Medieval manuscripts blog

124 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

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

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 January 2022

Celebrating the New Year Elizabethan style

For many of us, New Year is a time to celebrate with friends and family, enjoy extravagant firework displays, and sing Auld Lang Syne. At the Tudor court, in contrast, the monarch and other courtiers participated in a ritual New Year’s gift-giving ceremony. This process of gift exchange was recorded in a New Year gift-roll.

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584: Egerton MS 3052, f. 3r (detail)

Elizabeth I presided over 45 New Year gift-giving ceremonies and a remarkable 24 gift-rolls survive from her reign, several of which are held at the British Library. Typically, the Elizabethan New Year gift-rolls consist of 4 or 5 parchment membranes sewn end to end and measure 3 to 4 metres in length. On one side they list the names of donors — in order of social rank and official status — with a description of their gifts to Elizabeth. The reverse contains a corresponding list of those who received gifts (usually gilt plate) from the Queen.

Visitors to our exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be able to see the 1567 New Year’s gift-roll, displayed to show the entry for a gold font, weighing 333 ounces, which Elizabeth sent to Mary, Queen of Scots, for the baptism of Prince James in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on 17 December 1566. As this gift was given outside of the New Year gift-giving ceremony, it is listed under ‘Sundry Gifts’ at the end of the roll.

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567: Add MS 9772, f. 10v

The surviving gift-rolls provide a fascinating insight into the variety of gifts presented to Elizabeth over the course of her reign, from elaborate jewellery, gold plate and luxury clothing to finely embroidered cushions, handkerchiefs, gloves, slippers and confectionary. For example, the 1562 New Year’s gift-roll records that Kat Ashley, who was Elizabeth’s governess and Lady of the Bedchamber, gave her 12 handkerchiefs edged in gold and silver. In 1576, Lady Mary Gray, the Queen’s first cousin once removed, gifted a cushion of purple and crimson velvet, embellished with pearls, spangles and 4 tassels. Sir Philip Sidney, the soldier and poet, presented the Queen in 1584 with a pair of black slippers embroidered with Venice gold, pearls, and small garnets.

In 1562, Sir William Cecil, Principal Secretary and Elizabeth’s most trusted and influential councillor, gave her a silver ink well and stand, with a set of matching silver gilt weights and measures, a pen knife and seal. The gift-roll records that the Queen gifted Cecil and his wife Lady Mildred Cecil a gilt cup and cover at the baptism of his son William Cecil, who, like his elder brother and namesake, died young.

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562

Detail from New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562: Harley Roll V 18, f. 10v 

The 1588 gift-roll records that the Queen’s great favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, gave her an elaborate gold carcenet (richly bejewelled necklace) of letters and his emblem of ragged staves, as well as a sun design set with Elizabeth’s picture and garnished with diamonds and a large ruby. This was Leicester’s last New Year’s gift to Elizabeth. 

In the same year, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, gave Elizabeth a gold bodkin, with a gold flower hanging from it covered in diamonds, 2 pendants of diamonds and 1 pearl pendant. Charles, 2nd Lord Howard of Effingham and Lord High Admiral, gave a black velvet sea cap embroidered with ships and anchors in ragged pearl, with an agate, diamonds and a ruby.

The gift-rolls also reveal that the Queen received many gifts of confectionary, designed to appeal to her sweet tooth. The sergeant of the pastry John Bettes gave her a quince pie in 1562 and in 1588 Mr Morgan, the queen’s apothecary, presented his traditional gift of candied sugar and dried plums, while John Dudley, sergeant of the pastry, baked an ‘oringed pie’.

The New Year’s Gift Rolls are a major source for the history of royal culture, gift-exchange, the court and its personnel, as well as Tudor costume and jewellery. We hope you will enjoy looking at them in more detail using the links below:

  • New Year's gift-roll of Mary I, 1 January 1557: Add MS 62525
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562: Harley Roll V 18
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567: Add MS 9772 
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1576: Add MS 4827
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584: Egerton MS 3052
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1588: Add MS 8159 
  • New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1589: Lansdowne Roll 17 

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.


Anna Turnham and Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 December 2021

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

If you have seen the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, and are watching repeats of Bond classics over the Christmas period, then you might also like to visit the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens. There are more connections between the two than one might think.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens charts the relationship of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, from amicable beginnings to suspicion, distrust and betrayal. The crisis years of the 1580s, which saw an embattled, Protestant England threatened with foreign invasion in support of the Catholic Mary, form the exhibition’s penultimate, climactic section. Faced with grave threats to the survival of Protestant England, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, understood that effective use of intelligence networks was critical to ensuring the queen’s safety and they therefore greatly expanded the Elizabethan secret service.  

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham

A portrait of Elizabeth I’s ‘spymaster’, Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, dated 1589: Private collection

As Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Walsingham established an impressive network of agents, cryptographers and counterfeiters. He is widely considered to be the first intelligence chief in British history. The red roses in MI5’s heraldic arms are a nod to Walsingham who used the rose on his personal seal. And in a fascinating twist, this Elizabethan M actually used the codename ‘M’ in his correspondence. 

The MI5 crest

The MI5 crest featuring red roses in honour of Sir Francis Walsingham

In the exhibition, ciphered and deciphered documents and letters describing intelligence-gathering and encryption techniques demonstrate how Walsingham and his agents thwarted several plots, before the most famous Elizabethan surveillance operation of all uncovered the 1586 Babington Plot, which entrapped Mary and brought her to trial and execution in 1587.

A letter from Arthur Gregory to Sir Francis Walsingham

Letter from Arthur Gregory to Sir Francis Walsingham, 1586: Harley MS 286, f. 78r

A photograph of the hidden writing in a letter by Arthur Gregory

Multi-spectral imaging revealing the secret postscript in Arthur Gregory's letter (©Christina Duffy)

In this letter Arthur Gregory, a skilled counterfeiter, informed Walsingham that he had discovered a technique using alum to create secret writing. He wrote, ‘The writing with alum is discovered divers ways … but most apparently by rubbing of coal dust thereon.’ Gregory used the letter’s postscript to demonstrate his secret writing technology. Enclosing a packet of coal dust, he told Walsingham, ‘If your honour rub this powder within the black line the letters will appear white.’ As the black smudge at the foot of the letter demonstrates, Walsingham followed these instructions, using the black coal dust to reveal white letters. Although Gregory’s secret writing is no longer visible with the naked eye, the British Library’s Imaging Scientist, Christina Duffy, has used multispectral imaging to recover it. Translated from Latin, Gregory’s message addressed his ‘excellent master’ Walsingham, and wished ‘health and many successes’ for his ‘brother, cousin and dear friend’.

A cipher used in the Babington Plot, 1586

Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington, Chartley, 1586: The National Archives, SP 12/193/54, f. 123r

The cipher set out on the lower half of this page is the one used by Mary in her treasonous communications with Anthony Babington. It consists of twenty-three symbols which could be substituted for letters of the alphabet (with the exception of ‘j’, ‘v’ and ‘w’) and thirty-five symbols that represented individual words or phrases, such as ‘letter’, ‘bearer’, ‘send’, ‘receive’, ‘from’, ‘by’, ‘majesty’ and ‘pray’. The difficulty of the cipher was increased by the addition of four ‘nulls’ or blanks that had no meaning, and another symbol that signalled that the next symbol represented a double letter. However, for Walsingham’s master cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes, cracking Mary and Babington’s ciphered correspondence presented little trouble as demonstrated by the deciphered letter below, which along with the cipher document is displayed in the exhibition thanks to a generous loan from The National Archives.

A ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Patrick, Master of Gray, October–November 1584: The National Archives, SP 53/14/30

A document security system known as letterlocking was used widely during the period. This video shows the intricate process of locking and sealing a letter, by which means the sender could make it more difficult for anyone to open and read their letter undetected (courtesy of Jana Dambrogio, Daniel Starza Smith, and the Unlocking History Research Group). Both Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I had trusted clerks and secretaries to lock letters on their behalf.

The modern world of Bond, guns and gadgets is exciting, but if you want to step back into a 16th-century world of espionage, plots and treason, then visit Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens exhibition at the British Library, which is open until 20 February 2022.

Anna Turnham and Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 December 2021

A gift fit for a king

This week, many of us will be searching for the perfect gifts to give to friends, family and the person who seems to have everything. As a 12-year-old, Princess Elizabeth came up with the perfect present for her father, King Henry VIII. Visitors to Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens can see the prayer book that she gave to him as a New Year’s gift on 1 January 1546. 

A portrait of Portrait of the young Elizabeth, with a book on her lap

Portrait of the young Elizabeth, by an unknown artist after William Scrots, 16th century: Private collection

Elizabeth had received an excellent humanist education and her present showcased the fruits of her learning. The small volume’s 117 pages contain the young princess’s trilingual translation of her step-mother Katherine Parr’s published Prayer and Meditations from English into Latin, French and Italian, all written out in her beautifully neat italic handwriting.

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, ff. 5v–6r

The prayer book’s dedicatory epistle, dated 30 December 1545 and addressed from Hertford, where Elizabeth and her half-brother Prince Edward Tudor were probably then living, is the princess’s only surviving letter to her father. In it Elizabeth wisely praised Henry, referring to him as ‘a king whom philosophers regard as a god on earth’ and acknowledged his ‘fatherly goodness’ and ‘royal prudence’. But just one year after her restoration to the succession, Elizabeth also took the opportunity to draw attention to her royal descent and status as the king’s daughter. She explained that ‘it was thought by me a most suitable thing that this work … an assemblage by a queen as subject matter for her king, be translated into other languages by me, your daughter, who by this means would be indebted to you not only as an imitator of your virtues but also as an inheritor of them’.

The epistolary preface to Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations

Epistolary preface to Elizabeth’s translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, f. 2r

The elaborate embroidered cover is also thought to be Elizabeth’s own handiwork. It incorporates Henry and Katherine’s entwined monograms sewn in silver and gold threads, with a white rose, the emblem of the princess’s namesake and paternal grandmother, Elizabeth of York, stitched in each corner.  

The binding of the prayerbook, probably embroidered by Princess Elizabeth

Binding probably embroidered by Elizabeth as a cover for her trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations, 1545: Royal MS 7 D X, right cover

In the exhibition the prayer book is displayed open to showcase Elizabeth’s proficiency in foreign languages, but the British Library imaging team has worked with Cyreal, a 3D technical company, to capture the prayer book in 3D in order to enable visitors to view the binding in virtual reality. Using a process called photogrammetry, a large number of photographs of the prayer book were taken from multiple angles.

The prayerbook being photographed at the British Library

Imaging set-up at the British Library

This image shows the prayer book and the position of each of the photographs. The photographs were then analysed by a computer programme using a software that is able to identify key features and then match them across all the images. Using complex mathematics, the software works out where in space the feature is and then marks the point in digital space. It does this many millions of times, building up a picture of the prayer book’s structure. It then joins these points together using lines to create a polygon mesh. 

Computer generated point-cloud

Computer generated point-cloud.

Polygon mesh creating the digital structure

Polygon mesh creating the digital structure.

The software creates a mosaic of the photographs and wraps the mosaic with the digital mesh

The software creates a mosaic of the photographs and wraps the mosaic with the digital mesh.

The final 3D digital model can be viewed from any angle.

We hope that you enjoy watching the 3D animation of the binding.

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.


Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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

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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

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