Medieval manuscripts blog

148 posts categorized "Early modern"

23 March 2023

Mary had a little lamb

One of the more unusual manuscripts digitised for the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Cotton Roll XIV 8: a year-long menu for the 15-year-old Princess Mary (the future Queen Mary I) and her household, in 1531.

A manuscript divided into six columns, with some tears and damage to the membrane.

The lunch menu for Mary and her household on Christmas, New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night: Cotton Roll XIV 8

This manuscript gives us a fascinating insight into the food eaten not only by Mary herself, but also by her household officials and servants. It is divided into six columns. The first column lists the dishes given to Mary and the second those for her lord president, chancellor, chamberlain, vice-chamberlain, steward, treasurer, comptroller, and other leading councillors. The third column is for her senior household officials, the cofferer, the clerk of the comptroller, the clerk of the kitchen, and the marshal. The fourth column is for gentlemen and gentlewomen. The titles of the final two columns have been torn off, but they were probably for Mary’s more junior servants and staff.

A portrait of Mary as a young girl with red hair, a headdress, and a black gown. At the bottom is a parchment scroll reading “The emperour”.

A portrait of Princess Mary, attributed to Lucas Horenbout (Hornebolte), c. 1525: courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6453

The manuscript lists many dishes that may be unfamiliar to us today, such as pottage (a thick stew), brawn (meat boiled in spices and jelly, eaten cold), and bakemeats (pastry dishes, savoury or sweet, such as pies or tarts). More recognisable foods are pork, custard and blancmange. One of the most common meats is poultry, including chicken, swan, goose, partridge, snipe, crane, pheasant and heron.

The menu begins with Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Twelfth Night (6 January), the culmination of the Christmas season. On these days, Mary was to have two courses at each meal, with over 10 dishes per course at lunch and about 8 dishes at dinner, including roast swan, venison, pike, brawn, heron, rabbit, pheasant, sturgeon, crane, lamb, partridge, blancmange, custard and tarts. For lunch, she also had a boar’s head ‘solemnly served’. This was the traditional centrepiece of a Christmas feast for royal and noble households and it was usually seasoned with rosemary and bay leaves. Mary would be served this same menu on the feasts of All Saints (1 November) and the Purification (2 February), with the exception of the boar’s head. In contrast, the lowest of her household servants would have just five dishes at lunch, eating pottage, meat, pig or goose, veal or pork, and bakemeats.

After Christmas, the manuscript moves on to the menu for Sundays and feast days, and then for the others day of the week. The dishes are quite similar but fewer in number. Mary still had two courses at each meal, usually totalling 14 dishes at lunch and 10 at dinner. For the lowest servants in her household, only one course of two or three dishes was served. The exceptions to this rule were Fridays and Saturdays, when Catholics were supposed to eat fish instead of meat. On those days the menu lists a wide array of different fish, including plaice, haddock, cod, salmon, bream and lampreys.

A feast held in a hall. In the foreground, entertainers and a jester talk while musicians play. In the back, a servant brings in a new dish.

A miniature of a feast from a Book of Hours ('The Golf Book') (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 19v

Our manuscript sheds light on the meals eaten at a royal court and how the food differed according to social status. Mary herself and her chief officials enjoyed a wide selection of dishes, while those at the lowest end of the scale were offered a much smaller range. The impression is of a wealthy court, with the princess feasting on a wide array of foods.

But 1531 was a difficult year for the princess. Her father, Henry VIII, banished her mother, Katherine of Aragon, from court in favour of his mistress, Anne Boleyn, who kept Mary away from Henry. Mary’s health declined and she suffered several illnesses. Although Mary might not have enjoyed the food listed here as much as in a typical year (she was unable to keep her food down for three weeks in the summer), this manuscript does give us a valuable insight into the food eaten by her household just two years before she fell further out of favour. In 1533, Henry divorced her mother and married Anne Boleyn. In response, the princess’s household was reduced from over 160 servants to just two. The following year, Mary was declared illegitimate. She would not again enjoy the lavish feasts described in this menu until she became queen of England in 1553.

We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.


Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

09 February 2023

A newly-acquired manuscript of the Knights Hospitaller

For two hundred years, the Knights Hospitaller ruled the Greek island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey. From there, this Christian military-religious Order fought a naval war against the growing Ottoman Empire, slowly pushing back the edges of Catholic Christendom. As the Ottoman advances continued, the Hospitallers made repeated calls for reinforcements from Europe. A new acquisition by the British Library, Add MS 89542, is one of the Order’s last pleas for aid for Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript page, written in Humanistic script with the opening words in gold, with a decorated border and an initial containing a portrait of a Hospitaller
The opening page of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes: Add MS 89542, p. 1

The manuscript is a presentation copy of Giovanni Battista Gargha’s Orationes, copied from the printed edition and made for the Hospitaller grandmaster Fabrizio del Carretto (r. 1513-21), who is depicted in a miniature in the volume. Gargha was a Hospitaller priest and diplomat. His Orationes was an early printed book containing the text of two speeches he made to Pope Leo X at the Fifth Lateran Council in December 1513 and March 1514. In these speeches, Gargha begged for support for the Order on Rhodes.

A decorated manuscript leaf with a panel featuring a man with a white beard and holding a rosary, wearing the black habit and white cross of a Hospitaller, bordered by colourful foliage and a seahorse.
Miniature of Fabrizio del Carretto, Hospitaller grandmaster: Add MS 89542, p. 1 (detail)

In his first speech, the Hospitaller grandmaster warned that a large Turkish fleet was being assembled to attack Rhodes, an island that he said was key to Christendom’s defence, with its strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling routes to the Black Sea, Turkey and Syria. He called for the reform of the Church, a new crusade against the Ottomans, and the capture of Constantinople and Jerusalem. Gargha’s second speech followed much the same lines as his first. He again called for a crusade and said that the Ottomans were now preparing to attack Italy itself. Such an expedition never came, but the Pope and Francis I of France did dispatch several ships to Rhodes.

A coloured map of Rhodes depicting its settlements and topography
A map of Rhodes, from Heinrich Hammer’s Insularium illustratum, c. 1490: Add MS 15760, f. 12v

The manuscript is just one of several pieces of Hospitaller propaganda held by the Library, including two printed editions of the Orationes (C.25.i.1.(6.) and IA.18396.(10.)), several copies of Guillaume Caoursin’s account of the 1480 siege of Rhodes in Latin, German and Danish, and an English pamphlet on the fall of Rhodes in 1522 (C.55.h.5).

A group of horsemen with scimitars pursue the Hospitallers from Rhodes. In the background, a group of soldiers stand by a ship.
Woodcut depicting the 1522 siege of Rhodes, from The begynnynge and foundacyon of the holy hospytall / & of the ordre of the knyghtes hospytallers of saynt Iohan baptyst of Ierusalem (London, 1524)

After fighting off sieges in 1444 and 1480, the island finally fell in 1522, when the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Rhodes for six months until the Hospitallers finally surrendered. At the back of our newly-acquired volume (pp. 38–40) is a unique text discussing the Order’s defeat. This French account was written by a Hospitaller soon after the siege, possibly a member of the Order’s chancery. The author bemoans the loss of Rhodes and the many dead in the siege, before giving a list of reasons why the island fell. It appears to be a unique text, and hints at a debate within the shell-shocked Order as to why they lost their island home of 200 years.

The manuscript is also notable for its fine humanistic script. The scribe was Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (b. 1475, d. 1527), who worked in the papal chancery in Rome. As a Vatican Scriptor, he wrote the formal antica tonda script, used in Gargha's Orationes, and popularised the cancelleresca (chancery) script. This became the model for the printing types with which he printed several short humanist texts. He also planned, but left unfinished, a manual of writing printed from wood blocks based on his hand, the first of its kind, of which many copies exist. The British Library holds four other manuscripts of his work (Add MS 26873, Add MS 11930, Royal MS 12 C VIII and Harley MS 5423), as well as copies of his printed publications. His pamphlet La Operina (1522) is thought to be the first European writing manual aimed at a general adult audience.

The opening pages to a printed book, with elegant Italic typography
Opening pages of Ludovico degli Arrighi, La Operina (Rome, 1522): C.31.f.8.(1.)

We are delighted that this manuscript of Gargha’s Orationes is now part of our collections. The manuscript was presented to the British Library by Nicolas Barker, formerly Head of Conservation at the British Library, who had received it in turn from Vera Law (b. 1899, d. 1985), calligrapher and gilder. The manuscript can now be viewed in full on our Universal Viewer.


Rory MacLellan

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2023

Prince Henry Frederick: a second Alexander

A star item in the British Library's current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is this unique, full suit of armour decorated with scenes of Alexander’s glorious deeds in gold. It was made for Prince Henry Frederick (1594–1612), son of James I of England and VI of Scotland, who was addressed by the poet, Henry Peacham in his Basilica Emblemata as ‘the second Alexander, the nurturing hope of Britons’.

The armour is decorated with broad vertical bands containing scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, framed in oval cartouches incised and gilt on a hatched, blued ground. These bands alternate with bright plain bands.

Prince Henry Frederick’s armour (Netherlands, c. 1607): London, Royal Armouries II.88 © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

When Sir Francis Vere formally presented the armour to Prince Henry in 1608, he was following a long-established tradition of gift-giving between rulers and the elite within society. Fine quality armour and weapons provided legitimacy to ruling dynasties, strengthening diplomatic links, and securing patronage for the donors.

Image of a knight mounted on a horse. Below is text naming Alexander

Henry Peacham addressing Prince Henry as the 'second Alexander' in his Basilica Emblemata: Royal MS A 12 A LXVI, f. 38v (detail)

Sir Francis Vere’s younger brother, Sir Horace, probably took the leading role in the armour’s creation. Both brothers had long military careers in the Netherlands and were closely connected to the princely House of Nassau. The evolution of this spectacular armour can be attributed to this relationship. Why, though, did they choose Alexander the Great as the decorative theme?

Role models from Antiquity were very much part of a princely education. Alexander, despite certain character flaws, was still seen by many as an example of a strong, successful military ruler. Moreover, Henry’s father, James I (king of England 1603–1625), placed particular emphasis on the prestige and authority of monarchy. Direct associations between Prince Henry and Alexander the Great increased as he approached adulthood. To many, the young prince reflected the hopes and aspirations of those committed to active English military intervention in the Low Countries.

Extract of manuscript. In the first line the words 'L'Alexandre de la grande' can clearly be seen

James Cleland, Le Pourtraict de Monseigneur le Prince, where the poet describes Henry as 'Alexander of the great Britain': Royal MS 16 E XXXVIII, f. 4v

The designs on this armour are unique; no other example is known to have survived in which the decoration completely revolves around Alexander the Great. This is very clearly a piece of art, as well as a functioning piece of military equipment. Stylistically, the decoration bears a very strong resemblance to armour represented in the portraits of other members of the House of Nassau. By the early 17th century, the centres for the production of fine armour had largely moved to the Netherlands and France. Figures from Antiquity, including Alexander, were often incorporated into the decoration. The designs on the borders of Prince Henry’s armour are similar to other examples; 17th-century drums appear alongside modern weapons, but all with a distinct Hellenistic flavour. Many of the shields contain faces that are reminiscent of Greek drama, perhaps an oblique reference to the Jacobean love of theatre.

Drums and weapons depicted on the armour

Masks, weapons and drums on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

Given the nature of the narrative presented, it seems likely that the armour was meant to be read piece by piece from the feet upwards. This is the order in which an armour was attached to the body. Oval cartouches containing various episodes in Alexander’s campaign are positioned in a broadly accurate chronological sequence, with each piece of armour representing different stages in the campaigns. As the eyes move up the front of the body, Alexander progresses from Palestine into Afghanistan, reaching India on the helmet. Key events are represented along the way, including the battle of Hydaspes on the arms (vambraces), including formations of elephants on the left and right.

Turreted elephants in battle

Alexander’s army battles the Elephants of Porus, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

On the back of the armour, the campaigns following Hydaspes are represented. On the backplate are the marriages of Alexander to the Bactrian princess Roxanne, and of his generals to other women. This was perhaps a veiled reference to the importance of dynastic marriage. Alexander’s return to Babylon brings the series to a close; on arrival he meets a priest of Baal, with a group of camels in the background.

A couple sat under a canopy at a wedding

Alexander marries Roxanne, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

One could explain the narrative of the armour simply within the context of martial prowess and military conquest. The stories of Alexander appear to follow the classical texts of Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus and others, with the focus primarily on military exploits. Yet there are also warnings for the young prince. In a number of scenes, the relationship between Alexander and his royal companions is shown positively. He is seen fighting alongside them and demonstrating his personal prowess by taking part in lion hunts, then rewarding them for loyal service and receiving gifts from them.

Alexander battling a lion. Alexander has his sword raised for attack

A lion hunt, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

Conversely, in one image, Alexander is seen seated with his body language suggesting he is at odds with his two companions. And on the rear of the armour, the Macedonian army is shown in revolt against Alexander, and returning home by ship.

Two men argue in front of the sea

The mutiny of the Macedonian army against Alexander and their departure on ships, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries

The positive aspects of brotherhood-in-arms were clearly on the minds of the English military community, but so, too, were the pitfalls. They could represent a threat to the success of Prince Henry’s much anticipated reign. Sadly, he died of typhoid aged 18 before he could become king.

Prince Henry Frederick armour has been kindly loaned by the Royal Armouries to the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, where it is on display 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. You can discover more about the legends of Alexander the Great on our website


Malcolm Mercer, Curator of Tower Armouries and Art, Royal Armouries

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 November 2022

Mary, Queen of Scots: two new acquisitions

Following hot on the heels of the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, we are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two documents relating to Mary, Queen of Scots’ imprisonment in England. The first, Add MS 89480, is a letter written by the Scottish queen just 5 weeks after she dramatically escaped from Lochleven Castle and fled into England in May 1568. The second, Add Roll 77740/1, is a set of official financial accounts for Mary's upkeep at Wingfield Manor and Tutbury Castle for the period 18 December 1584 to 27 February 1585 (with Add Roll 77740/2 being a duplicate set of the same accounts).

The opening of the financial accounts

The opening of the official financial accounts for the upkeep of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 1

On 16 May 1568, Mary and a small group of supporters crossed the Solway Firth in a fishing boat and landed at Workington in Cumberland. The following day, Mary was apprehended by the Deputy Governor of Cumberland and escorted to Carlisle Castle, where she was held under armed guard. Mary wrote immediately to her cousin, Elizabeth I, requesting refuge and military aid to regain her Scottish throne. She described the treasonable actions of her enemies and expressed ‘the confidence I have in you, not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’.

Over the coming days and weeks, Mary persisted in writing long impassioned letters to ‘her nearest kinswoman and perfect friend’, unaware that Elizabeth had already been persuaded by her chief advisor, William Cecil, not to meet with her unwelcome guest. At first, Mary continued to press for an audience with Elizabeth to plead her cause, but as the weeks went by her letters became increasingly reproachful and she complained bitterly about being ‘dishonoured by the refusal of your presence’ and the injustice of her imprisonment.

Mary's letter to Jacques Bochetel

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Jacques Bochetel, Sieur de la Forest, 26 June 1568: Add MS 89480

The newly-acquired letter has remained in a private collection in France since the late 1800s and is therefore unknown to scholars. It was written at the exact point Mary realised her English captivity would not be temporary and that Elizabeth was being disingenuous towards her. It is one of the first pieces of evidence for this change of attitude and marks the moment when Mary turned instead to her French family and supporters. 

Detail of Mary's letter to Jacques Bochetel

Mary's signature at the foot of the letter: Add MS 89480

Mary sent the letter from Carlisle on 26 June 1568 to Jacques Bochetel, the French ambassador to England, petitioning him to lend her servant George Douglas 300 écus and to provide safe conduct for him to travel to France for an audience with Charles IX. The first part of the letter is written in a French secretarial hand, but Mary also added a few lines of her own in order to give her request greater force. George Douglas had played an instrumental role in Mary’s escape from Lochleven Castle and was now being entrusted to carry her letters to Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Other letters by Mary to Charles and Catherine survive in French and Russian archives, in which she petitioned for French aid to her supporters in Scotland and to help her escape imprisonment.

By the time the financial accounts were compiled in 1585, Mary had been held in English captivity for almost 17 years. She had recently been transferred into the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, and his official correspondence for the same period reveals the pressure he came under to provide for his charge as cheaply as possible. On 18 January 1585, Lord Burghley informed Sadler, ‘hir Majesty … willed me to wryte ernestly unto yow, now at your being at Tutbury, to devise how the chardg may not excede above the rate of mdll (£1500)  by yer.’  The accounts may have been drawn up precisely to inform this cost cutting exercise. They offer a fascinating snapshot of Mary’s life as a prisoner as well as the considerable costs and logistics involved in her upkeep and security.

The different types of meats consumed by Mary

The different types of meats consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 2

The accounts reveal that Mary continued to be treated as a queen during her confinement. She was attended upon by a large household, dined under her canopy of state and enjoyed elaborate food. She was served two courses at both dinner and supper, with each course consisting of a choice of 16 individual dishes. The accounts provide a detailed record of monies received and paid out for a wide range of foodstuffs, from bread, butter and eggs to meat (beef, mutton, lamb, veal, boar, pork), poultry (capons, geese, hens, heron, partridge, blackbirds) and fish (cod, salt salmon, eels, herring, plaice, haddock, sole, oysters, pike, roach, carp and trout). Also included are spices (pepper, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace), exotic items (oranges, olives, capers, dates, almonds, figs), and sweet luxuries (marmalade, caraway biscuits, sucket or fruits preserved in heavy syrup), as well as wine and ale.

Some of the exotic foodstuffs consumed by Mary

Some of the exotic foodstuffs consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 3d

Costs for household supplies are also listed. These include lighting, fuel, cooking utensils and brewing equipment, cord for bedsteads, a bucket for the well, ‘mattinge for the Quenes lodginge’, and soap ‘for washing the Queenes lynnen and the naperie of the house’. In addition, the salaries of laundresses, turnspits, purveyors and labourers are recorded alongside specific charges for ‘mendinge the crome and scouring of armour’ and ‘settinge up and making of bedstedes’. Even though Mary was only occasionally permitted to ride, she continued to keep her own horses. The accounts provide a list of stable expenses such as payment for lanterns, rushes, hay, oats and litter, and for the ‘showinge and medicyninge of the horses’.   

The final section of the accounts

The final portion of the accounts sets out the cost of moving Mary, Queen of Scots, from Wingfield Manor to Tutbury Castle in January 1585: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 5

Despite enjoying a deluxe form of house arrest, the accounts remind us that Mary was very much a prisoner of the English crown. The 1580s were a time of escalating religious crisis in Europe. Elizabeth’s ministers, fearful for the safety of their queen and the survival of Protestant England, ensured that Mary was kept under increasingly tight security. The salaries of 40 soldiers who kept watch over her are listed in the accounts, with a final entry setting out the cost of Mary’s removal from the pleasant Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire to the much more remote and secure location of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire in January 1585. 

We are extremely grateful to Jeri Bapasola for supporting the acquisition of Mary’s letter. Both items are available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room.  They have also been digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project, funded by Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be viewed online: letter of Mary, Queen of Scots (Add MS 89480); household accounts for Mary's upkeep (Add Roll 77740/1 and Add Roll 77740/2).


Andrea Clarke

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25 October 2022

How King Henry VIII read the Psalter

A new exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England has recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition showcases the artistic legacy of the Tudors and reveals how England became a thriving home for the arts as the Tudor monarchs increasingly used imagery to legitimise and define the dynasty. 

Among the magnificent array of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, visitors will have the opportunity to see five items from the British Library, including Henry VIII’s personal Psalter, which has been loaned to the United States for the first time. 

King Henry's Psalter, shown open displaying a text page on the left and a miniature of Henry seated in his chamber on the right
King Henry VIII’s personal Psalter written and illustrated by Jean Mallard in 1540: Royal MS 2 A xvi, ff. 2v-3r

The Psalter was commissioned by the King himself in 1540 and written and illustrated for him by Jean Mallard, a French scribe and illuminator. It is a lavish production and is still in its original binding, which although quite threadbare, retains traces of deep red velvet. The Psalms are written in an elegant, humanist script and accompanied by exquisitely decorated initials showing birds, insects, fruit, flowers and foliage. 

But the Psalter’s true significance lies in its main illustrations, four of which depict Henry, and its annotations written by the King. Taken together, they demonstrate that by the 1540s Henry perceived himself as King David of the Old Testament who, according to tradition, composed the Psalms and whose story was used to justify Henry’s declaration of independence from Rome and to define the Royal Supremacy. It’s little wonder then that the Psalter is more heavily marked up than any other manuscript owned by the King. His copious handwritten notes provide evidence of him probing and contemplating the Psalms, eager to discover what they had to teach him in his new role as ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’. 

Visitors to the Met’s exhibition will see the Psalter displayed open at the first Psalm, which is accompanied by an image of Henry portrayed as David. He is shown sitting in his bedchamber, diligently reading and following the guidance of Psalm 1, which begins ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly … his will is in the law of the Lord.’ To reinforce the point that he considered himself one of the blessed who, as the Psalm instructs, meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, Henry commented ‘nota quis sit beatus’ (note who is blessed). 

A page from the King Henry Psalter with an illustration of the King seated in his chamber reading
Illustration showing Henry VIII studying his Psalter: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 3r

The Psalter contains another three illustrations that link Henry with King David. The second, which prefaces Psalm 26, shows David about to slay Goliath. David is recognisable as Henry, while Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who had excommunicated Henry in 1538. Contemplating this image, which represents the liberation of England from papal authority, must have given the King great satisfaction. The titulus or explanatory gloss added by Mallard in the margin reads ‘Christi plena in Deum fiducia’ (Christ’s full trust in God). One of Henry’s distinctive ‘tadpole’ signs draws attention to the words. They would certainly have resonated with Henry, who was convinced that his enemies would be sought out and destroyed because, like David, he put his trust in the Lord. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of David fighting Goliath
Henry VIII as David fighting Goliath: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 30r

Psalm 52 is accompanied by an illustration of Henry sitting in his Privy Chamber and playing a harp to identify him with the Psalmist. He is accompanied by his jester Will Somers, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades. Appearing rather dejected, the royal fool looks out of the picture towards the first verse of the Psalm, which tells us ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of the King and his jester
Henry VIII in the likeness of King David, playing the harp: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 63v

The image accompanying Psalm 68, which begins ‘Salvum me fac’ (Save me, O God), illustrates an episode in the Bible when David is forced to choose between three terrible punishments for his sinful behaviour. The image shows Henry VIII as a penitent King David, kneeling in supplication among the ruins. Mallard’s titulus, which translates as ‘In his distress Christ invokes God’, reminds the reader that David’s torment prefigures that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with an illustration of King David kneeling in penitence
King David in penitence: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 79r

Several of Henry’s annotations also show him identifying with the Old Testament King and searching for guidance. One of the clearest examples is found next to Psalm 88. Using red crayon, Henry noted that the Psalm contains ‘the promise made to David’ and uses a wavy line and tadpole sign to highlight the verses ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty, and have exalted one chosen out of my people. I have found David my servant, with my holy oil I have anointed him.’ 

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Psalm 88 which Henry notes contains ‘the promise made to David’: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 107v

A small number of Henry’s annotations, however, reveal more human concerns. One of the most poignant is found alongside the first half of verse 25 of Psalm 36 which reads: ‘I have been young and now I am old’. Henry, who was in his early fifties, very overweight and in poor health, must have been painfully aware that his time on earth was drawing to a close, and noted that this is ‘dolens dictum’ (a painful saying).

Page from King Henry's Psalter, with text and marginal annotations
Page from Henry VIII’s Psalter containing the King’s marginal comments, including top right, dolens dictum: Royal MS 2 A xvi, f. 45r

You can see this fascinating manuscript in person at The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England which runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 8 January 2023, or view it online at our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Andrea Clarke

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25 August 2022


Earlier this year we announced our major Medieval and Renaissance Women project (you can read more about it in this blogpost.) Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, the British Library is digitising many of its manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, and made between 1100 and 1600.

A page from a medieval manuscript of Hildegard von Bingen's collected works, featuring a decorated border and initials in gold.

The prologue of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber divinorum operum (Add MS 15418, f. 7r)

We have some great news to report: the first batch of ten manuscript volumes is now available to view online. They include copies of the works of Hildegard von Bingen and Christine de Pizan; a manuscript illuminated by the German nun Sibilla von Bondorf; two witnesses of Le Sacre de Claude de France; a Dutch prayer-book designed to support young women's literacy; and two cartularies (one secular, the other religious). 

A page from a manuscript of The Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, featuring an illustration of the Virgin Mary and Child, and a bishop, painted by Sibilla von Bondorff.

The Virgin Mary and Child with a bishop, perhaps St Giles, painted by Sibilla von Bondorf, a German nun and artist (Add MS 15686, f. 1r)

A page from a medieval manuscript of a work of Christine de Pizan, showing an illustration of Christine writing at her desk and the armoured goddess Minerva outside.

Christine de Pizan writing in her study and the goddess Minerva, at the beginning of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (Harley MS 4605, f. 3r)

A full list of the published manuscripts is provided at the end of this post. We'll reveal more on the Blog in the coming months. Hopefully this initial selection whets your appetite for the treats in store!

An illustration from a Middle Dutch prayer-book, showing a group of girls learning in a classroom, with a teacher holding a wooden paddle.

An illustration of girls learning to read in a classroom, from a Middle Dutch prayer-book (Harley MS 3828, f. 27v)

A brief word about how we've chosen the manuscripts. In February, we asked readers of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog to recommend items that were most relevant to their research and to the themes of our project, such as female health, education and spirituality. The feedback was astonishing — we received over 60 suggestions of manuscripts from nearly 30 researchers and other members of the public — and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your enthusiastic responses. We then compared these nominations with other collection items held at the Library, taking into consideration factors such as the contents and date of each manuscript, its direct relevance to the lives of medieval and Renaissance women, and whether the manuscript's condition makes it suitable for digitisation. We've also strived to be as representative as possible by including manuscripts from different regions of Europe (and in different languages), as well as from the whole period 1100–1600.

Add MS 15418

Hildegard von Bingen, Liber divinorum operum

England, 15th century

Add MS 15686

Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibilla von Bondorf

Swabia, c. 1480

Add MS 29986

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

France, 1407–1410

Cotton MS Titus A XVII

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Harley MS 3828

Middle Dutch prayer-book

Southern Netherlands, c. 1440-c. 1500

Harley MS 4605

Christine de Pizan, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie

London, 1434

Harley MS 6670

Cartulary of Coldstream Priory

Coldstream, 1434

Royal MS 19 B XVI

Le Miroir des Dames (an anonymous French translation of Durand de Champagne's Speculum dominarum)    

Northern France, 1428

Stowe MS 582

Le Sacre, Couronnement, et Entrée de Claude de France

Paris, 1517

Stowe MS 776

Cartulary of the estates of John de Vaux and his daughter and co-heiress Petronilla de Narford

England, 14th century


A page from a manuscript of Le Sacre de Claude de France, showing an illustration of the French Queen's coronation.

The Coronation of Claude de France at St Denis in 1517 (Stowe MS 582, f. 18v)

A page from the Cartulary of Coldstream Priory, showing the text of a charter, with a marginal drawing of a lion in red and black ink.

The cartulary of Coldstream Priory (Harley MS 6670, f. 22r)


Julian Harrison and Calum Cockburn

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24 August 2022

Massacre on the streets of Paris

On 2 September 1572, Francis Walsingham, then Ambassador to the French Court, wrote a letter from Paris to Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State, the scrawled, messy draft of which survives as Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, ff. 163v–164r. The letter's crossings-out and insertions bear witness to trauma and anger.

The first page of Walsingham's letter

The beginning of the draft of Walsingham's letter: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 163v

A week before, in the early hours of 24 August (St Bartholomew’s Day), a massacre had begun in the city which left some 3,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) dead. Many more would die as the violence spread to the provinces. This letter reports Walsingham’s audiences on 1 September with King Charles IX and the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. The massacre had wound down only two days before, and Walsingham had been escorted to the Louvre through the still uneasy streets by the king’s brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou, a mark of the esteem in which the French court held its alliance with England. Anjou had also played an important part in the decision-making which sparked the massacre.

The massacre had two components. Charles IX and his Council had ordered the pre-emptive killing of 70 or so leading Huguenot nobles as threats to (and it was later claimed, conspirators against) King and State. The presence of the King’s death squads in Paris triggered the wider massacre, as the Catholic militants of the city turned against their Huguenot neighbours. Royal orders failed to stop the mass killing.

Painting of the St Bartholomew Day's Massacre

A painting of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois (1529–1584): public domain image

Walsingham's letter addresses both aspects of the massacre. It reports in fairly neutral tones what the King, and later the Queen Mother, declared, that Huguenot conspiracy had forced them to act. Charles said that he had been ‘constrayned to his great greafe to doe that w[hi]ch he dyd for his savetes sake’. Charles promised to provide the evidence of the Huguenot conspiracy to Queen Elizabeth, with Walsingham replying that she ‘woolde be glad to vnderstande the grow[n]d of the matter’. If the alleged conspirators were guilty,  ‘none shoolde be more gladde of the pvnishement’ than the Queen.

Portrait of Charles IX

Portrait of King Charles IX of France, after François Clouet: public domain image

Yet the draft shows one passage of real anger. Walsingham raised the issue (‘I made him understande’) that three English subjects had been murdered and others plundered during the general massacre. When the King promised to punish the guilty if they could be found, Walsingham replied that this would be hard to do, ‘the dysorder beinge so generall, the swoorde being commytted to the common people’. This in itself was an astonishingly blunt thing to say to a King — that he had let his God-given sword of justice and authority fall into the hands of the mob. It is also a surprisingly blunt thing to put down on paper. In the days immediately after the massacre, Walsingham had cause to be wary of letters falling onto the wrong hands. His next two reports were delivered verbally by the messenger. But in this letter Walsingham the diplomat clearly could not contain himself: the whole exchange is squeezed into the margin, added after the rest had been written.

The second page of Walsingham's letter

The second page of the draft letter, with Walsingham's incendiary comments in the left-hand margin: Cotton MS Vespasian F VI, f. 164r

The letter was informed by what Walsingham knew about the events of the previous days. On 26 August, he had sent a note to the Queen Mother, stating that he had heard reports of unrest in Paris, but professing that he was very reluctant to believe them and requesting the truth. The English embassy lay in a suburb where many Huguenots lived, but for much of the massacre it had been protected by a ring of royal troops.

Portrait of Francis Walsingham

Portrait of Francis Walsingham attributed to John De Critz the Elder (c. 1589): courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery NPG 1807

Yet Walsingham had more direct knowledge of the massacre than he admitted in that note. The embassy was itself attacked and the crowd pacified by a Catholic nobleman who summoned the royal troops. A number of English found refuge in the embassy, carrying news of the violence outside, including the young Lord Wharton, whose tutor had been murdered. Some Huguenots also escaped to the embassy, such as the leading nobleman, François de Beauvais, sieur de Briquemault, whose son had been killed in front of him. Briquemault sneaked past the royal guards into the embassy disguised as a butcher and was hidden in the embassy stables. At the very same time that the King was assuring Walsingham that he had been forced to act for his own safety, the latter was shielding one of the very leaders the King wanted dead.

Briquemault was discovered a few days later. Despite Walsingham’s pleas for his life, he was duly executed for the conspiracy which he denied to the end on the gallows.


Tim Wales

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