to view them in person.

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