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176 posts categorized "Royal"

17 September 2020

Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online

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The British Library is home to a world-class collection of manuscripts dating from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Over the past few years, we have been undertaking a major programme, known as Heritage Made Digital, with the intention of publishing online more of the Library's treasures from the Library's collections. This includes approximately 600 of these Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. Today, we're very pleased to let you know that the first batch are available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site — a list is published below. We hope that this will help to promote new research into this invaluable resource, especially at a time when it hasn't been easy to access the original items in person.

A page from an Early Modern friendship album, featuring a painted portrait of Prince Charles alongside his coat of arms.

The portrait and arms of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), from the Friendship Album of Sir Thomas Cuming of Scotland: Add MS 17083, f. 4v

Publishing these manuscripts is the culmination of a huge amount of work by many teams across the Library. Each item has been assessed and prepared by our conservators prior to its digitisation. Our Imaging Studio has taken high-resolution photographs of every page, creating thousands of images in the process. The cataloguers (Amy, Jessica and Tim, with the assistance of other colleagues) have created new descriptions of each manuscript, and have made some intriguing discoveries and identifications along the way. The Heritage Made Digital team have overseen the whole process, and have been responsible in particular for checking the quality of the images and publishing them online.

The reverse of a letter from Elizabeth I to James VI, featuring the queen’s signature.

A letter from Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland, dated May 1590 and bearing her signature: Add MS 23240, f. 90

A quick glance at the list of the first twenty manuscripts that have gone online indicates the importance of this material. There are original letters of Queen Elizabeth I, King Charles I and James VI of Scotland, alongside the literary works of Robert Southwell and Sir John Harington, and Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland. One manuscript contains the plots of five Elizabethan plays; another is the friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming. Their contents relate to state affairs in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands, and to numerous aspects of political and social history.

A page from a collection of stage plots for 5 Early Modern plays, showing the directions for ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’.

The stage plot for the late 16th-century play, ‘The Dead Man’s Fortune’, possibly performed by the Admiral’s Men: Add MS 10449, f. 1r

In 2021, some of these newly-digitised manuscripts will also feature in a major exhibition at the British Library, devoted to Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. This exhibition will focus on the intertwined relationship between these two queens, viewed through the manuscripts and printed books that are associated with them. More information about this exhibition will be announced in due course.

The opening page from a 15th-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, featuring a decorated border and initial with a coat of arms in the lower margin.

The prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Add MS 5140, f. 2r

More updates about this digitisation project will be published at regular intervals on this Blog, as well as the Library's Untold Lives and English and Drama Blogs. We hope that you enjoy exploring this initial selection of our Tudor and Stuart manuscripts, and that this whets your appetite for future additions. Please let us know via Twitter (@BLMedieval) how this impacts upon your own research, and whether it leads to new discoveries of your own.

The opening page from a manuscript featuring a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VIII, arranged in a table.

The opening of a compilation of extracts from the household accounts of King Henry VII: Add MS 7099, f. 2r

 

Add MS 4107: State papers, 1598–1745

Add MS 4155: Political and diplomatic papers, 1587-1689

Add MS 5140: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Add MS 7099: Extracts from household books of Henry VII

Add MS 10422: Robert Southwell's poetry and prose

Add MS 10449: Stage plots of five Elizabethan plays

Add MS 11252: Letters of King Charles I etc

Add MS 12049: Sir John Harington's poetry and prose

Add MS 14028: Robert Beale's diplomatic papers

Add MS 15225: Religious poems and songs

Add MS 15891: Letters received by Sir Christopher Hatton

Add MS 17083: Friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming

Add MS 18920: Sir John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso

Add MS 19969: Letters and papers relating to Ferdinand of Boisschot

Add MS 21432: George Peele, Anglorum Feriæ

Add MS 22022: Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland

Add MS 22924: Household accounts of Queen Elizabeth I, 1590–92

Add MS 23240: Letters of Elizabeth I to James VI of Scotland

Add MS 23241: Letter of King James VI of Scotland and others

Add MS 29431: State letters. 1472–1538

 

Andrea Clarke & Sandra Tuppen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 August 2020

Jewels make the Virgin Queen

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Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.

Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.

A portrait of a woman, representing Queen Elizabeth I, wearing a yellow dress, and a golden crown and necklace with gemstones in different colours

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r

One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r

A view of the cover of the Royal Gold Cup showing St Agnes in a red dress, accompanied by her foster-sister Saint Emerentiana in a blue dress, being offered a casket of jewels by her suitor Procopius in blue and red clothes

St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup, London, British Museum (image by Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v

Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.

Two panels showing scenes from the life of Lucretia. On the left, Lucretia lies in bed while her arm is being held by an Etruscan prince who raises a sword at her. On the right, Lucretia commits suicide with a sword in front of her husband and father

The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r

Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries  to a ‘new Minerva’.

An excerpt from the inventory of Queen Elizabeth’s jewels in 1596, featuring writing in a 16th-century cursive script written in brown ink

Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r

Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.

A woman (Phyllis) in a red robe using a whip with her left hand and pulling reins with her right hand to control the movements of a bearded man in a grey robe and with a green hat, on whose back she is sitting

Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r

Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.

From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

21 July 2020

Defender of the Faith

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On 11 October 1521, Pope Leo X (b. 1475, d. 1521) conferred on King Henry VIII of England (r. 1509–1547) the title Fidei defensor or ‘Defender of the Faith’. Pope Leo made his declaration in a papal bull (a decree or charter issued by a pope), the original of which survives as Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1. This important document has been recently digitised and it can now be viewed online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

The papal bull of Pope Leo X conferring the title Fidei defensor on Henry VIII, significantly damaged in the Cotton Fire of 1731.

The papal bull of Pope Leo X conferring the title Fidei defensor (Defender of the Faith) on King Henry VIII: Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1

 

Henry was given the title Defender of the Faith in recognition for his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments). Possibly written in consultation with Thomas More (b. 1478, d. 1535) and Cardinal Wolsey (b. c. 1473, d. 1530), Henry’s principal statesmen at this point in his reign, this theological treatise acted as a response to the pronouncements of the German theologian Martin Luther (b. 1483, d. 1546), whose ideas helped to shape the Protestant Reformation movement during the 16th century.

Luther had authored three major reforming pamphlets in 1520, including one particularly incendiary text entitled De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae (On the Babylon Captivity of the Church) which challenged some of the major doctrines of the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope in Rome. The texts circulated widely, including at the English court, and played a significant role in Luther’s excommunication by Pope Leo in the following year.

An opening from a printed copy of a pamphlet by Martin Luther, featuring the beginning of the text of the treatise and a portrait of Luther in a monk’s habit.

The opening of a printed copy of Martin Luther’s pamphlet On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, facing a portrait of the German theologian: British Library, 697.h.21, sig aii.

 

Henry’s treatise was intended as a defence of the Church and the supremacy of the Papacy from Luther’s ideas and writings, and the English king did not hold back in his condemnation of the German theologian. In the course of the work, he called Luther a ‘serpens…venenatus’ (venomous serpent), a ‘pestis… perniciosa’ (pernicious disease), an ‘inferorum lupus’ (wolf of Hell), the ‘diaboli membrum’ (devil’s member), and a ‘detestabilis arrogantiae, contumeliae, ac schismatis buccinator’ (a detestable trumpeter of pride, abuses, and schism). Henry even compared Martin Luther to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the Underworld in Classical mythology.

The Assertio was published in mid-July 1521, but was only made available and distributed after it had been first presented to the Pope by John Clerk (b. 1481/2, d. 1541), Bishop of Bath and Wells, in a ceremony on 2 October 1521. The text also contained a letter from Henry dedicating the work to the Pope. Following its presentation in Rome, it was circulated throughout Europe and went on to become a major best-seller, running to over a dozen editions in German and Latin by the end of 1524. It even earned the attention of Luther himself, who wrote a reply in the form of a book entitled Contra Henricum Regem Anglie (Against Henry, King of the English). The British Library is now home to a number of surviving editions of the printed text of Henry’s Assertio. The title-page of one of these copies features a decorative border based on a design by the portrait artist and printmaker Hans Holbein (b. c. 1497, d. 1543).

The title page of a printed edition of Henry VIII’s Assertio septem sacramentum, featuring an elaborate decorative border based on a design by Hans Holbein.

The title page of a printed edition of Henry VIII’s Assertio septem sacramentum: British Library, 9.a.9.

 

Pope Leo was evidently pleased with the work. It was only a few weeks after its presentation that he issued the papal bull conferring on Henry the title Defender of the Faith. The language of the bull was particularly glowing in its praise of the English king, with the Pope declaring that:

Et profecto, huius tituli excellentia & dignitate ac singularibus meritis tuis diligenter perpensis & confideratis, nullum neque dignius neque Majestati tuae convenientius nomen excogitare potuissemus, quod quotiens audiens aut leges, totiens propriae virtutis optimique meriti tui recordaberis.

Having thus weighed and diligently considered your singular merits, we could not have devised a more suitable name, nor one more worthy of your Majesty than this most excellent title, which whenever you hear or read it, you shall remember your own virtues and highest merits.

The bull was then sent to the English court. By the 17th century, it had become part of the library of Sir Robert Cotton (b. 1570/1, d. 1631). Unfortunately, the parchment leaf suffered significant damage in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731, which accounts for its current fragmentary state. Nevertheless, much of its text remains visible, as well as the signatures of the Pope and his cardinals that appear at the foot of the document, each marked with a small cross.

Details from the papal bull of Pope Leo X conferring on King Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith, damaged by fire in 1731, showing the signatures of the Pope and his cardinals.

The signatures of Pope Leo X and his cardinals inscribed on the papal bull conferring on King Henry VIII the title Defender of the Faith: Cotton MS Vitellius B IV/1, detail

 

Henry’s positive relationship with the Papacy did not last. Only a decade after Leo X issued the papal bull, Henry decided to break away from the Church of Rome, following Pope Clement VII’s refusal to annul his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485, d. 1536). He also distanced himself from the Assertio, claiming that he had been manoeuvred into writing it by his bishops. His actions ultimately resulted in his own excommunication by Clement’s successor Paul III (b. 1468, d. 1549) in 1538 and he was stripped of the title Defender of the Faith.

However, towards the end of Henry’s reign, in 1543, the English Parliament passed an act that restored the title for him and his successors. Since then, it has continued to be used as part of the styling of British monarchs (including the reigning Elizabeth II) to indicate their role as Head of the Church of England. It even features on coins of the realm, with the Latin Fidei defensor appearing in its abbreviated form F.D beside the Queen’s portrait.

 

Calum Cockburn

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 June 2020

Did Henry VIII believe in unicorns?

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Did King Henry VIII believe in unicorns? That is perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from a manuscript that reveals intimate details of the final years of Henry's life (1481–1547). We also learn from the same manuscript that he was partial to dragon's blood, and that he prescribed a cure for his fourth wife's ‘colde and wyndie causses’.

Henry suffered from poor health in his later years. In 1536, in a jousting accident at Greenwich Palace, his legs were crushed under a fully-armoured horse, as a result of which he developed chronic ulcers. These were lanced by his physicians with red-hot pokers, but our manuscript shows that they also used more subtle methods and applied medicines made from natural ingredients. Made in the 1540s, Sloane MS 1047 contains a series of elaborate medical recipes, some of which were devised by Henry himself. It is interesting to observe in this particular manuscript the king's own endeavours as an amateur medical practitioner.

King Henry seated on a throne with, to his left, his physicians John Chambre and William Butts

Detail of King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1543 (The Worshipful Company of Barbers)

Many of the treatments in this collection are attributed to his four principal royal physicians: Walter Cromer (d. c. 1547); the Venetian Augustin de Angustinius (fl. 1520s–1540s); William Butts (c. 1486–1545); and John Chambre (1470–1549). The latter two are famously depicted next to the king on Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons. Henry’s physicians worked separately or collaboratively to create many of the more than 100 plasters, spasmadraps (dipped plasters), ointments, balms, waters, lotions, decoctions and cataplasms (poultices) that make up the contents of Sloane MS 1047. An account book for the years 1543–1544 indicates that they were rewarded well for their services.

Above: two payments to 'doctor Chambre servant' and 'doctor Augustyne servant'; Below: a payment to 'doctour Buttes phisicioun'

Henry VIII’s payments to ‘doctor’ John Chambre, Augustin de Angustinius, and William Butts ‘phisicioun’ (England, 1543–1544): Add MS 59900, ff. 70v and 92v

Remarkably, more than thirty of the treatments are attributed to Henry himself. His recipes identify several of his royal palaces, including Fotheringhay Castle, Greenwich Palace and Hampton Court, as well as Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire, as the locations where he wrote and tested his recipes, suggesting that he took his apothecary equipment on his travels. A typical introduction to his recipes reads as follows:

‘An Oyntement devised by the Kinges Maiestie made at Westminster and devised at Grenewich to take awaye Inflammations, and to cease payne, and heale ulcers, called the gray plaster’

The introduction to Henry VIII’s ‘Grey Plaster’, written in brown ink

Henry VIII’s ‘Grey Plaster’ for leg ulcers (England, c. 1540–c. 1545): Sloane MS 1047, f. 44r

Henry’s treatments use numerous plant-based ingredients: fruits and flowers for making pulp of apples (‘pulpe of appulls’), water of strawberries (‘water of Strawe beries’), wine of pomegranates (‘wyne of pomegranate’), oil of lilies (‘oyle of lyllies’), powder of red damask rose leaves (‘pouldre of redde damaske rose leaves’), and water of honeysuckle flowers (‘water of honye suckle flowres’); a wide range of plant leaves with sedative properties, such as henbane (‘henbayne’), mandragora (‘mandrake’), black poppy (‘blacke poppie’), and the poisonous nightshade; wood of guaiacum that was imported from the ‘New World’ (tropical America) and referred to as ‘wood of life’ (lignum vitae) for its purported healing properties, and the red resin of the dragon blood tree that was known as dragon’s blood (sanguis draconis).

Red dots representing the resin from the Dragon Blood Tree that was used for healing wounds

The Dragon Blood Tree in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 89r

Henry and his physicians also made ample use of medicinal waters, metals, minerals and stones. Their recipes included aqua mirabilis (‘miracle water’), a water mixed with spirit-infused spices; ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was a popular cosmetic skin whitener in 16th-century England; Armenian bole, a medicinal red clay from Armenia; terra sigillata, sealed cakes of mineral-rich earth associated with the Greek isle of Lemnos; and lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was highly sought after by illuminators and painters for making the pigment ultramarine, but that was also used for medicinal purposes and already recommended by the Greek physician Dioscorides (c. 49–90) for treating ulcers.

A drawing of the blue stone lapis lazuli

Lapis lazuli in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 51v

Unicorn horn may be the most surprising ingredient in Henry’s treatments. The legendary animal’s single horn was ascribed great cleansing and healing powers in the late Middle Ages. The demand for it created a trade in which narwhal tusk and walrus ivory were sold off as unicorn horn. English kings and queens were regular buyers: Elizabeth I drank from a unicorn horn cup, and James I used a unicorn horn potion for his ailing son. No less than ten of Henry’s recipes require ‘cornu unicornu’ or ‘unicornis horne’. One of these is the ‘Plaster of Horns’.   

Plaster of Horns:

Take 4 ounces of finely powdered litharge of gold [a mineral mixed with lead oxide], 2 ounces of ceruse, unicorn’s horn, hartshorn, oyster shell, red coral, and burn them all up. Take half a pint of oil of roses, and 2 ounces of white vinegar of roses. Put them all in a clean pan on a gentle fire, boiling them while constantly stirring, until it is like a plaster, and then prepare rolls out of them and keep them for your use.

(‘Emplastrum de cornubus:

Take lytherge of golde fynely pouldered iiij unces, ceruse ij unces, unicornes horne, hartes horne, oyster shelles, redd corall, all thiese combusted, and well preparated of eche of them one unce, take half a pynte of oyle of rosys, and ij unces of white vineacre of roses. Putt them all in a fair basyn over a softe fyre, boyling and styrring them styll, tyll yt be plaster wyse, and then make it upp in rolles and kepe it to your use’)

A plaster with unicorn’s horn England, written in brown ink

A plaster with unicorn’s horn: Sloane MS 1047, f. 20v

A unicorn lying down before a virgin who holds his horn while sitting on the trunk of a tree, drawn in brown ink

The unicorn in the Historia Animalium (Italy, 1595): Add MS 82955, f. 191r

Henry also used his knowledge to provide medical advice to others. One recipe in Sloane MS 1047 is addressed to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, queen consort from 6 January to 9 July 1540, and claims to ‘mollifie, and resolve, conforte and cease payne of colde and wyndie causses’.

The introduction to a plaster, presumably made by Henry VIII, for Anne of Cleves

‘A plaster for my ladye Anne of Cleve’: Sloane MS 1047, f. 30v

We do not know how successful Henry’s treatments were, but sources suggest that his medical advice was much valued. Sloane MS 4 contains a recipe for ‘A Medycyn for the pestylence’ that is attributed to Henry (‘Kyng Henry the Eight’) and claims that it ‘hath helpyd dyvers persons’. Moreover, in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545), Henry’s secretary, stated that the king gave him ‘remedies as any learned physician in England could do’ [‘remedyes as any connyng phisician in England coude do'].

A passage from a letter by Sir Brian Tuke to Cardinal Wolsey in which he compares Henry VIII to a learned physician, written in brown ink

Sir Brian Tuke likens Henry VIII to a ‘connyng phisician’ (Hunsdon, 1528): Cotton MS Titus B I, f. 305v

In turning the pages of Sloane MS 1047, one can imagine Henry discussing new medical treatments with his royal physicians, learning from them and sharing his own experiences as both a practitioner and patient. Although Henry is often remembered for his tyranny, our manuscript reminds us that he was highly educated, greatly interested in medicine, and continued to learn and apply his knowledge until the end of his life. 

You can now explore Henry VIII’s treatments — and spot all his unicorn recipes — on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

07 June 2020

Remembering the Field of Cloth of Gold

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Five hundred years ago, on 7 June 1520, in a field in northern France, two monarchs rode to meet each other, doffed their caps, dismounted, and embraced as brothers: they were François I of France (1515–1547) and Henry VIII of England (1509–1547). The two kings met south of the village of Andres, roughly halfway between the French castle at Ardres (Cotton MS Augustus I II 74) and the English castle at Guînes (Cotton MS Augustus I II 12), watched and cheered by their assembled courts. The site had been chosen because it lay on the southern border of the Calais Pale, a territory held since 1347 by the kings of England as part of their claim to the kingdom of France.

Portrait of King François I

Portrait of King François I of France by Godefroy le Batave, 1519: Harley MS 6205, f. 3r

Portrait of King Henry VIII

Portrait of King Henry VIII of England by an unknown artist, c. 1520: National Portrait Gallery 4690

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the driving force behind the meeting between François and Henry, motivated in part by his own personal ambition and a genuine desire to promote peace, but also by the need to create the means whereby his master, Henry, could achieve comparable status to his wealthier and more powerful brother monarchs. To that end, Wolsey had negotiated the 1518 Treaty of London, binding Pope Leo X, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and his grandson, the king of Spain, as well as François, Henry, and more than a dozen other princes and states, to a non-aggression pact. This ‘universal peace’, first proposed by Leo, only for Wolsey to appropriate the idea, made Henry the arbiter of Christendom. But it served the further purpose of reining in François, who had invaded Italy and conquered the duchy of Milan within months of becoming king.

A bird's eye view of the fortification of Ardres

Plan of the French castle at Ardres by Giovanni Rossetti, c. 1543: Cotton MS Augustus I II 74

When Maximilian died in 1519, his grandson succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ruling over Austria, Spain (and its New World empire), the Netherlands, and Naples, making him the most powerful man in Europe. His only real rivals were François and the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. It was in order to forge a powerful place for Henry, under changing geopolitical circumstances, that Wolsey invited Charles to England for talks in late May 1520 before Henry’s departure to meet François. Henry had two options for influencing Charles and François: make magnificent war or make magnificent peace, always with the purpose of playing one off in his favour against the other.

A pen-and-ink drawing of the fortification at Guînes

View of the English castle at Guînes, 2nd quarter of the 16th century: Cotton MS Augustus I II 12

On 31 May 1520, Henry and Queen Katherine of Aragon embarked for France, accompanied by 6,000 of their subjects and all the rich splendour of the court. The meeting with François was to take the form of a tournament, to inaugurate the peace between England and France. Traditional enemies, the two kingdoms had been at war as recently as 1514. Mistrust and hostility persisted. The French were ‘dogs and knaves’, viewed as cowardly and duplicitous; they, in turn, regarded the English as backward and brutish (Correspondance politique de MM. de Castillon et de Marillac, ed. J. Kaulek (Paris, 1885), no. 247).  Yet Henry spoke French well, and French culture had a profound influence on his court and its tastes. Before his meeting with François, for example, the clean-shaven Henry grew a beard in imitation of the French king, giving him the appearance by which we know him today. François was equally cultured. Both men were tall, strong and athletic. Both loved the noble pastimes of hunting and jousting. At François’s request, Henry had his armour adapted to the latest French fashion prior to the tournament.

One of Henry's tents at the Field of Cloth of Gold

A pavilion in the green and white livery colours of the Tudors: Cotton MS Augustus I II 76

After that initial meeting on 7 June 1520, François and Henry demonstrated their princely power and prestige in a daily round of tournaments, entertainments and banquets lasting more than two weeks. Massive temporary palaces were erected to house both the kings and their courts. Some original designs for Henry’s tents survive. One shows a pavilion in the green and white livery colours of the Tudors (Cotton MS Augustus I II 76). The two larger central tents depicted here are linked by galleries. All are decorated with candelabra, arabesque and foliage motifs, showing the influence of the Italian renaissance on the English court (as mediated through France and the Netherlands). So costly and sumptuous were the tents, the tapestries and the hangings decorating and subdividing them, and the clothes worn by the monarchs and their courts, that they lent the meeting its name: the Field of Cloth of Gold or Camp du Drap d’Or. Cloth of gold was fabric woven with silk and gold thread fit for a king.

A drawing of blue tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold

A drawing of red tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold

A drawing of green and white tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold

Other designs for Henry VIII's tents at the Field of Cloth of Gold are found in Cotton MS Augustus III/1, ff. 11r, 18r, 19r

The universal peace that the Field of Cloth of Gold had celebrated proved short-lived, and England and France were once more at war in 1522. Yet Henry’s relationship with François remained complex, an unstable combination of admiration, emulation and enmity, of peace punctuated by war.

 

Alan Bryson

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23 April 2020

St George and the Garter

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On St George’s Day (23 April) 1349, at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, the first annual assembly was held by the Order of the Garter, England’s oldest Order of Chivalry. Dedicated to George, the Order was founded by King Edward III (1312–1377) who wanted to revive the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian Legend. Edward had appointed himself as the Order’s Sovereign, his son Edward the Black Prince (1330–1376) as Royal Knight, and 24 of his most loyal men as Knights Companions. He had chosen the French maxim ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it’) as the Order’s motto, and a blue garter as its emblem, perhaps alluding to the girdle with which St George, according to medieval legend, had tamed a dragon before slaying it.

Two groups of men and women in blue mantles with blue garters on them, standing to the left and right of an altar on which St George on horseback impales a dragon with his lance. Behind him stands a woman with a pink gown and green headwear, and holding a white lamb on a leash, who represents the princess who, according to medieval legend, had been selected through a lottery to offer herself as food to the dragon.

An assembly of Knights and Ladies of the Garter (women were accepted soon after the Order’s foundation), before an altar of St George (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI (The Talbot Shrewsbury Book), f. 439r

The rituals and symbols of the Order of the Garter are described and depicted in many richly decorated medieval and early modern manuscripts. The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp (Cotton MS Julius E IV/3), for example, features an early depiction of the Order’s ceremony for installing new Knights. This ceremony requires the Sovereign, aided by senior Knights, to place the garter — a dark blue velvet riband with a gold buckle and edges — around the newly-elected Knight’s lower left leg, just below the knee. In this manuscript, King Henry IV can be seen giving the garter to Richard Beauchamp (1382–1439), 13th Earl of Warwick as a reward for successfully defeating the Welsh at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1405. (You can read more about the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp in this blogpost.)

A pen drawing showing Richard Beauchamp in full armour receiving the garter around his left leg from a Knight who kneels below him. To his left stands King Henry IV. They are surrounded by other Knights of the Garter

Richard Beauchamp receives the garter from King Henry IV (England, 4th quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Julius E IV/3 (The Pageants of Richard Beauchamp), f. 4v

Many manuscripts describe the history of the Order of the Garter (Harley MS 5415) or explain its statutes and ordinances about membership, functions, qualifications, costumes and ceremonies (Cotton MS Nero D II, ff 252r–265v, Harley MS 235, Harley MS 278, Lansdowne MS 783, Lansdowne MS 1207). These books indicate that the Knights had few obligations, apart from attending the annual assembly, participating in religious services, and wearing the garter whenever appearing in public. Their privileges were both honorific and spiritual: members could hang their swords, helmets, banners, stall-plates with their names, and heraldic devices at St George’s Chapel at Windsor. After death, the remaining Knights would perform large numbers of masses (100 for Knights and 1000 for the Sovereign) for the benefit of their souls.

An opening at the beginning of a manuscript containing the statutes and ordinances of the Order of the Garter, with, on the left page, a full-page drawing of the royal arms of the Order: an escutcheon encircled by the blue garter and with a royal crown in gold and red on top. The escutcheon has two halves: in the left half is the red cross of St George on a silver ground, and in the right half are the quartered royal arms of Queen Elizabeth I, featuring two quarters in blue with three fleurs-de-lis in gold, and two quarters in red with three lions in gold. On the right page, we see the opening of the statutes and ordinances, marked by a gold initial ‘T’, and written in a Gothic script with black ink

The Statutes and Ordinances of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1572): Lansdowne MS 1207, ff. 1v–2r

One important category of manuscripts relating to the Order of the Garter contains their members' coats of arms. Around 1415, the Order created its own officer of arms, known as the Garter King of Arms. In the 1430s, William Bruges (c. 1375–1450), the first to hold that office, created the Order’s first extant armorial, now known as the Bruges Garter Book (Stowe MS 594). The manuscript contains illustrations of the King and the 25 Founder Knights, all wearing heraldic tabards and Garter mantles and displaying their coats of arms. William Bruges himself, as the Garter King of Arms, is shown kneeling before St George.

St George in full armour and with a pink mantle, holding a jousting shield with a red cross on a white ground, and a lance and a sword with which he holds a green dragon down at this feet. To his right is the Garter King of Arms who is wearing a crown and a heraldic tabard with the coat of arms of Henry V (the same as those of Queen Elizabeth I), and is kneeling in prayer

William Bruges wearing a heraldic tabard that displays the arms of King Henry V, kneeling in prayer before St George (England, 1430s): Stowe MS 594, f. 5v

Other heraldic manuscripts from the Order contain collections of the arms of its then members. Their arms are easy to recognize since members had the right to encircle the shields (escutcheons) of their coats of arms with the blue garter, the Order’s emblem.

A list of the Knights of the Garter in the first year of the reign of King Henry V with in the page’s margins the coats of arms of its 26 members, including those of the King. Two have been left unfinished.

Armorial of the Order of the Garter (? London, 1588): Harley MS 1864, f. 2v

An important literary manuscript that is associated with the Order of the Garter’s early history is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps the most famous medieval English romance. This Middle English poem sees Gawain, one of King Arthur's most valiant knights, undertake a quest during which he acquires a magical green girdle. Upon his return to Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table agree to wear a green sash in memory of Gawain’s quest, just like the Knights of the Garter, who would wear their garters on ceremonial occasions. What is more, an early owner of the unique copy of the poem (Cotton MS Nero A X) inscribed a motto below the text that is almost identical to that of the Order: ‘hony soit q[ui] mal penc’. This raises interesting questions about the poem's underlying meaning, and whether it comments on the ideals and practices of the Order.

Above, we can see the inscription of the Order of the Garter’s motto in brown ink in the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Below this image is full-page miniature from the same manuscript, showing Gawain in full armour, kneeling before King Arthur, wearing golden crown and a blue mantle, and Queen Guinevere, wearing a golden crown and a green dress.

The Order of the Garter’s motto (above) and a full-page miniature of Sir Gawain returning to the court of King Arthur after completing his quest in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (North-West Midlands, c. 1400): Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 128v and f. 130r

The Order of the Garter was celebrated in other poetic manuscripts. For example, we have a poem by William Tesshe of York, uniquely surviving in Harley MS 3437, in which he praises the Order’s Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, and honours each of its Knights separately. The manuscript is decorated with their coats of arms in colours and gold.

Another unique poem, extant in Harley MS 6103, is dedicated to George Villiers (1592–1628), who was Marquess of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral of England when he was admitted to the Order in 1620. The poem styles him as St George, his namesake, and claims that he too will curb ‘The conquerd dragon which hee [St George] leadeth tame’. An accompanying full-page illustration adorns Villiers with attributes that are rife with Garter imagery. It displays him as a knight wearing full armour, riding a horse with the arms of the Order on its caparison, holding a lance with a banner that displays St George slaying the dragon in one hand, and a dragon on a leash in the other. The dragon is apparently tamed by the garter that is hanging from its neck, suggesting an analogy between the Order’s emblem and the girdle with which St George subjugated his dragon.

This illustration shows George Villiers in full armour and riding a horse with a red caparison (horse cape) which displays the Order of the Garter’s coat of arms (the red cross of St George encircled by the blue garter). In his right hand, he is holding a lance with a yellow banner that features an image of St George slaying the dragon. In his left hand, he is holding a blue leash that goes around the neck of a small winged red dragon below him. From the dragon’s neck, and attached to the leash, hangs the blue garter with, what appears to be, a sketch of St George slaying the dragon inside it.

George Villiers with the symbols of the Order of the Garter (England, after 1620): Harley MS 6103, f. 3r

Music was central to the Order of the Garter’s religious celebrations at Windsor. The canons who performed its liturgical music produced original music compositions, and they were perhaps responsible for a creative and artistic rendering of a 16th-century melody for the Order’s motto (‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’) that has been inserted on a paper sheet into Royal MS 8 G VII. The music has been written on two 5-line staves that are shaped like the garter and a lance with which a knight charges a dragon. The composition is dedicated to the Earl of Arundel, probably Henry Fitzalan (1512–1580), the 12th Earl, who was admitted to the Order in 1544.

A 5-line music staff with neumes shaped in the form of the garter with inside it a knight charging a dragon with a lance that is made of another 5-line music staff with neumes, forming a melody for singing the Order’s motto in canon.

A canon for the Order of the Garter’s motto written on music staves that are shaped like the garter and a knight’s lance (England, 16th century): Royal MS 8 G VII, f. 1v

The Order of the Garter is nearly 700 years old. The rituals and symbols that its members practise today are preserved in manuscripts of great artistic and cultural value, many of which themselves date back centuries.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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17 April 2020

Henry VIII: the possessions of a Tudor monarch

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King Henry VIII of England (1509–1547) was an extraordinary collector of beautiful and expensive things. Portraits of this Tudor monarch attest to the richness of his wardrobe and possessions. Cloth of gold and crimson velvet, jewelled fabrics, feathered caps, embroidery and fur all feature prominently in these illustrations. We can see evidence of this in a tiny girdle book (Stowe MS 956) that is thought to have been owned by Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn (d. 1536), containing an English translation of the Book of Psalms.

A small portrait of Henry VIII, from a 16th-century girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn

King Henry VIII’s portrait from a girdle book possibly owned by Anne Boleyn: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Surviving manuscripts from the height of the Tudor period give an insight into the enormous scale and variety of Henry’s possessions. In September 1547, 6 months after the King’s death, commissioners were appointed to compile an inventory of all his moveable goods and the contents of his 55 palaces. The task was so monumental and the administrators were so meticulous that it took them 18 months to complete.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing the opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods

The opening of the second part of the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods, compiled after his death in 1547: Harley MS 1419/1, f. 4r

The finished inventory records thousands of objects that present a detailed picture of the splendour and opulence at the heart of the Tudor court. It consists of two parts. The first (now Society of Antiquaries MS 120 A and B) includes lists of money, jewels, books and plate, the munitions in the King’s forts and the King’s ships, as well as the contents of his armouries and stables. The second (now bound in two volumes as British Library Harley MS 1419/1 and Harley MS 1419/2) details the contents of each of the King’s palaces and the various specialist wardrobes in his possession, as well as those of his children and successors, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. This second part of the inventory has been recently digitised and is now available to view in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

A tapestry of the story of Abraham

A tapestry of the story of Abraham from Henry VIII's Great Bedchamber at Hampton Court Palace, now housed in the Royal Collection

The inventory records some extraordinary items that belonged to the royal household. These include:

  • One of the largest collections of tapestries and wall hangings ever recorded, comprising over 2000 items, made from silver, gold, silk and wool.
  • Around 800 carpets, over 200 of which were housed at Hampton Court alone.
  • A stockpile of textiles, including expensive silk cloth of gold and linen, embroidered damask, satin and taffeta, as well as velvet and sarsenet. Their combined value amounted to well over £50,000.
  • A variety of animal furs, from squirrel and lynx to sable and mink, and even leopard, is mentioned in the inventory. These were principally used to line and decorate gowns and robes for members of the king’s household.
  • Collections of brightly coloured feathers to adorn hats and bonnets.
  • Theatrical props and costumes for performances at court, belonging to the Master of the Revels.
  • Huge quantities of jewellery.
  • Numerous items of furniture: chairs, four-poster beds, footstools and dining tables.
  • Musical instruments: cornets, flutes, a harpsichord, portative organs (small handheld pipe organs), viols, virginals, a taberde and bagpipes, including one made of purple velvet and four fashioned out of ivory. Many of these instruments were additionally embellished with gold and fabric, or painted.

A miniature in an illuminated manuscript showing a group of 3 musicians playing their instruments

A miniature of musicians with a pipe and tabor, trumpet, harp and dulcimer, in the Henry VIII Psalter (London, c. 1540–1541): Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 98v

As part of their work, the commissioners of the 1547 inventory also provided lists of the books and manuscripts that Henry housed in his palaces. Many of Henry’s books were transferred to the Old Royal Library after his death, and subsequently became part of the British Library’s collections when they were presented to the nation by King George II (1727–1760) in 1757. Excitingly, it is possible to identify several of the books mentioned in the inventory from the descriptions provided.

The crimson velvet binding of a manuscript, which belonged to Henry VIII

A manuscript with a crimson velvet binding, recorded in the 1547 inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV

One item, for example, is recorded in the inventory as:

a description of the holy lande and a boke covered with vellat enbrawdred with the kings armes declaring the same, in a case of blacke leather with his graces Armes.

The text referred to here is in fact a French work entitled ‘Tresample description de toute la Terre Saincte’, written by a man who identifies himself as Martin de Brion of Paris. The manuscript is now housed in the British Library (as Royal MS 20 A IV), along with its beautiful crimson velvet binding, embroidered with the arms of England and France with fleur-de-lis, roses and crowns, and the letters H. H. on either side.

An illuminated page from a 16th-century manuscript, showing a dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, written in gold ink on a red background.

A dedicatory letter to Henry VIII, from a 16th-century manuscript once part of the king’s possessions: Royal MS 20 A IV, f. 2r

In addition to the description of the Holy Land, the book also includes a dedicatory letter and poem addressed to Henry, which begins:

Au tres illustre Prince Henry huyctiesme de ce nom Roy d’Angleterre et de France, seigneur d’Hybernie, & defenseur de lay foy, Martin de Brion Parisien donne salut immortel.

'To the most illustrious Prince Henry eighth of this name, King of England and France, lord of Ireland, and defender of the faith, Martin de Brion of Paris sends immortal greetings.'

A chemise binding for a 16th-century manuscript, made of burgundy velvet, with five painted enamel badges pinned its covers and a small tassel attached to its top left-hand corner.

The original chemise binding of a manuscript once belonging to Henry VIII: Harley MS 1498, upper cover

Another fascinating manuscript that was in Henry’s possession and still survives was originally made for his father, Henry VII (1485–1509). It is listed in the inventory as 'Item a booke of Kynge Henry the viith his foundacion of his chappell at Westminster'. The book was apparently stored in the little study next to the king’s old bedchamber in the palace there. The small volume (Harley MS 1498) has an original chemise binding, made of burgundy velvet and pinkish gold damask, with five painted enamel badges pinned to its upper and lower covers. A small tassel is affixed to the top left-hand corner, made from gold and burgundy thread.

A detail from a 16th-century manuscript, showing an enlarged decorated initial with a representation of Henry VII bestowing a manuscript a group of kneeling monks.

Henry VII bestows the manuscript to a group of kneeling monks from Westminster Abbey: Harley MS 1498, f. 1r (detail)

The manuscript preserves a series of four agreements (indentures) made on 16 July 1504 between Henry VII and the abbot and monks of Westminster Abbey, concerning the planned construction of the King’s new burial chapel. This copy seems to have originally belonged to the abbey, but probably became part of Henry VIII’s personal library after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The volume opens with an enlarged decorated initial, containing a representation of a crowned and enthroned Henry VII bestowing the manuscript to a group of monks kneeling before him. If you look closely, you can see that the book in Henry’s outstretched hand shows the same five enamel badges and the burgundy and gold tassel that remain part of the manuscript’s binding to this day.

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall made in 1544

A sketch of the Palace of Whitehall in 1544 by the Flemish artist Anton van den Wyngaerde

For more insights into life at the Tudor court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, we recommend this blogpost. You can read more about the libraries of King Henry VIII in James Carley, The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives (London: The British Library, 2004). The inventory itself has been edited by David Starkey, The Inventory of Henry VIII. Society of Antiquaries MS 129 and British Library MS Harley 1419: The Transcript (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1998).

We hope you enjoy searching the inventory of Henry VIII’s moveable goods online, and that you can spot more treasures recorded in its pages.

 

Calum Cockburn

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19 October 2019

Drawing a blank: an attempt to save the life of Charles I?

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Leafing through Harley MS 6988, it would be easy to flick past an unobtrusive empty page towards the end of the manuscript. Upon closer inspection, however, this ‘blank’ may be one of the central documents of the trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Harley MS 6988 contains royal letters and warrants from between 1625 and 1655, chronicling the reign of King Charles I from his accession to his execution for treason, along with the development of the Civil War. Although one page towards the end of the manuscript is empty, this ‘blank’ is nevertheless as revealing as it is enigmatic.

On the right-hand side is the signature ‘Charles P’, while the left bears the Prince’s seal. In the hand of William Oldys (1696–1761), a previous owner of the document, is written: ‘Prince Charles his Carte Blanche to the Parliament to save his Father’s Head 1648’. A carte blanche is a blank paper on which a recipient can write their own conditions, essentially a pre-signed offer of full discretionary power.

A blank paper with Prince Charles’s signature and seal

The suspected carte blanche sent by the Prince: Harley MS 6988, f. 222r

Is this empty sheet a carte blanche sent by Prince Charles (the future King Charles II) to Parliament as a last-ditch offer in exchange for his father’s life?

The question has been discussed in an article by T.C. Skeat, who notes that several early historians thought it probable that the paper was genuine: according to an account in the 1663 book Flagellum: or the Life and Death, Birth and Burial of Oliver Cromwell, ‘a Blank with the Kings Signet, and another of the Princes’ was given to Colonel John Cromwell, ‘for [Oliver] Cromwell to write his own conditions in, if he would now preserve the life of the King’.

In 1766 the story was linked to the blank pages of Harley MS 6988, when William Harris wrote in his biography of Charles II that, ‘I know there is in the British Museum a blank paper, at the bottom of which, on the right hand, is written Charles P. and on the left, opposite thereunto, a seal is affixed’.

However, it is questionable whether Prince Charles would have made such an offer on the eve of his father’s execution. Letters from the King to his son had instructed against any concessions on religion. Earlier in Harley MS 6988, King Charles I wrote to the Prince, ‘I command you to do nothing, whether it concerns war or peace, but with the advice of your council, and that you be constant to those grounds of religion and honour, which heretofore I have given you’ (f. 208r).

A letter addressed to Prince Charles, signed by King Charles I

The King instructs his son to be constant in religion and honour: Harley MS 6988, f. 208r

On the other hand, as Skeat noted, the offer of a carte blanche was a familiar strategy during the period. Soon after the King’s execution, James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, was also sentenced to death for treason. His family protested, but Parliament refused to ‘hearken to the Earl of Denbigh, who proposed, on behalf of Duke Hamilton his brother-in-law, to give them a blank signed by the said Duke, to answer faithfully to such questions as should be there inserted’.

Royal figures are also found appending their signatures and seals to documents containing blank spaces to be filled in later, such as the 1601 licence in the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS X.d.70) signed by King James I, and the c. 1648 bond signed by Prince Charles now in the National Archives (SP 16/516 f. 225).

Although the empty page in Harley MS 6988 may have been ‘intentionally left blank’ by Prince Charles, it is not certain whether it was indeed a carte blanche intended to ‘save his Father’s Head’. Skeat concluded that the story was genuine, writing that ‘it seems almost perverse to refuse to accept the Carte Blanche as the very document with which the Prince of Wales sought to preserve his father’s life’. Despite uncertainties around its original purpose, the surviving leaf in Harley MS 6988 is a tantalising witness to a tempestuous historical moment, as well as a reminder of the potential of the blank page.

 

Amy Bowles

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