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Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

12 December 2018

A useless letter?

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Have you ever wondered, if you lived in Anglo-Saxon England, how would you communicate with distant friends and colleagues? Before the days of email and WhatsApp, letters were written onto pieces of parchment, and could take weeks or even months to arrive at their destination.

A very small number of Anglo-Saxon letters survive in their original form. Letters were often practical documents, sent with a purpose or key message in mind. Many clerks saw little reason for preserving the originals unless they had important historical or theological content, or were sent by or addressed to an important person. Somewhat inevitably, Letters written on single sheets of parchment were more prone to wear and damage than manuscripts. Original Anglo-Saxon letters are exceedingly rare, and the majority of letters from this period are preserved in later copies.

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Ep[isto]la inutil[is] (‘A useless letter'): Cotton MS Augustus II 18

In 12th-century Canterbury, a clerk sorting through a collection of Anglo-Saxon charters and letters wrote the words epistola inutilis ('useless letter') on the back of an Anglo-Saxon letter sent in the year 704 or 705. We would certainly not refer to this letter as ‘useless’ today, as it is now well-known as the earliest surviving letter written on parchment from the Latin West. The letter was written by Bishop Wealdhere of London and addressed to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Wealdhere wrote to ask Berhtwald’s permission to attend a meeting of bishops that aimed to resolve recent disputes between the kingdom of the East Saxons and the neighbouring kingdom of the West Saxons.

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Wealdhere’s letter to Archbishop Berhtwald: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

The letter is in Insular minuscule script, which was quick to write and so perfect for letter writing. On the back, it is possible to see impressions left from when the letter was folded for delivery. Once folded, the scribe wrote the address inscription. Although faded, this inscription becomes a lot clearer with the assistance of multi-spectral imaging.

A possible transcription of the inscription is as follows:

A UALDH[ARIO] d[omino]    ad berhtualdo.

FROM WEALDHERE            to Berhtwald

Address

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The address inscription on Weadhere’s letter before and after multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Augustus II 18

Another original Anglo-Saxon letter that was dubbed ‘useless’ in 12th-century Canterbury is the Fonthill Letter, now well-known for being the earliest surviving letter in the English language. In it ltter, Ordlaf, an ealdorman of Wiltshire, wrote to King Edward the Elder (899–924) to explain how he had acquired some disputed land in Fonthill, Wiltshire. This letter is also written in a minuscule script and retains impressions from where it was folded for delivery.

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The Fonthill Letter: Canterbury, Dean and Chapter, Chart. Ant. C. 1282

Many letters written by Alcuin of York (d. 804) survive in letter collections. Letter writing was a skill, influenced by convention and classical rhetoric, and students often consulted letter collections to learn their craft. One particular collection of Alcuin’s letters bears marginal notes made when the manuscript was used in the schoolroom.

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Harley pater noster

Annotations in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, ff. 87v–88r

The manuscript was copied in 9th-century Francia, but was in an Anglo-Saxon England by around the year 1000. In the upper margin of one page, a student copied the alphabet (but inverted the letter 'b'), followed by 4 Old English letters and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. In the bottom margin, the scribe wrote a line of Old English, Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (‘Listen, I [have heard] many ancient tales’) which is reminiscent of a line from the epic poem Beowulf. Maybe the scribe felt that the collection of letters found in this manuscript were indeed ‘ancient tales’?

Listen I have heard many ancient tales

Old English annotation in the margin of a letter collection of Alcuin’s letters: Harley MS 208, f. 88r

Alcuin spent the early years of his life at York, before moving to the Frankish court in the early 780s. He regularly wrote letters to Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and members of his court, discussing practical matters or engaging in theological discussion. Although Alcuin remained in Francia until his death in 804, he maintained regular contact with friends back in Anglo-Saxon England. When long distance travel was time-consuming and often dangerous, writing or receiving a letter must have been a special, emotive experience.

In his letters, Alcuin often acknowledged the joy of receiving a letter from a distant friend. In a letter to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne, he wrote:

“Let my speedy letter show in writing what my tongue cannot say in your ears, that the eyes may replace the ears in communicating the secret of the heart.”

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Decorated capitals beginning a letter from Alcuin to Charlemagne: London, Lambeth Palace Library MS 218, f. 191v

Although letter collections were often utilitarian manuscripts, some were clearly aimed at high-status audiences. The manuscript illustrated above was copied in 10th-century England, and it includes many of Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne. The first two lines of every letter were copied in lavishly coloured display capitals, suggesting that the letter collection was compiled for a high status patron, perhaps a king given the focus of many of the letters.

You can see these original letters for yourself in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on at the British Library until 19 February 2019. Tickets are available here.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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09 December 2018

Women and books in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Whenever I talk to members of the public who have visited the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, one of the most common reactions is, ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much about women!’ As Claire Breay recently discussed on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, more evidence survives about early medieval women than many people realise. Our exhibition includes a prayerbook connected to the wife of Alfred the Great; chronicle accounts of the victories of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the oldest substantial woman’s will that survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the first surviving political tract written for (and about) a woman in England; and one of the fabulously jewelled gospel-books of Judith of Flanders.   

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The jewelled cover of one of Judith’s gospel-books, made in Northern Europe in the 2nd half of the 11th century: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

The majority of the population in Anglo-Saxon England — including the majority of women — probably couldn’t read or write. That said, women made up a sizeable proportion of the part of the population that was literate. In Anglo-Saxon times, literacy was highest among monks, nuns, priests and other clergy, who had committed to a religious life. Religious women, such as abbesses, were at the forefront of several literary developments. Additionally, we have evidence that some lay noblewomen owned books.

Literacy among nuns and women religious

Female religious in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were probably able to read. Regardless of which rule of life they followed, reading scriptures and saints’ Lives was essential at most monasteries. There is also direct evidence of book ownership among female religious. For example, four out of the six  surviving early English prayerbooks use female forms and may have been written by or for women. Of the two originally made for men, one (Ælfwine’s prayerbook) was subsequently used and modified at the Nunnaminster, Winchester. 

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Aldhelm addresses Abbess Hildelith and others, from a copy of his De Virginitate made in southern England c. 1000: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 13r

In the early part of the period, religious houses led by women, including Whitby, Hartlepool, Ely and Barking were major intellectual centres. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, was the patron of the first English poet whose name we know, Caedmon. Meanwhile, Aldhelm’s De Virginitate, one of the most advanced works ever produced in Anglo-Latin, was dedicated to a group of women: Hildelith, abbess of Barking, Justina, Cuthburh, Osburh, Aldegethe, Scholastica, Eadburh, Byrngithe, Eulalia and Thecla.

Literacy among lay noblewomen

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms also includes evidence of noblewomen owning or commissioning books. The Book of Nunnaminster may have been owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, before it was given to the Nunnaminster. According to Asser, Alfred’s mother owned a finely illuminated book of English poetry, while Queens Emma and Edith both commissioned texts in the 11th century.

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Opening of ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, depicting the author presenting his work to Emma while her sons Edward the Confessor and Harthacnut look on: Add MS 33241, f. 1v

It wasn’t just queens who had access to books and writing. The exhibition also displays Wynflaed’s will, the earliest substantial will of an Englishwoman. One third of all surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are in the name of women. This will shows Wynflaed using writing to conduct her affairs and it also reveals that she owned books. Wynflaed herself was a widow associated with a religious house, but she gave her books to her (apparently) lay daughter rather than to the nuns.

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Will of Wynflæd, copied out in England in the late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38

Perhaps the most spectacular example of female book-ownership is one of the Judith Gospels, generously on loan from the Morgan Library in New York, with its fabulous silver-gilt cover with jewels. Four of these de luxe books owned by Judith of Flanders survive. Judith’s Gospels are incredibly unusual for having survived with their jewelled covers intact. However, Judith was not unusual in 11th-century Britain in being a noblewoman with an interest in books. Books also survive that belonged to Margaret of Scotland and Edward the Confessor’s sister, Godgifu.

Female scribes and artists

Just as there were women readers, there were also female scribes. We know the name of at least one female scribe from the Anglo-Saxon period: Eadburh, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet. Around 735, St Boniface wrote to her, noting that she had sent him books and asking her to copy the epistles of Paul in golden letters for him. Another correspondent, Lull, sent her a silver stylus ('graphium argenteum').  

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End of excerpts from Matthew’s Gospel and beginning of excerpts from John’s Gospel, from the Book of Nunnaminster: Harley MS 2965, f. 16v

At least one manuscript in the exhibition has traditionally been attributed to female scribes: the Book of Nunnaminster, a 9th-century Mercian prayerbook possibly owned by Ealhswith. Some of its text uses certain female forms. Later, someone added a record of the lands which Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, gave to the Nunnaminster, as well as a prayer that uses female forms.

You can learn more in our article Women in Anglo-Saxon England. All these manuscripts can be seen in our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Alison Hudson

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07 December 2018

From the Tower the day before my death

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On 21 January 1552, Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, took some time from his prison cell in the Tower of London to compose his thoughts in a small almanac (British Library, Stowe MS 1066). Bound in crimson velvet, the book contained a calendar and tables for finding movable feasts (religious feast days which do not occur on the same date each year), the duration of moonshine and sunshine, and the ebb and flow of the tides.

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The Duke of Somerset's almanac: Stowe MS 1066, ff. 3v–4r

The almanac was a useful thing to have to hand but, on this occasion, it was its small size (measuring just 3.75 by 3 inches) that made it particularly valuable. It could be easily concealed.

In it, Somerset wrote the following words on the fly-leaf:

               Fere of the lord is the b[e]genning of wisdume

               Put thi trust in the lord w[i]t[h] all thine hart

               Be not wise in thyne owne conseyte but fere the lord and fle frome euele [evil]

                              frome the toware

                              the day before my deth

                                             1551 [1552]

               E: Somerset

 

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Somerset's inscription on the first page of the almanac.

At the end of the book, on the inside cover, is written in a minute italic hand, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’.

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The note found at the end of the book

Somerset was the eldest brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII (1509–1547) and mother of Edward VI (1547–1553). Edward was only nine when he succeeded his father as king in January 1547, and authority passed to a privy council headed by his uncle Somerset as lord protector of England and Ireland and governor of his person. But Somerset fell from power in the aftermath of the 1549 rebellions: some of his colleagues blamed him for entering into open communication with the rebel leaders about political and social reform in the upcoming parliament. He was released from the Tower in February 1550 and restored to the privy council in the spring but not to his former offices as lord protector and governor.

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A portrait of Edward Seymour, 1st duke of Somerset, by an unknown artist, from the collection of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House, Wiltshire

Somerset was rearrested at court on 16 October 1551, after attending a meeting of the privy council and dining with his nephew. Two days previously, he had ‘sent for the secretary [Sir William] Cicel to tell him he suspected some ill’, but made no effort to escape (Cotton MS Nero C X, f. 44v). A number of his servants and clients were taken at the same time, who were all charged with him of conspiring ‘against the state of the realme and gouuernaunce of the King[e]s Ma[ies]te … and to the destruction of diuerse of the nobilite’ (The National Archives, SP 10/13/57, M. f. 113r). He was tried at Westminster Hall on 1 December on trumped up charges of treason and felony, accused of gathering his supporters together to ‘compass and imagine’ seizing the king ‘at [his] will … to rule and treat’, plotting to make himself lord protector again, and inciting the citizens of London into rebellion ‘with cries and exclamations, … shout[ing] … “liberty, liberty”’ (TNA, KB 8/19, mm. 24, 27).

Surprisingly, Somerset was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony (for unlawful assembly), and condemned to death. The real reason for his fall was his estrangement from the man who replaced him as head of Edward VI’s government, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and fear over his popularity with the common people. Where once they were allies and close friends, Northumberland had played a key role in deposing Somerset in October 1549, and they had argued bitterly and openly at privy council meetings over religious and state policy ever since the latter’s restoration in spring 1550. Northumberland, a careful and a ruthless man, had decided that it was time to destroy the former lord protector.

On 18 January 1552, the government took the decision to execute Somerset (featured in a previous blogpost) the day before parliament was recalled. On being informed of his fate, the duke composed his mind in the small almanac he had concealed on his person during his arrest. He turned for comfort and instruction, ‘the day before my deth’, to three verses from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible (Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 3:5; Proverbs 3:7). These verses warned against the danger of pride and commanded obedience to and faith in God. In writing them, Somerset demonstrated his piety in the face of death.

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An engraving showing the execution of Edward Seymour

Despite a government curfew, a huge crowd gathered on Tower Hill the next morning, 22 January, to witness his execution. He addressed them ‘w[i]t[h] … alacrity, & cherefulnesse of minde & countenance’, saying he had always served the crown loyally but ‘am by a law condemned to die’, while rejoicing in the part he had played in the reformation of religion (John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1563), sigs. 3K2v–3K3v). Lastly, he implored them to obey the king and privy council and asked forgiveness from any person he had ever wronged, offering forgiveness in turn, before laying his neck on the block and praying three times. His head was struck off midway through uttering ‘Iesus’.

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The almanac is incredibly small, and can easily be held in the palm of the hand

This almanac, Stowe MS 1066, somehow found its way after Somerset’s death to his son, Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford. He too ended up in the Tower, for his clandestine marriage late in 1560 to Elizabeth I’s cousin and heir presumptive, Lady Katherine Grey. At some point Katherine, who was Lady Jane Grey’s younger sister, inscribed the back inside cover of the almanac, ‘Katerine Hartford Caterine Seamoar’. She gave birth to two sons in the Tower, one of them conceived during illicit conjugal visits. Queen Elizabeth was furious and kept her prisoner for the rest of her life. Katherine died, perhaps as a result of anorexia, in January 1568.

 

Alan Bryson

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