Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

3 posts from July 2024

18 July 2024

Tickets go on sale for Medieval Women exhibition

Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition Medieval Women: In Their Own Words, which runs from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025.

From the courage of Joan of Arc at her trial for heresy, and the visionary experiences of Julian of Norwich, to the artistry of the London silkwoman Alice Claver, the work of female medical practitioners, and the struggles of female rulers like Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, this exhibition explores 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.

The exhibition poster for Medieval Women: In Their Own Words, showing a group of nuns on their way to mass.

To whet your appetite before the exhibition opens in October, here are a few of the incredible items that will be on display:

The Book of Margery Kempe

The opening page of the Book of Margery Kempe, beginning with a large initial in red.

The opening of the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe; Norfolk, c. 1445–1450: Add MS 61823, f. 1r

The earliest autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe is an extraordinary account of the experiences of a female mystic, her spiritual visions, pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela, and her struggles for recognition in a male-dominated religious world. Margery’s Book was lost for centuries until this copy was discovered in a country house in 1934.

Christine de Pizan’s ‘Book of the Queen’

An illustration of Christine de Pizan building the City of Ladies alongside a personification of Reason.

Christine de Pizan building the ‘City of Ladies’, from ‘The Book of the Queen’; Paris, c. 1410-1414: Harley MS 4431/2, f. 290r

The ‘Book of the Queen’ is the largest and most splendid manuscript of the works of Christine de Pizan, made for Isabeau of Bavaria (d. 1435), queen of France. Christine is often described as the first professional woman author in medieval Europe. Her Book of the City of Ladies recounts tales of exemplary historical, legendary and biblical women, building a metaphorical ‘city’ out of women’s achievements.

The Paston Letters

A letter written in Middle English, from Margaret Paston to her husband John.

Letter from Margaret Paston to John Paston I, asking him to send her a new girdle and cloth for a gown; Norfolk, December 1441: Add MS 43490, f. 34r

The Pastons were a Norfolk family who climbed the social ladder from peasantry to landed gentry during the 15th century. They left behind a cache of around a thousand personal letters, giving unparalleled insight into their everyday lives. The women of the family are some of the most prolific correspondents, recording their joys, sorrows, loves, rivalries, friendships and arguments that span several generations.

The Sekenesse of Wymmen

A page from a copy of a gynaecological treatise, showing a set of anatomical drawings of a baby in the womb.

Anatomical drawings featured in a section on childbirth, from The Sekenesse of Wymmen; England, 15th century: Sloane MS 2463, f. 17v

One of a number of items in the exhibition devoted to women’s health, this manuscript contains the Sekenesse of Wymmen, a widel- read gynaecological treatise. It features instructions to a midwife on how to assist a mother during complications in childbirth, with accompanying anatomical drawings showing the position of the baby in the womb.

The Foundation Charter of Bordesley Abbey

A medieval charter affixed with a seal enclosed in a silk seal bag, made with blue and yellow threads.

The foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda; Devizes, 1141–1142: Add Ch 75724

The foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey was made in the 1140s, a period of strife in England as a bitter civil war raged between Matilda and Stephen, rival claimants to the throne after the death of Henry I. This document styles Matilda as ‘Empress’ and ‘Lady of the English’ and features her seal, showing her crowned and holding a sceptre, enclosed within a distinctive silk seal bag.

The seal of Matilda, showing her enthroned, holding a sceptre, with an accompanying Latin legend.

The seal of Matilda: Devizes, 1141-1142: Add Ch 75724

Medieval Women: In Their Own Words is on show at the British Library from 25 October 2024 to 2 March 2025. You can pre-book your tickets online now.

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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04 July 2024

New acquisition: an illuminated charter of Edward III

It's not every day that the British Library acquires a previously unrecorded charter. And this one is something special. It is an example of an illuminated charter, which make up around 0.1% of the total survivals, and it bears an excellent impression of the Great Seal of England. The Library purchased the charter at auction at Bonham's on 20 June 2024 (lot 71), and it has been accessioned as Add Ch 77743. Once it has been catalogued and undergone minor conservation treatment, it will be made available to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room at St Pancras. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting this acquisition.

A decorated parchment document, issued by Edward III, with the Great Seal in green wax attached on two cords at the foot

A royal licence issued in the name of King Edward III of England (reigned 1327–1377) at Westminster: Add Ch 77743

The charter itself is a royal licence issued at Westminster on 15 November 1368, and is addressed to David de Wollore, one of the king's chancery clerks. It grants property to David in Ripon (Yorkshire), which would enable him to support a chaplain to perform divine service every day at the altar of St Andrew in the church there. The document opens with a decorated initial showing a cleric addressing his congregation, and in the upper margin there is a drawing of David firing a slingshot at Goliath in the opposite corner. We are aware of two other surviving decorated charters of Edward III, both in French collections, but neither of which is as extensively illuminated as this. The Great Seal is that of the so-called Seventh Seal of Edward III, used between 1360 and 1377, and is attached to the document on two plaited cords. One side shows the king on horseback, and on the other sitting on the throne. The unusual decoration of the document may point to its recipient being the Keeper of the Rolls, who was entrusted with applying the Great Seal to royal grants. 

We are very pleased to be able to add this document to the national collection, where it can be consulted alongside thousands of other medieval charters, including a number of royal grants. Many questions remain to be answered about the circumstances of this charter's production and its artist, including the identity of the cleric in the opening initial — there is much more to be learned about it. Add Ch 77743 has been acquired with the assistance of the British Library Collections Trust.


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02 July 2024

Drake’s progress

From 1585 to 1586, an English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) raided Spanish colonies across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Part of an undeclared war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, Drake’s expedition was a major escalation in the conflict, one that would culminate in the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England in 1588. Among the Cotton Charters and Rolls, currently being catalogued as part of the British Library’s Hidden Collections project, is a copy of the original instructions given to Drake by Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) for his Caribbean raid (Cotton Ch IV 25).

A draft charter with notes added in a second hand.

Elizabeth I’s draft instructions for Drake’s voyage: Cotton Ch IV 25

The document states that Elizabeth is pleased to approve the expedition of eleven ships, four barques and twenty pinnaces under Drake’s command. Most of the fleet’s vessels were owned by private individuals, each contributing ships in return for a share in the profits. The queen promises that each investor shall receive their portion and that, if she delays the expedition, it shall be at no cost to them.

To support the voyage, the queen also orders the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624), to deliver two of the Royal Navy’s ships to Drake, namely the Elizabeth Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was a 47-gun galleon with a tonnage of 600. The Aide, with a tonnage of 200 to 250 and carrying 18 cannon, had already crossed the Atlantic once before as part of Martin Frobisher’s second expedition to Nunavut and Greenland in 1577. Frobisher would also join Drake’s fleet as his vice-admiral.

A model of a three-masted ship above a wall memorial inside a church.

A model of the Bonaventure, St Mary’s Church, Painswick, photo by David Stowell, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although undated, we know that this document relates to Drake’s 1585 expedition as it refers to the West Indies, and this campaign was the only time that he led a fleet containing both the Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was later part of his attack on Cadiz in 1587.

In the margin and between some of Elizabeth’s instructions are notes written in a different hand, that of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520–1598), the queen’s chief minister. Cecil's additions clarify or finesse the wording of Elizabeth’s orders and show that the document was a draft, likely held in the crown archives. Sir Robert Cotton’s access to royal records as a Member of Parliament, as well as his interest in antiquarian and historical matters, led to several other draft government papers from Elizabeth’s reign finding their way into his collection, such as Cotton Ch XV 43.

A draft letter of Queen Elizabeth I

Draft letter of Elizabeth I to Thomas Bromley, lord chancellor, granting protection to John de Rivera of Zante, resident in London: Cotton Ch XV 43

In the end, Drake set sail from Plymouth on 14 September 1585 with twenty-five ships, including at least five barques, supported by at least eight pinnaces. The Bonaventure, with a crew of 250 to 300, served as his flagship. The fleet raided north-western Spain in October and Cape Verde in November before crossing the Atlantic, attacking Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic, Cartagena (modern Colombia), and St Augustine in Florida. Heading north, Drake visited the nascent English colony of Roanoke (North Carolina) before returning to England in July 1586. Despite pillaging so many Spanish colonies, the investors actually made a loss on the voyage. The Bonaventure and the Aide would both see service again two years later in 1588, as part of Lord Howard of Effingham's fleet defending England from the Spanish Armada.

A map in colour showing Britain, Ireland, and the coasts of France, Denmark, and Norway, with the route of the Spanish Armada marked

Robert Adams’ map of the Spanish Armada’s route, 1588: Maps, final folio

This just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are re-cataloguing for inclusion in our online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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