Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

06 December 2021

Proclaiming Mary’s Conviction in London

Proclamations were printed royal directives. Their reading was a public and ritualized business, attended by local officials, held at prominent sites and often heralded by trumpets. Royal policy and royal authority were declared, ending with the exhortation to ‘God save the Queen’ (or King). Proclamations could also present the rationale of royal policy — or at least the rationale thought fit for public consumption. They were occasions of civic ritual, both to declare royal power and to present news and policy in ways persuasive to the public.

a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, set in an oval gold frame

The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22) © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)

The proclamation read in the City of London on 6 December 1586 is a powerful example of this at a particularly charged moment: A true Copie of the Proclamation lately published by the Queenes Maiestie, vnder the great Seale of England, for the declaring of the Sentence, lately giuen against the Queene of Scottes, in fourme following, dated as at the manor of Richmond on 4 December, and printed in London by the Queen’s printer, Christopher Barker. The copy currently on display in our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, belonged to Robert Beale, Clerk of the Privy Council. Beale had long been concerned with the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots — he had been on four missions to the imprisoned Queen and was regarded as an expert on the case against her by his superiors. He had been present at her trial (drawing a sketch of the court) and in February 1587 would deliver the commission for her death to Fotheringhay Castle and read it at her execution. He would also provide another drawing of her execution (also displayed in the exhibition). The public proclamation of Mary’s trial and conviction was an important stage in the process of moving towards her execution. Beale was aware of the importance and solemnity of the proclamation, and recorded its reading in the City of London: ‘Looke ye howe solemnly this was proclaymed in the of the L[ord] Mayor and divers of his brethern’.

  A pen-and-ink drawing by Robert Beale of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Mary sitting on a chair in the upper right-hand corner

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Robert Beale: Add MS 48027/1, f. 569*

An eye-witness drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Eye-witness drawing of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1, f. 650*

A contemporary account expands on the reading of the proclamation as an act of publicity and civic ritual (The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, ed. by John Nichols, 3 vols, London: John Nichols and Son, 1823, II, 497). ‘The Lord Mayor, assisted with divers Earles, Barons, the Aldermen in their scarlet, the principall officers of the citty, the greatest number of the gentlemen of the best account in and about the citty, with the number of eighty of the gravest and worshipfullest cittizens in coates of velvet, and chaines of gould, all on horsebacke in most solemne and stately manner, by sound of foure trumpets, and ten of the clock in the forenoone, made open and publique proclamation and declaration’ of Mary’s sentence. The Town Clerk openly read the proclamation, whilst the Serjeant-at-Arms ‘with loud voyce solemnly proclaimed’ it at four places in the City. At the same time, the proclamation was read by the Sheriffs of Middlesex in Westminster and London outside the City. The proclamation was met with ‘the greate and wonderful rejoycing of the people of all sorts, as manifestly appeared by the ringing of bels, making of bonfires, and singing of psalmes, in every of the streets and lanes of the Citty’. 

The proclamation laid out at length — over three sheets (pasted together by Beale) — the legal and political basis for Mary’s trial and conviction. It declared Elizabeth’s ‘great griefe’ at Mary’s involvement in conspiracy, ‘tending directly to the hurt and destruction of our royal Person, and to the subversion of the Estate of our Realme, by forrein invasions, & rebellions at home’; that she had agreed to the trial demanded ‘by sundrie Lordes of our Nobilitie, and others our loving subjectes’; and that she had let her desire for clemency be overborne by the advice and requests of her subjects in Parliament. She was overcome by her grief at Mary’s conspiracy against her life, ‘but also overcome with the earnest requests, declarations and important reasons of all of our said Subjectes, the Nobles and Commons of our Realme, whose judgement, knowledge and naturall care of us and the whole Realme. wee knoweth dothe farre surmount all others being not interessed therein, and so justly to bee esteemed’. The measured tones of the proclamation, presenting a story of a reluctant Queen bowing to the demands of her loyal and loving subjects, downplayed the anger in Parliament and the depth of Elizabeth's resistance. Her prevarication over actually executing Mary would continue for another two months.

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The printed proclamation of the death sentence against Mary, Queen of Scots

The Proclamation lately published declaring the Sentence, lately giuen against the Queene of Scottes (London, 1586): Add MS 48027, ff. 448r, 449r, 450r

The text also downplayed another aspect of the proclamation. In the ‘Act for the Queen’s Safety’ of 1585 (under which Mary had been tried), Elizabeth had inserted a proviso: that publication of the proclamation enabled anyone to kill Mary, without the Queen’s execution warrant. This is perhaps hinted at — no more — in the passage describing her acquiescence to the execution for the sake of the Realm and her subjects, where she states ‘howe desirous we were to have some other meanes devised by [our subjects] in their several places of Parlament, to withstand these mischiefes intended against our selfe and the publique quiet state of our Realme, & suretie of our good subjects, then by execution of the aforesayde sentence, as was required’. Assassination by a loyal subject would remain an option Elizabeth preferred even as she signed the death warrant.

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.


Tim Wales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 November 2021

Merlin the magician: from devil’s son to King Arthur’s trusted advisor

Merlin is the central mythical character in the world of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. A shadowy and untameable figure who seldom takes a single form for long enough to show us his true nature, he eludes definition today, just as he did a millennium ago, and his origins and fate remain mysterious. His character was probably an amalgam of Myrddin Wyllt, a bard and wild man of the Caledonian forest in Welsh tradition, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a warrior-prophet who was among the last of the Romans in Britain, and possibly a local pagan god whose cult was associated with the Welsh town of Carmarthon (from Caer Myrddin, meaning Merlin’s fort or castle).

Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower
Merlin tells his prophecy of Arthur to Uther Pendragon, with Igraine watching from a tower, Langtoft’s Chronicle of English History (N. England, 1307–27): Royal MS 20 A II, f. 3v

As a fortune-teller and shape-shifter, Merlin became associated with necromancy and the dark arts in the imagination of medieval Christians. The story of his birth was founded in the religious legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The demons of Hell, annoyed by Christ’s interference and his rescuing of souls from their domain, plot their revenge through the birth of an Antichrist.

Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge
Christ rescues souls from Hell while the devils plot revenge, Estoire de Merlin (St Omer or Tournai, 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 76r

They send a devil to impregnate an innocent princess of Dyfed in Wales, but when the child is born, their evil plans miscarry as the devout mother finds a priest to baptise him before he is pulled into their evil orbit. This is Merlin, a child prodigy with magical powers and the ability to foretell the future, attributes that he decides to use on the side of good rather than evil.

Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess
Merlin is conceived by a devil lying with a Welsh princess, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 77v

The earliest of the Arthurian texts to include Merlin was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account in his Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). For more information on this work and the surviving manuscripts of early legends, see, our article on Early Latin Versions of the Legend of King Arthur published on the Polonsky Medieval France and England, 700-1200 website.

Merlin first appears when, following the massacre of the British chieftains by the Saxon leader, Hengist, in the treacherous ‘Night of the Long Knives’, the British King Vortigern flees to Wales where he tries to build a strong tower to protect himself. But every night, the progress made by his builders is mysteriously undone when the foundations crumble. His wizards claim that only by mixing in the blood of a child who has no mortal father will he make the foundations sound. Merlin is found and brought to Vortigern for his purpose, but he is able to see a pool beneath the tower, in which lie two sleeping dragons, one white and one red, and he explains that the white dragon (i.e. the Saxons) will triumph over the red (i.e. the British). He then enters a trance and foretells the future of the Britons to the end of time, predicting the coming of a great king by the name of Arthur.

Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons
Vortigern and his tower with the red and white dragons, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 25r

Perhaps Merlin’s most remarkable achievement is single-handedly transporting a ring of magical stones known as ‘the Giant’s Dance’ from Ireland to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire to build Stonehenge. The earliest surviving picture of Stonehenge, showing Merlin helping to place the huge stones, is in a copy of the Roman de Brut, a verse chronicle of British history by a poet from Jersey named Wace, written in Anglo-Norman French.

Merlin helps build Stonehenge
Merlin helps build Stonehenge, Roman de Brut (England, 1325–50): Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Merlin’s next undertaking is to orchestrate the marvellous conception, birth and education of the future King Arthur. As he foretells, the young boy pulls the sword from the stone and inherits his rightful kingdom and - with Merlin’s help and guidance - achieves greatness. But though Merlin uses his powers to warn his young protégé about the future, he is powerless to change events that have been ordained. One day he appears in the form of a young boy to Arthur, who is out hunting in the forest, revealing that Arthur is son of King Uther and of Igraine. Later, changing into an old man, he prophesies that Mordred, the son who Arthur has conceived with his half-sister Morgause, will one day destroy his father and the court at Camelot.

Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest
Merlin meets Arthur hunting in the forest, Livre de Merlin (Arras, 1310): Add MS 38117, f. 76r

Though he is a trusted adviser to kings, Merlin remains an unpredictable character with strange habits and a menacing laugh that announces his sometimes-macabre intentions. In one episode, he changes into a deer and is served up as Caesar’s dinner, later returning as a wild man to interpret the Emperor’s dreams.

Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast
Merlin, disguised as a stag, is served at the Emperor’s feast, Estoire de Merlin: Add MS 10292, f. 160v

When he becomes obsessed with the fairy huntress, Niniane, he performs bizarre stunts for her that include setting two harpists alight with sulphur, saying they are evil sorcerers.

Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane
Merlin sets two harpists on fire with sulphur in front of Niniane, Livre de Merlin: Add MS 38117, f. 186r.

In the end Niniane brings about Merlin’s downfall. Having tricked him into revealing all his magical knowledge to her, she uses one of his spells to seal him in a stone tomb in the forest of Broceliande, or in some versions in an oak tree, until the end of time.

Stories of King Arthur and Camelot, alongside some of the most celebrated tales in medieval manuscripts, are featured in my recently published book, Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling, now on sale now in the British Library shop. Perhaps it would make the perfect Christmas gift for a medieval story-lover?

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Dragons heroes myths magic cover


18 November 2021

Robert Dudley's bindings: ‘A bear muzzled and chained’

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-88), is best known today as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite. He had been a close friend of the Queen from a young age and remained so until his death in 1588. He was referred to as her ‘Lord Robert’ by the diplomat Henry Killigrew in a letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s ambassador in France, on 28 September 1561, in which Killigrew expressed doubts about Elizabeth marrying because she only had eyes for Dudley.

Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton
Letter from Henry Killigrew to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 28 September [1561], London: Add MS 35830, f. 205r

As one of the central figures in Elizabeth’s life, Dudley of course plays a key role in the our current major exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, where he can be seen in this spectacular painting by Steven van der Meulen of c. 1561, which shows him displaying all the offices and honours he had accumulated during Elizabeth’s reign.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen, c. 1561. By kind permission of Waddesdon (Rothschild Family)

Dudley had been appointed Master of the Horse on Elizabeth's accession to the throne in November 1558, and he became a Privy Councillor in 1562 and Earl of Leicester in 1564. Together with Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, Dudley played a key role in domestic and foreign politics during Elizabeth’s reign. But Dudley was much more than just Elizabeth’s favourite and a statesman. He was also a known patron of the arts, a great book collector and a patron of authors and bookbinders, and it’s his interest in owning finely bound books which is of particular interest here.

During his lifetime, Dudley patronised a number of binding shops and the bindings surviving from his library can be divided into different groups. While some of his bindings show his coat of arms on their covers, the most easily recognisable ones are those bearing his characteristic crest in the centre of both covers. Several different versions of his crest are known, all showing ‘a bear erect muzzled and chained supporting a ragged staff on the shoulder a crescent for difference’. More information on his coat of arms and his crest can be found on the British Armorial Bookbindings website. 

Crest of Robert Dudley, from a book binding
Dudley’s crest from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

Some of Dudley’s bindings show the influence of Parisian bindings on English bindings at the time in the extensive use of gold tooling in an intricate centre and cornerpiece design, such as this example bound by the so-called Dudley Binder in brown calfskin, tooled in gold with traces of black paint and Dudley’s crest in the centre of both covers.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Plato, Platonis Convivium, Paris, 1543: C.19.c.23., upper cover

A much simpler group of bindings, also showing Dudley’s crest with the addition of his initials ‘R D’, is decorated with a simple frame around the covers with fleurons at the corners, such as this example, bound in brown calfskin and tooled in gold.

Book binding with Robert Dudley's crest
Georg Meier, Justini ex Trogi Pompeii historia, Cologne, 1556: C.64.b.2., upper cover.

When Dudley died in 1588, an inventory of his library listed over 230 books of which over 90 are known today, bound by more than eight different binders’ workshops between the 1550s and the 1580s. Books from Dudley’s collection can now be found in libraries around the world and the British Library holds examples of some of his elaborate as well as plain bindings. You can find more information on and images of Dudley’s bindings on the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings.

Discover more fascinating characters and amazing documents from the world of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, open at the British Library until 20 February 2022.

Robert Dudley's signature
Dudley’s signature from vol. 1 of Biblia sacra, Lyon, 1550: C.18.d.5

You can also find out more about Dudley and his bindings in H. M. Nixon and M. M. Foot, The History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford, 1992); H. M. Nixon, ‘Elizabethan gold-tooled bindings’, in Essays in Honour of Victor Scholderer, ed. by D. E. Rhodes (Mainz, 1970); or W. E. Moss, Bindings from the Library of Robt. Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (Sonning, 1934).

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval