Medieval manuscripts blog

143 posts categorized "Early modern"

12 December 2021

Princess Elizabeth and her governess

‘We are More Bound to Them that Bring us up Well Than to Our Parents’

On 7 March 1549, the 15-year-old Princess Elizabeth wrote to the most powerful man in England, the lord protector, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. She petitioned him to release her governess, Katherine Ashley, from the Tower of London. Ashley had been imprisoned there for conducting secret marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and Thomas, Lord Seymour.

A portrait of Princess Elizabeth, wearing a red dress and a pearl necklace

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

Two days before Elizabeth wrote her letter, Thomas Seymour was found guilty of treason for plotting against the government. For Elizabeth the stakes were high: despite being Somerset’s youngest brother, Seymour was condemned to death. Although she did not ‘fauor her iuel [evil] doinge’, in a display of rhetorical skill that was a product of her advanced education, Elizabeth made a strong case for Ashley in her letter to Somerset (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r). Ashley had long served her, she said, taking ‘great labor, and paine in brinkinge of me vp in lerninge and honestie’. It seems that Ashley had taught Elizabeth needlework, deportment, manners, music, and perhaps the rudiments of Latin. In her letter Elizabeth emphasised her debt to Ashley by alluding to St Gregory of Nazianzus’s ad 379 funeral oration on St Basil the Great, that we are more bound to those who bring us up well than to our parents. She then explained to Somerset how Ashley would never have encouraged Seymour’s marriage suit if Ashley had not believed that Seymour had the privy council’s consent. Lastly, if Ashley was not released, ‘it shal and doth make men thinke’ she had sacrificed her own freedom to protect Elizabeth’s. ‘Thus hope preuailinge more with me than feare hathe wone the battel, and I haue at this time gone furth with it.’

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, 7 March 1549: Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r

Seymour’s interest in Elizabeth stemmed from her status. Following the destruction of her mother Anne Boleyn in May 1536, Elizabeth had been declared a bastard and excluded from the succession. However, in 1544, as a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war against France, her father, King Henry VIII, restored both Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, to the succession, but he did not legitimate them. In his last will, Henry directed that each daughter should receive a dowry of £10,000 when she married, but could be offered less if she did so without the consent of his executors. Both were also provided with an estate valued at £3,000 a year while they remained unwed. After Henry’s death in January 1547, these executors duly became the privy council of his 9-year-old son and successor, Edward VI, headed by lord protector Somerset.

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour

Portrait miniature of Thomas, Lord Seymour, by an unknown artist, c. 1545–47: National Maritime Museum 42085

In spring 1547, Elizabeth went to live with Henry’s widow, Queen Katherine Parr. Katherine’s new husband, Thomas Seymour, quickly became unduly solicitous towards her young charge. He sometimes visited Elizabeth in her bedchamber before she had risen or was dressed, and would ‘strike hir vp[p]on the bak or on the buttock[e]s famylearly’ (Hatfield House, Cecil Paper 150/85). Elizabeth was smitten with the charming, glamorous and roguish Seymour. She would sometimes blush at the mention of his name. On one occasion Katherine helped him as he cut Elizabeth’s dress ‘yn a c [100] peces’ as they all frolicked in the garden at Hanworth in Middlesex (London, The National Archives, SP 10/6/21, M. f. 55r); on another, she found Elizabeth ‘in his armes’ (Cecil Paper 150/79). After this, Elizabeth was sent away to form her own household, headed by her cofferer, Thomas Parry, and her governess, Katherine Ashley, servants she trusted completely.

Following Thomas Seymour’s arrest in January 1549, Elizabeth and her household came under investigation. Parry and Ashley were dismissed from her service and imprisoned in the Tower, where they were regularly interrogated. Even Elizabeth and her brother Edward were questioned, as the government tried to get to the bottom of Seymour’s treason. Elizabeth wrote to Somerset five times between 28 January and 7 March, petitioning him to issue a proclamation against ‘the slaunderouse rumor, sprong vp’ that she was pregnant with Seymour’s child, requesting an audience with the king, and for her servants to be reinstated (Private Collection, f. 9r). At first she was rebuffed. One of her letters elicited an acid rebuke from Somerset, penned by his secretary, William Cecil. Her plight increased. On 20 March Seymour was beheaded on Tower Hill at the second stroke of the axe. He ‘dyed very daungerously, yrkesomlye, horryblye’, his confessor recorded (Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]), sig. M2r). Afterwards it was discovered that he had tried to secretly communicate with Elizabeth from the Tower.


Hugh Latimer, The seconde Sermon … preached before the Kynges maiestie ([London, 1549]): RB.23.a.7820.(2.), sig. M2r

But Elizabeth’s persistence paid off. The government issued a proclamation scotching the pregnancy rumours and Ashley was eventually released and reinstated. Elizabeth and Ashley remained particularly close, their relationship founded on Ashley’s unswerving loyalty and on their deep emotional bond. When she became queen, Elizabeth appointed Ashley chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and granted her a unique level of trust and favour. Ashley’s death in July 1565 robbed Elizabeth of one of her closest companions, one who had played a formative role in her childhood and youth: ‘our brinkers up ar a cause to make us liue [live] wel in [the world]’, Elizabeth once said of her (Lansdowne MS 1236, f. 35r).

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

06 December 2021

Proclaiming Mary’s conviction in London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Tim Wales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 November 2021

'Strangers' in Tudor England and Stewart Scotland

In Tudor England and Stewart Scotland foreigners were termed ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’. They settled mainly in southern and eastern England and eastern Scotland, either for short periods or more permanently. While often welcomed for their skills and experience or because they filled a gap in the labour market, immigrants could find themselves subject to both prejudice and discriminatory legislation. In 1521, for example, the mayor of London forced an Italian immigrant to place a lattice over his shop window and hang no sign above, as ‘he is but a Foreiyn’ (London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/01/01/005, f. 182r). 15 years later the printer Jean le Rous, originally from Normandy, found himself targeted during an anti-French riot on Fleet Street, in which the native Londoners shouted ‘down[e,] down[e] w[i]t[h] the frenshe dogg[e]s’ (London, The National Archives, SP 1/112, M. f. 223r). (In the late Elizabethan play, The Book of Thomas More, there is a scene set in the year 1517, and reputed to have been written by William Shakespeare, which describes a mob of Londoners demanding that the 'wretched strangers' in their midst be expelled.) After she returned to her homeland in summer 1561, many of her protestant subjects regarded Mary, Queen of Scots, with suspicion and hostility as both French and catholic.

The manuscript of a letter written by William Cecil to Nicholas Throckmorton in 1561

A letter from Sir William Cecil to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 26 August 1561, describing the arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her French servants in Scotland: Add MS 35830, f. 189r

Yet, England and Scotland could be surprisingly diverse and tolerant places. Contemporary records suggest that 1% of Tudor England’s population was immigrant (a figure not exceeded until 1901). Lack of evidence makes it impossible to determine immigration levels in Stewart Scotland, but foreigners were certainly present. For example, they could be found at court, both as visitors and as permanent household members. Many of Mary’s servants had been with her since her days in France.  Similarly, the English crown welcomed talent from abroad, like the Bassano family of Venetian Jewish musicians and instrument makers. One of the Bassano brothers, Baptista, taught Princess Elizabeth Italian and how to play the lute between 1545 and 1552. In 1537 another Italian immigrant was even licenced to open a tennis court in London. Immigrants also prospered beyond the capital and the court. The Spanish goldsmith Martín Soza, who was probably a converso (a Jewish convert to Christianity) became sheriff of York in 1545.

Most immigrants came from neighbouring countries: in England they were from France, the Netherlands, and Scotland; while in Scotland they were usually English, Irish and Netherlandish in origin. Individuals from further afield like Luke de la Ark, who said he was from Cappadocia in Ottoman Turkey when he became an English denizen in 1541, were very rare. He was probably Orthodox Greek and perhaps originally named Loukios tis Erkilet. French people living in England traditionally held a wide variety of occupations, including as priests, servants, tailors and ironworkers. A significant number were skilled masters like surgeons, clockmakers, and bookbinders. One was a parchment maker, Guillaume du Quesnay. The Netherlanders, though more numerous, usually made more modest livings, for example as coopers and brewers, cobblers, weavers, and the like. Scots worked as farmhands, shepherds, labourers, and servants, mainly in the north-east. Immigrants in Scotland are mostly recorded as servants, but there were some masters like artists, moneyers, and gun founders.

A coloured map of England and Scotland, with the northern coastlines of Flanders and France

Part of a map of Ireland, England and Scotland, c. 1564–65, made by Lawrence Nowell for William Cecil, entitled ‘A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning’: Add MS 62540, f. 4r

During Elizabeth I’s reign many immigrants were protestant refugees who had fled their homeland after the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion or the Dutch Revolt. Most were skilled craftsmen and women working in the cloth industry and the cloth trade.  Natives generally remained tolerant of these newcomers.

A manuscript map showing the extent of the whole world as it was known in 1558

Diego Homem, ‘Map of the Whole World’, from the Mary I Atlas, 1558: Add MS 5415 A, f. 8r

The expansion of English overseas exploration during the 16th century, from its origins in coastal trading at the beginning to Francis Drake’s voyage of circumnavigation in 1580, led to direct encounters with people from distant lands. The first native Americans were brought on return voyages from Newfoundland in 1501 or 1502. But Africans were already settled in the British Isles by the 11th century; and there is growing archaeological evidence of Africans in Roman Britain. During the early 16th century most Africans came to the British Isles from the Maghreb, Northwest Africa, via Spain and Portugal — like John Blanke, trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII between 1507 and 1512. Blanke seemingly arrived from Spain in Katherine of Aragon’s household in 1501. Like Catalina de Motril, one of Katherine’s servants, he too may have been an enslaved person, whose origins were morisco (a Muslim Moor convert to Christianity). Because the condition of their enslavement was not recognized in English common law, Blanke, de Motril, and presumably other moriscos would have become free when they landed in England. The same appears to have been true in Scotland, where Scots law permitted native serfdom but not enslavement. In 1549 a Moor was recommended to Mary of Guise’s service in the war against England, being as ‘scharp ane man as rydis [rides]’ (Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 1543-60, ed. A. I. Cameron (1927), no. 206).

A manuscript showing three men mounted on horseback, each blowing a trumpet from which hangs the royal standard of England, coloured in red, blue and yellow

Detail of John Blanke from the Westminster Tournament Roll, by an unknown artist, 1511, by courtesy of London, College of Arms

Over the course of the 16th century people from South, East and Central Africa, as well as from the Maghreb, could be found in the British Isles. A man called Diego, probably originally from Senegambia in West Africa, joined Drake’s crew in the Caribbean in July 1572, returning with him to England as his servant. Africans dwelt in London, Edinburgh, and other big settlements, but also in towns and villages like Blean in Kent. By the close of the century we know that people of African descent were born, lived, and died in England, among them Helen Holman, who was baptised in St Andrew, Plymouth, on 2 May 1593.

The reigns of Elizabeth I of England and Mary, queen of Scots, and the relationship between these two rulers, are the subject of a major British Library exhibition. Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is on in London until 22 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 November 2021

Investigating the origins of the Cotton collection: call for academic partners

The British Library is pleased to invite academics at UK universities and Higher Education Institutions to collaborate with us on two jointly-supervised doctoral research projects. One research topic is entitled Investigating the origins and development of the Cotton collection; the other is Football fanzines and fan communities in the digital age. You can read more about them on the Library's website.

Both studentships will be fully funded for up to four years through the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships scheme. The research projects draw directly on the Library's collections, expertise and resources, and are closely aligned with our vision statement, key programmes and overall purpose as a national library. Prospective HEI partners are invited in an open competition to submit proposals to further develop and bring their own expertise and perspective to our research themes.

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, dressed in black and with a white collar, with his hand resting on the Cotton Genesis; the inscription is in gold ink, written in Latin

A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson, with his hand resting on the manuscript known as the 'Cotton Genesis': courtesy of The Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon

We would welcome applications from academics of postgraduate status currently employed at UK universities/Higher Education Institutions, who would be interested in joint supervision of a collaborative doctoral project on the Cotton collection, beginning in October 2022. The library put together by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and his descendants was once described as ‘the most important collection of manuscripts ever assembled in Britain by a private individual’. It contains more than 1,400 medieval and early modern manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls and seals, among them items of international heritage significance, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. The Cotton collection was presented to the nation in 1702 and is one of the foundation collections of the British Library. In 2018, it was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register.

A letter in brown ink written in 1630, sending Magna Carta to Sir Robert Cotton

A letter of Sir Edward Dering, sending to Sir Robert Cotton the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

There has been no detailed investigation of how Sir Robert Cotton and his son and grandson assembled their library. This Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project aims to address this gap, investigating for example when and from whom Cotton acquired his manuscripts, what his collecting principles were, whether there were specific networks of patronage or patterns of previous ownership, and how the creation and use of the collection can be situated within a wider historical context. Valuable information can be deduced from inscriptions in the manuscripts themselves, from the early handwritten catalogues of the collection, and from Cotton’s own correspondence, all of which are held at the British Library.

The Library’s curators are experts in book history and manuscript culture, but would be keen to collaborate with academics specialising in late Elizabethan and early Stuart politics and cultural history, and in the book collecting practices of this period. This project will also offer significant opportunities for wider outreach and engagement, ranging from blogposts for more general audiences and content creation on the Library’s website to resources or events for specialist researchers.

A page from the Gawain manuscript, showing Sir Gawain dressed in red, wielding an axe, and the Green Knight sitting on horseback, holding his decapitated head in his hand

The only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is found in the Cotton library: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v

Completed application forms and brief CVs must be submitted to by 5pm on Friday, 10 December 2021. Late applications cannot be accepted.

Before submitting your application, please ensure you have read the Information for HEI Applicants and are aware of the specific characteristics of the AHRC CDP scheme, the selection criteria and the envisaged timetable.

More information on the call for academic partners can be found on the Library's website.


Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 November 2021

'Not lawful nor tolerable'

1567 was an unlucky year for Mary, Queen of Scots. February saw the dramatic end of her second husband Lord Darnley at Kirk o’ Field, when a group of Scottish nobles murdered him and his servant (either by suffocation or strangulation), before blowing up the house where they had been staying and leaving their bodies for discovery in an orchard nearby. In April, Mary was abducted by the chief suspect in Darnley’s murder, Lord Bothwell, who became her third husband in May. After a clash at Carberry Hill between her supporters and the lords clamouring for the punishment of Darnley’s killers, Mary was captured and imprisoned at Lochleven Castle on 17 June. Finally, on 24 July, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, Prince James.

Visitors to the British Library's major new exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, can see the detailed drawing of the Darnley murder scene, made for Sir William Cecil, together with a bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Carberry Hill in 1567. Both are display in the exhibition thanks to a generous loan from The National Archives.

A bird’s-eye view showing the murder scene of Lord Darnley

Bird’s-eye view of the murder scene of Lord Darnley, February 1567: reproduced with the permission of The National Archives, MPF 1/366/1

A bird’s-eye view showing the Battle of Carberry Hill, 1567

Bird’s-eye view of the Battle of Carberry Hill, 1567: reproduced with the permission of The National Archives, MPF 1/366/2

In the midst of this upheaval, Mary’s sister queen, Elizabeth I, took up her pen to offer some ‘plain reprehension of that which we find therein amiss’. Add MS 88966 is the original letter of instructions sent to her ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton on 27 July, and is on public display for the first time in the exhibition. It is a remarkable statement of Elizabeth’s vision of monarchy as well as her views on Scottish politics.

The first page of Elizabeth I's letter to Nicholas Throckmorton

Letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Windsor Castle, 27 July 1567: British Library, Add MS 88966, f. 1r

Elizabeth had already instructed Throckmorton to gain an audience with Mary, to advise a separation from Bothwell, something she regarded as ‘most to the safety of her honour and quietness of her realm’. The Scottish lords, however, had no intention of allowing Throckmorton to see Mary.

Their intransigence and flimsy excuses prompted a stern response from Elizabeth. Throckmorton was now tasked with rebuking the lords for their illegal and irreligious conduct in imprisoning Mary and addressing their claims that she had been a poor ally to them. Should the Scottish Lords depose Mary, she and other Christian monarchs would make themselves ‘a plain party against them … for example to all posterity’. God would undoubtedly support such an action: indeed, St Paul had commanded the Romans to be obedient to secular and religious authorities. Similarly, Christian law condemned rather than empowered subjects to depose their ruler. Any possible examples they might find in support of their actions, as they had published in ‘seditious ballads’, were none other than acts of rebellion.

Although Elizabeth detested Darnley’s murder and the Bothwell marriage just as much as the lords, it was ‘not lawful nor tolerable’ for inferiors to call their superiors to account by force, since it was not ‘consonant in nature that the head should be subject to the foot’. She countered the claims of some of the Lords that she had supported them without enthusiasm or only for self-interested reasons. Had the Earl of Morton forgotten that she had allowed him to take refuge in England during his political exile in the mid-1560s, when she could easily have delivered him to his death? With all this in mind, Throckmorton was forbidden to attend Prince James’s coronation.

A manuscript of Elizabeth I's letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton

A detail of Elizabeth I's letter to Nicholas Throckmorton

Elizabeth I’s letter to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, with a detail showing the words ‘for we do not think it consonant in nature that the head should be subject to the foot’: Add MS 88966, f. 2v

Elizabeth’s powerful rhetoric had little effect. Throckmorton remained unable to see Mary, and two days after Elizabeth’s letter was sent the one-year old James was crowned. The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth was far from harmonious, but this letter shows that Elizabeth always respected Mary’s divinely ordained position, so much so that she was willing to go to war with Scotland to defend it. These sentiments were not shared by her leading councillors, who had begun to see Mary as a dangerous threat. When they brought about her execution in 1587, they tarnished these ideals forever.


Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 

The British Library, London

8 October 2021–20 February 2022


Jessica Crown

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 October 2021

More Harley manuscripts online

Two years ago, we announced that we had started to revise the online descriptions of manuscripts in the British Library's Harley collection. At that point, back in May 2019, relatively few of the Harley manuscripts were included in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (, and so readers had to rely in most part on the entries in the old published catalogue, printed in 1808–12.

A page from an illuminated manuscript, decorated in blue, yellow, red and other colours, depicting the Tree of Jesse, and with a decorated border including flowers, a bird, and a butterfly

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse at the beginning of Psalm 1 (Rouen, around the 1490s, with additions made in England or the southern Netherlands): Harley MS 1892, f. 31v

Today, we can tell you that more than 3,500 Harley manuscripts, charters and rolls can now be found in our online catalogue, the result of many months of patient research and cataloguing, much of it done under the pressures of lockdown. Given that there are more than 7,600 Harley manuscripts, there is still some way to go, but a significant number of those written before the year 1600 (and many written after that date) now have updated records. You can read more about the Harley collection in our online guide.

A text page written in Irish, in Irish script, with larger letters in black marking the beginning of new paragraphs

A page at the beginning of An Senchas Már (Ireland, c. 1578): Harley MS 432, f. 4r

So which manuscripts have been added to our catalogue most recently? A brief list of their contents will give you some flavour of the range of the Harley collection, and the complexities of providing modern, accurate entries for them. For example, Harley MS 432 contains An Senchas Mára 16th-century legal text written in Irish. We know that its scribe was Gilla na Naem Ó Deoráin, according to an inscription in ogham on f. 14r, and he was writing at Aninsi art Labadrais, possibly Inch Saint Lawrence (Co. Limerick). Harley MS 4775 contains the Gilte Legende, a Middle English prose translation of the Legenda Aurea. Its scribe was 'Ricardus Franciscus', who may have copied the text directly from another manuscript, now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 372. Harley MS 4313 is a formulary for legal process in the Court of Arches at London, begun in the 1560s, and is typical of the sorts of administrative manuscripts that most interested Robert Harley, Lord High Treasurer under Queen Anne, and his son, Edward. Harley MS 1892, in turn, is a beautiful illuminated Psalter, made in Rouen in the late-15th century for an English patron, and subsequently heavily refurbished.

A decorated page from an illuminated manuscript, with the text arranged in 2 columns and with gold initial introducing different sections of text

A page from the Gilte Legende (London, middle of the 15th century): Harley MS 4775, f. 237r

The credit for cataloguing the pre-1600s Harleys over the past 18 months should go to Clarck, Calum, Ellie, Peter, Kathleen, Seosamh, Chantry and other members of the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team. Despite the issues brought on by Covid, they were able to produce draft Harley records in many instances, which were then enhanced and completed when they returned to the office. We hope that this in turn will support other people's research and pleasure, and that it leads to us gaining a better understanding of medieval and early modern manuscript culture.

You can search for the Harley manuscripts on our online catalogue, and you can also browse the collection available so far.


Julian Harrison

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08 October 2021

Elizabeth and Mary, Royal Cousins, Rival Queens: Curators’ Picks

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, the first major exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, together, is now open at the British Library. After the delays, challenges and uncertainties of the last 18 months, the curatorial team is delighted to see the exhibition finally come to fruition and to welcome the public to it! To mark this event, Alan, Anna, Karen and Andrea have each selected a personal highlight from the show.

Alan writes, 'One of the most unprepossessing objects on display in the exhibition is a small letter. You might walk past it, having given it barely a glance. However, it is among four letters recently discovered in the British Library, all written by Elizabeth before she became queen. Such letters are comparatively rare. And this one, written from Enfield on 31 December 1547, to ‘M[aste]r Cycell attendinge vpon the Lorde Protector’, is more important than it at first might appear. In her letter Elizabeth petitioned one of the rising stars in government, William Cecil, to ‘commend’ her servant Hugh Goodacre to Edward Seymour, who was the lord protector during the minority reign of Edward VI. Cecil would become Elizabeth’s most trusted minister as queen. This letter is their first known contact, written when she was 14. Significantly, it shows how they were already bound together by their shared Protestant faith. It is also one of the earliest examples of Elizabeth’s famous italic signature.'

A letter written by Princess Elizabeth to Robert Cecil, with her signature in the upper left-hand corner

Letter addressed by Princess Elizabeth to William Cecil, 31 December 1547: Add MS 70518, f. 11r

Anna has selected as her favourite item the 1558 ‘false arms’ of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, the French dauphin François. 'Not only is it visually stunning, with bold colours that will catch the eye of any passing visitor, but it also illustrates the issue of the English succession that underpinned the personal and political rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth for almost three decades. As a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Mary had a strong claim to the English and Irish thrones. Following Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, François and Mary began quartering the arms of England with their own and styling themselves ‘King and Queen Dauphins of Scotland, England and Ireland’. This act of provocation originated the distrust between Elizabeth and Mary that would culminate in Mary’s execution in 1587 for plotting Elizabeth’s death in order to seize the throne.'

A manuscript illustration of the coat of arms of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband, coloured in red, yellow and blue

The arms of Mary, Queen of Scots and the French dauphin, and of Scotland, France and England, sent from France, July 1559: Cotton MS Caligula B X/1, ff. 17v–18r

Karen has chosen the papal bull, known as Regnans in Excelsis, which was issued by Pope Pius V and printed in Latin in February 1570. 'Written in support of the Northern Rebellion, it proved too late to affect its outcome. The decree, calling Elizabeth ‘the pretended Queen of England’, excommunicated her from the Catholic Church and threatened her Catholic subjects with the same fate should they disobey the pope. This created a problem for English Catholics: should they be loyal to the queen or to the pope? The papal bull is one of a number of books and broadsides displayed in the exhibition to show the importance of printing at the time and its ability to spread information far and wide. It is not clear how far the bull circulated in England, but it is possible that Mary, who had been in captivity in England for about two years by this point, saw a copy of it.'

A page from a printed item issued by Pope Pius V in 1570

S.D.N. Pii Papæ V. Sententia declaratoria contra Elisabeth prætensam Angliæ Reginam, Rome?, 1570: C.18.e.2.(114*).

For her curators' pick, Andrea has chosen a letter written by Mary to Elizabeth in May 1568 following her deposition as Queen of Scots, her escape from captivity and subsequent flight across the English border. 'Writing in her native French tongue, Mary describes the treasonable actions of her enemies, who ‘have robbed me of everything I had in the world’ and expresses her confidence in Elizabeth ‘not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’. Describing herself as Elizabeth’s ‘very faithful and affectionate good sister, cousin and escaped prisoner, Mary begs for an audience; ‘I entreat you to send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can’, for ‘I am’, she bemoans, ‘in a pitiable condition, not only for a queen, but for a gentlewoman, for I have nothing in the world but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling sixty miles across the country the first day, and not having since ever ventured to proceed except by night, as I hope to declare before you if it pleases you to have pity, as I trust you will, upon my extreme misfortune.’'

A handwritten letter of Mary, Queen of Scots, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I, 17 May 1568, Workington, Cumberland: Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v

The exhibition explores how Mary’s arrival on English soil plunged Elizabeth and her government into a political predicament that would not end until Mary’s execution in 1587. On display is a magnificent array of letters and papers, books, maps, paintings, sculptures, textiles and jewellery, creating a tangible connection to unfolding events and inviting visitors to step back into a world of religious turmoil, espionage, treason and war.


Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 

The British Library, London

8 October 2021–20 February 2022


Alan Bryson, Andrea Clarke, Karen Limper-Herz and Anna Turnham

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval and @BLprintheritage

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