19 October 2019
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.
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).
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.
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13 April 2019
We are pleased to offer a new, 18-month fixed-term curatorial position for an early career post-doctoral researcher, who will join the Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots exhibition project team. Working closely with the exhibition curators, project manager and other key internal and external stakeholders, the post-holder will contribute to the development and delivery of the exhibition, which is scheduled to open at the British Library in October 2020.
Drawing of the coat of arms displayed by Mary, Queen of Scots, when Queen-dauphine of France: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula B X, f. 13r.
The principal duties of the post-doctoral researcher will include:
- applying their specialist skills to collaborate with the curators in the preparation for and delivery of the exhibition on Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots;
- managing the administration of the curatorial content of the exhibition by maintaining digital databases and Excel spreadsheets relating to the object list and images;
- and organising the exhibition advisory panel meetings.
Key aspects of the job will be to conduct background research on items selected for inclusion in the exhibition; to write explanatory text for the exhibition, exhibition catalogue and online exhibition resources; and to prepare external visits and show & tells for the Library's Development Office and International visitors. The ability to describe and present manuscripts from the Tudor period clearly and accurately in English is essential.
The successful candidate will have completed recently a doctoral degree in 16th-century British history or another directly relevant field, and have specialist knowledge and research experience of the history of the British Isles in the second half of the 16th century. They will have experience of working with manuscripts and a strong knowledge of early modern palaeography, with the ability to read 16th-century English handwriting fluently. Because the post-holder will be working both independently and as team, the successful candidate will possess a high level of time-management skills and the ability to liaise effectively with colleagues in the Western Heritage Collections and other Library departments.
The interview may include questions about the date and content of a manuscript to be shown at the interview.
For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: 02724.
Closing Date: 6 May 2019
Interview Date: 16 May 2019
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12 February 2019
Only five contemporary manuscript portraits of identifiable Anglo-Saxon rulers survive. Recent visitors to the British Library or to this Blog are probably already familiar with one of them. This is the illuminated miniature featuring King Edgar (959–975) which forms the frontispiece of the New Minster Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), confirming the rights of the reformed church at Winchester. It is the 'frontispiece' of our sold-out exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, adorning the posters as well as the entrance to the Library.
In this blogpost, we look at some of these Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits, alongside contemporary European examples.
King Edgar with the Virgin Mary, St Peter, Christ in Majesty and angels (New Minster, Winchester, c. 966): Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v
In the New Minster Charter, made in around 966, King Edgar, facing towards the heavens, presents a golden copy of the document to Christ. The Virgin Mary and St Peter look on approvingly. The fact that he is surrounded by saints and handing the charter straight to Christ reminds the viewer of his status as a pious, Christian king, ruling with divine blessing. These themes were all central to the idealised representations of the royal office in the early medieval Christian West.
Depicting the king holding a politically important document, in the shape of a book, is more remarkable in the context of early medieval ruler portraits. This emphasised Edgar as a learned king, to whom the written word was significant, but also visually confirmed his politically motivated patronage of the New Minster. It exemplified the key motifs of the specifically Anglo-Saxon image of kingship and queenship, in which the ruler was shown to be actively involved with learning, patronage of the Church, and the production or use of texts and books. These motifs set the Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits apart from those of their early medieval contemporaries.
The Continental approach to portraying rulers makes this contrast clear. Throughout their mutual history the Anglo-Saxons and their neighbours across the Channel, the Carolingians, were in close contact. The most famous and influential ruler of the Carolingian dynasty (c. 714–877), whose empire covered most of western Continental Europe, was Charlemagne (768–814).
Emperor Lothar I enthroned (the court of the Emperor Lothar, ?Aachen, c. 840–855): Add MS 37768, f. 4r
No contemporary illustrations of Charlemagne have survived, but there is a striking depiction of his oldest legitimate grandson, Lothar I (817–855), in the manuscript known as the Lothar Psalter (Add MS 37768).
Roman imperial portraits were the main source for early medieval ruler portraits. This link became even more important to the Carolingians when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800. The resulting emphasis on imperial majestic splendour and military authority is clearly seen in Lothar’s portrait. His golden and jewel-encrusted crown is matched by an extravagant cloak of gold, covered in gems. The entire backdrop is a deep purple — the colour associated specifically with emperors since Antiquity because of the exceedingly high value of the pigment. In his hands he holds a long sceptre, recalling the sceptrum Augusti (sceptre of imperial majesty) of the Roman emperors, and the hilt of a sword, drawing visual comparisons to the military status of the imperial role.
The Anglo-Saxon ruler portrait closest in time to that of Lothar is also the earliest surviving. In a manuscript containing Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert, King Æthelstan is depicted presenting the book itself to St Cuthbert (d. 687). Cuthbert was a monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, whose cult became increasingly popular across northern England. The image commemorates Æthelstan’s gift of the manuscript to St Cuthbert’s community, while also associating the king with the patronage of a politically significant religious centre, and the production of a book containing works by an eminent Anglo-Saxon author.
King Æthelstan presenting St Cuthbert with the book (South England, c. 934–939): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v
Despite Æthelstan’s many diplomatic connections with Continental rulers (not least exemplified by his gifts of books), the Continental focus on the extravagant stateliness and military might of the monarch has not influenced this portrait. He humbly bows his head to the saint; only his crown betrays his grand status.
The surviving Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits also stand apart when it comes to the depiction of queens. Hardly any portraits of Carolingian queens survive, but during the Ottonian dynasty (c. 919–1024) double-ruler portraits of the queens alongside their husbands or sons became popular.
Christ in Majesty crowning Henry II and his wife Kunigunde, with St Peter on the left and St Paul on the right. Below is the female personification of Rome, with female personifications of Gallia and Germania on either side (Reichenau, c. 1007–1012): Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452, f. 2r
For instance, the Evangelistary of Henry II (Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4452) contains an extravagant image of the future coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II (1014–1024), and his wife, Empress Kunigunde of Luxembourg (d. 1040). Christ crowns both Henry and Kunigunde, while St Peter supports Henry on the left, and St Paul supports Kunigunde on the right. Kunigunde is depicted as equal in size to her husband, but it is Henry who stands on the right of Christ, symbolically the place of honour.
In the lower register stands the female personification of Rome, holding a sceptre. Beside her are female personifications of the territories of Gallia and Germania (the primary territories of the king and queen, respectively). Undoubtedly, this represents the joining together of Henry and Kunigunde’s territories into one Holy Roman Empire, underlining the political importance of their union.
Queen Emma, one of the most important political figures in 11th-century England, is depicted in two of the five surviving Anglo-Saxon portraits. In one, the New Minster Liber Vitae, she is depicted next to her second husband, King Cnut, in a manner similar to the double-coronation portrait of Henry and Kunigunde. But in a slightly later manuscript (Add MS 33241) there is a decidedly different portrait of her.
Queen Emma enthroned, with two of her sons in the background, receiving the Encomium Emmae reginae (northern France or England, mid-11th century): Add MS 33241, f. 1v
Emma alone is enthroned and centrally placed in this image, whereas her two sons (both of whom became king) peer slightly awkwardly from behind a pillar. Moreover, she is shown receiving a copy of the manuscript, which contains the Encomium Emmae reginae ('In Praise of Queen Emma'). This is a highly political work, commissioned to portray Emma's past actions in a more favourable light, while smoothing over the current, turbulent political situation. It is entirely appropriate for her to be portrayed as the central character and as a queen in her own right and with her own independent agency.
You can read more about some of the manuscripts featured in this blogpost on the British Library's Anglo-Saxons webspace. Due to incredible demand, all tickets to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition have now been sold.
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29 January 2019
Emma of Normandy was one of the most significant figures in the turbulent politics of 11th-century England. She was queen to two kings of the English (Æthelred the Unready and Cnut), and mother to two more (Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor) as well as being an influential figure in her own right. We know more about her than other women in Anglo-Saxon England thanks to a variety of charters, illuminated manuscripts and a biography written during Emma's own lifetime.
Detail of Emma from the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, c. 1031): Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
Emma was born in Normandy in the early 980s. Her brother, Richard II, duke of Normandy (d. 1026), sent her to marry the English king, Æthelred the Unready, following a dispute regarding Viking forces that were attacking England and Normandy. When in England, Emma was sometimes known by the English name Ælfgifu. With Æthelred, she had at least three children: Edward the Confessor (who ruled England from 1042 to 1066); Alfred; and Godgifu.
When King Æthelred died in 1016, he was succeeded by Cnut, bringing England into an empire that stretched to Denmark, Norway and into the Baltic. Emma married King Cnut sometime in 1017, and they had at least two children: a son, Harthacnut; and a daughter, Gunnhild. The children from her first marriage (Edward, Alfred and Godgifu) went into exile in mainland Europe.
Emma persuades Cnut to give land to Archbishop Lyfing (Canterbury, 1018): Stowe Ch 38
Emma seems to have been a crucial figure in Cnut’s government, with surviving documents showing her advising the king. A charter on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (at the British Library until 19 February) emphasises that Cnut gave land to the archbishop of Canterbury at Emma’s request. In the early days of Cnut’s reign, Emma may have helped him establish alliances with important English institutions, such as the church at Canterbury.
It is quite fitting that the only surviving manuscript portrait of Cnut also features Emma at his side. This portrait can be found in the Book of Life of the New Minster, Winchester. The couple are shown standing on either side of the altar at that monastery, where they were remembered as major benefactors.
Emma and Cnut from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
After Cnut’s death in 1035, Harald Harefoot, his son by a previous wife, succeeded to the English throne. In 1036, Emma’s sons from her first marriage, Edward and Alfred, invaded England to challenge Harald, believing that they had their mother's support. Their coup was unsuccessful, and although Edward escaped, Alfred was captured, blinded and killed. Edward never seems to have completely forgiven his mother for what he perceived as her role in Alfred’s death.
When Harald Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut, Emma’s son by Cnut, became king of England. However, in 1041, Harthacnut’s half-brother, Edward, became joint ruler of England, perhaps facilitated by Emma.
Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 1v
Around this time was written the text known as Encomium Emmae reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’). This is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives). This work was probably composed for Emma by a monk of Saint-Bertin, in Flanders, who appears to have re-framed history to justify Emma’s actions. Emma’s first husband, Æthelred, is not mentioned in this work, with Cnut being portrayed as the rightful ruler of England.
Emma may have used the Encomium to shape both the present and the future. The earliest surviving manuscript (Add MS 33241) ends with an account of Edward and Harthacnut ruling jointly: ‘here the bond of motherly love and brotherly love is of strength indestructible’. In 1042, Harthacnut died and Edward the Confessor became the sole king of England. At this stage, the author re-wrote the final part of the text.
Ending of the earliest surviving copy of the Encomium Emmae reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 67r
In 2008, a later medieval copy of the Encomium emerged at auction. This copy is now held at the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen. The ending in this manuscript praised King Edward, and suggests that it was written when Edward had become sole king after Harthacnut’s death in 1042. Although Edward’s father, Æthelred the Unready, was not mentioned at all in the earlier version of the text, Edward and his lineage were praised in the new ending.
Edward’s relationship with his mother did not necessarily improve. At the beginning of his reign, Edward deprived Emma of much of her wealth and banished her for a period from his court. She died in 1052 and was buried at Winchester.
Emma’s political influence had far-reaching consequences. She both stabilised Cnut's Anglo-Danish dynasty and provided the man who supplanted it, Edward the Confessor. Later chroniclers even suggested that Emma’s marriage to King Æthelred the Unready led to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, since it gave her great-nephew, William of Normandy, a claim to the English throne.
You can view several of the manuscripts connected with Queen Emma, including the New Minster Liber Vitae and the oldest version of the Encomium Emmae reginae, in the British Library's once-in-a-generation exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. It's on in London until 19 February 2019, and we strongly advise (due to high demand) that you buy your tickets in advance.
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26 October 2018
Alfred, king of the West Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, is the only English monarch to be traditionally known as the ‘Great’. He was renowned for defeating the Vikings and for overseeing one of the first great periods of English literature, but he did not govern all of the region that we now know as England. Instead, his grandson, Æthelstan, was the first king to control the area that covers what we know as England. Æthelstan was more militarily successful than Alfred, and he had equally glowing cultural credentials. Both kings feature prominently in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February, 2019), which leads us to ask: who was greater, ‘the Great’ or the grandson?
Alfred and Æthelstan, as depicted by Matthew Paris in his Abbreviated Chronicles of England, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 7v
The case for Alfred hinges on his resilience and also the intellectual activity at his court. He was, perhaps, an unexpected king, being the youngest of the six children of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The start of Alfred’s reign was not auspicious. He became king during a period of fierce fighting with Viking forces and was forced to retreat into a swamp (contrary to popular myth, he probably didn’t burn any cakes in the process). Nevertheless, Alfred persevered and he eventually established a peace treaty with the viking leader Guthrum, who became his godson. A copy of this treaty is on display in the exhibition.)
Alfred’s endurance was personal as well as military. According to members of his court, Alfred had mysterious illnesses which became acute during communal events, including his own wedding. Alfred corresponded with distant figures including the patriarch of Jerusalem, seeking medical remedies that would ease his suffering.
'All this Lord Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem, ordered to be said to King Alfred', from Bald’s Leechbook: Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 106r
Alfred owes much of his later reputation to the literary output of his court in the later decades of his reign. His reign saw a flourishing of Old English literature, from the compiling of the earliest manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the translation and adaptation of classical Latin texts into Old English. Some of these translations were even credited to Alfred personally, although the extent of his involvement is debated. Alfred encouraged other people to learn, by sending some of these Old English translations round his kingdom. In the exhibition you can see the copy of the Old English adaptation of the Pastoral Care — Pope Gregory the Great’s tract on leadership — that Alfred sent to the bishop of Worcester.
Opening page of Asser’s Life of Alfred: Cotton MS Otho A XII/1, f. 1r
Crucially for Alfred’s later reputation, a biography about him survives. The Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred) was written by Asser, a Welsh clergyman at Alfred’s court who became bishop of Sherborne. No other biography survives for an Anglo-Saxon king. Asser presented Alfred as perfect in every way. Asser’s Alfred was an heroic warrior, a learned man who invented everything from new types of ships to a candle clock, and a generous friend. His children were amiable and intelligent. Even Alfred’s illness was presented as a gift from God. Asser provided an unusually intimate portrait of the king, although his account was designed to promote Alfred's wider interests.
Portrait of King Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v
But was Alfred really the greatest king? What about his grandson Æthelstan, the first king of England? Æthelstan was the first southern king to exercise real control over the East Midlands, East Anglia and the North. He claimed control of Northumbria in 927, after the death of his brother-in-law Sihtric, the Scandinavian ruler of York. Æthelstan gained important northern allies, such as the powerful community of St Cuthbert. It was around this time that coins and charters gave him the title ‘king of the English’ (‘rex Anglorum’). But Æthelstan’s ambitions did not end there: his documents show him styling himself ‘king of all Britain’ and ‘emperor’. In 937, Æthelstan and his brother Edmund defeated a combined force of the kings of Dublin, Scots, Strathclyde and others at a place called Brunanburh.
Æthelstan’s victory was celebrated in a dramatic Old English poem copied into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
‘King Æthelstan, lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men, and his brother also, Edmund atheling, won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle ’round Brunanburh. [They] clove the shield-wall, hewed the linden-wood shields with hammered swords … the people of the Scots and the pirates fell doomed. The field grew dark with the blood of men … Never yet in this island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither form the east, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country.’ (translated by D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, London, 1961), pp. 69–70.)
End of the Brunanburh poem from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS B: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 32r
Æthelstan was also involved in European politics. At least four of his half-sisters married into noble continental families, while the rulers of Brittany, Norway and Francia sent their sons to be fostered at Æthelstan’s court. Æthelstan also helped his nephew Louis try to claim to the throne of West Francia, and even sent ships to help him attack the Flemish coast.
As was the case with Alfred, Æthelstan’s court was an intellectual hub that attracted scholars from Ireland, Italy, the Frankish realms and beyond. Æthelstan himself was a noted bibliophile: four of the books he owned are on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Even the charters produced during Æthelstan’s reign can be read as learned works of literature as much as legal documents.
Opening lines of St Mark’s Gospel, from a gospel-book apparently given by the future emperor Otto I to King Æthelstan: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 75r
Æthelstan was also generous. We have proof of this in the form of inscriptions that note the books and treasure he gave to churches, some of which still survive.
In addition to being a successful warrior, a bookworm and the first king of England, Æthelstan has the distinction of being the first Anglo-Saxon king for whom a contemporary, painted portrait exists. A manuscript on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge depicts Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert. The book itself seems to have been intended as a gift from Æthelstan to St Cuthbert’s community, to ensure their continued support of the first king of England.
So who was the greatest, Alfred or Æthelstan? Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on at the British Library until 19 February 2019) and decide for yourself.
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13 October 2018
This weekend marks two important anniversaries. 13 October is the feast-day of King Edward the Confessor, who ruled England from 1042 until his death in January 1066. His successor, King Harold II, was killed 952 years ago at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066. In the week that our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, opens at the British Library, here is some of the manuscript evidence for these last kings of Anglo-Saxon England.
Hastings is often cited as ‘the end of Anglo-Saxon England’. But how ‘English’ were these last Anglo-Saxon kings? Harold had a Norse name, and his parents were closely linked to King Cnut, who ruled England and Scandinavia; while Edward the Confessor spent most of his formative years in exile in Normandy.
Seal of Edward the Confessor: LFC Ch XXI 5
Although Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, his saint’s day was eventually set for 13 October: the last day England was ruled by an ‘English’ king, as opposed to a Norman. (A handy tip: you can enter Westminster Abbey for free on this day, since Edward’s shrine is there.) But Edward had many close connections to Normandy. His parents were Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, the daughter of Richard I, duke of Normandy. During Edward’s childhood, England was repeatedly attacked by Scandinavian forces.When he was about 10, he fled to Normandy wih his mother, his brother Alfred and his sister Godgifu. After Æthelred died, Emma returned to England to marry the conquering King Cnut, but Edward and his siblings remained in Normandy, probably living with their relatives.
When King Cnut died in 1035, Alfred and Edward, now in his 30s, invaded England in order to claim the throne. They were probably supported by Norman forces and possibly encouraged by Emma. After being defeated, Edward escaped but Alfred was captured, blinded and killed by Cnut’s son, Harald Harefoot. Edward seems never to have forgiven his mother for marrying Cnut or for her role in their failed coup.
Harald Harefoot died in 1040 and Emma’s son by Cnut, Harthacnut, succeeded to the throne. Harthacnut and Emma had trouble retaining power, so Emma invited Edward to return from Normandy and rule as king alongside Harthacnut. Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast and died, and Edward was crowned as sole king of England in 1043, when he was around 40 years old. Up to that point, he had spent three-quarters of his life outside England.
Portrait of Emma being presented with the Encomium Emmae Reginae, while Harthacnut and Edward look on, c. 1041: Add MS 33241, f. 1v
One of Edward’s first actions within a few months of becoming king was to deprive Emma of her property. He still had many Continental connections. His inner circle included his relative Ralph of Mantes, who stationed troops in England. Edward also promoted the interests of the Norman abbot Robert of Jumièges, who was eventually made archbishop of Canterbury. He also promoted Leofric, a Cornishman educated in Liège, to be his bishop of St Germans and Crediton (Exeter). In 1051, Edward even hosted a visit from his cousin, William, duke of Normandy.
The only record of William the Conqueror visiting England before the Conquest, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 74r
Another close advisor to Edward was his father-in-law, Earl Godwine. Godwine was an English noble, but he had risen through the ranks of Cnut’s regime and had married a Scandinavian woman. A sign of these connections is the Norse names he gave some of his sons: Swein (Sven), Tostig and Harold. While Harold may not have grown up outside England, he still travelled widely and his family relied on the support of Continental powers.
In 1051, after Earl Godwine had a dispute with Eustace of Boulogne and Edward's other Continental advisors, his family fled to Bruges. His sons travelled to Flanders and Scandinavia to raise a fleet to force Edward to allow them to return, and Harold travelled to Ireland, also seeking support. The family succeeded in being reinstated. Harold also travelled much further afield, to Flanders, the German lands and Rome, where he collected relics.
Further evidence of connections on both sides of the English Channel, even before the Norman Conquest, is that Harold had probably stayed at the court of William of Normandy. In 1064, two years before they faced off across the battlefield at Hastings, William and Harold may have even fought together during William’s campaigns in Brittany. Later Norman sources made much of this meeting, claiming that Harold swore on relics to allow William to succeed Edward as king of England. These claims seem slightly too convenient in light of the later Norman Conquest. However, The Life of King Edward commissioned by Harold’s sister mentioned that ‘Harold had a tendency to be too generous with his promises. Alas!’
Opening page from the Vita Ædwardi Regis: Harley MS 526, f. 38r
Whatever happened between Harold and William, when Edward died in 1066, Harold was swiftly elected king by the English nobility, who claimed that Edward has nominated Harold on his deathbed. Harold’s 10-month reign was dominated by warfare, first with the Welsh kings and then with challengers for his own throne. England was attacked from the sea by the Scandinavian leader Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig. Harold defeated Harald Hardrada and Tostig was killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English king then immediately marched South, since William of Normandy had landed on the coast and was devastating the surrounding countryside.
Account of Harold Hardrada's and Tostig’s attacks, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 162v
On 13 October 1066, as Harold marched to confront William's invading forces, few could have predicted the sweeping changes that would occur when William won the Battle of Hastings. English government, the aristocracy, architecture and the English language would undergo radical change in the following decades. But some things did not change. English rulers, nobles and tradespeople had close links to the Continent before the Norman Conquest, and there was already cultural and artistic exchange between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the wider world.
You can discover more about these connections in the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).
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03 August 2018
The 870s were probably not King Alfred’s favourite decade. His brother, King Æthelred I had died after Easter 871, and Alfred became king in the middle of fierce fighting with viking forces. According to entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled later in Alfred’s reign, West Saxon forces fought no fewer than nine battles that year alone. Alfred himself may have narrowly avoided capture. The rest of the decade did not go much better. His kingdom remained under attack as two ‘great armies’ advanced across the island, while neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kings were killed or disappeared.
Entries for the years 872-876 in the second-oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 19r
Remarkably, a document survives on a single sheet of parchment from these turbulent early years of Alfred’s reign. It is one of only three documents in Alfred’s name that survive in copies made during his lifetime: the others are British Library Cotton MS Augustus II 28 and Canterbury, DCc/ChAnt/F/150 (formerly D. & C., Red Book no. 11). This particular document records how, in 873, the archbishop of Canterbury sold land at Ileden in Kent to a man called Liaba for 25 gold coins, apparently with King Alfred’s permission:
‘In the name of the nourishing, three-part divinity, I, King Alfred, with the consent and permission and advice of my wise counsellors, in hope of eternal reward. I, Æthelheard, archbishop, and all my household from Christ Church give to Liaba, Birgwine’s son, [the land that] we call Gilding … for 25 coins of good gold ...’
Grant of King Alfred of the West Saxons (r. 871–899) and Archbishop Æthelred of Canterbury (d. 888) to Liaba, 873: Stowe Charter 19
This charter gives an important insight to events besides warfare that were taking place in Alfred’s domains, events which were often omitted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s panicked narrative for the 870s. Land was still being bought and sold. The church at Canterbury may even have been motivated to sell off their property to pay for extra defences, as has been suggested by Susan Kelly and Nicholas Brooks.
This charter also suggests that Latin learning had somewhat declined at Canterbury, or at least that documents were being written by people whose grammar and syntax left something to be desired. Charters produced at Canterbury had shown a decline in the quality of Latin and handwriting since the reign of Æthelwulf, Alfred's father; but this particular charter-writer made some spectacular errors. The first sentence is missing a verb. It starts out as though it were a charter issued by King Alfred, then switches suddenly to record a sale by the archbishop of Canterbury. Did the writer start writing one document and then change his mind? The writer routinely swapped ‘b’ for ‘u’, writing ‘obserbe’ instead of ‘observe’ (obserbare for observare). He also used ð, a symbol used to represent the ‘th’ sound, for ‘d’, even though the ‘th’ sound did not really exist in Latin. Most jarringly, the scribe occasionally replaced words in common phrases with something that sounded similar but does not quite make sense. For example, he tried to warn that anyone who contravened the terms of this sale would have to ‘give his account before the Lord’ (coram Deo … rationem reddere). However, he instead wrote ‘sciad se rectum redditurum coram a Deo’, which could be uncharitably interpreted as ‘render his bottom/intestine before God’. The charter-writer also copied the witness-list from older sources, so it includes several people who were long dead by 873.
Detail of Stowe Ch 19, including the Old English addition in a darker ink
That said, while the script of the charter may not have been the finest and the Latin not the most grammatical, it was still valued. Soon after it was made, a different hand added in English, ‘Leafa [another spelling of Liaba?] bought this charter and this land from Archbishop Æthelred and from the community at Christ Church, with the freedom as that given to Christ Church, in perpetual possession’. On the back of the document, a contemporary scribe wrote, ‘This is the charter for Gilding’, so that it could be easily identified.
The dorse of the charter: Stowe Ch 19
After the rocky start to his reign, Alfred’s fortunes improved. He won major battles and secured his territories. There was such a revival of learning in the 890s that Alfred’s name became associated with one of the first major flowerings of English literature.
The British Library's Anglo-Saxon charters have now been added to our Digitised Manuscripts site. To learn more about Alfred and the later part of his reign, please come to our major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, which opens at the British Library on 19 October 2018.
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19 April 2018
As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.
In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).
These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.
As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r
As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.
Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r
Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.
Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v
The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.
Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.
Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r
The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.
God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r
The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.
Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.
Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.
John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.
Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.
Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.
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