26 September 2023
The British Library is collaborating with the University of Cambridge to offer a fully-funded PhD studentship on the subject of ‘Reading and Writing in Medieval Women's Religious Communities’. The successful applicant will be supervised by Dr Jessica Berenbeim (Cambridge) and Dr Eleanor Jackson (British Library), and start in October 2024.
The student will have the opportunity to investigate the culture of female religious communities in the Middle Ages through a study of their surviving manuscripts. Medieval women living together in monasteries and other kinds of convent communities owned or produced an astonishing number and variety of manuscripts. These include literary works in poetry and prose, archive and record books, music manuscripts, financial and administrative accounts, maps, books for religious services, paintings in the form of manuscript illumination, documents such as charters, and sculpture in the form of seal impressions.
We are inviting applicants to propose a project that explores any aspect of women’s conventual life, with the specific aim of bringing together kinds of sources that have rarely been discussed in combination. The themes and structure of the project are entirely open, provided the proposal is interdisciplinary and combines different types of manuscripts—broadly defined, as above—in novel, creative, and productive ways. At least some element of your research should concern institutions in the British Isles, but the project as a whole may be comparative. In your proposal, you would aim to draw principally on the British Library’s collections (although we understand that some research in other collections will almost certainly be inevitable). Some indication of the BL’s holdings can be found on these sites:
- Manuscripts and Archives Collections Guides
- Digitised Manuscripts
- Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
- Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue
The British Library has one of the world’s most extensive and diverse collections of manuscripts from medieval women’s communities. In your research for this project, you would work on these collections alongside the BL’s curatorial staff, and undertake specialised training at both the BL and at Cambridge, where you would be part of a large and collegial community of medievalists in a wide range of fields. The British Library is currently developing a major exhibition on Medieval Women, which is due to open in October 2024. Starting your doctoral research just as the exhibition is opening, you will be able to develop a close familiarity with the display, support the programme of private views and visits to the exhibition, and build on its research findings.
The studentship is fully funded via the Open-Oxford-Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Applications are now open on their website, where you can view the full Collaborative Doctoral Award advert and find details of how to apply. The closing date for applications is 4 January 2024.
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28 May 2023
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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11 May 2023
We always say, never start a blogpost with the words, 'We are delighted to announce that'.
So, in true time-honoured fashion, we are thrilled to release a list of all the rolls and charters digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project. There are 25 rolls and 219 charters in total, in addition to the 93 manuscript volumes that we announced in a previous blogpost. The Medieval and Renaissance Women project has been made possible thanks to generous funding by Joanna and Graham Barker.
The seal of the Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724
Here begins the list. This may take some time, but it's worth it, we promise. From the top... The will of Sibylla Frances of Dunwich. A confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton. An acknowledgement by Marie, abbess of St Stephen’s Abbey, Soissons, to the Knights Templar of Mont-de-Soissons. A sale by Katherine von Solmesse and Salentin, lord of Isenburg, her husband, to Baldwin, archbishop of Trier. A letter of attorney from Ismania, widow of Laurence Berkerolles. A certificate for the safe delivery of Margaret of Anjou to Louis XI of France. A chirograph of Fredescendis, abbess of Maubeuge, granting land to Guarin, abbot of Vicogne…
Actually, why don't you simply peruse the list for yourself? It's great fun, we promise (again)!
Confirmation by Sybilla of Kaversfeld, widow of Hugh Gargate, to Bicester Priory of land in Stratton, early 13th century: Add Ch 10608
You can download the full list of charters and rolls here, with links to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site and the Universal Viewer. There, you'll be able to read these manuscripts in full and for free from the comfort of your own living room.
Excel: Download Medieval_and_renaissance_women_digitised_charters_rolls_may_2023 (this format cannot be downloaded on all web browsers)
Mortmain licence by Joan of Kent, princess of Wales, for Michael de la Pole, Lord Chancellor, to grant property to the Maison Dieu of Myton, 1383: Egerton Ch 2130
Acquittance by Tomasina de Damis, abbess of the monastery of Santa Giulia, Brescia, to Mafeus de Monte, 1409: Stowe Ch 565
The documents included in the project represent women from all levels of medieval society, from merchants and landowners to nuns and abbesses, from nurses and shopkeepers to noblewomen and queens. They also span a huge variety of different types of documents including grants and confirmations, chirographs and letters with original signatures, leases and genealogies, indentures and religious statutes, licenses for marriages and acknowledgments of divorce, and wills in which women passed on their property and determined their legacy after their deaths. Most importantly, all these manuscripts show medieval and early modern women exerting their own agency and making decisions that influenced not only their own day-to-day lives but also the communities to which they belonged.
The opening of the will of Margaret Paston, 1482: Add Roll 17253
A portrait of Helena Snackenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, from her genealogy, c. 1640: Lansdowne Roll 9
Petition by Joan Astley, nurse of Henry VI, for an increase in salary, 1424: Stowe Ch 643
Over 100 of the documents contain seals that belonged to women or women-run institutions, with many featuring portraits or emblematic images relating to their owners. Some, such as the foundation charter of Bordesley Abbey by Empress Matilda (Add Ch 75724) have even survived with their own seal bags, delicately woven in different coloured silks.
The seals of over 100 women and women-run institutions digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women project
Seal bag enclosing the seal of Empress Matilda, between 1141 and 1142: Add Ch 75724
Our senior imaging technicians photographed all the seals in the project using an imaging technique called raking light (where light is directed at an object from an angle parallel to the surface) to ensure that all their fine details, legends and sculptural reliefs could be captured.
Seal of Liece, daughter of Ralph of Rouen, 2nd half of the 12th century: Harley Ch 50 B 23
Seal of Idonia of Hurst, 4th quarter of 12th century to 1st quarter of 13th century: LFC Ch XXV 20
We hope you enjoy reading about the stories and lives of the women featured in these incredible items.
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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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14 April 2023
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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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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