Medieval manuscripts blog

138 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

05 July 2022

Virtual private view of Gold on the British Library Player

Many thanks to all of our readers who have visited the Gold exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Library; we’ve had some great feedback from you.

A cutting from a Gradual, illuminated in gold

Cutting from a Gradual (Florence, 2nd half of the 14th century): Add MS 35254C

For those who aren’t in London and may not be able to make the trip to the Library to see the exhibition in person, you can now watch two videos about the exhibition: (1) a highlights video outlining the exhibition and featuring curators discussing seven manuscripts in detail as a virtual private view; and (2) a film of a live question and answer session with the curators, chaired by Professor Alixe Bovey, Dean and Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Both videos can be viewed on the British Library Player.

A page from a Book of Hours, showing the scribe or artist at work, sitting before a lectern with a pen in their right hand

Jean Bourdichon, Book of Hours (Tours, 1510–25): Add MS 18855, f. 13v

The virtual private view includes much more detailed information about the featured manuscripts than available on the labels, or in the exhibition book, so do have a look for a focus on the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship in the Queen Mary Psalter, for a detailed description of the techniques of using gold leaf in a cutting from an Italian gradual and of shell gold in a Jean Bourdichon Book of Hours, of gold tooling on a French Art Deco book binding, and for the process of extracting gold as seen in an 18th-century Japanese scroll of gold mining. 

The Tree of Jesse in the Queen Mary Psalter

The Queen Mary Psalter (London, early 14th century): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

Gold in on display at the British Library in London until 2 October 2022. Tickets can be purchased on the day or in advance from the online ticket office.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

30 June 2022

Golden Books

Lecture on Tuesday, 12 July, 7:00 pm in the British Library main entrance hall and online

You won’t want to miss this lecture focusing on the illumination in Western manuscripts, given both in person and online by Professor Lucy Freeman Sandler, the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor Emerita, New York University. Professor Sandler has been researching illuminated manuscripts for over seventy years through her long, productive and distinguished career, and has published widely, particularly on English 14th-century illumination, including her indispensable volume in the Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles

The upper golden binding on the Psalter of Anne Boleyn

The gold binding on the Psalter of 'Anne Boleyn', c. 1540: Stowe MS 956

As many will know, Lucy is a wonderful speaker, and she will be sharing her reflections on the British Library's Gold exhibition, and more broadly on the function and use of illumination in books. Her lecture will be drawn in part from her most recent book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, researched during lockdown, which includes fascinating new insights into some of the Library’s best-known manuscripts. 

Here is a sneak preview of two of the images that Lucy will be discussing in her lecture. If you who have been to the exhibition, you may recognise them:

A Chi-rho monogram in the New Minster charter, written in gold ink

King Edgar’s New Minster Charter, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 4r

St John standing on the right, dictating his Gospel to a scribe seated on the left, on a golden background

John dictating his Gospel, in the Burney Gospels, 2nd half of the 10th century: Burney MS 19, f. 165r

For some manuscripts featured in Gold, Lucy will be discussing a different image from that shown in the exhibition, such as the image of Christ with a golden book, in the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold, open in the exhibition to the image of St Æthelthryth, founder and abbess of Ely Abbey. 

Christ with a golden book

Christ with a golden book, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, 2nd half of the 10th century: Add MS 49598, f. 70r

She’ll include a discussion of the use of gold on figures, like that of the Bourdichon Annunciation featured in the exhibition, to golden bindings and the representation of books as golden.

The exhibition continues to receive rave four and five star reviews, most recently from Time Out, adding to those of the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Book your tickets to see the exhibition and to attend the lecture.

You may also wish to order Professor Sandler’s wonderful new book, Penned and Painted: The Art and Meaning of Books in Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, available from the Library's online shop. Lucy will also be signing copies of the book after her lecture.

Gold is on display at St Pancras until Sunday, 2 October.

 

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

28 May 2022

The Tudors in Liverpool

A major new exhibition, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, is now on display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It brings together a significant number of the most famous Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, paintings from the Walker Art Gallery’s own collection and Tudor objects from around the UK. The exhibition presents the story of the five Tudor monarchs — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth — and explores life at the Tudor court, its cultural influences, family ties and political connections, as well as considering the Tudor dynasty’s legacy. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Westminster Tournament Challenge to this show, the only manuscript of its kind known to survive in England.   

The manuscript of the Westminster Tournament Challenge

Westminster Tournament Challenge, decorated with shields, Tudor roses and pomegranates and signed by King Henry VIII, 12 February 1511: Harley Ch 83 H 1

On 1 January 1511, Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, gave birth to a son. London was filled with celebrations: guns were fired from the Tower of London and the city bells were rung. Beacons were lit across the country to announce the royal birth. Henry VIII himself proclaimed that a two-day Burgundian-style tournament be held in Katherine’s honour at Westminster.

The Westminster Tournament Challenge was issued on 12 February 1511 and explains the tournament’s over-arching allegorical theme.  The text begins by introducing four knights or ‘challengers’ sent by Queen ‘Noble Renown’ of the kingdom of ‘Noble Heart’ to joust in England against all ‘comers’ or respondents in honour of the ‘birth of a young prince’. Henry VIII played the star role of ‘Ceure Loyall’ — Sir Loyal Heart — and wore a costume covered in the gold letters ‘K’ and ‘H’. Leading courtiers Sir Thomas Knyvet, Sir William Courtenay and Sir Edward Neville rode as ‘Vailliaunt Desyre’, ‘Bone Voloyr’ and ‘Joyous Panser’ respectively. 

The four knights entered the tiltyard on a magnificent pageant chariot decorated as a forest with a golden castle in the centre and pulled by a golden lion and a silver antelope. Their shields, which were presented to Katherine on the first day of the tournament, are shown in the left-hand margin of the Tournament Challenge, each bearing the initials of the knights’ allegorical sobriquets and surrounded by roses and pomegranates to represent Henry and Katherine. The tournament rules are set out in the middle section of the document. These would have been read aloud by heralds, before being signed by the four challengers and all the respondents, who, in reality, were leading courtiers and Henry’s tiltyard companions. Henry VIII’s large signature can be seen in the centre of the lower portion of the Tournament Challenge alongside other members of his court, including Charles Brandon, Thomas Howard and Thomas Boleyn.

A section of the Westminster Tournament Roll

Section of the Westminster Tournament Roll showing Henry VIII running a course as Sir Ceure Loyall, as Katherine of Aragon watches from the pavilion, 1511: the College of Arms, London

According to contemporary accounts, the tournament was the most lavish of Henry’s reign and a great spectacle of Tudor pageantry. The whole occasion was commemorated in the illustrated Westminster Tournament Roll preserved at the College of Arms, London. This impressive document is also displayed in the exhibition, presenting visitors with a rare opportunity to view the Tournament Challenge and Roll side by side.

Tragically, Prince Henry died just days after the tournament was held, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Katherine was stricken with grief, but Henry seemed less concerned. Both he and his wife were still young and the possibility of another heir did not seem remote. The king threw himself into preparing for war against France. He could not have known at this stage that Katherine would never provide him with a male heir.

The introductory panel at the entrance of The Tudors exhibition

The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics runs at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool from 21 May to 29 August 2022.

 

Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

01 March 2022

GOLD tickets go on sale

Tickets are now on sale for our upcoming exhibition, Gold. Bringing together fifty spectacular items from around the world, this exhibition explores the use of gold in books and documents across cultures.

For thousands of years, people have found all kinds of ways to incorporate gold into books and documents: gold writing, inscriptions on gold surfaces, gold-illuminated pictures, gold book covers. So intrinsic was gold to the craft of luxury book production that manuscript decoration is known as ‘illumination’ from the use of gold to light up the pages. 

An illuminated manuscript page with figures against a gold background
Gold illumination in the Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

Gold has long been considered deeply meaningful. Its extraordinary appearance means that many religions around the world have found gold a fitting way to express the divine. As a rare luxury material, gold was adopted by rulers to convey political messages about their power and wealth.

Gold plates inscribed with Buddhist texts written in Pali language
Maunggan gold plates inscribed with Buddhist texts written in Pali language, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The exhibition will explore the different techniques employed by craftspeople to incorporate gold into books, including gold leaf (applying thin gold foil), shell gold (painting with powdered gold, which was traditionally kept in seashells), and gold-tooled leather bindings. 

An illuminated manuscript page with figures against a gold background
Gold illumination in the Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c.1320: Add MS 27210, f. 5r

It will showcase books and documents from twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. Exhibits range from 5th/6th-century inscribed gold plates from Myanmar to a 1920s art deco gold-tooled binding from France. There will be plenty of splendid medieval manuscripts on display, including the Harley Golden Gospels made in Germany around 800, which is written entirely in gold ink, and the Golden Haggadah made in Spain around 1320, renowned for its gold-illuminated scenes from Genesis and Exodus. 

The Latin text of the gospels written in gold ink
Gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Gold will be open at the British Library from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 Oct 2022. You can pre-book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval 

Supported by: 

BullionVault name logo - 199w

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous. 

20 February 2022

Mapping Scotland

The earliest surviving detailed map of Scotland is now on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews, as part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme. The map was compiled by John Hardyng, who was born in 1377 or 1378, probably in Northumberland, and lived most of his life during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He joined the household of Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) when he was 12 years old, and fought for the Percys in Anglo-Scottish border battles. He also served in France during the reign of Henry V, who sent him on a spying mission to Scotland in 1418. Hardyng is best known for his verse Chronicle of the history of Britain, in which he set out his fervent belief in the right of English kings to rule over Scotland. He was so determined to prove his case that he forged a series of documents purporting to provide corroborating historical evidence.

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r

In 1457, Hardyng presented the first version of his Chronicle to King Henry VI of England, as part of his failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland. The Chronicle is accompanied by this colourful map, spread across two pages, which depicts a very rectangular Scotland with west at the top. Hardyng doubtless drew on his earlier years of reconnaissance in Scotland in compiling his map. It includes much more topographical information and many more towns right across Scotland than in earlier surviving maps. The castles and walls of the towns are remarkably varied, while at Glasgow and Dunfermline the churches are drawn instead. The rivers are very clearly marked, with the River Forth, bridged at Stirling, running from top to bottom, and almost cutting the kingdom in two.

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v

The level of detail, which Hardyng hoped would help an invading army, is strikingly different from earlier maps of Scotland. There is very little detail relating to Scotland in the small map of the world that was copied in 11th-century England and preserved in the collection of Sir Robert Cotton. East is at the top in this map, and the prominent islands to the north (on the left) are labelled ‘Orkney islands’ in Latin.

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

Matthew Paris (d. 1259) produced several maps of Britain from his monastery at St Albans in Hertfordshire. In this map, included in his Abbreviatio Chronicorum, Scotland is shown in two parts, joined by a bridge at Stirling. Rivers are prominent and many places are labelled, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Dundee, Arbroath and Aberdeen, as well as Galloway, Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney.

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v

In the mid-1560s, just over a century after John Hardyng compiled his map, the antiquary Laurence Nowell was producing new maps of Scotland. Like Hardyng, Nowell put west at the top in this small map, but he included far more detailed information, making this the most accurate map of Scotland at that time. It has recently been on display at the British Library in the exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r

John Hardyng’s map is on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 20 February until 3 July 2022. The museum is open seven days a week and entry is free. You can find out more about Hardyng’s life, his Chronicle and his map in James Simpson and Sarah Peverley’s book.

The Treasures on Tour programme is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust. The British Library is working with other libraries, museums and galleries to share our collections across the UK. Last year we loaned the Gospels of Máel Brigte to the Ulster Museum, as well as the Bodmin Gospels and Pascon Agan Arluth (a Cornish Passion poem) to Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall, as part of this programme, and we will be announcing additional loans as part of ‘Treasures on Tour’ over the coming months.

 

Claire Breay

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

19 February 2022

The making of the tombs

As the British Library’s major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, draws to a close, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the final space in the exhibition, which is a symbolic recreation of the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, where both Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, are buried. A series of hanging paper shapes evoke the chapel’s ornate pendant fan vault ceiling beneath which lie replicas of Elizabeth and Mary's tomb effigies.

Photograph of the replicas of the tomb effigies of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, on display at the British Library

Image showing replicas of Elizabeth I’s Effigy in Westminster Abbey, originally sculpted by Maximilian Colt, 1605–07, and Mary, Queen of Scots’ Effigy, originally sculpted by Cornelius and William Cure, 1607–13, on display in the British Library exhibition

When Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603, Mary’s son, James, was immediately proclaimed king of England, unifying the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland as James VI and I. Although James I showed little enthusiasm for building a tomb to Elizabeth, he was persuaded to do so by his Principal Secretary, Robert Cecil, who oversaw its construction between 1605 and 1607. Elizabeth’s tomb effigy is thought to have been copied from the funeral effigy that was placed on the hearse that carried her to Westminster Abbey. Her face, copied from a death mask, was described as lifelike.

Drawing of Elizabeth I’s funeral procession

Drawing of Elizabeth I’s funeral procession, showing the full-sized funeral effigy of the crowned queen, dressed in her parliamentary robes and holding an orb and sceptre, early 17th century: Add MS 35324, f. 37v

By contrast, James was determined to commemorate his mother Mary, whose final wish to be buried in France had been denied. In 1612, he had her remains removed from Peterborough Cathedral and reinterred at Westminster. Completed four years later, her tomb was more costly, larger and more magnificent than Elizabeth’s, containing details that emphasised Mary’s martyrdom.

We are immensely grateful to Her Majesty the Queen and the Dean of Westminster Abbey for granting permission for replicas of Elizabeth and Mary’s effigies to be made especially for display in the exhibition. They were created by model maker Michael Whiteley, who started the process by visiting Westminster Abbey to take laser measurements and photographs of the originals. The figures were then both sculpted in clay with all the filigree work on the clothing and the cushions being reproduced exactly as it appears on the original tomb effigies. The next stage involved casting the clay sculpts using silicone rubber with a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) jacket to reproduce every fine detail. This material is also used for many Disney projects and has the highest fire rating available. Once complete, the surface layer of resin gel coat was mixed with marble powder to recreate the finish of the originals, while bronze powder was added to the resin gel coating for the cross on Elizabeth’s orb and her sceptre. Finally, the figures were cleaned and suitably aged before being installed in the exhibition.

The model of Elizabeth I’s effigy being sculpted in clay

The model of Elizabeth I’s effigy being sculpted in clay

The model of Elizabeth I’s effigy being sculpted in clay

The model of Elizabeth I’s effigy being sculpted in clay © Michael Whitely

The final space in our exhibition is one of peaceful sanctity, much lighter than the rest of the gallery and filled with 16th-century choral music. A semi-transparent wall allows visitors to see the shadows of the surrounding architecture and hints of the turbulent journey they have just been on. The space invites them to linger and reflect, and it serves as a fitting reminder that, although Elizabeth and Mary never met in person, in death they finally rest in close proximity, two of the most famous figures in British history.

Photograph of the replicas of the tomb effigies at the British Library

Image showing the replicas of Elizabeth I and Mary’s Queen of Scots’ tomb effigies in Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens

 

Andrea Clarke and Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval and @BLprintheritage

16 February 2022

A man on a commission

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens tells the story of the complex and evolving relationship of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Drawing on documents, letters and speeches written in the queens’ own hands, as well as the courtiers closest to them, the exhibition reveals how, from cordial beginnings, their relationship turned to distrust and betrayal.

The cover of the exhibition catalogue

The exhibition catalogue for the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition

In 1561, when the recently widowed Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to Scotland to take up direct rule, the two queens were both young and infinitely curious about each other — anything but mortal enemies. They exchanged expensive gifts and letters full of sisterly affection and expressed an earnest desire to meet and make a perfect amity. Mary hoped that a personal meeting would result in her being recognised as Elizabeth’s heir presumptive, and she frequently reminded her cousin that they were not only fellow sovereign queens but also ‘of one blood, of one country, and in one island’. When their plans to meet in 1562 were aborted, Mary lost her opportunity to persuade Elizabeth in person to settle the succession, turning her thoughts to marriage as a means to strengthen her claim to the English crown. Elizabeth quickly made it known that a marriage to one of her powerful European rivals would be seen as a hostile act and instead proposed her favourite, Robert Dudley, as a suitable husband. But she would still not name Mary as her heir.

Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, by Steven van der Meulen

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

Elizabeth’s suggestion that Mary marry her ‘horse master’ — to use Mary’s own words — caused great offence and coincided with a deterioration in relations between the two queens. In late September 1564, Mary sent her ambassador, Sir James Melville, on a nine-day visit to the English court to smooth things over. His autograph memoirs (held at the British Library as Add MS 37977) record how ‘hir Maieste plesit to confer with me euery day, and somtymes thrys vpon a day’, and provide a vivid account of their conversations.

During Melville’s first audience with Elizabeth, she requested an update on the Dudley marriage proposal, keen to point out that ‘sche estemed him as hir brother and best frend, whom sche suld have married hir self, had she not been determined to end hir lyf in virginite’. Instead, ‘sche wissit that the quen hir sister suld mary him, as metest of all vther, and with whom sche mycht find in hir hart to declaire the quen second personne’. Elizabeth insisted that Melville witness Dudley being ennobled as Earl of Leicester. He wryly observed that, as Dudley kneeled before the queen, ‘sche culd not refrain from putting hir hand in his nek, to kitle [tickle] him smylingly’. On another occasion, in Elizabeth’s private chambers, the Scottish ambassador was ‘accidentally’ shown a miniature of Dudley, labelled ‘My lordes picture’. Elizabeth declined his request to take it for Mary as ‘sche had bot that ane of his’.

Sir James Melville’s autograph memoirs

Sir James Melville’s autograph memoirs

Sir James Melville’s autograph memoirs, c. 1600: Add MS 37977, ff. 33v–34r

Melville’s memoirs provide a fascinating insight into Elizabeth’s preoccupation with her Scottish cousin and the human curiosity and rivalry which lay at the heart of their relationship. Over the course of his visit, Elizabeth bombarded Melville with questions about Mary’s appearance. When quizzed about which of the two queens was fairest, he tactfully replied that both were ‘the fairest ladyes off thar courtes, and that the quen of england whas whytter, bot our quen was very lusome [attractive]’. On hearing that Mary was taller, Elizabeth retorted that Mary ‘was ouer heych, and that hir self was nother ouer hich nor ouer laich’. Further questions about Mary’s accomplishments followed, and Elizabeth was interested to hear that her cousin played the virginals ‘raisonably for a quen’. Later that evening, Elizabeth had a courtier escort Melville to a gallery where she was playing the virginals ‘excellently weill’. When pressed by Elizabeth to declare which queen played the virginals better, Melville ‘gaif hir the prayse’.

Melville’s memoirs are on display in the British Library’s major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens 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

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