Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

04 July 2024

New acquisition: an illuminated charter of Edward III

It's not every day that the British Library acquires a previously unrecorded charter. And this one is something special. It is an example of an illuminated charter, which make up around 0.1% of the total survivals, and it bears an excellent impression of the Great Seal of England. The Library purchased the charter at auction at Bonham's on 20 June 2024 (lot 71), and it has been accessioned as Add Ch 77743. Once it has been catalogued and undergone minor conservation treatment, it will be made available to researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room at St Pancras. We are extremely grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for generously supporting this acquisition.

A decorated parchment document, issued by Edward III, with the Great Seal in green wax attached on two cords at the foot

A royal licence issued in the name of King Edward III of England (reigned 1327–1377) at Westminster: Add Ch 77743

The charter itself is a royal licence issued at Westminster on 15 November 1368, and is addressed to David de Wollore, one of the king's chancery clerks. It grants property to David in Ripon (Yorkshire), which would enable him to support a chaplain to perform divine service every day at the altar of St Andrew in the church there. The document opens with a decorated initial showing a cleric addressing his congregation, and in the upper margin there is a drawing of David firing a slingshot at Goliath in the opposite corner. We are aware of two other surviving decorated charters of Edward III, both in French collections, but neither of which is as extensively illuminated as this. The Great Seal is that of the so-called Seventh Seal of Edward III, used between 1360 and 1377, and is attached to the document on two plaited cords. One side shows the king on horseback, and on the other sitting on the throne. The unusual decoration of the document may point to its recipient being the Keeper of the Rolls, who was entrusted with applying the Great Seal to royal grants. 

We are very pleased to be able to add this document to the national collection, where it can be consulted alongside thousands of other medieval charters, including a number of royal grants. Many questions remain to be answered about the circumstances of this charter's production and its artist, including the identity of the cleric in the opening initial — there is much more to be learned about it. Add Ch 77743 has been acquired with the assistance of the British Library Collections Trust.


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02 July 2024

Drake’s progress

From 1585 to 1586, an English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) raided Spanish colonies across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Part of an undeclared war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain, Drake’s expedition was a major escalation in the conflict, one that would culminate in the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England in 1588. Among the Cotton Charters and Rolls, currently being catalogued as part of the British Library’s Hidden Collections project, is a copy of the original instructions given to Drake by Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) for his Caribbean raid (Cotton Ch IV 25).

A draft charter with notes added in a second hand.

Elizabeth I’s draft instructions for Drake’s voyage: Cotton Ch IV 25

The document states that Elizabeth is pleased to approve the expedition of eleven ships, four barques and twenty pinnaces under Drake’s command. Most of the fleet’s vessels were owned by private individuals, each contributing ships in return for a share in the profits. The queen promises that each investor shall receive their portion and that, if she delays the expedition, it shall be at no cost to them.

To support the voyage, the queen also orders the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624), to deliver two of the Royal Navy’s ships to Drake, namely the Elizabeth Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was a 47-gun galleon with a tonnage of 600. The Aide, with a tonnage of 200 to 250 and carrying 18 cannon, had already crossed the Atlantic once before as part of Martin Frobisher’s second expedition to Nunavut and Greenland in 1577. Frobisher would also join Drake’s fleet as his vice-admiral.

A model of a three-masted ship above a wall memorial inside a church.

A model of the Bonaventure, St Mary’s Church, Painswick, photo by David Stowell, CC BY-SA 2.0

Although undated, we know that this document relates to Drake’s 1585 expedition as it refers to the West Indies, and this campaign was the only time that he led a fleet containing both the Bonaventure and the Aide. The Bonaventure was later part of his attack on Cadiz in 1587.

In the margin and between some of Elizabeth’s instructions are notes written in a different hand, that of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520–1598), the queen’s chief minister. Cecil's additions clarify or finesse the wording of Elizabeth’s orders and show that the document was a draft, likely held in the crown archives. Sir Robert Cotton’s access to royal records as a Member of Parliament, as well as his interest in antiquarian and historical matters, led to several other draft government papers from Elizabeth’s reign finding their way into his collection, such as Cotton Ch XV 43.

A draft letter of Queen Elizabeth I

Draft letter of Elizabeth I to Thomas Bromley, lord chancellor, granting protection to John de Rivera of Zante, resident in London: Cotton Ch XV 43

In the end, Drake set sail from Plymouth on 14 September 1585 with twenty-five ships, including at least five barques, supported by at least eight pinnaces. The Bonaventure, with a crew of 250 to 300, served as his flagship. The fleet raided north-western Spain in October and Cape Verde in November before crossing the Atlantic, attacking Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic, Cartagena (modern Colombia), and St Augustine in Florida. Heading north, Drake visited the nascent English colony of Roanoke (North Carolina) before returning to England in July 1586. Despite pillaging so many Spanish colonies, the investors actually made a loss on the voyage. The Bonaventure and the Aide would both see service again two years later in 1588, as part of Lord Howard of Effingham's fleet defending England from the Spanish Armada.

A map in colour showing Britain, Ireland, and the coasts of France, Denmark, and Norway, with the route of the Spanish Armada marked

Robert Adams’ map of the Spanish Armada’s route, 1588: Maps, final folio

This just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are re-cataloguing for inclusion in our online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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18 April 2024

A knight's tale

In medieval England, land was conventionally held in return for either rent (in the form of money or other items) or service (acts performed by one party to the other). These items could range from token gifts like a rose or an arrowhead to valuable crops or produce. A typical service might entail a tenant serving in a jury or attending upon their lord in times of war. But some land was held on more unusual terms, and these more specific duties reveal fascinating details about medieval life and society. For instance, one Norfolk knight held his land from King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) for the service of carrying twelve fish pasties to the king wherever he was in England (Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, I, London, 1904, no. 849).

A small parchment charter recording Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu

Osbert of Arden’s grant of land to Thurkil Fundu: Cotton Ch XXII 3

The service recorded in one small document (Cotton Ch XXII 3) has been identified as some of the earliest evidence of English knights fighting in tournaments, and also of such events being held in England. Dating to between 1124 and 1139, it is a grant by Osbert of Arden giving Thurkil Fundu land in Ashbrook and a meadow in Kingsbury, both in Warwickshire. In return, Thurkil was to do service of carrying Osbert’s dyed lances from London or Northampton to Osbert’s house in Kingsbury, all on Osbert’s horses and at Osbert's expense. Thurkil would also attend upon him at tournaments overseas, again at Osbert’s own cost. He was effectively promising to be Osbert’s squire.

Within an enclosure, Ponthus, on the left, kills the duke of Burgundy on the right with his lance. Each combatant is flanked by retainers. Above, the French king and his courtiers watch.

A 15th-century depiction of a tournament from the romance Ponthus: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 220v

Popular imagination holds tournaments as contests between kings, dukes and earls, full of elaborate pageantry and ceremony. In fact, the earliest tourneys were usually more simple contests between knights. The great magnates would not fight in them until later in the 1100s. Henry I (r. 1100–1135) had even banned tournaments late in his reign and the Church regularly railed against them, bemoaning knights wasting their energies or even losing their lives in these mock combats when they could be going on crusade.

Dyed or painted lances like those owned by Osbert were typically used for parade and tournaments, with bare lances used for war. The references to London and Northampton suggest that these towns also staged tournaments at this time.

Thurkil, as his name suggests, was English, not Norman. Thurkil, or Turchil, was a Saxon name with Norse origins. Osbert is a Norman name, but his father was called Siward, another English name, and his great-grandfather was Æthelwine, a sheriff under Edward the Confessor. Here we have an English knight, less than a century after the Norman Conquest, fighting in tournaments in England and on the Continent.

Two men with helmets, lances, and shields jousting on rams against a background of flowers. The man on the left has struck his opponent and knocked him from his mount.

Two men jousting on sheep: Royal MS 1 E V, f. 171r

It may have been at one of these tournaments that Osbert would later meet his patron, David I of Scotland (r. 1124–1153). The Scottish king, who had his own English ancestry, surrounded himself with many English and Norman knights from his time as Earl of Huntingdon in Henry I’s court. David was also interested in tournaments and had participated in a few in northern France in the 1120s. Osbert would go on to become one of David’s courtiers, joining his court in Scotland by the 1140s.

This charter was published first in 1903 by George F. Warner & Henry J. Ellis (Facsimiles of Royal and Other Charters in the British Museum, I, plate IX), and it was discussed in more detail by David Crouch, Tournament (2005), pp. 41, 64. You can read more about Osbert here.

Osbert of Arden's charter is just one of more than 1,000 Cotton charters and rolls that we are adding to the British Library's online catalogue. As the project progresses, further blogposts will highlight other interesting documents from the collection.


Rory MacLellan

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