25 October 2023
Geoffrey Chaucer (b. c. 1340s, d. 1400): poet, courtier, diplomat, Member of Parliament and royal administrator, and often called the ‘father of English poetry’. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the greatest works of medieval literature. This Middle English poem has transfixed generations of readers, who have delighted in its poetic beauty, its larger-than-life characters, and its combination of poignant tragedy and tongue-in-cheek humour. But Chaucer was a prolific writer who composed many other works, which continue to be read long after his death. Among them are his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde, the dream vision The Legend of Good Women, his translations of the Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy, his instructional manual on the astrolabe, and a whole host of minor poems.
The British Library holds the world’s largest surviving collection of Chaucer manuscripts, and this year we have reached a major milestone. Thanks to generous funding provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library, we have completed the digitisation of all of our pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works, over 60 collection items in total. We have digitised not only complete copies of Chaucer’s poems, but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula.
A 16th-century portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and stylus: Add MS 5141, f. 1r
You can download the full list of pre-1600 manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works here, together with accompanying links to the digitised versions on our Universal Viewer. There you can view the manuscripts in full, study them in detail, and download the images for your own use. Thanks to the IIIF-compatible viewer, you can also view these manuscripts side-by-side in digital form, allowing close comparison between the volumes, their texts, and scribal hands:
Excel: Download Chaucer_digitised_vols_Oct_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all browsers).
Here are some of the works you can find in our digitised collection of Chaucer manuscripts:
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales comprises a collection of stories presented in the form of a storytelling contest by a group of memorable characters on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, among their number the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.
We hold 23 manuscripts of Chaucer’s most famous poem at the British Library, the earliest of which (Lansdowne MS 851) was written only a few years after the author’s death. This particular copy opens with his portrait, showing Chaucer writing with an open book in hand, framed within the initial ‘W’ at the start of the General Prologue.
The opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of the author: Lansdowne MS 851, f. 2r
In addition to the surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the British Library also houses some of the earliest printed versions of Chaucer’s poem. These include rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton (d. c. 1491), the 1491/1492 edition by Richard Pynson (d. c. 1529), and the 1498 edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. c. 1534).
A woodcut of the pilgrims from William Caxton’s 1483 edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: G.11586, f. 20 c4
Almost a century after these editions of The Canterbury Tales were published, the English schoolmaster and editor Thomas Speght (d. 1621) produced his own collection of all of Chaucer’s works (1598), together with a glossary and biography of the author. One surviving copy of Speght’s printed edition (Add MS 42518) notably features handwritten notes by the scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey (d. 1631), infamous for his feud with the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe (b. c. 1601). Harvey’s notes in the manuscript include one of the earliest known references to Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (on f. 422v).
The opening of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from Thomas Speght’s 1598 edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 29r
Gabriel Harvey’s autograph notes, including one of the earliest references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, added to Speght’s collected works of Chaucer: Add MS 42518, f. 422v
Troilus and Criseyde
Alongside The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote another significant Middle English epic called Troilus and Criseyde. Set during the Trojan War, it tells the tragic love story of Troilus, a Trojan prince, and Criseyde, the daughter of the seer Calchas, who is separated from her love when her father defects to the Greek army. Like Chaucer’s other major works, Troilus continued to be read after the poet’s lifetime and would go on to influence other English authors, most notably the poet Thomas Hoccleve (d. 1426) for his Testament of Cresseid and William Shakespeare (d. 1616) for his play Troilus and Cressida.
The opening of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde: Harley MS 1239, f. 1r
The Legend of Good Women
The Legend of Good Women is one of Chaucer’s four poetic dream visions (the others are The House of Fame, The Parlement of Foules and The Book of the Duchess). In the prologue to this poem, the dreaming narrator is scolded by Queen Alceste, the goddess of love, for the depiction of women in his writing and is commanded by her to author a poem about the virtues and good deeds of women instead.
Chaucer then recounts the often-tragic stories of ten female figures, derived from Classical history, legend and mythology. They include the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; the Babylonian lover Thisbe of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the sorceress Medea; Queen Phyllis, abandoned by her lover Demophon; Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos; Ariadne, saviour of the Greek hero Theseus in Minos’ Labyrinth; the Roman noblewoman Lucretia; Philomela, who suffers terribly at the hands of Tereus; Hypermenestra, daughter of Egiste; and Dido, Queen of Carthage. The British Library is home to three manuscripts of the poem, including one copy that is interspersed with printed leaves of the same text (Add MS 9832).
The opening of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, showing printed and handwritten versions of the text side-by-side: Add MS 9832, ff. 3v-4r
In addition to writing his own original compositions, Chaucer was also a translator. His Boece is a Middle English prose translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524). Boethius’ text, itself an example of a dream vision, was hugely popular during the medieval period and had a great influence on Chaucer’s own writing. The British Library holds one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s translation of the work (Add MS 10340), written in the 1st quarter of the 15th century, only a decade or so after Chaucer’s death.
The opening of Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy: Add MS 10340, f. 3v
Anelida and Arcite
Anelida and Arcite is one of Chaucer’s shorter and lesser-known poetic works, telling the story of Anelida, Queen of Armenia, and her courtship by Arcite, a man from the city of Thebes in Greece. One of the British Library’s copies of the poem is found in an anthology of Middle English poetry written by Chaucer and his contemporary John Lydgate (d. c. 1451). The volume is one of the earliest compilations of John Shirley (d. 1439), a prolific scribe and translator who served as a secretary to Richard Beauchamp (d. 1439), 13th Earl of Warwick, and who was responsible for writing many surviving manuscripts of Chaucer and Lydgate’s works.
A copy of Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, in a volume written by the scribe John Shirley: Add MS 16165, f. 243r
Like Shirley’s poetic compilation, other surviving anthologies at the British Library also feature copies of Chaucer’s shorter poems. One such collection (Add MS 34360) was written by a professional London-based scribe, named the ‘Hammond Scribe’ after the Chaucerian scholar Eleanor Hammond (d. 1933), who first identified his hand. Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ is a notable example of one of these minor works, a witty plea for money from his employer, disguised as a love poem:
To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
Complaine I, for ye be my lady dere.
I am so sory now that ye be light,
For certes but if ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere,
For which unto your mercy thus I crye
Beth hevy ageyn or ells mot I dye.
Chaucer’s ‘Complaynt to his Empty Purse’ from an anthology of Middle English poetry: Add MS 34360, f. 19r
Other minor works by Chaucer also now digitised include his ‘Gentilesse’, ‘Lak of Steadfastnesse’, ‘Truth’, ‘The Complaynt unto Pity’ and the ‘Balade of Good Fortune’.
The Treatise on the Astrolabe
While Chaucer is now known principally as a poet, he was also responsible for an important medieval instructional manual, called ‘A Treatise on the Astrolabe’, which like his poetry, was written in Middle English rather than Latin. Astrolabes had been in use for hundreds of years by Chaucer’s lifetime and had a wide variety of functions, but their principal purpose was as astronomical and navigational instruments, helping to determine different latitudes by day and night.
An example of one of the earliest known European astrolabes, made in 1326: British Museum, 1909,0617.1
In one of the British Library’s medieval copies of the text (Egerton MS 2622), preserved in its original binding, Chaucer’s work appears as part of a collection of treatises on arithmetic, geometry, horticulture and astronomy.
A copy of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’ in a collection of scientific treatises with its own original medieval clasped binding: Egerton MS 2622
Chaucer’s treatise continued to be read during the Early Modern period. A notable 16th-century manuscript contains a revised edition of the ‘Astrolabe’, undertaken by an otherwise unknown editor called Walter Stevins. Stevins made his own corrections throughout Chaucer’s text, and prefaced it with his own address to the reader and a dedication to Edward Courtenay (d. 1556), 1st Earl of Devon. His manuscript features numerous detailed drawings that accompany the text, illustrating the workings and uses of the astrolabe itself.
The opening of Walter Stevins’ revised edition of Chaucer’s ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’: Sloane MS 261, f. 1*r
Whether you are experienced scholars of Chaucer’s life and poetry, who know his words off by heart, or only just learning of his collected works for the first time, we hope you enjoy exploring the pages of these digitised manuscripts and engaging with the writing of one of the foundational figures in the history of English literature. We are grateful to The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the American Trust for the British Library for their support of the project.
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09 October 2023
We are always pleased to announce the digitisation of our manuscripts but this blogpost marks a particularly special milestone. Thanks to generous support by Kimberley and David Martin and the Hellenic League, we have been able to digitise one of the largest (and heaviest!) Greek manuscripts in our collections.
One of the largest volumes in the British Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts: Add MS 35123
Add MS 35123 comprises more than 600 leaves, almost 1,300 larger-than-A4 pages, bound tightly between heavy medieval wooden boards that weigh almost 10 kilograms. This giant tome is a late-12th century Biblical manuscript, containing the first eight books of the Old Testament: the five from Moses appended by Joshua, Judges and Ruth.
So if this manuscript only contains part of the Bible, what makes it so enormous? A glance at just one of the volume’s pages will provide the answer: the biblical text in the manuscript is actually enclosed by an extensive commentary, which appears on three margins of every single leaf.
Octateuch with Catena: Add MS 35123, f. 84v
Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, the Greek text of the books of Moses and the other Old Testament scriptures, known as the Septuagint, was not an easy read for an ordinary Greek reader. Some help was needed to understand its grammar, which reflected the original Hebrew text, and, even more importantly, the unique vocabulary used by its translators. New commentaries were also required to highlight the complex relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Unsurprisingly, many of these commentaries were written by the most renowned and learned of the Church Fathers. By the 7th and 8th centuries, the volume of interpretative Biblical material had grown enough to fill entire libraries. Thankfully, an effective and ‘user-friendly’ way of navigating this material had been invented many centuries before by ancient scholars working on the Greek classics, particularly the work of the poet Homer.
Homer’s Iliad with marginal commentaries: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v
Scholars working in the library of Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st century BC established a way for students and readers to navigate the enormous amount of scholarship on Homer’s epics. They extracted the most important elements from these commentaries and placed them in the margins of the texts they interpreted. They also devised an elaborate system of symbols emphasising the connection between the main text written in the centre of each page and the commentary excerpts placed in the surrounding margins. The commentaries became very popular elements of school education, being named scholia (‘school material’) as a result.
Signs written in red ink connecting marginal commentaries to the main text: the Towneley Homer, Burney MS 86, f. 3v (detail)
Christian commentators adopted a similar system. They placed the Biblical text in the centre of each page, written in larger, more prominent characters, adding the commentary around it in smaller letters, so that as much as possible could fit on the page. These Christian commentators also used symbols to connect a particular item in the marginal commentary with the relevant place or line in the Biblical text.
The source of each commentary was more important for Christian compilers than it had been for the ancients. They placed particular emphasis on recording the source of each extract, usually writing them at the beginning of each paragraph in red ink. This commentary, presented as a series of inter-connected extracts accompanying the Biblical text, was later called ’catena’, after the Latin word meaning ‘chain’.
Numbers in red ink in the left margin connecting the commentary to the central text: Add MS 35123, f. 83v (detail)
Over time, many of the original texts used by these compilers were lost — in some cases they were condemned explicitly as heretical and were deliberately destroyed. The extracts found in the margins of these ‘Catena-Bibles’ have become increasingly valuable to modern biblical scholars. In many cases, they are the only witnesses for once-celebrated works, such as the Commentary on Genesis by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), both condemned as heretics in the 6th century, and the Commentary on Exodus by Gennadius of Constantinople (d. 471), which is also now lost.
Excerpts from the lost commentary of Diodorus (upper right-hand corner) and Gennadius of Constantinople (abbreviated in the lower right-hand corner): Add MS 35123, f. 84v (detail)
These are just a few of the many exciting sources preserved in this manuscript. A systematic survey of all Catena manuscripts has yet to be completed so there may be more to discover. We invite you to take a look at the online images. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot a new fragment of a lost text.
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05 May 2023
What was the food like at a medieval coronation banquet? As the coronation of King Charles III approaches, we look back over 500 years to an account of the coronation banquet served before the young Henry VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471) on 5 November 1429 when he was only 7 years old.
The account is featured in an episode of The Food Programme that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, in which Jaega Wise and Head of the Eccles Centre and food historian Dr Polly Russell explore the history of coronation eating from the 1400s to the present day.
The coronation of the child Henry VI as King of England at Westminster, from the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 23v
The details of Henry’s coronation banquet are recorded in a work by John Lydgate (d. c. 1451), a prolific writer of Middle English verse often seen as a successor to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Lydgate was well connected at the royal court throughout his literary career, and in 1429 he was commissioned to write a number of works to mark the coronation of Henry VI, including a text now known as the ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’.
The text is a Middle English poem in three stanzas, designed to accompany each of the banquet’s courses as they arrived into the hall (probably Westminster Hall, the traditional venue for such occasions during this period). One surviving manuscript at the British Library (Egerton MS 1995) incorporates the poem as part of a medieval chronicle of the city of London. Most notably, the chronicle also preserves notes about the dishes served at the banquet itself.
The first and second courses of the coronation banquet feast of Henry VI, recorded in a medieval chronicle of London: Egerton MS 1995, ff. 176v-177r
The banquet was lavish in both its scale and the sheer variety of dishes served across its three courses. The dishes included:
- All kinds of meat and fish, including roasted beef, mutton, pigs, rabbits, chickens, swan, heron stuffed with capons, quails, curlew, larks, partridge, carp, crab, chopped eels, pike.
- Boars heads encased in pastry castles decorated with gold.
- Slices of red jelly carved with white lions.
- A ‘custade rooial’ (a type of pastry) enclosing a golden leopard.
- A fritter shaped like a sun with a fleur-de-lis.
- A fritter shaped like a leopard’s head with ostrich feathers.
- A jelly sculpture containing a red antelope, wearing a crown around its neck with a golden chain.
- A roasted peacock served in its plumage.
- A ‘flampayne’, a pork pie ornamented with leopards and gold fleur-de-lis.
- A cold ‘bakemete’, a meat pie shaped like the royal coat of arms.
The third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI: Egerton MS 1995, f. 177v
At the heart of the banquet were its ‘subtleties’. A subtlety was a special type of medieval dish that served as theatrical tableside entertainment. Subtleties typically took the form of lavish tableau, with scenes and models depicting emblematic subjects, often made entirely out of confectionary, such as marzipan or other foodstuffs.
The account of the coronation banquet of Henry VI records that each course had its own subtlety that was brought in with the dishes. The subtleties and the accompanying verses were highly symbolic, emphasising Henry’s dual role as King of England and of France and the unity between the two countries, and this message was of immense political import. At the time the young king was crowned, the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France, as the two countries made opposing claims to the French throne.
The subtlety for the first course depicted St Edward the Confessor and St Louis of France wearing their coats of arms with Henry VI between them. The accompanying stanza written by Lydgate emphasises Henry’s role as heir to these two saintly kings:
Loo here been ii kyngys right profytabylle and right goode
Holy Synt Edwarde and Synt Lowys
Also the braunche borne of hyr blode
Lyyvynge a monge Crystyn most soverayne of pryse
Enherytoure to the flowredelysse.
God graunte he may thoroughe grace of Cryste Jesu
The VIte Harry to raygne, and be as wyse
And hym resemble in kynghode and verte.
Look here are two kings beneficent and good
Holy St Edward and St Louis
As well as the descendants born of their blood
Living among Christendom most sovereign of princes
Inheritor of the fleur-de-lis.
God grant that he may through the grace of Jesus Christ
The sixth Harry to reign and be as wise
And resemble him in kinghood and virtue.
The subtlety for the second course depicted the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Henry V, King of England, together holding aloft Henry VI, with Lydgate’s second stanza focusing on the military achievements of the two kings against rebellious factions in their respective kingdoms. The final subtlety, meanwhile, depicted the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in her lap holding a crown, with St George and St Denis presenting Henry to her. Lydgate’s closing stanza links the two patron saints of England and France explicitly to the king’s right to rule both countries:
O blessyd lady, Crystys modyr dyre
And Syn Gorge called hyr owne knight;
Hooly Syn Denys, O martyr, moste entere,
To the here vi Harry we present to the in youre syghte.
Schechythe youre grace on hym,
Thys tendyr and whythe vertu hym avaunce,
Borne by dyscent and tytylle of right
Justely to raygne in Ingelonde and yn Fraunce.
O blessed lady, Christ’s dear mother
And St George, called her own knight;
Holy St Denis, O martyr, most perfect
To you here Harry VI we present to you in your sight.
Showing your grace on him,
This tender (youth) and with virtue him advance,
Born by descent title of right
Justly to reign in England and in France.
This was not the only time St George would make an appearance at the feast. The London chronicle records that the King’s Champion, a man called Sir Philip Dymoke, rode into the banqueting hall dressed in full armour as the English patron saint, declaring to the crowd that the king was rightful heir to the throne.
The description of the entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall: Egerton MS 1995, f. 176v
The effect of the entrance of these tableaus and performances must have been striking to the assembled onlookers. Not only would they have contributed to the visual extravagance of the occasion alongside the numerous tables of food on display, they would also have impressed upon the king’s subjects the strength of his claim to the thrones of England and France, even as the ensuing political strife and the ongoing war loomed large on the continent.
Henry VI enthroned in front of the joint arms of France and England, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 405r
To learn more about Henry VI’s coronation feast, tune in to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, or listen on the BBC Sounds website afterwards!
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23 April 2023
This year marks 400 years since the publication of one of the most influential books in the English language: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), better known as the Shakespeare First Folio. Several plays are found in this collected edition for the very first time, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. We might have remained ignorant of Prospero's books and 'Out damned spot' if this volume had never been published.
But some of the characters that are most familiar to us in Shakespeare's plays pre-date his time, and are featured in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library. Here we pick out five of our favourites.
Richard is delivered to the citizens of London: Harley MS 1319, f. 53v
King Richard II ruled England from the death of his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377, until he was deposed in 1399, and replaced on the throne by Henry IV (Part One). He is perhaps best remembered in Shakespeare's version of his life for the speech by John of Gaunt (Richard's uncle), 'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England'. A century after Richard's death, Jean Creton wrote La Prinse et mort du roy Richart at the request of Philip, Duke of Burgundy, one copy of which is Harley MS 1319. This manuscript contains some 16 miniatures illustrating events that culminated in the overthrow of Richard II, including one showing the king being handed over to the citizens of London.
Antony and Cleopatra (comin' at ya)
The double suicide of Antony and Cleopatra: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 339r
Shakespeare's fated lovers are illustrated in a host of medieval manuscripts. Their story is told in Giovanni Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, as translated into French as Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes. We're particularly enamoured of this copy made in Bruges around 1480 for King Edward IV of England. Antony is poised to stab himself with his long pointed sword, while Cleopatra is shown standing next to him, two asps clasped to her naked bosom. Her headdress is very un-Egyptian, owing more to medieval fashion than that of the 1st century BC.
A page from the Chronicle of Melrose, including the entry for 1050, recording that Macbeth had visited Rome: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 13r
We have blogged before about the real Macbeth. He was king of Scotland from 1040, when Duncan was killed in battle, until 1057, when Macbeth was himself killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan in Mar. The Chronicle of Melrose, dating from the 1170s, is one of the earliest narrative sources for Macbeth's reign, and reveals that he visited Rome in 1050, where he is said to have distributed alms. There is no mention in this account of daggers, witches or windswept heaths, no Banquo, Fleance or Macduff, no Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep.
Troilus and Cressida
The lovers, Troilus and Cressida: Add MS 15477, f. 35v
In 2012, at the Globe to Globe festival held in London, Troilus and Cressida was performed in the Māori language, notably including a challenge or haka at the beginning of the play. This reminds us how the story of the Trojan lovers has been re-imagined over the centuries, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, to William Walton's opera, and to the dramatic versions by both William Shakespeare and John Dryden. An early manuscript illustration is this copy of Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae, showing Troilus and Cressida in bed on the left and riding with Diomedes on the right.
The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March: Royal MS 18 E V, f. 355v
Also at Globe to Globe, an Italian company notoriously performed Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by omitting one of the central characters in the play, whose initials are JC (you didn't have to be there). One of the most famous scenes in that play, the assassination of Caesar, was recreated by the actors walking to the front of the stage, declaiming their speech, and marking a cross with chalk on a wooden chair (in place of stabbing their victim). The original scene is perhaps better understood in this illustration in the Histoire tripartite of Baudouin d'Avennes, made perhaps in Bruges in the 1470s. Et tu, Brute?
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12 April 2023
Who was the first king to be crowned at Westminster Abbey? How old is the English coronation ritual? Which king waded through the mud at their own coronation?
With the coronation of King Charles III fast approaching, on 6 May 2023, let's take a look at crowning ceremonies in previous times, described and illustrated in medieval manuscripts held at the British Library.
King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) is shown sitting on the throne and holding a model of Westminster Abbey, as drawn by Matthew Paris, chronicler and monk of St Albans, in the 1250s: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r (detail)
So where is the ceremony taking place this year, indeed for the first time in seventy years, since the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1953? Westminster Abbey has been the location of the coronations of the kings and queens of England, and subsequently of the monarchs of Great Britain, since the 11th century. This abbey had been founded by King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066) at the very end of his reign, before being re-founded by Henry III in the 13th century. Much of the existing structure of the building dates from Henry's time, such as the famous Cosmati Pavement in front of the high altar.
The first English monarch to have been crowned at Westminster may have been the short-reigned Harold II Godwinson, in 1066, although there is no contemporary evidence to confirm this. The first coronation we know for certain to have been held at Westminster is that of Harold's successor, William I (r. 1066–1087), known to posterity as the Conqueror and in his own times as the Bastard. William's crowning took place on Christmas Day, 1066, and it is illustrated in this copy of Jean de Wavrin's Recueil des croniques et anciennes istoires de la Grant Bretaigne, made in Bruges towards the end of the 15th century, and once owned by another king of England, Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483). Unusually, it was Archbishop Ealdred of York who placed the crown on William's head, in place of the absent Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury.
William I is crowned by two bishops at Westminster Abbey (they are not named in the text), in Wavrin's Chronicle: Royal MS 15 E IV/2, f. 236r
There is one footnote to these events. There is a story told by the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis, who was born soon afterwards, in 1075, and is usually regarded as a faithful chronicler. According to Orderic, when William received the acclamation of his noblemen and prelates, at the moment when the crown was placed upon his head, the soldiers standing guard outside the church feared that the king was being attacked. They immediately set fire to the buildings outside, and in the ensuing panic the clergy struggled to complete the consecration rites. This was an inauspicious start to the Bastard's reign.
William the Conqueror on his throne, as depicted in the 'Long Chronicle' of Battle Abbey, made in the 12th century: Cotton MS Domitian A II, f. 22r
What else connects modern coronations and those of earlier times? A manuscript known as the Anderson Pontifical, that was found in the stables at Brodie Castle in Scotland in 1970, contains the text of an Anglo-Saxon coronation order. This text prescribes that the king was to make a three-fold promise; he would then be consecrated and the antiphon 'Zadok the priest' was to be sung; he would then be given a ring and a sword; next he would be crowned, before receiving a sceptre and rod; and the ceremony would conclude with further prayers, before the consecration of the queen was to take place. The pontifical itself would have been used by a bishop or archbishop for conducting services, including the coronation.
This form of order was perhaps first used for the coronation of King Edward the Elder of Wessex (r. 899–924) in 900, and it continued in use into the 11th century. But we also know that it was preceded by an older form of service, dating from the middle of the 9th century, and that another coronation ritual took place even before then: the first recorded coronation of an English king was that of Ecgfrith, son of King Offa of Mercia, in 787. Elements of the Anglo-Saxon form of service were retained as recently as 1953, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952–2022). We imagine that this may repeated to some degree this year, preserving a tradition that is more than 1,200 years old.
The so-called 'second' coronation order is found in this Anglo-Saxon pontifical, probably written at Christ Church, Canterbury, in the late 10th century or the early 11th century: Add MS 57337, f. 61r
What form did the early coronation promise take? A manuscript that was possibly created for Bishop Leofric and his cathedral at Exeter, sometime in the second half of the 11th century, holds a clue. Along with sermons and prayers is an Old English copy of the promise made by early kings of England at the beginning of their coronation services. The text is attributed to Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (d. 988), but it may have originated earlier, as well as being altered by later writers. According to this manuscript, the king was to promise three things, acknowledging that it was his sacred responsibility to maintain peace, good order and the rule of law among his Christian people:
- The Church of God and all the people would hold true peace under his rule.
- He would forbid acts of robbery and iniquity.
- He would uphold justice and mercy in all judgements.
The Old English coronation oath is found in this 11th-century manuscript: Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII, f. 36r
We end with a coronation that took place just over 400 years ago, on 2 February 1626. The king in question was Charles I (r. 1625–1649) and things didn't go entirely to plan. One of his courtiers, Sir Robert Cotton, owned a house at Westminster adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, and through whose garden Charles would have to proceed when he disembarked from the royal barge on his way to the Abbey. But Cotton also possessed an incredible collection of early manuscripts (among them Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels), one of which was an early gospel-book that he believed had been used in the coronation ceremonies of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. The manuscript in question had in fact been presented to King Athelstan (r. 924–939) by either Otto I, king of Germany, or his father, Henry the Fowler, most likely on the occasion of Otto's marriage to Eadgyth, Athelstan's half-sister. Athelstan presented the manuscript in turn in the 930s to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury.
Robert Cotton signed his name at the bottom of the opening page of the Coronation Gospels (the manuscript was damaged by fire in 1731 and the parchment leaves were later placed in paper mounts): Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 3r
Whether the manuscript in question, which goes by the name of the 'Coronation Gospels', was actually used in the early English coronation ceremonies is a moot point. What matters is that Robert Cotton believed it did, and that he wished that Charles I would continue that tradition in 1626 by swearing his oath upon it. But Charles had other plans. He disliked Cotton (in time he even had his library closed on suspicion of containing seditious materials). When Charles saw Cotton standing on the steps by the River Thames, holding the Coronation Gospels in his hands, the king is said to have commanded that his barge be rowed further upstream. He thereby avoided Cotton with the precious manuscript, but he also ended up having to make his way through the river-mud in order to reach firmer ground. Such a snub seems typical of Charles I, who, as fate would have it, came to a sticky end in January 1649.
One thing to keep an eye (and ear on) this year. In 1521, Pope Leo X conferred the title 'Fidei Defensor' (Defender of the Faith) on King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), in recognition of the king's pamphlet Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (Declaration of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther). The original papal bull is preserved in a fire-damaged manuscript held by the British Library. Charles III has previously gone on record as saying that he would like to be known as Defender of all Faiths. It remains to be seen if this modification is incorporated in the new coronation ritual.
The bull conferring the title Defender of the Faith upon Henry VIII (who shortly afterwards broke from Rome): Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1
We hope you have enjoyed reading this blogpost and that the coronation of the new king, Charles III, proceeds without a hitch.
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07 April 2023
This Good Friday, we have gathered a selection of illustrations of the Crucifixion from some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in our collections, dating from as early as the 11th century up to the end of the Middle Ages.
The Sherborne Missal
The Sherborne Missal is one of the masterpieces of English book production in the 15th century, a gigantic volume with nearly every page decorated with elaborate borders and historiated initials in colours and gold. The manuscript is a service book containing all the texts required for the celebration of Mass on the different feasts, holidays and saints’ days throughout the year, made for the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Sherborne, between approximately 1399 and 1407. The single full-page illustration in the manuscript is a depiction of the Crucifixion that introduces the Canon of the Mass. Christ is shown on the Cross, flanked by the two thieves, with the Virgin Mary fainting at its foot. Beside her appear the figures of St John and Mary Magdalene, while a crowd of mounted onlookers in contemporary dress gather behind the three crosses. The illustration is accompanied by portraits of the Four Evangelists writing in the corners of the frame, and a series of roundels containing depictions of related episodes from the Old Testament.
Read our previous blogpost on the digitisation of the Sherborne Missal here!
The Sherborne Missal, c. 1399-1407: Add MS 74236, p. 380
The De Brailes Hours
Depictions of the Crucifixion commonly feature within Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular among lay people during the Middle Ages, allowing them to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion throughout the day. Named after its designer and painter William de Brailes (active c. 1230–c. 1260), this small, portable volume (measuring only 150 x 125 mm) is the earliest known surviving English Book of Hours, made in Oxford around 1240. Its Crucifixion scene appears at the beginning of the section called None, referring to the ‘Ninth Hour’ of the day, and is divided into three sections, showing Christ on the Cross between the two thieves, Christ before the Virgin Mary and St John, and Longinus piercing Christ’s side.
Book of Hours (‘The De Brailes Hours’), c. 1240: Add MS 49999, f. 47v
The Holkham Bible Picture Book
The Holkham Bible Picture Book is a unique copy of the Bible that was made in London in the early 14th century. Rather than focusing on the Scriptural text, this manuscript is composed principally of over 230 vivid illustrations depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with accompanying captions of varying length, mostly written in Anglo-Norman French. The Passion sequence is depicted over a series of folios towards the end of the manuscript. On this opening, Christ is nailed to the Cross and his garments divided among the Roman soldiers, while the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is shown writing the sign that will be displayed above Christ’s head. The Crucifixion is shown on the opposing page. Scrolls issue from the mouths of figures within the scene, indicating portions of speech. At the foot of the Cross, a cluster of bones and skulls have been painted, reflecting the name Golgotha (literally ‘Skull’ in Aramaic), the site of the Crucifixion in ancient Jerusalem.
The Holkham Bible Picture Book, c. 1327-1335: Add MS 47682, ff. 31v–32r
The Biblia Pauperum
Another unique type of illuminated picture Bible is this Biblia Pauperum (or Bible of the Poor), made in the Northern Netherlands around the turn of the 15th century. It features a series of images of the life of Christ painted in colours and gold, accompanied by images of episodes from the Old Testament that were thought to prefigure it. Here, for example, the Crucifixion appears in the centre of the page, with a depiction of the Binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, from the Book of Genesis, on the left, and Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on the right, from the Book of Exodus.
Biblia Pauperum, c. 1405: Kings MS 5, f. 17r
The Tiberius Psalter
The Crucifixion often appeared as part of prefatory cycles of images at the beginnings of Psalters (Book of Psalms). The Tiberius Psalter is one of the earliest surviving English examples, made in Winchester in the 3rd quarter of the 11th century. Its sequence of drawings, outlined in blue, red and green, depicts episodes from the lives of David and Christ, with an especial focus on the Passion. In the Tiberius Psalter’s depiction of the Crucifixion, Christ is shown on the Cross, with the Roman soldier Longinus piercing his side with a spear, and another holding to his mouth a sponge soaked in vinegar.
The Tiberius Psalter, 3rd quarter of the 11th century–2nd half of the 12th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 13r
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll
The medieval churches of Southern Italy celebrated the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday from rolls designed to be used once a year for this specific ritual. The Exultet is a lyrical prayer, named after its opening words (‘Exultet iam angelica turba caelorum’), which is chanted during the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle during the Easter vigil. The British Library’s Exultet roll (Add MS 30337) was made at the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino around 1075–1080 and features numerous illustrations, including a depiction of the Crucifixion that appears at the centre of the sixth membrane. Notably, the image is displayed upside-down upon the roll. This is because the deacon given the responsibility of reading the prayer would turn the top of the roll over so that it draped in front of the church’s ambo (a raised platform for liturgical readings) and display the images to the congregation the right way up. You can read our previous blogpost on this incredible item and the special way it was used in the performance of the Exultet.
The Monte Cassino Exultet Roll, c. 1075–1080: Add MS 30337, membrane 6
We wish our readers a peaceful and Happy Easter!
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31 March 2023
The British Library is home to hundreds of beautiful illuminated Books of Hours, prayerbooks that were hugely popular during the medieval and early modern eras, as they allowed lay people to develop and observe their own routines of personal devotion. These Books of Hours also provide us with significant insights into the lives of their patrons and owners, who often inscribed these manuscripts with their own beliefs, thoughts and recollections, details of significant events in their lives, and interactions with their most intimate circles of friends and family.
One such Book of Hours (Add MS 17012) stands out for the additions made for one of its female owners. Originally written and illuminated in Antwerp around the year 1500, it subsequently came to London, where it belonged to a prominent woman at the early Tudor court. The volume’s female owner used it not simply as her own personal prayerbook and set of devotions, but also as an autograph book, in which she collected signatures and expressions of favour from numerous members of the court, and even the Tudor royal family. The manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and is now available online, thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker.
A portrait of Mary Magdalene: Add MS 17012, f. 36v
The female owner of this Book of Hours has been identified as Lady Joan Vaux (b. c. 1463, d. 1538), also known as Mother Guilford. Her identity was determined by Mary Erler in a number of extended studies of the volume and its numerous inscriptions (see Erler, 'Widows in Retirement’, Religion and Literature, 37 (2005), 51–75; Erler, ‘The Book of Hours as album amicorum: Jane Guildford’s Book’, in The Social Life of Illumination: Manuscripts, Images, and Communities in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Joyce Coleman, Mark Cruse, and Kathryn Smith (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), pp. 505–36). Vaux was an English courtier who served as lady-in-waiting to four Queens, as well as Lady Governess to the Princesses Margaret and Mary Tudor, the daughters of Henry VII and later Queens of Scotland and France. She continued to play an important role at court for much of her life — she was even known to the Dutch philosopher and humanist Erasmus — and seems to have been well respected and admired there, receiving a healthy pension and lavish gifts from the King when she retired.
Joan married twice. Her first husband was Sir Richard Guilford (b. c. 1450, d. 1506), an explorer and naval commander who died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land; her second was the English diplomat Sir Anthony Poyntz (b. c. 1480, d. 1533/35). Among the added inscriptions throughout Joan’s Book of Hours are messages and inscriptions by members of the Poyntz family. Her brother-in-laws John Poyntz (b. c. 1485, d. 1544) and Francis Poyntz (d. 1528) inscribed their Latin mottos and monograms at one of the volume’s blank openings, and Francis also added his own message, which reads, ‘Madame when ye most devoutyst be have yn remembreance f and p’. Their inscriptions appear beside that of another member of the Tudor court, Thomas Manners (b. c. 1497, d. 1543), Lord Roos and 1st Earl of Rutland, who says to her, ‘Madam wan you ar dysposyd to pray remember your assured sarvant always, T Roos’.
An opening from a Book of Hours, showing inscriptions from John and Francis Poyntz, and Thomas Manners: Add MS 17012, ff. 179v–180r
A heart-shaped monogram and added inscription: Add MS 17012, f. 180r
In addition to these personal inscriptions from her family and fellow courtiers, Joan also received expressions of favour from no less than six members of the Tudor royal family. These appear most prominently on a single opening at the very beginning of the Book of the Hours, before its main collection of prayers.
Inscriptions from members of the Tudor royal family added to the Book of Hours: Add MS 17012, ff. 20v–21r
Here, the left-hand page of the opening is given over to inscriptions by King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who signs his name at the end of one set of prayers, followed by his first wife Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536), who writes her own message, calling the book’s owner a friend and asking for her prayers.
The signed name of Henry VIII: Add MS 17012, f. 20v
Catherine of Aragon
The added inscription of Catherine of Aragon: Add MS 17012, f. 20v
I thinke the prayers of a frend the
most acceptable unto God and
because I take you for one of myn
assured I pray you remembre me
Katherine the queen
On the facing page, we find added messages from King Henry VII (r. 1485–1509), his Queen consort Elizabeth of York (b. 1466, d. 1503), and their daughter Princess Margaret (b. 1489, d. 1541). The King and Queen wrote in English and the Princess in French.
The added inscription of Henry VII: Add MS 17012, f. 21r
Madame I pray you re
membre me your louyng
Elizabeth of York
The added inscription of Elizabeth of York: Add MS 17012, f. 21r
Madame I pray you forget
not me to pray to god
I may haue part of
Elysabeth the quene
The added inscription of Princess Margaret, shot under ultraviolet light: Add MS 17012, f. 21r
et moy je vous prie que maintietenes
tourjours en sa bonne grace
and myself, I pray that you remain
always in his good grace
this is Margaret
Remarkably, these inscriptions are not the only additions to this Book of Hours made by members of the Tudor royal family. At the end of the volume, another text has been added, an English translation of a Latin prayer (‘Concede mihi, misericors Deus’) attributed to the Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas. The prayer’s introduction indicates that this translation was made by Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I (r. 1553–1558), in 1527, when she was only 11 years old:
The prayor of Saynt Thomas of Aquyne, translatyd oute of Latyn unto Englyshe by the moste exselent Prynses Mary, doughter to the moste hygh and myghty Prynce and Prynces kyng Henry the viij. and Quene Kateryne hys wyfe in the yere of our Lorde God m'.ccccc.xxvij . and the xj yere of here age
The beginning of an added English translation of a Latin prayer by Thomas Aquinas, made by Princess Mary: Add MS 17012, f. 192v
In the margin beneath this text, Mary added her own message and dedication to the book’s owner, mirroring the sentiments of other members of her family in asking Joan to remember her in her prayers:
I have red that no body lyvethe as
he shulde doo but he that foloweth
verrtu and y reckenynge you to be one of
them I pray you to remembre me
yn your devocyons.
Mary the princesse
The multiple expressions of royal favour throughout the Book of Hours speak to the prominence and reputation of its owner, and they also provide a fascinating insight into the changing dynamics of the Tudor court itself. This is particularly apparent in the treatment of the inscriptions made by Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary. In all these cases, vigorous attempts at erasure have been made. Catherine’s title as ‘quene’ and ‘wife’ to Henry VIII, and Mary’s title as ‘princess’, have been scrubbed away and subsequently overwritten to prevent them from being read.
Erasures made to inscriptions and texts by Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary: Add MS 17012, ff. 20v, 192v
Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon famously did not last, with the King annulling it in 1533, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He subsequently banished Catherine from the royal court, stripping her of her title as Queen. Until the end of her life, she was known as the ‘Dowager Princess of Wales’, in light of her marriage to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur (d. 1502). Mary, meanwhile, was deemed illegitimate and styled ‘The Lady Mary’, the title Princess similarly taken away from her. Joan Vaux herself was notably called for a deposition during the divorce proceedings, where she was asked to testify whether or not Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. It is unclear whether Joan was forced to undertake the removal of Catherine’s and Mary’s titles in her own Book of Hours, or whether this was the work of a later owner of the book.
A portrait of St Anne, with the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ: Add MS 17012, f. 34v
Joan’s book represents a tantalising witness to the life of a significant figure at the Tudor court, the affections of her family and friends, and to a fraught and changing political climate that dominated England in the early 1500s. We hope you enjoy exploring its pages online.
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25 March 2023
Rejoice! Over the past year, we've been hard at work digitising and cataloguing manuscripts connected with Medieval and Renaissance Women. We can now announce that all the manuscript volumes are online, no fewer than 93 (NINETY-THREE) of them. Many of these items were nominated by the readers of this Blog. We know that these manuscripts will support research into a wide variety of subjects that are close to our heart — women authors, female patronage and book ownership, women's health, education and business dealings, female spirituality, to name a few.
St Birgitta of Sweden, sitting and writing in a book, from a copy of her Revelations (Cotton MS Claudius B I, f. 117r)
You can download the full list here, with links to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. There, you'll be able to peruse these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room, office or jacuzzi (perhaps don't try this at home).
Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_vols_mar_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)
An indenture between Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and John Islip, Abbot of Westminster Abbey (Lansdowne MS 441, f. 3r)
We've also been digitising a significant number of our charters and rolls relating to Medieval and Renaissance Women (218 charters at the last count and 25 rolls). We will make a separate announcement when all of these are online — many of them already are, if you have been following this Blog carefully (most recently Claim of thrones and Mary had a little lamb).
The opening of a chapter on skin care from Le Regime du Corps (Sloane MS 2401, f. 47r)
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women, and essentially for making this all possible. We'd also like to thank our colleagues — the project co-ordinators, cataloguers, conservators, imaging technicians, digital specialists and fundraisers — who have been beavering away behind the scenes to bring this project to fruition.
The proceedings of the trial of Joan of Arc (Egerton MS 984, f. 3r)
From the works of Christine de Pisan, the first European woman to make her living from writing books, to treatises dealing with pregnancy, from cartularies and obituary calendars to the writings of Hildegard of Bingen and Birgitta of Sweden, not to mention the trial proceedings of Joan of Arc, we invite you to explore this wonderful and eye-opening collection.
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