29 May 2023
The last day of Constantinople
This year marks the 570th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, on 29 May 1453. The city at the Bosporus, on the border between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, bridging Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans, was originally called Byzantium. The exact date of its foundation is unknown, but according to legend it was founded in 667 BC.
Constantine the Great from the Synopsis of Histories (Eastern Mediterranean, 1574): Harley MS 5632, f. 2v
The city was already an important trading and military centre, but its significance rose when, on 11 May, AD 324, Emperor Constantine the Great selected it to be the new capital of the reunited Roman Empire, and called it the New Rome. Six years later, to honour the emperor, it was renamed Constantinople after him. From the 5th century onwards, Constantinople was enriched with enormous fortifications, churches and monasteries, and the world-renowned imperial library.
A view of Constantinople from Mandeville’s Travels (Bohemia; 1st quarter of the 15th century): Add MS 24189, f. 9v
Despite the tumult after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, Constantinople remained the seat of the Emperor of the East and the centre of the political, religious and intellectual life of the Byzantine Empire for many centuries. Admired and envied by the West, it was visited by travellers, kings and pilgrims. In 1204, the Crusader army, originally destined for Palestine, turned against the city, occupied and sacked it, and made it the capital of the Western Emperor of Constantinople for the next half century.
A golden bulla of Baldwin II, the last Western Emperor of Constantinople (Biervliet, 1269): Add Ch 14365, obverse
Although it was retaken by the Palaeologan dynasty in 1261, Constantinople never regained its previous status. From the 14th century, it faced the rising Ottoman Empire in an ever-weakening state. Sultan Mehmed II arrived at the gates of the city in April 1453 and started besieging the city.
The Emperor Constantine XI tried to secure help from the West, but the timing was very unfortunate. Europe was riven by warfare: the Hundred Year War was consuming France and England, Spain was involved in the last phase of the Reconquista, and the Holy Roman Empire was divided by internal wars. Apart from some volunteers and assistance from Venice, Genoa and the Pope, the Emperor was left on his own against the formidable army of the Sultan. The British Library holds eye-witness accounts of what happened next, one of which is inserted in a 16th-century chronicle now attributed to Macarius of Melissa.
A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the final speech of Emperor Constantine XI (Venice, 16th century: Add MS 36539, f. 79r
This manuscript records the Emperor's final speech to his army on the night of the fateful battle. According to the author, who was present, Constantine declared:
‘My noble peers, illustrious generals, noble fellow-soldiers, you know well that the hour has come and that the enemy of our faith wishes to hem us in more cruelly with every means … Into your hands I give this most illustrious and renowned city, the Queen of Cities and your homeland … There is no time to say more to you. I only entrust my humble sceptre to your hands. Brothers and fellow-soldiers, be prepared for battle in the morning with grace and courage …'
The battle started around midnight on 29 May. The defenders were able to hold the walls for a while but when the general of the Genoan troops was wounded by an arrow, its defence was shaken. Parts of the army started to flee and the emperor was apparently left on his own. Chronicles from both East and West all agree that Constantine fought hard in the battle.
A page from the chronicle of Macarius of Melissa preserving the last words of the Venetian soldiers witnessing the fall of Constantinople (Venice, 16th century): Add MS 36539, f. 85r
Some hours later the defence collapsed completely. Macarius noted the last words of the Venetian soldiers upon seeing the fall of the city: ‘Shudder Sun and groan Earth, the city is taken’. The Sultan then entered the city and a desperate search to find the emperor began. Eventually Constantine who identified under a heap of corpses by the imperial eagle embroidered on his shoes.
Detail of a grant by Sultan Mehmed II to the Genoese inhabitants of Galata, with the sultan’s monogram and the beginning of the Greek text (1 June 1435): Egerton MS 2817
A few days later, Sultan Mehmed II was in Constantinople when he issued one of his first edicts from his new capital, ensuring the trading rights of the Genoa merchants of Galata. The siege put an end to a long period in the history of this great city. No longer Byzantium or Constantinople, it started a new life as Istanbul.
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28 May 2023
Death of the Wolf
Exactly a thousand years ago, on 28 May 1023, Lupus – ‘The Wolf’ – died in York. Lupus was the punning Latin name used by the prolific writer, cleric and royal adviser, Archbishop Wulfstan.
At the end of his entry on Wulfstan in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Patrick Wormald wrote that research on Wulfstan’s manuscripts in the twentieth century had transformed him ‘from just another doubtless worthy Anglo-Saxon prelate into one of the half dozen most significant figures even in the crowded and dramatic history of eleventh-century England’. Settling on a list of the other five most significant figures is a distracting little game.
Wulfstan called himself Lupus (‘The Wolf’): Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 110r
Wulfstan, who had been bishop of London from 996 to 1002, became bishop of Worcester from 1002 to 1016 and archbishop of York from 1002 until his death in 1023. He had been a leading religious and political figure in the turbulent reign of King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978–1016). Although the Danish conquest of England by Cnut in 1016 saw a turnover in the English nobility, Wulfstan remained both a key royal adviser and archbishop of York under the new regime. He drafted laws for Cnut, as he had for Æthelred, and introduced reforms of both church and lay society.
Wulfstan’s own handwriting survives in a number of manuscripts, and a Latin poem praising him in one such volume (Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), is thought to be in his own hand. The poem mentions Wulfstan’s name admiringly in each verse. It includes the line, Est laus wulfstano mea pulchritudo benigno pontifici cui sit dominus sine fine serenus ([This poem’s] beauty is praise for the kind Bishop Wulfstan, my Lord be endlessly merciful to him).
A poem praising Wulfstan, apparently written in his own hand: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 148v
While no contemporary biographical account of Wulfstan’s life survives to set alongside the poem, we can reconstruct his life and career from his other works and from the manuscripts that he annotated. They show him to be a busy, restless figure, collecting legal, liturgical and instructional texts for use in the many crises of his day.
Wulfstan’s ‘letter-book’ (also Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV), compiled when he was Archbishop of York, includes a collection of letters written around two hundred years previously by the royal adviser and abbot, Alcuin (d. 804). Alcuin had sent advice to the English archbishops and to King Æthelred of Northumbria (r. 774–779, 789–796). He warned of the perils of sin, which he believed had led to Viking raids as divine punishment for the wickedness of the English. As Wulfstan was adviser to his own King Æthelred during another period of Danish invasion, he doubtless recognised the analogies between Alcuin’s times and his own.
The opening of Wulfstan’s letter book: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 114r
Wulfstan took these lessons to heart in his own time and drew upon Alcuin in his most famous work, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos (The Sermon of the Wolf to the English when the Danes were persecuting them most). In this barnstorming speech, he warned the people that they could lose their kingdom unless they repented from sin:
Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is. Ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse. And swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde.
Beloved men, recognise what is true: this world is in haste and approaches its end; and therefore, in this world things always worsen the longer they last. And so, it must by necessity deteriorate greatly before the coming of the Antichrist, because of the people sins, and indeed it will then be terrible and grim widely in the world.
The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon of the Wolf to the English): Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 110r
This manuscript also contains law-codes, drafted by Wulfstan for Æthelred and Cnut. It includes the earliest surviving copy of laws (known as I–II Cnut) issued in Cnut’s name at a meeting at Winchester around 1020 or 1021. These laws are the most extensive record of law in England before the Norman Conquest. They drew on earlier English kings’ law-codes, and this copy, made in the third quarter of the 11th century, is now bound with copies of earlier law-codes that Wulfstan used and annotated.
A law-code of King Cnut drafted by Wulfstan: Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 16r
We can see other aspects of Wulfstan’s activities in one of his own liturgical books (Cotton MS Claudius A III). This is a pontifical, a service book for the rites performed by a bishop. Wulfstan included in it Latin and Old English versions of an Æthelred law code that he had drafted. He seems to have added in his own hand the names of King Æthelred and himself between the lines of the text.
A law-code of King Æthelred drafted by Wulfstan, with the added names of King Æthelred and Wulfstan: Cotton MS Claudius A III, f. 35r
In other manuscripts, Wulstan’s annotations show him minutely changing the wording of his own sermons, as well as correcting and supplementing the texts of others. He also oversaw the compilation of the first cartulary gathering together evidence of gifts of property to the cathedral priory of Worcester and leases of its land.
Copies of leases in the first cartulary of Worcester: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII, f. 87v
The manuscripts linked to Wulfstan reveal the multifaceted role of an early medieval bishop, responsible for pastoral care in his diocese and for the education and disciplining of the clergy, managing property, participating on the national stage as a major voice at the royal council and advising on the spiritual welfare of the kingdom.
Although Wulfstan died in York on 28 May 1023, he was buried, in accordance with his wishes, in the fenland abbey at Ely.
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05 May 2023
The Coronation Banquet of Henry VI
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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29 April 2023
Lost and found: in praise of Cardinal Wolsey
We recently blogged about our exciting project to bring the burnt volumes of the Cotton collection back to life, following the extensive damage they sustained in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. Thanks to generous funding from the Goldhammer Foundation, the British Library has used multi-spectral imaging to photograph a selection of the damaged manuscripts, making them available to our readers online for the first time.
One major benefit of multi-spectral imaging is that it has allowed us to read and identify many of the fire-damaged texts, making some incredible discoveries in the process. One of these discoveries is a Latin praise work (or ‘panegyric) addressed by John Leland (b. c. 1503, d. 1552) to his patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (b. 1470/71, d. 1530). We can now reveal that this text known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem Eboracensem’, and for centuries believed to have been completely lost, has survived in Cotton MS Fragments XXIII.
Portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge
Perhaps best known as the mastermind behind the restoration of Hampton Court Palace, Wolsey rose from the son of a butcher’s boy to become Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England. In 1515, he was appointed Cardinal by Pope Leo X (r. 1513–1521), giving him pre-eminence over the rest of the English clergy. He was a major figure in European political and religious life for much of the early decades of the 16th century, until his failure to secure the divorce of Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536) in 1529, caused his downfall. Wolsey was subsequently arrested by the King for treason and travelled to London to await trial, but famously died on route, avoiding the more violent fates of other figures at Henry’s court, such as Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.
Fundamental to Wolsey’s power and influence during his career was his role as a patron of culture and education. Wolsey was responsible for the patronage of many artists and writers at the Tudor court. One of these figures was John Leland, a poet and Humanist scholar, and one of the very first early modern antiquarians, an advocate for the gathering of knowledge. Leland is best known for his extensive travels around England in the 1530s, when he toured and examined the libraries of many of the country’s religious houses in the years leading up to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During this time, he compiled numerous lists of significant or unusual books, many of which would subsequently become part of the Royal library. Unfortunately, his life ultimately ended in tragedy: Leland went mad following the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and never recovered.
A list of the religious houses of Wales, written in Leland’s hand: Add MS 38132, f. 39r
Leland was a prolific writer. In his early career, he cultivated a strong circle of literary friends, patrons, and sponsors throughout England and Renaissance Europe, with whom he frequently corresponded and for whom he would write Latin praise works as gifts. As one of his patrons, Wolsey was a particularly strong advocate for Leland at the Tudor Court, securing him a number of positions during this time. This support would continue until the Cardinal’s fall from favour in 1529, at which point Leland gained the patronage of Thomas Cromwell (b. 1485, d. 1540), Wolsey’s successor.
Leland’s work in praise of Wolsey is attested in an important volume of English literary history known as the Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorum. This text is a chronological catalogue of British authors, compiled by John Bale (b. 1495, d. 1563), a contemporary and correspondent of Leland. Leland is one of the authors represented in the second edition of the text, published in 1557-1558. Under a list of his recorded writings, Bale includes the following title and Latin incipit (the opening line of a particular work), as well as a note indicating that his source for this information was a copy of the text consulted in Leland’s own library:
Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, Lib. 1. Dicturo de tuis laudibus ampliss.
The entry for John Leland and his ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’ in John Bale’s Illustrium majoris Britanniae scriptorium, published in 1557-1558: C.28.m.6, p. 671
Another important piece of evidence for the text’s existence is presented by the 1542 inventory of the Royal Library at Westminster Palace. This inventory records a work known as the ‘Panegyricon ad Cardinalem’, which was identified by James Carley as a possible copy of Leland’s lost work in his edition and study of the inventory (H2. 243; The Libraries of Henry VIII (2000), p. 92). However, while many of Leland’s other recorded works have survived in numerous manuscripts and printed editions, until now, no copies of Leland’s panegyric to Cardinal Wolsey have ever been found.
Cotton MS Fragments XXIII
We can now turn our attention to Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, a small volume that consists of twelve fragmentary parchment leaves. Like many of the volumes that were heavily burnt in the Ashburnham House fire, these leaves were subsequently mounted on paper guards and rebound.
The opening of Leland’s Panegyricon ad Cardinalem, burnt in 1731: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r
The main text in the manuscript is a Latin prose work, written in a neat italic hand, which begins on f. 2r and ends on f. 12v. The opening of the text features the title ‘PANEGYRICVS’, enclosed within a decorative red border. A blank space within a red frame has been left by the scribe, or potentially created because of the fire damage sustained by the manuscript, and would presumably have held a decorated initial. Much of the rest of the first line remains visible. Its opening words read ‘[D]icturo mihi de laudibus tuis…’ (I am about to speak your praises…), unmistakeably a variant closely resembling the opening line that Bale quotes in his catalogue of Leland’s writings.
The opening of the ‘Panegyricus’, photographed with multi-spectral imaging: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 2r
Additional evidence that this work was addressed to Cardinal Wolsey appears on the first leaf of the volume. The verso features a short Latin dedicatory poem, only nine lines long, written beneath a coat of arms decorated in colours and gold. The coat of arms has been heavily warped because of the damage sustained in the 1731 fire, and is now barely visible to the naked eye. However, thanks to the multi-spectral imaging, the arms can now be identified as belonging to Wolsey himself.
The coat of arms of Cardinal Wolsey above a Latin dedicatory poem: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v
Notably, the arms in the burnt manuscript show a number of similarities with a contemporary image of Wolsey’s arms painted at the beginning of a Latin encomium (another type of praise work), which is also dedicated to him (Harley MS 1197, ff. 402–413). In Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, most of the embellishments and decorative elements on this heraldic device have burned away, but the central features remain: red tassels descending from a cardinal’s hat now obscured at the top; a golden ‘chief’ (or band) below it; and the ends of two cross-staves emerging from a black shield. In the centre, the shield’s silver cross is still visible, with the faintest impression of the red lion and four blue leopard faces it once held.
The burnt arms of Cardinal Wolsey: Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, f. 1v
The arms of Cardinal Wolsey, painted at the beginning of an Encomium dedicated to him: Harley MS 1197, f. 402r
The discovery of Leland’s lost praise poem for Wolsey highlights the tremendous power that the Cardinal wielded in England and across the Continent during this period. Most importantly, it reinforces how art and literary patronage was a significant part of his influence. By supporting and surrounding himself with a coterie of artists, writers, and scholars, he was reinforcing his position, controlling the dissemination of his image and ensuring his own legacy. The centrality of his role at the Tudor Court was reflected in the paintings, literary compositions, and (in the case of Hampton Court Palace) buildings created in his name. Although that legacy was ultimately tarnished by his fall from favour, his impact on the cultural life of England persisted.
There are many more questions to be asked about Cotton MS Fragments XXIII, its origins, the circumstances around its production and its text of Leland’s panegyric, but multi-spectral imaging means that for the first time in 500 years, we are in a position to uncover the answers.
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25 April 2023
Inventing a royal past
Greenwich Palace was a favourite of England’s Tudor monarchs. Beside the palace stood the church of the Observant Friars, founded in 1482. Being so close to a royal residence, the church played a regular part in royal ceremonies — Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all baptised there. This church had political and religious importance, which is reinforced by two manuscripts digitised for the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project. Egerton MS 2341/1 and Egerton MS 2341/2 contain instructions for the glaziers creating the stained glass for the church’s East window. These instructions demonstrate how that window was designed to strengthen the new Tudor dynasty.
Probably originally a single roll, the two manuscripts are undated. They must have been written after 1489, when Margaret Tudor was born, as she is one of the individuals to be depicted in the window. In turn, they presumably pre-date the death of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, in February 1503, as the text refers to her in the present tense. They may have been made in the early 1490s, and before the church was consecrated by April 1494.
Part of the roll describing the images of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York: Egerton MS 2341/2, membrane 2
The window was to depict Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, his wife, each holding the other’s hand. It would also feature Margaret, their daughter, and Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother. Next, there would be several figures widely revered in late medieval England, including Charlemagne, the mythical Constantine (father of the historical Constantine the Great), St Thomas de Cantilupe, and the Saxon saints Edward the Confessor, Edmund the Martyr and Oswald. The choice of these figures is not surprising. What is unusual is the choice of the women to feature on the window.
The window was to include nine saintly women, each of royal blood. The most famous of these was St Helena, who discovered the True Cross and many other relics in Palestine and was the mother of Emperor Constantine. While not a princess, the manuscript describes Helena as ‘daughter to Coyle Kyng of Britaigne’, the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme, repeating a mythical ancestry popularised by the medieval chroniclers Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth.
St Helena’s discovery of the True Cross: Add MS 17275, f. 290v
Another famous saint to be featured in the window was Margaret of Scotland, the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and wife of Malcolm III, king of Scots. Their daughter, Maud (or Matilda), married Henry I of England, while Margaret’s great-grandson himself became king as Henry II. In an interesting historical parallel, Margaret, Henry VII’s daughter, who was to appear in the pane below St Margaret, would marry a Scottish king, like her saintly namesake, and have a great-grandson who would become king of England: James VI and I.
The next well-known figure was St Winifred. She was descended from a Welsh princely family and became an important saint in Wales and Shropshire, with cult sites at Holywell and Shrewsbury.
A prayer to St Winifred in a 15th-century devotional: Harley MS 955, f. 67v
The remaining six female saints were all Saxon royal women and ranged from the lesser known to the outright obscure: Æthelthryth or Audrey, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia; Edith, daughter of King Edgar of England; Æthelburh, daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent; Eormenhild, daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent; Blitha, a relative of Æthelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside; and Mildrith, daughter of King Merewalh of Magonsæte, a Mercian sub-king.
Why was the window to include such individuals? Henry VII’s claim to the throne was not especially strong. Although he was a descendant of Edward III, his royal ties were through an unlicensed marriage on his father’s side and illegitimacy on his mother’s. There were other nobles in England who had stronger claim to be king, like the children of George, duke of Clarence, or the Stafford dukes of Buckingham, both families descended legitimately from Edward III. In these two rolls we can see an attempt to bypass this issue by going far back into England’s past to create legitimacy for the fragile new Tudor dynasty.
By focusing on royal women from before the Norman Conquest, the window placed Henry, his queen and his daughter among a cohort of royal women stretching back over a thousand years. He could claim direct descent from St Margaret, the ancestor of every English king from Henry II onwards. She, in turn, was linked to several of these Saxon saints. This window presented a Tudor history that looked beyond the dynastic squabbles of the 15th century, using these women to emphasise Henry VII’s link to a more distant and less contentious Anglo-Saxon past.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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23 April 2023
Shakespeare before Shakespeare
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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20 April 2023
Lady Lumley’s literary endeavours
Over the past year, we’ve been digitising manuscripts that reflect the lives and achievements of medieval and early modern women. This blogpost looks at four surviving volumes that belonged to Jane Lumley (b. 1537, d. 1578), an English noblewoman, Renaissance scholar and translator. All four manuscripts have been digitised thanks to generous funding from Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be read online for the first time.
Jane Lumley was the eldest child of Henry Fitzalan (b. 1512, d. 1580), 12th Earl of Arundel. FitzAlan was a prominent member of the Tudor court, serving under Henry VIII and all three of his children and successors. Fitzalan was especially interested in learning, and during his life collected one of largest libraries in Tudor England, housed at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. He also invested considerably in the education of all his children, including his two daughters. Most notably, Jane and her younger sister, Mary, were both taught Latin and Greek and were able to make use of their father’s extensive collection. Jane produced her own original translations of Classical texts that still survive.
A portrait of Jane Lumley by the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen made in 1563 (Wikimedia Commons)
Jane’s literary endeavours were also supported by her husband, John Lumley (b. c. 1533, d. 1609), 1st Baron Lumley, whom she married at some point between 1550 and 1553. Lumley was a friend of Jane’s brother and a book collector and bibliophile like her father. Together, the Lumleys amassed a collection of over 320 manuscripts and 2,400 printed books, which also incorporated the library at Nonsuch Palace following the death of Jane’s father in 1580. Upon his own death in 1609, John Lumley willed their library to Prince Henry Frederick (b. 1594, d. 1612), eldest son of James VI and I (r. 1603–1625), King of England and Scotland. It was subsequently added to the Old Royal Library, and centuries later became one of the British Museum Library’s foundation collections.
The Lumley Library housed at least three surviving works by Jane, made after she had married John Lumley. They include Jane’s commonplace book (Royal MS 15 A IX), written in her own hand and containing her own translations of a number of Classical works from their original Greek into Latin and English. The most notable of these is her English translation of Iphigenia at Aulis, the last of the surviving tragedies of the Greek playwright Euripides. The play focuses on the decision of the Greek general Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow the Greeks to set sail for Troy and begin the Trojan War. This is the first known translation of one of Euripides’ plays into English by any hand, and it is also the first known dramatic work in English to be written by a named woman.
The opening of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, translated by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 66r
Jane also used her commonplace book to write drafts of translations that she intended as gifts for her father. The first half of the volume focuses on her translations of the Orationes (Speeches) of the Ancient Greek rhetorician Isocrates (b. 436 BC, d. 338 BC), from Greek into Latin. Several of these texts feature dedicatory letters addressed to Jane’s father, which she signed, ‘filia tua tibi deditisimma Joanna Lumleya’ (your most dedicated daughter Jane Lumley).
A dedicatory letter to Henry Fitzalan, 14th Earl of Arundel, signed by Jane Lumley: Royal MS 15 A IX, f. 4v
Two presentation copies of Jane’s translations also survived as part of the Lumley Library (now Royal MS 15 A I and Royal MS 15 A II). Like the drafts found in her commonplace book, Jane probably intended these as gifts to be presented to her father on New Year’s Day, a period often associated with gift-giving. The first of these volumes contains her translation of Isocrates’ Archidamus; the other is a translation of his Evagoras, written in her own hand.
The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Archidamus: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 3r
The opening of Jane Lumley’s translation of Evagoras: Royal MS 15 A II, f. 4r
Two of the three surviving volumes containing Jane’s work also feature added inscriptions by her husband, John Lumley, who marks them explicitly as ‘The doinge of my Lady Lumley dowghter to my L. Therle of Arundell', a reflection of his own respect for and acknowledgement of his wife’s work and achievement.
The inscription of John Lumley, Jane’s husband, in a copy of one of her translations: Royal MS 15 A I, f. 1A-r
In addition to writing her own translations of Classical texts, Jane also collected manuscripts in her own right. One item that she commissioned is a roll of English maxims on the subject of pride (Royal MS 14 B III), made during the third quarter of the 16th century. The roll is illuminated in colours and gold and features a monogram of her name JOANNA LVMLEIA at the beginning of its second membrane.
A roll of maxims on the subject of pride, including the monogram of Jane Lumley: Royal MS 14 B III, membrane 2
We hope you enjoy reading these manuscripts from the library of Jane Lumley and rediscovering her work as an important Renaissance scholar and early Humanist.
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14 April 2023
Managing a medieval household
How much did a medieval noblewoman pay to feed her staff and the members of her inner circle? What was the price of honouring the memory of a deceased member of the family? And how much did a queen spend on buying spices every year? You can find the answers to all these questions in a set of household rolls digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.
Household rolls are a particular type of financial account that record the expenses, income, and other elements relating to the management of a household or medieval domestic establishment. Here is a list of all the household rolls that have been recently digitised and are now available to view online:
Roll of expenses in wax and spices by the royal households, 1300-1301
The household roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265
The household roll of Katherine de Norwich, September 1336 to September 1337
Fragmentary roll of household expenses of Queen Philippa of Hainault
Expenses of Princess Mary’s Household, from 1 July 1525 to 31 December 1526
Expenses of Princess Mary’s household in her household departments, comparing the expenditure from 1525 and 1526
The newly digitised household rolls: Add MS 8877, Add Roll 63207, Add Roll 75855, Add MS 7966 B, Royal MS 14 B XXVI
One of the most common types of household roll was the ‘diet account’, which recorded the day-to-day location of the household and its expenses on food and provisions. A fascinating example is the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort (b. 1215, d. 1275), Countess of Leicester and Pembroke (now Add MS 8877). Eleanor was one of the most influential women in 13th-century England, the sister of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272) and wife to Simon de Montfort (b. c. 1208, d. 1265), one of the leaders of the rebellion in the Second Barons’ War. Eleanor’s household roll covers a particularly turbulent period in her life, immediately before and after the Battle of Evesham (4 August 1265), one of two major battles that took place during the war, in which both Eleanor’s husband and her son, Henry, were killed.
Portrait of Eleanor de Montfort from a Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England: Royal MS 14 B VI, Membrane 6
Entries in Eleanor’s household roll record the location of her household, the presence of the Countess, her close kin and the names of prominent visitors she hosted, as well as details of her various household departments, and the types and quantities of food and drink that were consumed. This entry, for example, shows that on an average day Eleanor paid a total of 10s. 10 ½d. on feeding herself and her staff, with purchases including grain, wine, and fish, among other items:
Die Veneris sequenti, pro comitissa et predictis; panis, ij. Quarteria, ij. Busseli, de Abindon’, Panis, ex emptione, vj.d. Vinum, iiij. Sixtaria; missis Domingo W. de Bathon’, dimidium sextarium; missis Domine Agnete, j. sextarium et domidium. [Coquina.] Alleces, vij., de instaro. Piscis (de mari), ix.s. vj d. [Mareschalcia.] Fenum, ad lviij. Equos. Avena, iij. Quareria, v. busselli. Pro busca, iij.d. Proo gagiis B. Juvenis, vij.d.ob. Summa, x.s. x.d. ob.
‘On Friday following, for the countess and the above-mentioned; grain, 2 quarters, 2 bushels, from Abingdon. Grain, by purchase, 6d. Wine, 4 sesters; half a sester having been sent to Sir Walter of Bath; 1 ½ sesters having been sent to Lady Agnes. [Kitchen] Herrings, 700, from the stock. Fish from the sea, 9s 6d. [Marshalesea] Hay, for 68 horses. Oats, 3 quarters, 5 bushels. For brushwood, 3d. For the wages of B. Juvenis,7 ½ d. Sum, 10 s. 10 ½ d.’
(see ed. and trans. L. J. Wilkinson, The Household Roll (2020), pp. 1-2).
An entry from the household roll of Eleanor de Montfort: Add MS 8877, Membrane 1
As well as the more everyday entries in household rolls, it is also possible to find records of extravagant expenditures, made for important occasions. That is the case for one entry in the household roll of the noblewoman Dame Katherine de Norwich (Add Roll 63207). Katherine de Norwich was the daughter of Sir John de Hethersett, and the widow of Piers Braunche (d. 1296) and later Walter de Norwich (d. 1329) and owned a number of manorial estates and residences throughout England. On 20 January 1337, Katherine spent a total of £10 18s 8d, a sixth of her annual expenditure on an anniversary feast held to commemorate the death of her second husband. Katherine hosted over ninety people for the event. Among the items bought for the feast, we find beer, hogs, mallards, a heron, chicken, partridge and wine.
The household roll of Katherine de Norwich: Add Roll 63207, Membrane 1
Some household rolls were also made to record the expenditure from purchases of a particular type of item. For example, one surviving roll made between 1300-1301 (now Add MS 7966 B) details expenses for wax and spices, bought for members of the English royal family, including King Edward I (r. 1272-1307), Queen Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318), the future Edward II (r. 1307-1327),and Thomas (b. 1300, d. 1338), eldest son of King Edward I and Margaret. The roll records over twenty different spices, which would have been used to enrich the flavour of meals prepared for the royal household, from ginger and pepper, to galangal, cumin, cinnamon and saffron, among others.
Records of expenditure on cinnamon, pepper, and other spices, from a household roll made for the English royal family: Add MS 7966 B, Membrane 2
Household rolls provide a window into the day-to-day lives of medieval women, their expenses and income, the food they ate and the visitors they hosted, as well as the ways in which they managed their estates and resources. We hope you enjoy exploring these fascinating items!
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