Medieval manuscripts blog

139 posts categorized "Early modern"

12 February 2022

Medieval and Renaissance Women

We are delighted to announce a major new project relating to Medieval and Renaissance Women. Thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, over the coming year the British Library will be digitising some of our manuscripts, rolls and charters connected with women from Britain and across Europe, which were made in the period between 1100 and 1600. At the same time we will enhance the catalogue records and we will engage with researchers working in this field and with the wider public. We are very excited by the prospect of bringing these works to broader attention, by making new discoveries, and by supporting research on a variety of topics.

A miniature of Christine de Pizan, in a blue robe and white headdress, holding a book and giving instructions to a man on the right wearing red

Christine de Pizan giving instructions, in her Enseignemens que Cristine donne à son Filz, part of her collected works known as The Book of the Queen: Harley MS 4431, f. 261v (this manuscript has already been digitised)

We would like your assistance. Some of our most famous manuscripts relating to European women have already been digitised. They include the Book of Margery Kempe (Add MS 61823), the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (Stowe MS 42), and Christine de Pizan's The Book of the Queen (Harley MS 4431). As we make our final selection of other manuscripts, rolls and charters that most deserve to be digitised, we invite you to send us your own recommendations. They could relate directly to your own research, support an existing project, or be an item that you would love to explore in greater detail online.

An illustration of four foetal presentations in a medieval manuscript

An illustration of foetal presentations, in a 15th-century collection of medical treatises in Middle English: Sloane MS 2463, f. 271r

To take part, please add a comment at the foot of this blogpost or tweet them to @BLMedieval. We look forward to receiving your suggestions. We will consider them against a range of factors, such as the condition of the manuscript and its suitability for digitisation, its direct relevance to the British Library's project, and our aim of balancing coverage across a range of topics and the period as a whole. We will also keep a list of all suggestions that we are not able to include this time for consideration in the future.

A page from the cartulary of Lacock Abbey

A page from the cartulary of Lacock Abbey, a nunnery in Wiltshire: Add MS 88973, f. 2v (this manuscript has already been digitised)

Interested in helping? We need your suggestions by 18 March. Remember, we are looking for undigitised manuscripts, charters and rolls that have a strong connection with women from medieval and Renaissance Europe, and which were made between the years 1100 and 1600. Please check first our most recent list of manuscripts that are already available in full online, in our blogpost Our digitised collection keeps on growing. The list can be downloaded in two different formats, either as a PDF or as an Excel spreadsheet. We invite you especially to put forward items that may be lesser known, including administrative documents, wills and other types of rolls and charters. They can be in any European language, and to have been made in Britain or in continental Europe.

Here are some ideas as to the kinds of items that fall within the scope of our project:

  • Was the author a woman?
  • Were they written by a female scribe or decorated by a female artist?
  • Do they contain specific texts relating to female life or illustrations of women?
  • Do they relate to some aspect of female spirituality, education, health or business affairs?
  • Do they throw significant light upon the lives of women in medieval and Renaissance Europe?

The seal of Constance, duchess of Brittany and countess of Richmond

The seal of Constance, duchess of Brittany and countess of Richmond (1190s): Cotton Ch XI 45

We would welcome your suggestions by 18 March. As the project progresses, we will provide regular updates on this blog, including news about which manuscripts, rolls and charters will be digitised, and information about how we intend to engage with researchers and the general public. Once again, the British Library would like to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous support for Medieval and Renaissance Women.


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10 February 2022

The ‘tragedy’ of Lord Darnley

Following a large explosion at Kirk o’ Field outside Edinburgh at two o’clock on the morning of 10 February 1567, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was found dead in a nearby garden. Darnley is one of the most notorious figures in Scottish history. He was king consort of Scots, and his mysterious death caused a sensation both at home and abroad. Within days, painted placards were set up and handbills distributed in Edinburgh, openly accusing his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, and James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, of being lovers and of orchestrating Darnley’s murder.

Poem by Robert Sempill, The testament and tragedie of King Henrie Stewart, printed in 1567

Poem by Robert Sempill, The testament and tragedie of King Henrie Stewart, 1567: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 26r

The sensational news was reported even further, when broadside ballads began appearing in print penned by Robert Sempill.  Intended to be sung to popular tunes, one of the first of these ballads, The testament and tragedie of vmquhile [the deceased] King Henrie, was printed in Edinburgh by Robert Lekpreuik. This survives in a unique copy currently on display in the British Library's exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. Taking the form of a a rhetorical device known as a prosopopoeia, by which Darnley’s ghost is represented as recounting his life, Darnley narrated how ‘Scotland I socht, in houpe for to get [Mary]’. Finding him ‘Sa perfyte, plesand, and sa dilectabill’, Mary married him, making Darnley king. Darnley claimed he was popular with the common people, while doing all he could to please and serve his wife: ‘Hir for to pleis I set my haill consait [conceit]:/ Quhilk [Which] now is cause of my rakles [reckless] ruyne’. Blinded by passion, he renounced his protestant faith and began attending catholic mass daily with Mary. Consequently, Darnley was damned, having ‘for hir saik denyit the God deuine [divine]’. His honour was diminished, his word doubted, his supporters deserted him. He became, by turns, depressed, anxious, angry and lethargic.

But all was not as Sempill depicted. While Darnley had charmed and dazzled Mary on his arrival in Scotland from family exile, once married to her in July 1565 he proved an arrogant, jealous and unreliable drunkard who alienated almost everybody, including his new wife. After Mary declined to grant him equal authority with her, Darnley’s resentment focused on her Italian favourite, her secretary David Rizzio, whom he accused of being her lover. On 9 March 1566, he participated in Rizzio’s brutal murder at Holyroodhouse in Mary’s own presence. Then, three days later, he betrayed his co-conspirators by helping her escape captivity shortly after midnight. Mary had won Darnley over by explaining ‘how miserably he would be handled, in case he permitted thir lords to prevail in our contrare [against her]’ (Alexandre Labanoff, Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Marie Stuart, reine d’Écosse, 7 vols. (London, 1844), 1, p. 347). Fearing for his safety, at first Darnley kept in Mary’s favour, hearing mass with her daily. But in the months that followed his behaviour became more difficult and unpredictable, driving them further apart, even after the birth of their son, Prince James, in June. At the end of the year he sought safety in Glasgow with his father, but fell ill on the way, probably as a result of syphilis. Mary visited him while he convalesced, persuading Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he was lodged at Kirk o’ Field at the beginning of February 1567.

Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, by an unknown artist, February 1567

Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, by an unknown artist, February 1567: The National Archives, MPF 1/366/1.   

On 10 February 1567, in the early hours before Darnley’s intended return to court, Kirk o’ Field was destroyed by gunpowder. The discovery of Darnley’s body alongside that of one of his servants, William Taylor, without a mark on either of them, only deepened the mystery. A shocked Mary ordered an immediate investigation, offering a reward to anyone coming forward with information about the murderers.

Surviving accounts, depictions and depositions make it possible to reconstruct how Darnley was murdered. On realising that the house was surrounded by conspirators, Darnley and Taylor appear to have lowered themselves out of a first-floor window onto a gallery below using a rope and chair. They then made their way through a door in the town wall on to Thieves Row, only to find themselves surrounded. Eyewitnesses overheard Darnley plead for his life. Taylor and he were almost certainly suffocated, then Kirk o’ Field was blown up.

Drawing of a placard depicting Mary, Queen of Scots, as a mermaid ensnaring James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, represented as a hare

Drawing of a placard depicting Mary, Queen of Scots, as a mermaid ensnaring James Hepburn, 4th earl of Bothwell, represented as a hare, February 1567: The National Archives, SP 52/13/60

Despite ordering the investigation into Darnley’s murder and passing an act of parliament against placards and handbills, anonymous public attacks on Mary and Bothwell continued. One placard even portrayed Mary as a mermaid (prostitute) ensnaring Bothwell, depicted as his heraldic beast the hare, within her net. Mary wrote to Darnley’s father, Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, promising ‘a perfite triall to be had of the king our husbandis cruel slauchtir’.

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, 21 February 1567

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Matthew Stewart, 4th earl of Lennox, 21 February 1567: Cotton MS Caligula B X/2, f. 408r

After Bothwell, the principal suspect in Darnley's murder, was acquitted in a rigged trial on 12 April, Lennox pursued a blood feud against him that culminated in Mary’s deposition from the throne three months later. Popular print would prove critical in turning public opinion against the queen, with Lennox recruiting Robert Sempill, Scotland’s foremost satirist,  to write a series of widely read and sung broadside ballads in support of his cause. Darnley was a deeply divisive figure during his lifetime, but in death he became, in Sempill’s words, ‘the Sacrifice’ that sparked rebellion. Although cheap print, to be thrown away or recycled once read, Sempill’s Testament and tragedie is now as rare and precious as many a manuscript, not least for the impact it had on its first audience.


Group portrait of James VI, Matthew Stewart and Margaret Douglas, earl and countess of Lennox, and Lord Charles Stewart (‘The Memorial to Lord Darnley’) by Livinus de Vogelaare, 1567: Royal Collection Trust 401230 / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Our major exhibition, 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.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 February 2022

Murder most foul: how Mary, Queen of Scots, almost avoided the chop

The circumstances of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 8 February 1587, are well known. There is a detailed eye-witness drawing of Mary entering the hall at Fotheringhay Castle (Northamptonshire), disrobing, and placing her head on the block — you can see it in person in the British Library's major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which is on in London until 20 February.

But were you aware that, on the same day that Queen Elizabeth I signed her cousin's death warrant, she instructed Mary's keepers to assassinate her?

A contemporary drawing by Robert Beale of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

A contemporary drawing by Robert Beale of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add MS 48027/1 (f. 650a recto)

On 1 February 1587, after weeks of prevarication, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and handed it to Secretary Davison. She commanded him to have the warrant passed immediately under the Great Seal and despatched. Within a day Elizabeth was developing cold feet, making ambiguous noises about the warrant, complaining about haste and keeping her distance from the business at hand. It was at this point that Lord Burghley, acting with a group of Privy Councillors, pressed ahead with despatching the warrant. They entrusted it to Robert Beale, Clerk to the Privy Council, swearing a mutual oath that they would tell no-one, including the queen, of their proceedings. Beale and the two noblemen to preside at the execution — the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent — arrived at Fotheringhay on 7 February. Mary was executed the following day.

In his notes and memoranda (Add MS 48027), Beale tells another story of how Mary might have died. At the same time as Queen Elizabeth gave the death warrant to Secretary Davison, she ordered him and his fellow Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, to write to Mary’s keepers, Sir Amias Paulet and Sir Dru Drury, asking them as good subjects to assassinate Mary.

The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots

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

Davison and Walsingham wrote to the keepers that Elizabeth found a ‘lack of care and zeal’ in them for not yet finding ‘some way to shorten the life of that Queen’. She took it ‘most unkindly towards her, that men professing that love towards her that you do, should in any kind of sort, for lack of the discharge of your duties, cast the burthen upon her, knowing as you do her indisposition to shed blood, especially of one of that sex and quality, and so near to her in blood as the said Queen is’.

‘God forbid that I should make so foul a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posterity, to shed blood without law or warrant’, was Paulet’s prompt response. Walsingham acknowledged Paulet’s reply ‘wrytten effectuallie & to good purpose’ in a letter about expediting the process of Mary’s execution with as much secrecy as possible (Add MS 48027, f. 644v). It transpired that the men whom Elizabeth approached had no problems with arranging Mary’s death — far from it — indeed, there was a case to be made that killing her was justified under the Bond of Association against those who sought Elizabeth’s death. But in their mind Mary's death should be by due form following the sentence at her trial, not common murder. For Elizabeth's part, assassination would have allowed her a rather desperate degree of (not very convincing) deniability. 

A portrait of Sir Amias Paulet

Portrait of Sir Amias Paulet (c. 1533–1588), 1576–78, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard: Rothschild Family collection

Beale takes up the story. Paulet and Drury ‘dislyked that course as dishonorable and dangerous: And so did R[obert] B[eale] and therfore thought it convenient to have it don according to lawe in suche sorte as they might justifie their doinges by lawe’ (f. 639v). Beale reports elsewhere (ff. 640r-641r) how, when he came to Fotheringhay, Paulet and Drury told him ‘that they had been dealt with by a lettre if they could have been induced her to have been violently murdered by some that should have been appointed for that purpose’. Beale named a potential assassin, ‘one Wingfeld (as it was thought)’ – presumably Robert Wingfield, a Nothamptonshire gentleman who would write an eye-witness account of the execution. Beale reported that the Queen ‘wold have had it done so rather then otherwise’ and ‘would fayne have had it so’: she claimed that it was a course advised by the Scottish Ambassador.

It was thought that the Earl of Leicester most supported assassination, but that both Walsingham and Davison ‘misliked’ it. The matter was talked over whilst Beale was at Fotheringhay, but ‘by the example of Edward the 2d. or Rychard the 2d.: it was not thought convenient or safe to proceed covertly: but openly, according to the statute of 27’ — that is, the Act of 1585 by which Mary had been tried and condemned. Edward II and Richard II were powerful and damning precedents to conjure with, stories of the hole-in-the-wall murder of kings, whose resonances are captured in the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare just a few years later. The keepers were also understandably doubtful about carrying out this action even with the promise of a pardon from Elizabeth.

Robert Beale’s account of the circumstances of the warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Robert Beale’s account of the circumstances of the warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, written after August 1588: Add MS 48207, f. 640r  

Beale’s notes expand on the illegitimacy of assassination. First, he described the formal and lawful processes of the execution itself. He then gave examples of those who had since said that it would have been better to have had Mary assassinated. In August 1588, he was told by an English diplomat that the Count of Arenberg had said ‘that it had bin better don to have poisond her or choked her with a pillowe, but not to have putt her to so open a death’ (f. 640v). Another diplomat, William Waad, who had been sent to explain the execution to the French court, reported that the King, Henri III, and others were of the same mind.

Finally, Beale’s notes circled back to Fotheringhay on the night before the execution. As Paulet and Drury plucked down her cloth of state, and having been told to prepare to die, Mary ‘mentioned the murder of King Rychard the second. But Sir Dru answered that she needed not to feare yt, for that she was in the charge of a Christian gentleman’ (f. 641r). The honour of a Christian gentleman, but not, as Beale’s notes leave hanging in the air, such an honourable queen.

Robert Beale’s concluding note regarding the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Detail showing Robert Beale’s concluding note: Add MS 48027, f. 641r

The fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, is featured in our exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be purchased either in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Tim Wales

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05 February 2022

The Gallows Letter

On 17 July 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from captivity at Chartley Hall (Staffordshire) to the English catholic gentleman Anthony Babington. Beginning innocuously enough, ‘Trustie and welbeloved. According to the zeale and entier affection which I haue knowen in you towardes the common cause of relligion and mine’, her letter to Babington is one of the most famous written in the 16th century. Now known as the ‘Gallows Letter’, it is the key document in the 1586 Babington Plot, which is explored in the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens

A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter

A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter’, the closest version to the original letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Anthony Babington on 17 July 1586: The National Archives, SP 53/18/53, on display in the exhibition

As she dictated her letter, Mary was unaware that her words would entrap her. But Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, knew of the plot from the outset, even before Mary did. His spies intercepted Mary’s letter, passing it on to his cryptographer Thomas Phelippes, who had been waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike. Upon deciphering it, Phelippes drew a gallows on the address leaf, indicating that its content would condemn Mary to death for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth.

a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots, known as the Blair Reliquary

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

Back in autumn 1581, Mary had proposed a scheme whereby she would be freed to return to Scotland in order to reign jointly with her son James VI. By then she had been imprisoned in England for 13 years, ever since fleeing her homeland. James, who had just overthrown his last regent and begun exerting his independent authority as king, had no desire to share power with his mother or with anybody else. Nonetheless, Mary periodically renewed the scheme. In September 1584, she told Elizabeth that, if granted her freedom, she would openly support Elizabeth’s right to rule, while opposing papal interference in both England and Scotland. ‘Then none … will dare tooche thone Realme for religion without offending both’ (Add MS 33594, ff. 52v–53r).  Elizabeth ‘shall never fynd [me] false to her’, Mary reassured her. Mary even offered to relinquish her claims to the English and Irish successions, if Elizabeth would let her either live freely in England or return to Scotland. The Queen of England proved open to this idea, but in spring 1585, James, who was then almost 19, finally rejected his mother’s scheme outright. Mary was devastated.

It was after this bitter disappointment that Mary turned in earnest to plotting against Elizabeth as her only hope of escaping. In spring 1585, her keeper, Sir Ralph Sadler, was replaced by Sir Amias Paulet. Whereas Sadler had treated her honourably, Paulet took a harder line, keeping her more closely guarded and restricting her correspondence severely. Mary began fearing for her life, which made her seek out desperate courses. Therefore, when Anthony Babington proposed ‘the dispatch of the vsurper [Elizabeth] by six noble gentlemen, who for the zeale they beare to the Catholick cause and your Maiesties service will vndertake that tragicall execution’, Mary was ready to listen (The National Archives, SP 53/19/12).

In spring 1586, Babington had been recruited to a catholic plot against Elizabeth. With Spanish support, a rebellion would break out simultaneously with the queen’s assassination, and Mary would be crowned in her place. Walsingham had long regarded Mary as Elizabeth’s greatest threat. Learning of the conspiracy from one of his double agents, he saw an opportunity and opened a channel of communication between Mary and Babington, using ciphered letters hidden in beer barrels. These letters were intercepted, unsealed, and deciphered by Phelippes, before being resealed and carried to their intended addressee. In this way Walsingham read all Mary’s correspondence.

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, 1589: private collection, on loan to the exhibition

Mary wrote the ‘Gallows Letter’ on 17 July 1586, authorising the plot and making recommendations. Fatefully, she agreed to Elizabeth’s assassination: ‘sett the six gentlemen to woork’. Mary also desired the overthrow of her son James VI and ‘some sturring in Ireland’. She warned Babington that, if he failed, Elizabeth would, ‘catching mee againe, enclose mee for ever in some hole, forth of the which I should never escape, yf shee did vse mee no worse’. He burned the ‘Gallows Letter’ after reading it.

Seeking to draw Babington out, before it was sent Walsingham had several passages to the ‘Gallows Letter’ amended and a postscript added, asking Babington to name the six assassins and to say ‘how you proceed and as soon as you may’. Hearing nothing further, on 3 August he ordered Babington’s arrest, but feared that this postscript had tipped him off. He wrote to Phelippes the same day, confessing ‘you wyll not beleve howe mych I am greved with the event of this cavse and feare the addytyon of the postscrypt hathe bread the iealousie [suspicion]’.

Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes

Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes, 3 August 1586: Cotton MS Appendix L, f. 143v

Evading arrest for some days by hiding in St John’s Wood (Middlesex), Babington was eventually caught. Mary’s secretaries were also arrested and interrogated. They confessed to writing the ‘Gallows Letter’ at her command, while Babington confessed to the plot. 

Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession

Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession that ‘this last is the alphabet by which only I have written vnto the Queene of Scotes or receaved letteres from her’, July 1586: The National Archives, SP 12/193/54, on loan to the exhibition

Evidence of Mary’s complicity could not be suppressed, as it was needed to convict Babington and his co-conspirators, who were found guilty of treason. Babington himself was hanged, drawn and quartered on 20 September 1586. After that everyone watched and waited to see what the queen would do next: would she commit regicide by bringing Mary to justice?


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 January 2022

How to be an effective ruler: the Basilikon Doron of King James VI and I

The British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, charts the relationship and the lives of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the significant figures who were part of their courts and inner circles. One of the concluding sections of the exhibition explores the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and looks ahead to the accession of Mary’s son James to the English throne following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The exhibition features a significant item written by James himself: a work known as the Basilikon Doron (literally meaning the ‘King’s Gift’ in Ancient Greek.

The opening page of the Basilikon Doron

The opening of the Basilikon Doron, written by King James for his son Henry Frederick, the future Prince of Wales: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. 3r

The Basilikon Doron is a treatise on government. Written in the form of a letter addressed to his eldest son Henry Frederick (1594–1612), James’s work sets out the guidelines for how to be an effective monarch. The text is divided into three books. The first is concerned with being a good Christian, love and proper respect for God, and the study of Scripture. The second is focused on the law, the nature of justice and the practical mechanisms of governance. The third is devoted to the daily life of the monarch and the strict codes of conduct that a ruler should follow, covering everything from sleeping habits and wardrobe choices to personal grooming.

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick

A portrait of Prince Henry Frederick, for whom the Basilikon Doron was written, painted by Robert Peake the Elder, c. 1610: National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4515

The British Library is home to an autograph copy of this work, written in King James’s own hand. It was most likely a working copy of the text: there are numerous erasures, corrections and revisions visible throughout. After James’s accession to the English throne, this autograph manuscript became part of the Royal library (now Royal MS 18 B XV), where it was given an elaborate binding, made from purple velvet, and featuring the royal initials ‘IR’, and the Scottish lion and decorative thistles in gold (though some of these elements have since been lost). The book can now be read in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The lower cover of the autograph manuscript of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, lower cover

James had an unusually high literary output for a king. He was known to retreat to his study regularly to read and write. He was a patron of poets and playwrights. On his accession to the English throne in 1603, he granted the royal patent which authorised the formation of the King’s Men, the acting company of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). James was also a poet in his own right, and in 1584, at the age of only 19, he set out the rules and traditions of Scottish poetry in a work known as the Reulis and Cautelis to be Observit and Eschewit in Scottish Poesie.

The opening of the autograph manuscript of the Basilikon Doron is prefaced by one of James’s sonnets, written in Middle Scots. Addressed to Henry Frederick, it reads:

Loe heir my son a mirror viue and fair

Quhilk schwa is the shadow of a vorthie King;

Loe heir a booke, a paterne dois zow bring

Quhilk ze sould preas to follow mair and mair.

This trustie friend the treuthe will never spair,

Bot give a guid advyse unto zow heir.

How it sould be zour chief and princelie cair

To follow vertew, vyce for to forbeare:

And in the booke zour Lesson vill ze leire

For gyding of zour people great and small;

Than, as ze aucht, gif ane attentive care

And paus how ze thir preceptis practise sall:

Zour father biddis zow studie heir and reid

How to become a perfyte King indeid.

(Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto)

A manuscript page containing the dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron

The dedicatory sonnet before the opening of King James’s Basilikon Doron: Royal MS 18 B XV, f. ii recto

In addition to this handwritten draft of the text, printed copies of the Basilikon Doron were also produced. The first edition of the work was made in Edinburgh in 1599 by the English printer Robert Waldegrave (1554–1603), who had previously worked on several of the king’s other texts, including his literary thesis Poetical Exercises (1591) and his Daemonologie (1597), a treatise concerning the practices of necromancy and black magic. Only seven copies of the Basilikon Doron were made in this initial print run, one of which can now be found at the British Library (G.4993).

A second edition of the text was published in London in 1603, immediately after the death of Elizabeth I and James’s accession to the thrones of England and Ireland. Unlike the 1599 edition, which was clearly intended for a select, private audience within the king’s inner circle, this edition was intentionally public, circulating widely in England, Scotland and across Europe, with thousands of copies sold.

The first printed edition of the Basilikon Doron

The first edition of the Basilikon Doron, printed by Robert Waldegraue in Edinburgh in 1599: G.4993, sig. [A]3v-[A]4r

Unfortunately, Henry Frederick did not live long enough to be able to put his father’s instruction into practice. In 1612, eight years after the second printing of the text, James’s son died from typhoid fever, at the age of only 18, leaving his brother Charles to take his place as Prince of Wales and eventually become James’s successor as King of England and Scotland, taking the throne in 1625.  

You can see both the autograph and printed copies of James’s Basilikon Doron in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, on at the British Library until 20 February.


Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 January 2022

‘As goodly a child as I have seen’

In March 1543, King Henry VIII sent Sir Ralph Sadler as ambassador to Scotland. A protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Sadler had his first audience with the dowager queen, Mary of Guise, within days of arriving. The subject of their interview was the new Queen of Scots, the 4-month-old Mary. Afterwards, Sadler was taken to see the child for himself. In this letter to Henry, written in his own hand, Sadler declared Mary to be ‘as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age’.

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

For Henry, the infant queen offered a golden opportunity to unite the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland under one monarchy by means of a ‘godly’ marriage to his heir, Prince Edward (Add MS 32649, f. 173r).

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist, c. 1540: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in the depths of winter on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise. The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens displays an oak panel of the arms of Scotland, carved and hung in Linlithgow Palace during these years, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland, Linlithgow Palace, mid-16th century: Image © National Museums Scotland

In summer 1542, war had broken out between England and Scotland after Henry VIII failed to persuade his nephew, James V, to repudiate Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and the Pope’s authority. Two weeks before Mary’s birth, an opportune raid into northern England had gone disastrously wrong when the Scottish army surrendered at the Battle of Solway Moss. James returned from the frontier in a disconsolate state. He visited his wife briefly at Linlithgow, dying at Falkland Palace 6 days after the birth of his daughter and heir. 

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility: Harley MS 115, f. 16r

Under the circumstances, the English warden of the marches, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, called off a counter-raid into Scotland, saying it would be dishonourable to ‘make warre or ynvade vppon a dedd bodye or vppon a wydowe, or on a yonge sucling his doughter’ (Add MS 32648, f. 225r). Henry duly negotiated a truce with the Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was described in contemporary reports as ‘delyueryd before hir tyme[,] … a vereye weyke childe and not like to lyve’ (Add MS 32648, f. 199r-v). Within days of her father’s funeral, she was baptized in January 1543, named for her mother Mary of Guise and for the Virgin Mary. Unusually for the time, Mary was ‘nurssed in her [mother’s] owne chambre’, rather than separately (London, The National Archives, SP 1/175, M. f. 17r). This was because Mary of Guise feared for her daughter’s safety in the turbulent first months of her reign, when various Scottish prelates and nobles vied for control of the regency government established in the young queen’s name. In early January 1543, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, emerged victorious, being appointed governor of Scotland and granted custody of the queen. A great-grandson of James II, Arran was also declared heir presumptive.  On arriving in Scotland in March, Sadler had his first interview with the new regent, a 23-year-old who Sadler thought ill-prepared for the great responsibility he was undertaking.

A few days later, on 22 March 1543, Sadler visited Mary of Guise at Linlithgow, hoping to learn if she favoured the marriage between Edward and her daughter. He ‘founde her most wyllyng and conformable in apparence’, and wrote to Henry the following day describing how she had asserted that her ‘chief suretie’ was to have her daughter ‘delyuered fourthwith’ into the king’s hands (Add MS 32650, f. 72r). ‘It is the woorke and ordinance of god for the coniunction and vnyon of bothe thies Realmes in one’, she said. But she warned Henry to beware of Arran’s motives, telling him through Sadler that the governor was only using marriage negotiations as a delaying tactic to preclude renewed war and to consolidate his own position. Arran would ultimately never consent to the union. Although Sadler listened intently, he told Henry that he did not believe everything Mary of Guise said, including her protestations that Cardinal David Beaton supported the marriage. Beaton’s longstanding hostility to English influence in Scotland was well-known. Mary of Guise then claimed that Arran had said that

'The chylde was not lyke to lyve[.]  but yow shall see … whither he saye trew or not[.]  And therwith she caused me to go with her in to the chamber where the chylde was, and shewed her vnto me and also caused the Nurice [nurse] to vnwrapp her oute of her clowtes that I myght see her naked[.]  I assure your Maieste it is as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age and as lyke to lyve with the grace of god.'

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

This kind of display was common practice, in case of future marriage negotiations, to show that the infant was without deformity. (In April 1534, Princess Elizabeth had also been presented, both richly dressed and naked, to the French ambassadors Louis de Perreau, sieur de Castillon, and Gilles de la Pommeraye.) Sadler duly took his leave of Mary of Guise in order to report back to his master.

Events would prove that, in supporting marriage between Edward and her daughter, Mary of Guise had been playing for time. In March 1543, Beaton and she engineered the return from exile of Arran’s greatest rival, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who also had a strong claim to be recognized as heir presumptive. Together, in late July, they forced Arran to concede custody of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her mother. On 27 July, Lennox escorted both queens to the safety of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds and part of Mary of Guise’s jointure. Mary of Guise retained firm control of her daughter from then onwards, determined to prevent her falling into anyone else’s hands.

Our major exhibition, 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.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2022

Portraits of Elizabeth I

The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens offers visitors the opportunity to see five portraits of Elizabeth I. At the start of the exhibition, Elizabeth’s beautiful mother of pearl locket ring is displayed open to reveal enamelled miniature portraits of her and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth is depicted in profile as she looked in the mid-1570s; her mother’s likeness is similar to a portrait medal struck in 1534. 

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, c. 1575: The Chequers Trust

Inside the ring there is a small oval plate of gold ornamented in enamel, with a phoenix rising in flames. A mythological bird reborn from its own ashes, the phoenix became associated closely with Elizabeth after her accession to the throne of England in 1558. It symbolised the virtue of chastity, but also Elizabeth’s reversals of fortune under her father, brother and sister, and her restoration of Protestantism from the ashes of the persecutions of Mary I’s reign. Elizabeth had endured her deepest calamity when not yet 3 years old. In July 1536, she was declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession, following Anne’s execution on charges of adultery and incest. The locket ring suggests that Elizabeth never accepted the guilty verdict and found ways to honour the memory of her mother.

On a number of occasions when she was a child, marriage negotiations were opened on Elizabeth’s behalf, only for them to collapse due to her illegitimacy. But, from autumn 1542, Henry VIII made gestures towards rehabilitating his daughter, describing her as ‘endewed with vertues and qualities agreable with her estate/ whom we esteme and regarde, as natural inclination with respecte of her place and state doth of congruence require’ (Add MS 32650, f. 127r). As a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war with France, in spring 1544 Henry restored both his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, but did not legitimate them. Among the most striking pieces of evidence for Elizabeth’s new-found status is a portrait of her by the court painter Guillim Scrots. Commissioned in about 1546, it is one of the few likenesses of Elizabeth made before she became queen. Dressed in crimson silk and the cloth-of-silver ‘tissued’ with gold that was restricted to the royal family, she is portrayed as self-possessed, pious and scholarly. She marks her place in the book she is holding, possibly a primer. Another book, a Bible perhaps, sits on a lectern in the background. The portrait may, in fact, have been completed during the reign of her brother, Edward VI, which is probably also when the near-contemporary copy on display in the exhibition was made.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

At her brother’s request, in May 1551 Elizabeth sent Edward another portrait of herself, telling him ‘for the face, I graunt, I might wel blusche to offer, but the mynde I shal neuer be asshamed to present’. 

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]: Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 48r

Made by the court painter Levina Teerlinc for marriage negotiations underway between Elizabeth and a French prince, the portrait itself does not appear to have survived. But another likeness of her from this time does, at least in a mid-17th-century copy generously loaned to the exhibition. Elizabeth appears in a family portrait, the original of which probably dated to Edward’s reign because of the prominent position he occupies in the centre of the composition, with Henry VIII to his right, and both his sisters to his left. The figure standing behind Edward and his father has been identified as the court fool Will Somer, who served in the royal household for many years. Somer’s presence here, and in a number of other royal portraits, perhaps represents continuity between reigns or offers ways of interpreting each image allegorically.

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist, 17th century: By kind permission of His Grace, the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, KBE, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even after she became queen in November 1558, Elizabeth’s reluctance to sit for her portrait continued. Most early portraits of her as queen are simple images depicting her in black, some of them poorly executed. In April 1565, during an audience with the English ambassador, Catherine de’ Medici had complained ‘by that that everie bodie telleth me [of Elizabeth’s beauty], and that which I see painted, I must say she hath no good painters’. ‘I will send my self a painter ouer’ to England, she concluded (London, The National Archives, SP 70/77, M. f. 125v). Over the next few years Elizabeth’s portraiture changed, with the production of more realistic likenesses for the purpose of marriage negotiations. These include a full-length and a small portrait bust, both recently attributed to the English painter George Gower, and made directly from life. The portrait bust, currently on loan to the exhibition, may have been commissioned specifically for presentation to Archduke Charles II of Austria, with whom marriage negotiations were underway. In June 1567, Elizabeth sent the chief proponent of the Austrian match, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd earl of Sussex, as her ambassador to the Hapsburg court. He probably carried this portrait bust with him, which he showed to Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s courtiers declared that the portrait ‘lacked but speche’ (London, The National Archives, SP 70/92, M. f. 19r). Capturing her guarded self-possession, it is among the very best likenesses of Elizabeth, then aged about 34.

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c. 1567: Private Collection

As Elizabeth aged, her portraiture became more elaborate and less lifelike, as realistic depictions of her were no longer required for the purpose of marriage negotiations. The queen was still occasionally painted from life, as for instance in the ‘Darnley portrait’ of about 1575 (London, National Portrait Gallery, 2082). But most works were based on patterns. One imposing example, displayed in the exhibition, dates to the late 1580s. Elizabeth is shown in her Parliament robes of ermine-lined crimson velvet, which create an exaggerated silhouette, subsuming her as an individual into an icon of queenship. Demand from her loyal subjects for Elizabeth’s portrait was growing, particularly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, and this painting may have been commissioned for a public space like a guildhall.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, late 1580s: Private Collection

Our major exhibition, 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.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 January 2022

Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

The British Library has loaned five manuscripts to Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist, which is on display in the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery until 27 February 2022. The exhibition traces the travels across Europe of the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), including his journeys to the Alps, Italy, Venice and the Netherlands, through his works and journals. The exhibition follows on from its successful opening at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. For more about the manuscripts included in that venue, see our blogpost on Dürer in the Low Countries

The curators Susan Foister and Peter Van den Brink explore various aspects of Dürer's art and interests, and elaborate on them in the accompanying publication. One aspect of this is Dürer's theories of proportion and perspective, and features one of his drawings of infants to illustrate this point (British Library, Add MS 5228).   

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

A proportion drawing of infants by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer's proportion drawings of infants, before 1513: Add MS 5228, ff. 186v–187r

Other evidence comes from Dürer's own letters and his travel journal. Many of Dürer's letters from his travels survive, including those to his friend, the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530). One of the Library’s letters is included in this section of the exhibition (Harley MS 4935).

Dürer travelled to the Low Countries in 1520–21, where he made many drawings in different techniques, such as silverpoint and leadpoint, chalk and charcoal, ink applied with pen and brush, and watercolour.  He kept a journal of his visit, which survives in two copies' at least one page of his original journal remains, with sketches of pieces of folded cloth with instructions on how to make a woman’s cloak (Add MS 5229).  

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520

A page from Dürer’s original diary of his Netherlandish journey in 1520: Add MS 5229, f.50r

Dürer’s interest in Martin Luther (1483–1546) is also documented in his journals. Dürer owned a number of Lutheran tracts, as well as recording a list of Luther’s works, which dates from around 1520 (Add MS 5231). 

List of works by Martin Luther

List of works by Martin Luther: Add MS 5231, f.115r

On his travels Dürer met several other artists, including Gerard Horenbout (1465–1541) and Horenbout’s daughter Susanna.  Dürer and Horenbout met in Antwerp in May 1521, shortly before Horenbout moved to England to the court of Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547). Two leaves from the Sforza Hours painted by Horenbout around this time are featured in the exhibition: the Virgin and Child and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. 

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours: Add MS 34294, volume 2, f. 133v

The Sforza Hours is a complicated manuscript, first made for the Duchess of Milan, Bona Sforza, who died in 1503. The miniatures made for Bona were painted by the Milanese court painter and miniaturist Giovan Pietro Birago (active 1471–1513). On her death, her nephew Philibert II, Duke of Savoy (1497–1504), and subsequently his widow, Margaret of Austria (d. 1530), inherited the book. Margaret served as regent of the Netherlands on behalf of her nephew, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1556), and at this point Horenbout added 16 full-page illustrations of the life of the Virgin, including the two images featured in the exhibition. 

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout

Image of the Virgin Mary and Child, by Gerard Horenbout, from the Sforza Hours, Add MS 34294, volume 3, f. 177v

We hope you enjoy the opportunity to see these fascinating documentary and artistic manuscripts at the National Gallery, together with the many other loans and paintings on display there.


Kathleen Doyle

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