23 March 2022
We recently put out a request for readers to suggest manuscripts for our Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project. The call is now closed, but we wanted to say a HUGE 'thank you' to everyone who contributed. We have been thrilled by the response. We received over 60 nominations for manuscripts that have some connection with the lives of women in Britain and Europe between 1100 and 1600. And we were extremely gratified by all your kind comments about our project, either added to the blogpost or sent via Twitter or email.
One manuscript nominated for Medieval and Renaissance Women is this copy of the Rule of the Minorite Order of Sisters of St Clare, illuminated by Sibylla von Bondorff (Swabia, c. 1480): Add MS 15686, f. 32r
We are currently collating these suggestions, and assessing them against our criteria for selection (such as the condition of each manuscript and its suitability for digitisation). We are keeping a list of all the nominations, so that even if they are not selected this time round, we will bear them in mind for future projects, if funding allows. It was great, in any case, to see such a wide variety of manuscripts put forward, in so many different languages, from across the whole period, and relating to so many different subjects, from women's education to domestic and economic life to female health. We are delighted to have so many different ideas to choose from.
Another nomination is a manuscript of the Revelations of Bridget of Sweden, which has several marginal illustrations (England, 15th century): Harley MS 612, f. 78v
The British Library would once again like to thank Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous support for Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will be updating you on this Blog over the coming months about the progress of the project.
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24 August 2021
Tickets are now on sale for the British Library’s major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens (8 October 2021–20 February 2022). This will be the first exhibition to consider Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots together, putting both women centre stage and giving them equal billing.
Using original documents and contemporary published sources, the exhibition will take a fresh and revealing look at the extraordinary story of two powerful women, bound together by their shared Tudor heritage and experience as fellow sovereign queens, but divided by their opposing Protestant and Catholic faiths and their rivalry for the English and Irish thrones.
Despite their fates being intertwined, the two queens never met in person. Instead, their relationship was played out at a distance, much of it by letter. These thrilling documents, written in their own hands and recording their speeches, lie at the heart of the exhibition and will enable visitors to step back into their world and understand how, from amicable beginnings, Elizabeth and Mary's relationship turned to suspicion, distrust and betrayal.
The exhibition will demonstrate how the queens’ relationship also reflected a much broader story. It will explore the context of the religious reformation that divided Europe between Catholics and Protestants, revealing how Elizabeth and Mary’s battle, first for dynastic pre-eminence within the British Isles, and then for survival, became inseparable from the national religious struggles of their respective kingdoms. The exhibition will further show how the queens’ rivalry over the throne profoundly shaped England and Scotland’s relations, both with each other, and with France and Spain.
Elizabeth and Mary will highlight the rise of state surveillance and the development of a sophisticated intelligence network during a time of plots, treason and rebellion, and the ever-present fear of international conspiracy and foreign invasion.
At the core of the exhibition will be highlights from the British Library’s outstanding collection of 16th-century royal autograph manuscripts, historical documents, printed items, maps and drawings. These will be accompanied by a number of exceptional paintings, objects, jewellery and textiles borrowed from collections across the UK.
To whet your appetite, here is a small selection of some of the items that will be on display:
• Elizabeth’s handwritten trilingual translation of Katherine Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545), which was a gift for her father Henry VIII: British Library, Royal MS 7 D X
• Elizabeth I’s mother of pearl locket ring (c. 1575), which opens to display miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn: ©The Chequers Trust
• Bird’s-eye view map of London, Westminster in Middlesex, and Southwark in Surrey, by William Smith, 1588: British Library, Sloane MS 2596, f. 52*r
• Richard Lee, bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh (May 1544): British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I II 56
• Letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Elizabeth I to announce her arrival on English soil (1568): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C I, f. 94v
• Portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower, 1567: © Private collection
• Elizabeth I’s speech dissolving parliament in 1567, in which she attacked MPs' questions about the succession as ‘lip-laboured orations out of such jangling subjects’ mouths’: British Library, Cotton Ch IV 38 (2)
• Rare printed copy of the papal bull known as Regnans in Excelsis, issued in Latin in 1570, announcing Elizabeth I’s excommunication on grounds of heresy: British Library, 18.e.2.(114*)
• Ciphered letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1570): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C II, f. 74r
• Mary, Queen of Scots’ longest letter, sent to Elizabeth I to complain about her sufferings in prison (1582): British Library, Cotton MS Caligula C VII, f. 81v
• Cipher used by Mary, Queen of Scots, to communicate with Anthony Babington (1586): ©The National Archives, Kew, SP 12/193/54, f. 123r
• The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22) © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)
• Robert Beale’s eye-witness drawing of Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution (1587), depicting her entering the hall, disrobing, and placing her head on the block: British Library, Add MS 48027, f. 650*r
• Drawing of Elizabeth’s funeral procession (early 17th century): British Library, Add MS 35324, f. 37v
• James VI, Basilikon doron (1599), written for Prince Henry, on successful kingship and printed in Edinburgh: British Library, G.4993., sig. [A]3v–[A]4r
The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly-illustrated catalogue, edited by Professor Sue Doran, and available for purchase from the Library’s online shop from 8 October.
A full programme of public lectures, talks, panel discussions and cultural events will also accompany the exhibition. Tickets for the first three events are now on sale:
- Monday 4 October: Professor John Guy, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots: Two Queens One Future
- Wednesday 13 October: Professor Sue Doran, Too Close to Her Throne: The Other Cousins
- Thursday 21 October: Dr Amy Blakeway, Mary Queen of Scots: The Power and the Glory
Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens will be on show at the British Library from 8 October 2021 to 20 February 2022. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.bl.uk/events/elizabeth-and-mary.
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30 August 2020
Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1758) is considered to be the first female scholar of Old English and one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. She was supported in her scholarly pursuits by Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the founder of the Harley collection, and his Library-Keeper Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), another renowned scholar of Old English.
The youngest of eight siblings born to a merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Elizabeth initially received private education under her mother’s tutelage. When her mother died in 1691, she was sent to her uncle Charles Elstob, Prebendary of Canterbury, who was opposed to the education of women. Despite his disapproval, Elizabeth began studying ancient and modern languages. She subsequently moved in with her brother William, a clergyman and scholar in Oxford, who introduced her to the leading Old English scholars of their day. In 1702, they moved to London where she began publishing major works on the Old English language.
An engraved portrait of Elizabeth Elstob: Add MS 29300, f. 39r
Among Elizabeth’s publications were an edition of the Latin Athanasian Creed with an Old English interlinear gloss (1708); an edition and translation of the Old English Life of Pope Gregory the Great by the Benedictine monk Ælfric of Eynsham (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). The latter was the first grammar of Old English published in modern English. Up to that point, scholarship on Old English had been mostly in Latin, so this was an important publication for making the study of Old English more accessible to students and amateur female scholars alike. While preparing a complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, she worked with her brother William on his editions of the Old English adaptation of Orosius’s History of the World and Old English legal texts.
The initials of William Elstob and Elizabeth Elstob from a transcript of Textus Roffensis which they collated with the original manuscript in 1712: Stowe MS 960, f. 3r
During her career, Elizabeth received the support of Robert Harley at a time when he practically was Prime Minister and enjoyed great proximity to Queen Anne (1665–1714). On two occasions, she petitioned Harley for financial support from Queen Anne in order to publishing her edition of Ælfric’s Homilies. She was successful in her second attempt, as evidenced from a letter in which she thanked him ‘for so great a Favour’.
Elizabeth Elstob’s letter to Robert Harley: Harley MS 7524, f. 30r
During her career, Elizabeth was in close contact with Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian collection. Aside from consulting manuscripts herself at the Bodleian Library and the Cottonian Library, she made ample use of Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts that he had published in 1705 with the support of Robert Harley. Her respect for his work is clear from a letter dated 1709, in which she explained that she abandoned her plan to make an edition of the Psalms in Old English after learning that Wanley was already working on an edition of the Bible in Old English:
‘I had a design upon the Psalms, but since that, Mr. Wanley tells me he is preparing the whole Bible: of which the Psalms make a part, I cannot allow myself to interfere with so excellent a person, tho’ he has been so generous as to offer me, all the assistance he can give’
Elizabeth Elstob on Humfrey Wanley: Add MS 29300, f. 40r
Wanley also greatly valued Elizabeth’s scholarly work. He transcribed a manuscript at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for her publication on the Old English Life of St Gregory, and he incorporated a number of her works into the Harleian Library. Elizabeth sent him a genealogy of the Elstob family to the year 1710, and a separate descent of her mother’s family, which traced her ancestry back to Brochwel Ysgithrog, a 6th-century king of Powys. Wanley was clearly impressed with the genealogies that she had expanded by researching and citing Old English and Latin sources. He inserted them into a 17th-century manuscript with pedigrees from the Palatinate of Durham; in cataloguing the manuscript, he attributed them to ‘that ingenious virgin gentlewoman Mrs Elstob’ (A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1808–12), II, p. 29).
The ancestry of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother Jane Hall, drawn up by her for Humfrey Wanley: Harley MS 1397, f. 238r
Wanley also expressed his appreciation when, in 1712, Elizabeth presented him a facsimile reproduction on parchment of an early 12th-century manuscript containing the 'Annals of Rochester' (Textus Roffensis), an important source for the study of law in early medieval England. Wanley paid her five guineas and catalogued the manuscript, noting that 'Mrs Elstob hath finely imitated the Hand-writing of the [...] Textus Roffensis' (Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, II, p. 272).
Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of Textus Roffensis, featuring an initial decorated with Christ and a dragon: Harley MS 1866, f. 9r
The Harleian Library also obtained a second parchment manuscript with a facsimile of Textus Roffensis written and decorated by Elizabeth Elstob.
Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of King Alfred’s laws: Harley MS 6523, f. 9r
In 1715, Elizabeth’s scholarly career came to an abrupt end when her brother died suddenly. She was left with financial debts from their joint publishing projects and without any support, since Queen Anne had died before sending her the funding secured by Robert Harley. Perhaps in an attempt to flee her creditors, Elizabeth left London for Evesham (Worcestershire) where she lived in relative anonymity as a teacher at an elementary school for girls. She never returned to her scholarship and left her magnum opus, the complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, unfinished: her manuscript volumes survive at the British Library as Lansdowne MSS 370–374 and Egerton MS 838. However, Elizabeth Elstob did remain attached to the Harley collection in some small way. From 1739 until her death in 1758, she was governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland, who, as granddaughter of Robert Harley, had inherited the Harley collection. Perhaps Elizabeth felt some comfort in returning to the family who had supported her scholarly pursuits, and whose collection, formed under her friend Wanley's direction, preserved her work.
Mechtild Gretsch, 'Elizabeth Elstob: A Scholar's Fight for Anglo-Saxon Studies', Anglia, 117 (199), 163–300, 481–524.
Jacqueline Way, '"Our Mother-Tongue": The Politics of Elizabeth Elstob's Antiquarian Scholarship', Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:3 (2015), 417-440.
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11 August 2020
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 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.
The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.