22 June 2022
Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon and Galicia from 1252 and 1284, was so renowned for his interest in books and scholarship that he was nicknamed ‘El Sabio’ (the Wise or Learned). He promoted and consolidated Spanish language in the kingdom, having astronomical, medical and scientific documents translated into the vernacular.
When he came to the throne in 1252 Alfonso found that much of the legislation in his newly-unified kingdom was from varied traditions, making it contradictory and sometimes unjust. He set to work to codify it in three major legal works. Alfonso’s Law Codes, laying out traditional laws and rights, pertaining to both the Church and State, had a profound influence on Spanish literature and culture from the earliest surviving Spanish chivalric tale, El Cavallero Cifar (c. 1300), to numerous plays of the Golden Age (16th-17th centuries).
The king also promoted the study of law at the University of Salamanca, granting two new prestigious positions for professors of law, who were to be given the title Cavallero and Señor de Leyes, along with special privileges including being allowed to enter the presence of emperors, kings and princes at any time. One section of the law code was devoted to the educational ethos and curriculum of universities.
During Alfonso’s reign a workshop under his patronage produced a number of highly illuminated manuscripts, the most famous being the Cantigas de Santa Maria which contain 400 songs about the miracles of the Virgin Mary in Galician-Portuguese with musical annotation. Four copies survive, now located in libraries in Spain and Italy. In the same workshop a manuscript of the Primera Partida, the first book of Alfonso's most famous law codes known as the Siete Partidas, was produced. It is the earliest known copy, dated to second half of the 13th century, and is now in the British Library (Add MS 20787).
Each of the seven books of the code begins with a letter in the name ‘ALFONSO’, so the Primera Partida begins ‘A servicio de Dios’ (In the service of God). It deals with the relationship between the lawmaker and God. And in this manuscript there are miniatures or pictorial initials at the beginning of each section, depicting the functions of the contemporary church and the clergy in Alfonso’s kingdom.
You can admire all the pages of the British Library's copy of the Law Code of Alfonso X on our Digitised Manuscripts site, and read more about medieval legal manuscripts in our article on the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.
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19 November 2017
Earlier this month, we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter, Magna Carta’s little sibling. It inspired a new Tree Charter, with accompanying events ranging from bike rides to pole launches. Today, we commemorate the Statute of Marlborough. At 750 years old, issued on 19 November 1267, it’s one of the the oldest pieces of legislation in England still in force today.
The Statute of Marlborough almost didn’t make it to this day. Only four of its twenty-nine sections are still in force. In 2014, the Law Commission made plans to scrap it altogether. The surviving sections are now known as the Distress Act and the Waste Act. The Distress Act states that anyone seeking reimbursement for damages must do so through the courts, while the Waste Act ensures that the tenants do not lay waste, sell or ruin their lands and other resources without special permission. This is still a concern in modern agriculture:
Fermors, during their Terms, shall not make Waste, Sale, nor Exile of House, Woods, Men, nor of any Thing belonging to the Tenements that they have to ferm, without special Licence had by Writing of Covenant, making mention that they may do it; which thing if they do, and thereof be convict, they shall yield full Damage, and shall be punished by Amerciament grievously.
There are eight pieces of English legislation from the 13th century that have not been repealed. One of those is Magna Carta, which was originally issued by King John in 1215; the earliest versions were repealed, with the version now in force dating from 1297.
One of the two sources for the official Latin text of the Statute of Marlborough is held at the British Library (Cotton MS Claudius D II). It forms part of a book collecting English laws — the medieval version of legislation.gov.uk, you might say. You can see the Cotton manuscript of the Statute of Marlborough right now in our free Treasures Gallery, alongside a copy of the Forest Charter that was narrowly saved from destruction and a plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey.
The plan of the waterworks at Waltham Abbey is further evidence of how the environment shaped the medieval world. Medieval monasteries aimed to be self-reliant, and water was key to this. This plan of a conduit built in 1220–22 at Waltham Abbey is one of the earliest surviving English maps. The water flows from three round sources at the top, through a filtration system, and into a pipe towards the abbey. It is found in a cartulary made for the abbey, a collection of charters copied into a single volume for reference and preservation. The agreements in this book show that the monks had to negotiate with several different landlords to build across their land.
22 April 2017
Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Britain is dotted with trees planted hundreds of years ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. Some of them are over a thousand years old. This year, organisations across the United Kingdom have created a Tree Charter, which seeks to recognise the importance of trees to our national life. This charter harks back to a very important medieval document, the Forest Charter, which was originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England (1216–1272) on 6 November 1217.
The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III: Add Ch 24712.
The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate royal forests, which had been created by William the Conqueror and covered around a quarter of England during the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, we think of forests as lands covered with trees, but in the 13th century royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. From our perspective, this move to make huge swathes of land into royal forests seems remarkably forward-thinking. We might think that in doing this William was seeking to preserve England's trees, but he had a specific purpose for his conservation effort: he wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer.
Animals romping in the margin of a manuscript of the works of Gerald of Wales: Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 10v.
To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves, enforced by a small army of foresters. In theory, they could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. In practice, they normally issued fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown.
The barons living under this rule took issue with the 'forest law'. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought to scale back this law (translation from The National Archives):
Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England.
The charter further rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, where the lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.) Crucially, the charter also sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The Forest Charter, therefore, had important implications for common people.
The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its littler (and later) sibling. The British Library’s copy of the charter is a reissue from 1225, and appears to have narrowly escaped destruction.
The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic approach to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. Aspects of this approach are still valuable, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. The story of the royal forests are also the subject of a new book to be published next month by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, entitled Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.
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12 May 2016
May 12 is St Pancras’s Day. As the name of London’s second busiest railway and underground station, the name ‘St Pancras’ is well known to many Londoners, as well as travellers from abroad, as the station is the terminus for Eurostar trains arriving from Europe.
The station is also across the road from the British Library. Colin St John Wilson's iconic, red-brick design for the library visually riffs on St Pancras Station's Victorian architecture. But how many of the thousands of people who pass through St Pancras Station and past the British Library each day are aware of the story behind the name?
Not much is known about the martyr St Pancras. The main source for his life is a short Latin account of his martyrdom. According to this text, Pancras was born to a wealthy Christian family somewhere in Phrygia (in modern day Turkey). After the death of his parents, he moved to Rome with his guardian. There Pancras and his guardian gave shelter to Christians persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE). When the Emperor heard of Pancras’s efforts to save Christians, he immediately summoned him. To his surprise, he discovered that Pancras was only 14 years old and, seeing his youth and determination, subjected him to a long trial.
Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v
According to this account, Diocletian was impressed by Pancras, telling him, “My dear boy, take my advice and save yourself and give up this madness and I will treat you as my own son.” But, even after a long discussion to dissuade him from Christianity, Pancras remained true to his faith. Enraged, the Emperor ordered his immediate execution. Pancras was beheaded and buried by the Via Aureliana in Rome around 287CE.
Detail of St Pancras's martyrdom, from Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 250r
As with many of the early Christian martyrs, it was not his life or even his martyrdom that made Pancras' cult so popular, but the miracles associated with his tomb and relics. In around 590CE Gregory, the archbishop of Tours in France, claimed that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon or would collapse and die. Consequently, an oath on Saint Pancras' relics was thought so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness's testimony.
No wonder, therefore, that Pancras’s relics were soon distributed to many other churches, towns and countries, including far-flung regions like Britain.
End of Pope Vitalian’s letter to Oswiu, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 111r
Perhaps the earliest written reference to the cult of Pancras in Britain comes from a letter from Pope Vitalian to King Oswiu of Northumbria in the 660s, copied by Bede into his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The British Library has recently digitised a very early copy of Bede’s History (Cotton Tiberius A XIV). Vitalian mentions that he has sent Oswiu’s messengers back with relics of St Pancras and other Roman saints. The relics of Pancras sent by popes to England may have been used to re-consecrate old Romano-British churches or to set up new churches. As a result, churches dedicated to Pancras often claim to be among the oldest in Britain. These include St Pancras Old Church in Camden, a church near the British Library, from which the railway station takes its name.
From the 18th century onwards, St Pancras Old Church was widely regarded as one of the earliest churches in England. Although historical and archaeological evidence shows that the church does have early medieval origins, its early history before it is mentioned in Domesday Book is difficult to unravel. Efforts to do so, however, have resulted in important finds and discoveries.
One of the residents of the area, Ambrose Heal Sr, chairman of Heal’s Furniture in the early 1900’s, gathered a considerable collection of materials related to the parish of St Pancras. It was his enthusiasm for documents relating to Pancras that led him to acquire an eleventh-century manuscript containing one of the earliest copies of the life and the office (a set of prayers and hymns) of the saint. This manuscript, which his widow generously bequeathed to the British Library in 1914, is a part of a large collection of saints’ lives from eleventh-century Fulda, in what is now Germany.
St Pancras’s name marks a large spot on London’s street map, but the figure of the fourteen-year old Roman child-martyr himself is now forgotten. 12th May, the anniversary of his execution in Rome, is a good occasion to reflect on his long journey from early Christian Rome to the centre of Britain's bustling capital.
04 March 2016
The Vikings are back! To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the conquest of England by King Cnut in 1016, one exhibition case in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (free admission, Monday to Sunday) is currently devoted to a variety of different sources from his reign.
Detail of a list of benefactors including ‘Æðelred [the Unready] Cynge' and 'Cnut Cynge', from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 25r
The new display includes two charters, a list of benefactors from the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester, the account of Cnut’s defeat of Edmund Ironside in the ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the earliest surviving copy of Cnut’s law codes issued at Winchester in 1020 or 1021.
Section of Cnut’s law codes, from I-II Cnut, England, second half of 11th century, Cotton Nero A I, f. 11v
Apart from the two charters, all these manuscripts are now available on our Digitised Manuscripts website, but it is well worth seeing these variously sized manuscripts in person, if you are in London: for example, the law codes on display are the earliest surviving example of a ‘pocket-sized’ volume of English laws. So if you get the chance, do pop into the Treasures Gallery to learn more about what was happening 1,000 years ago!