16 March 2023
Claim of thrones
Who was the first Queen of England in her own right? Matilda? Lady Jane Grey? Mary? Does Isabel of Portugal spring to mind?
To set the scene. On 21 May 1471, King Henry VI of England (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) died at the Tower of London, the prisoner of his rival Edward IV (r. 1461–1470, 1471–1483), the first Yorkist king. Henry had no surviving heirs, and his death took place during the Wars of the Roses, a time of political turmoil in England. For over a century, the English throne had been disputed by two rival families: Lancaster and York.
Amidst this conflict, and only a month after Henry VI’s death, Isabel of Portugal (b. 1397, d. 1471), dowager Duchess of Burgundy, laid a claim to the English throne. In a solemn document issued on 17 June 1471, Isabel declared herself universal heiress of the late king. The charter in which Isabel claimed her rights to the crown of England (Add Ch 8043) has been digitised for our Medieval and Renaissance Women Project.
Isabel of Portugal claims her rights to the crown of England and declares herself universal heiress of Henry VI, the late king: Add Ch 8043
Isabel of Portugal, dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was the daughter of João I, King of Portugal (r. 1385–1433), and Queen Philippa of Lancaster (b. 1360, d. 1415). Through her maternal lineage, Isabel shared a common ancestor with King Henry VI of England: John of Gaunt (b. 1340, d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster. John of Gaunt was Isabel’s grandfather and Henry VI’s great-grandfather. It was on the grounds of this consanguinity (the kinship of two individuals characterized by the sharing of common ancestors) that Isabel made claim to the English throne.
John of Gaunt and his relationships with the ruling houses of Portugal and Europe, including Isabel of Portugal (in red, right-hand margin), from the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 10r
The charter was signed by Isabel herself, and it was validated by two notaries, Hugo de le Val and Matheus de Hamello, clergymen of the city of Arras in France (‘presbiter canonicus Atrebatensibus’). These notarial marks, together with Isabel’s signature, conferred legal validity upon this document.
Close-up of Isabel’s signature and two notarial marks: Add Ch 8043
However, Isabel did not hold on to her claim to the English throne for long. Only a few months later, on 3 November 1471, she ceded her rights to her son, Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy. At this time Isabel was 74 years old, and she died soon afterwards, on 17 December 1471, in the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in France. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, ruled over England until 1483, surviving both Isabel and Charles the Bold, mother and son.
Charles the Bold, son of Isabel of Portugal, and his court: Yates Thompson MS 32, f. 14r
Although her claim never succeeded, this document demonstrates that Isabel of Portugal tried actively to take advantage of a time of political instability and unrest in England, in order to advance her own position and, more hopefully, that of her son. Isabel was well aware of her lineage to the late Henry VI, and at a time of turbulence and doubt during the Wars of the Roses, she did not hesitate to assert herself as universal heir.
We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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02 March 2023
Venusse was her name
How were royal children brought up in the Middle Ages? A manuscript newly digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project supplies us with clues. Add MS 37656, a household account book compiled in 1305 by John de Claxton, keeper of the wardrobe, demonstrates how women were in charge of key aspects of the care of two medieval princes, Thomas of Brotherton (b. 1300, d. 1338) and Edmund of Woodstock (b. 1301, d. 1330).
The household account of Princes Thomas and Edmund: Add MS 37656, f. 1r
Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock, afterwards Earls of Norfolk and Kent, were the fifth and sixth sons of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and the first by his second marriage to Margaret of France (b. c. 1279, d. 1318). At the time when this household account was compiled, the princes were four and three years old respectively. and lived primarily in the royal residences at Ludgershall (Wiltshire), under the supervision of a governess (‘magistra’) named Lady Edelina de Venusse. Lady Edelina was in charge of the princes' upbringing, wellbeing and provisioning, and she played a key role in their education. She was in charge of administering their household, and even had a damsel at her service.
The children of Edward I in a genealogical roll (Thomas of Brotherton and Edmund of Woodstock are on the right: Royal MS 14 B VI, f. 7r
Together with Lady Edelina, another nine women are mentioned in this account. One of them is none other than Mary of Woodstock, Thomas and Edmund’s older half-sister, who was a nun at Amesbury Priory but spent significant periods of time visiting and living with her younger siblings. The other women named in this record are mostly unknown, and this account is almost certainly the only evidence of the roles they played within the royal household. Among them are three nurses or nursemaids, two women assistants, a washerwoman, and the damsel who served Lady Edelina. Here is list of all the women mentioned in the household account:
- Lady Mary of Woodstock, nun of Amesbury and the sister of Thomas and Edmund.
- Lady Edelina de Venusse, governess (‘magistra’) of the princes’ household.
- Mabel of Raunds, Thomas’ nurse (‘nutrix’).
- Perretta de Poissy, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Edmund.
- Erembourga, nursemaid (‘berceressa’) of Thomas.
- (Unnamed) damsel of Lady Edelina.
- Annis of Northampton, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
- Pernell de Boweys, woman assistant (‘muliere coadjuvante’).
- Matilda, washerwoman (‘lotrix’).
- A certain Joanna, who is said to be 'the daughter of Isabella'.
These women not only provided the care and upbringing of the young princes, but they were also the recipients of numerous gifts and pieces of clothing. For example, Lady Edelina, Mabel the nurse, and Erembourga and Perretta, the nursemaids received coloured cloth to make corsets for themselves. Queen Margaret also ordered gifts valued at £12 13s 4d for Edelina, Mabel and Perretta as a reward for the work they had undertaken in caring for Thomas and Edmund.
The entries recording the gifts to Edelina, Mabel and Perretta (the first paragraph of this page): Add MS 37656, f. 4v
The household account also records a series of objects and items that were bought for the royal children, providing us with a glimpse of day-to-day life during their early childhood. One of the entries records that a certain Martin the Minstrel was given 2 shillings as compensation for his services, but also for the repair of his drum, which had been broken by Thomas and Edmund, presumably when they were playing with the instrument. It is also noted that, during a time when Edmund was ill, sugar candies, apples, pears and, notably, a urinal were purchased for him. The princes also enjoyed the company of a pet ferret that was bought for them to catch rabbits.
An overhead view of Ludgershall Castle, home to the prince and their household, courtesy of English Heritage
This household account of Thomas and Edmund provides an invaluable insight into the roles played by women in the upbringing of the royal children. It also demonstrates how female care-providers could be highly regarded and amply rewarded, in the royal household at least.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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15 January 2023
Wheel of approval
Medieval rulers often issued documents, such as privileges, grants and mercies, to assert their sovereignty. Castile was no exception to this rule. The most solemn type of document produced by the medieval Castilian chancery was known as the ‘privilegio rodado’ (literally, ‘privilege with a wheel’). One such charter is a confirmation of a grant of lands issued on 30 December 1254 by the Castilian royal couple Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) and Violante of Aragon (b. 1236, d. 1300/1). This charter (Add Ch 24804) has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.
The confirmation grant by Alfonso X of Castile and Violante of Aragon: Add Ch 24804
Alfonso X’s interest in books, scholarship and the promotion of arts, history, law and literature was well known by his contemporaries, so much so that his patronage earned him the moniker ‘The Learned’ or ‘The Wise’. He had married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King Jaume I of Aragon and Violante of Hungary, in 1246, when he was still heir to the throne. Together, Alfonso and Violante ruled for over thirty years, although their marriage became strained after the death of their heir, Fernando de la Cerda, in 1275.
Alfonso X and Violante of Aragon with their son, Fernando de la Cerda: Archivo Histórico Nacional, Códices, L. 1002, f. 23r
The recently digitized ‘privilegio rodado’ was co-issued by both monarchs, which means that they granted it jointly. Both their names, Alfonso and Violante, are highlighted equally in the charter. Moreover, the use of the diplomatic formula ‘reigning as one’ (‘regnante en uno’) emphasised the importance of the female members of the royal family, including Violante and the royal daughters in the issuing clause of the charter. Hence, the use of the phrase ‘reigning as one’ reflected the participation of both members of the royal couple in the affairs of the kingdom.
‘Rey don Alfonso regnante en uno con la Reyna doña Yoland mi mugier et con mis ffijas’ ('King Don Alfonso reigning as one with Queen doña Violante, my wife, and my daughters'): detail of Add Ch 24804
King Alfonso X regulated extensively the structure of the ‘privilegio’ and how it needed to be granted, as described in the ‘Siete Partidas’, one of several legal codes produced throughout his reign. (You can read more about this treatise in our blogpost on the law-code of Alfonso.)
King Alfonso dictates to a scribe: Add MS 20787, f. 1v
In the ‘Siete Partidas’, Alfonso X established the various elements that ensured the legal validity of the ‘privilegio’, and which bestowed it with an impressive appearance. The most striking element was the ‘signo rodado’, a wheel at the very centre of the charter. King Alfonso details in the ‘Siete Partidas’ that this should be ‘a flourish, in the shape of a circle’, which ought to include in the middle ‘the name of the king who bestows the grant, and outside of the latter should be signed by the name of the standard-bearer and of the royal steward’ (Siete Partidas, Partida III, Title XVIII, Law II).
In the inner circle of our charter we can read: ‘SIGNO DEL REY DON ALFONSO’, that is, the sign of King Don Alfonso.
In the outer circle: ‘DON IVAN GARCIA MAYORDOMO DE LA CORTE DEL REY LA CONFIRMA + EL ALFEREZIA DEL REY VAGA’, that is, the steward and the standard-bearer of the King confirm it.
Alfonso X’s ‘signo rodado’ confirming the charter: Add Ch 24804
Other elements that bestowed the ‘privilegio’ with legal validity were the ‘chi-ro’ or ‘christogram’ at the beginning of the charter, as well as the extensive witness list of lay nobles and ecclesiastical magnates. In this instance they included the Moorish kings of Granada, Murcia and Niebla. Once written, the charter was sealed with a leaden seal, affixed by a silken cord. The original silk threats have survived on our document, together with the seal that shows the arms of Castile and Leon, namely a castle and a lion.
Obverse and reverse of the leaden seal attached to the grant: Add Ch 24804
Throughout the Middle Ages, charters, grants and documents were dated using different dating systems, In Castile, the customary system was the ‘Era Hispánica’ or Spanish Era. However, the dating clause could also include a reference to an extraordinary or unusual event which happened in that year. In this case, the charter is also dated ‘in the year in which Edward, first-born son and heir of King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272), was knighted by King Alfonso X in Burgos’, that is, in 1254. Lord Edward, son of Henry III (and the future King Edward I), had travelled to Burgos to be knighted before his wedding to Eleanor of Castile, half-sister of Alfonso X, King of Castile. Hundreds of people gathered in Burgos for that occasion.
The dating clause of the charter, which reads: ‘en el anno que don Odoart ffijo primero et heredero del Rey Henrric de Anglatierra recebió cavallería en Burgos del rey don Alfonso’: Add Ch 24804
The striking wheel, the magnificently preserved seal and the original silk threads make this charter a particularly fine example of a ‘privilegio rodado’, and a rare survival within the British Library’s collections.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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11 January 2023
Prince Henry Frederick: a second Alexander
A star item in the British Library's current exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, is this unique, full suit of armour decorated with scenes of Alexander’s glorious deeds in gold. It was made for Prince Henry Frederick (1594–1612), son of James I of England and VI of Scotland, who was addressed by the poet, Henry Peacham in his Basilica Emblemata as ‘the second Alexander, the nurturing hope of Britons’.
Prince Henry Frederick’s armour (Netherlands, c. 1607): London, Royal Armouries II.88 © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
When Sir Francis Vere formally presented the armour to Prince Henry in 1608, he was following a long-established tradition of gift-giving between rulers and the elite within society. Fine quality armour and weapons provided legitimacy to ruling dynasties, strengthening diplomatic links, and securing patronage for the donors.
Henry Peacham addressing Prince Henry as the 'second Alexander' in his Basilica Emblemata: Royal MS A 12 A LXVI, f. 38v (detail)
Sir Francis Vere’s younger brother, Sir Horace, probably took the leading role in the armour’s creation. Both brothers had long military careers in the Netherlands and were closely connected to the princely House of Nassau. The evolution of this spectacular armour can be attributed to this relationship. Why, though, did they choose Alexander the Great as the decorative theme?
Role models from Antiquity were very much part of a princely education. Alexander, despite certain character flaws, was still seen by many as an example of a strong, successful military ruler. Moreover, Henry’s father, James I (king of England 1603–1625), placed particular emphasis on the prestige and authority of monarchy. Direct associations between Prince Henry and Alexander the Great increased as he approached adulthood. To many, the young prince reflected the hopes and aspirations of those committed to active English military intervention in the Low Countries.
James Cleland, Le Pourtraict de Monseigneur le Prince, where the poet describes Henry as 'Alexander of the great Britain': Royal MS 16 E XXXVIII, f. 4v
The designs on this armour are unique; no other example is known to have survived in which the decoration completely revolves around Alexander the Great. This is very clearly a piece of art, as well as a functioning piece of military equipment. Stylistically, the decoration bears a very strong resemblance to armour represented in the portraits of other members of the House of Nassau. By the early 17th century, the centres for the production of fine armour had largely moved to the Netherlands and France. Figures from Antiquity, including Alexander, were often incorporated into the decoration. The designs on the borders of Prince Henry’s armour are similar to other examples; 17th-century drums appear alongside modern weapons, but all with a distinct Hellenistic flavour. Many of the shields contain faces that are reminiscent of Greek drama, perhaps an oblique reference to the Jacobean love of theatre.
Masks, weapons and drums on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
Given the nature of the narrative presented, it seems likely that the armour was meant to be read piece by piece from the feet upwards. This is the order in which an armour was attached to the body. Oval cartouches containing various episodes in Alexander’s campaign are positioned in a broadly accurate chronological sequence, with each piece of armour representing different stages in the campaigns. As the eyes move up the front of the body, Alexander progresses from Palestine into Afghanistan, reaching India on the helmet. Key events are represented along the way, including the battle of Hydaspes on the arms (vambraces), including formations of elephants on the left and right.
Alexander’s army battles the Elephants of Porus, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
On the back of the armour, the campaigns following Hydaspes are represented. On the backplate are the marriages of Alexander to the Bactrian princess Roxanne, and of his generals to other women. This was perhaps a veiled reference to the importance of dynastic marriage. Alexander’s return to Babylon brings the series to a close; on arrival he meets a priest of Baal, with a group of camels in the background.
Alexander marries Roxanne, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
One could explain the narrative of the armour simply within the context of martial prowess and military conquest. The stories of Alexander appear to follow the classical texts of Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus and others, with the focus primarily on military exploits. Yet there are also warnings for the young prince. In a number of scenes, the relationship between Alexander and his royal companions is shown positively. He is seen fighting alongside them and demonstrating his personal prowess by taking part in lion hunts, then rewarding them for loyal service and receiving gifts from them.
A lion hunt, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
Conversely, in one image, Alexander is seen seated with his body language suggesting he is at odds with his two companions. And on the rear of the armour, the Macedonian army is shown in revolt against Alexander, and returning home by ship.
The mutiny of the Macedonian army against Alexander and their departure on ships, on the armour of Prince Henry Frederick: London, Royal Armouries II.88 (detail) © Courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Armouries
The positive aspects of brotherhood-in-arms were clearly on the minds of the English military community, but so, too, were the pitfalls. They could represent a threat to the success of Prince Henry’s much anticipated reign. Sadly, he died of typhoid aged 18 before he could become king.
Prince Henry Frederick armour has been kindly loaned by the Royal Armouries to the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, where it is on display until 19 February 2023.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors. You can discover more about the legends of Alexander the Great on our website.
Malcolm Mercer, Curator of Tower Armouries and Art, Royal Armouries
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03 December 2022
The emperor and the Sun King
As the creator of one of the first and largest multicultural empires of the ancient world, Alexander the Great inspired generations of later rulers to follow his example. Soon after his death in 324 BC, his successors used his legacy to legitimise their own rule. Some of them put Alexander’s portrait on their coins, others fashioned their own portraits to look like him, hoping to be regarded as his heirs and descendants.
Alexander’s face with the horns of the god Ammon, on the tetradrachm of Lysimachus, Alexander’s successor as King of Thrace (305 BC–281 BC): British Museum, 1841,B.506.
As legends about Alexander and his conquests spread in the ancient Mediterranean, new leaders were inspired by his legacy. In 62 BC, when serving as the young governor of Spain (Hispania Ulterior), Julius Caesar read Alexander’s histories in his free time. According to his biographer Plutarch, Caesar burst into tears, lamenting that, 'while Alexander, at my age was king of so many people, I have achieved no brilliant success'. Later, Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, was so deeply indebted to Alexander’s legacy that he made a pilgrimage to his tomb in Alexandria.
Gustave Claude Étienne Courtois, Emperor Augustus at Alexander’s Tomb in Alexandria (1878): Vesoul, Musée Georges-Garret (Wikimedia Commons)
As the glory of Alexander gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, he was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of half-mythical heroes associated with military success and just leadership. In the 16th century, as the more legendary aspects of Alexander’s legacy faded, he became regarded as a talented statesman and politician, being invoked in English royal propaganda as well as by the French monarchy.
In the 17th century, Louis XIV, one of the most powerful French monarchs (often called the 'Sun King'), loved to compare himself to Alexander the Great. At the peak of his rule in the 1660s, Louis's identification with Alexander strongly influenced his style of kingship.
Charles Le Brun, Entry of Alexander into Babylon (1665): Musée du Louvre (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1661, Louis commissioned a series of enormous paintings from his court painter, Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). The five paintings executed by Le Brun were meant to be designs for Gobelin tapestries, to be woven in Paris and hung in the royal palace. Le Brun’s canvases represented Alexander’s greatest military successes: the defeat of Porus in India, the battle at Granicus and Arbela, and the clemency of Alexander to the family of Darius, the defeated Persian emperor. Le Brun emphatically identified Alexander with Louis: the ancient hero has the facial features of the French king in all of these paintings.
Jean Racine dedicated his play Alexandre le Grand to Louis XIV, comparing him to Alexander as the wisest king on Earth (Paris: Pierre Trabouillet, 1672): British Library, C.30.a.20.
Louis’s aspiration to become the new Alexander went beyond the figurative art he commissioned. In his 1665 tragedy Alexandre le Grand, Jean Racine, Louis’s court playwright, addressed the king as a monarch 'whose fame spreads just as far as Alexander’s'. In addition to his political and military achievements, Louis was a talented dancer who often performed in courtly celebrations. In the grand ballet La Naissance de Venus, authored by Isaac Benserad (1613–1691) with music by Jean Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Louis danced the role of Alexander on the stage.
Louis XIV performing Alexander the Great in the Ballet Royal de la naissance de Vénus: dansé par sa Majesté (Paris: Robert Ballard, 1665): British Library 839.e.2.(8.), p. 54
Louis’s propaganda, portraying himself as the Alexander of his time, reached beyond his own court. The artwork, literature and music identifying him with the Greek hero spread to other European countries. Racine’s tragedy was followed by various Alexander plays in western Europe. Le Brun’s enormous paintings were also adapted for wider circulation. His Alexander compositions were woven in tapestries and purchased by European royalty, including George I of England, who placed them in the Queen’s Gallery at Hampton Court Palace.
Alexander’s Entry to Babylon, woven silk and wool tapestry (early 18th century): Royal Collections Trust RCIN 1079
The image of Louis as Alexander spread far and wide. A fan from late 17th-century Italy represents Alexander’s triumphal entry into Babylon based on Le Brun’s painting in the Louvre. The composition of the painting was adapted to the curved shape of the fan by shifting the trophy-bearers to the far right. The artist emphasised the identification of Louis and Alexander by replacing the yellow cloak that Alexander wore in Le Brun’s painting with a striking blue one, traditionally associated with the French monarchy.
Alexander’s entry into Babylon, on a folding fan (Italy, 1690–1700): Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 2276-1876.
The fascination of Louis XIV with Alexander the Great, resulting in some of the finest art and literary works of his time, is one of the many entangled aspects of Alexander’s afterlife across two millennia. Join us to explore these incredible adventures in the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, until 19 February 2023, or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great.
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for supporting the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
08 November 2022
The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile
A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.
This manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online.
The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r
This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:
Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.
'Parchment. 16 February , in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'
Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v
Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.
A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.
Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129
Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.
A crowned woman hunting in the margins of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), which was made for Alphonso, son of Eleanor of Castile and Edward I: Add MS 24686, f. 13v
The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.
The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.
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06 November 2022
Mary, Queen of Scots: two new acquisitions
Following hot on the heels of the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, we are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two documents relating to Mary, Queen of Scots’ imprisonment in England. The first, Add MS 89480, is a letter written by the Scottish queen just 5 weeks after she dramatically escaped from Lochleven Castle and fled into England in May 1568. The second, Add Roll 77740/1, is a set of official financial accounts for Mary's upkeep at Wingfield Manor and Tutbury Castle for the period 18 December 1584 to 27 February 1585 (with Add Roll 77740/2 being a duplicate set of the same accounts).
The opening of the official financial accounts for the upkeep of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 1
On 16 May 1568, Mary and a small group of supporters crossed the Solway Firth in a fishing boat and landed at Workington in Cumberland. The following day, Mary was apprehended by the Deputy Governor of Cumberland and escorted to Carlisle Castle, where she was held under armed guard. Mary wrote immediately to her cousin, Elizabeth I, requesting refuge and military aid to regain her Scottish throne. She described the treasonable actions of her enemies and expressed ‘the confidence I have in you, not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’.
Over the coming days and weeks, Mary persisted in writing long impassioned letters to ‘her nearest kinswoman and perfect friend’, unaware that Elizabeth had already been persuaded by her chief advisor, William Cecil, not to meet with her unwelcome guest. At first, Mary continued to press for an audience with Elizabeth to plead her cause, but as the weeks went by her letters became increasingly reproachful and she complained bitterly about being ‘dishonoured by the refusal of your presence’ and the injustice of her imprisonment.
Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Jacques Bochetel, Sieur de la Forest, 26 June 1568: Add MS 89480
The newly-acquired letter has remained in a private collection in France since the late 1800s and is therefore unknown to scholars. It was written at the exact point Mary realised her English captivity would not be temporary and that Elizabeth was being disingenuous towards her. It is one of the first pieces of evidence for this change of attitude and marks the moment when Mary turned instead to her French family and supporters.
Mary's signature at the foot of the letter: Add MS 89480
Mary sent the letter from Carlisle on 26 June 1568 to Jacques Bochetel, the French ambassador to England, petitioning him to lend her servant George Douglas 300 écus and to provide safe conduct for him to travel to France for an audience with Charles IX. The first part of the letter is written in a French secretarial hand, but Mary also added a few lines of her own in order to give her request greater force. George Douglas had played an instrumental role in Mary’s escape from Lochleven Castle and was now being entrusted to carry her letters to Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Other letters by Mary to Charles and Catherine survive in French and Russian archives, in which she petitioned for French aid to her supporters in Scotland and to help her escape imprisonment.
By the time the financial accounts were compiled in 1585, Mary had been held in English captivity for almost 17 years. She had recently been transferred into the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, and his official correspondence for the same period reveals the pressure he came under to provide for his charge as cheaply as possible. On 18 January 1585, Lord Burghley informed Sadler, ‘hir Majesty … willed me to wryte ernestly unto yow, now at your being at Tutbury, to devise how the chardg may not excede above the rate of mdll (£1500) by yer.’ The accounts may have been drawn up precisely to inform this cost cutting exercise. They offer a fascinating snapshot of Mary’s life as a prisoner as well as the considerable costs and logistics involved in her upkeep and security.
The different types of meats consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 2
The accounts reveal that Mary continued to be treated as a queen during her confinement. She was attended upon by a large household, dined under her canopy of state and enjoyed elaborate food. She was served two courses at both dinner and supper, with each course consisting of a choice of 16 individual dishes. The accounts provide a detailed record of monies received and paid out for a wide range of foodstuffs, from bread, butter and eggs to meat (beef, mutton, lamb, veal, boar, pork), poultry (capons, geese, hens, heron, partridge, blackbirds) and fish (cod, salt salmon, eels, herring, plaice, haddock, sole, oysters, pike, roach, carp and trout). Also included are spices (pepper, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace), exotic items (oranges, olives, capers, dates, almonds, figs), and sweet luxuries (marmalade, caraway biscuits, sucket or fruits preserved in heavy syrup), as well as wine and ale.
Some of the exotic foodstuffs consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 3d
Costs for household supplies are also listed. These include lighting, fuel, cooking utensils and brewing equipment, cord for bedsteads, a bucket for the well, ‘mattinge for the Quenes lodginge’, and soap ‘for washing the Queenes lynnen and the naperie of the house’. In addition, the salaries of laundresses, turnspits, purveyors and labourers are recorded alongside specific charges for ‘mendinge the crome and scouring of armour’ and ‘settinge up and making of bedstedes’. Even though Mary was only occasionally permitted to ride, she continued to keep her own horses. The accounts provide a list of stable expenses such as payment for lanterns, rushes, hay, oats and litter, and for the ‘showinge and medicyninge of the horses’.
The final portion of the accounts sets out the cost of moving Mary, Queen of Scots, from Wingfield Manor to Tutbury Castle in January 1585: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 5
Despite enjoying a deluxe form of house arrest, the accounts remind us that Mary was very much a prisoner of the English crown. The 1580s were a time of escalating religious crisis in Europe. Elizabeth’s ministers, fearful for the safety of their queen and the survival of Protestant England, ensured that Mary was kept under increasingly tight security. The salaries of 40 soldiers who kept watch over her are listed in the accounts, with a final entry setting out the cost of Mary’s removal from the pleasant Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire to the much more remote and secure location of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire in January 1585.
We are extremely grateful to Jeri Bapasola for supporting the acquisition of Mary’s letter. Both items are available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room. They have also been digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project, funded by Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be viewed online: letter of Mary, Queen of Scots (Add MS 89480); household accounts for Mary's upkeep (Add Roll 77740/1 and Add Roll 77740/2).
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25 October 2022
How King Henry VIII read the Psalter
A new exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England has recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition showcases the artistic legacy of the Tudors and reveals how England became a thriving home for the arts as the Tudor monarchs increasingly used imagery to legitimise and define the dynasty.
Among the magnificent array of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, visitors will have the opportunity to see five items from the British Library, including Henry VIII’s personal Psalter, which has been loaned to the United States for the first time.
The Psalter was commissioned by the King himself in 1540 and written and illustrated for him by Jean Mallard, a French scribe and illuminator. It is a lavish production and is still in its original binding, which although quite threadbare, retains traces of deep red velvet. The Psalms are written in an elegant, humanist script and accompanied by exquisitely decorated initials showing birds, insects, fruit, flowers and foliage.
But the Psalter’s true significance lies in its main illustrations, four of which depict Henry, and its annotations written by the King. Taken together, they demonstrate that by the 1540s Henry perceived himself as King David of the Old Testament who, according to tradition, composed the Psalms and whose story was used to justify Henry’s declaration of independence from Rome and to define the Royal Supremacy. It’s little wonder then that the Psalter is more heavily marked up than any other manuscript owned by the King. His copious handwritten notes provide evidence of him probing and contemplating the Psalms, eager to discover what they had to teach him in his new role as ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’.
Visitors to the Met’s exhibition will see the Psalter displayed open at the first Psalm, which is accompanied by an image of Henry portrayed as David. He is shown sitting in his bedchamber, diligently reading and following the guidance of Psalm 1, which begins ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly … his will is in the law of the Lord.’ To reinforce the point that he considered himself one of the blessed who, as the Psalm instructs, meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, Henry commented ‘nota quis sit beatus’ (note who is blessed).
The Psalter contains another three illustrations that link Henry with King David. The second, which prefaces Psalm 26, shows David about to slay Goliath. David is recognisable as Henry, while Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who had excommunicated Henry in 1538. Contemplating this image, which represents the liberation of England from papal authority, must have given the King great satisfaction. The titulus or explanatory gloss added by Mallard in the margin reads ‘Christi plena in Deum fiducia’ (Christ’s full trust in God). One of Henry’s distinctive ‘tadpole’ signs draws attention to the words. They would certainly have resonated with Henry, who was convinced that his enemies would be sought out and destroyed because, like David, he put his trust in the Lord.
Psalm 52 is accompanied by an illustration of Henry sitting in his Privy Chamber and playing a harp to identify him with the Psalmist. He is accompanied by his jester Will Somers, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship for more than two decades. Appearing rather dejected, the royal fool looks out of the picture towards the first verse of the Psalm, which tells us ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’.
The image accompanying Psalm 68, which begins ‘Salvum me fac’ (Save me, O God), illustrates an episode in the Bible when David is forced to choose between three terrible punishments for his sinful behaviour. The image shows Henry VIII as a penitent King David, kneeling in supplication among the ruins. Mallard’s titulus, which translates as ‘In his distress Christ invokes God’, reminds the reader that David’s torment prefigures that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Several of Henry’s annotations also show him identifying with the Old Testament King and searching for guidance. One of the clearest examples is found next to Psalm 88. Using red crayon, Henry noted that the Psalm contains ‘the promise made to David’ and uses a wavy line and tadpole sign to highlight the verses ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty, and have exalted one chosen out of my people. I have found David my servant, with my holy oil I have anointed him.’
A small number of Henry’s annotations, however, reveal more human concerns. One of the most poignant is found alongside the first half of verse 25 of Psalm 36 which reads: ‘I have been young and now I am old’. Henry, who was in his early fifties, very overweight and in poor health, must have been painfully aware that his time on earth was drawing to a close, and noted that this is ‘dolens dictum’ (a painful saying).
You can see this fascinating manuscript in person at The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England which runs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 8 January 2023, or view it online at our Digitised Manuscripts website.
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