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Royal Manuscripts

The Genius of Illumination

Surviving handwritten books associated with successive kings and queens of England form a remarkable inheritance. They include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries. These manuscripts also offer unique insights into the lives and aspirations of those for whom they were made, enriching our understanding of royal identity, moral and religious beliefs, learning and politics. They allow us to deepen our knowledge about the medieval monarchy. What was expected of young princes of the blood, born to power? What texts informed their conduct as rulers? How did they give visible expression to their political rivalry with their Continental cousins?

Thanks to a generous gift to the nation by George II in 1757, most surviving royal manuscripts are still preserved together as a distinct collection ‘Royal’, held by the British Library. The Royal manuscripts number nearly two thousand volumes. From this group around 150 were featured in a major exhibition held at the British Library from November 2011 to March 2012, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. The research for this exhibition was funded by a grant from the AHRC. The exhibition was extremely well-received, with nearly 70,000 visitors, and an associated television series on BBC4, Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.

Thirteen of those are showcased below to give highlights of the Royal collection, and the research questions explored in the exhibition.

Postscript

Along with the AHRC award for the research that underpinned the British Library exhibition, the project received a further grant from the AHRC to digitize fully manuscripts featured in the exhibition as a part of its Digital Transformations in Arts and Humanities Theme, which contributed to a package of measures aimed at developing innovative approaches to archiving, accessing and using data for research in the arts and humanities. As a result of this grant, 75 manuscripts are now available freely on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website,http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/

  • Image of The Cnut Gospel, Southern England, early 11th century (between 1017-1020).
    The Cnut Gospel, Southern England, early 11th century (between 1017-1020). about The Cnut Gospel, Southern England, early 11th century (between 1017-1020).
  • Image of The Westminster Psalter, London, c. 1200 (Psalter) and 1250 (tinted drawings).
    The Westminster Psalter, London, c. 1200 (Psalter) and 1250 (tinted drawings). about The Westminster Psalter, London, c. 1200 (Psalter) and 1250 (tinted drawings).
  • Image of The Henry VIII Psalter, London, c. 1540. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 2 A. xvi, f.
    The Henry VIII Psalter, London, c. 1540. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 2 A. xvi, f. about The Henry VIII Psalter, London, c. 1540. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 2 A. xvi, f.
  • Image of Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1. Bruges, c. 1475.
    Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1. Bruges, c. 1475. about Jean de Wavrin, Recueil des croniques d'Engleterre, vol. 1. Bruges, c. 1475.
  • Image of La Grande histoire César. Bruges, 1479. Owned by Edward IV. Royal 17 F. ii, f. 9r
    La Grande histoire César. Bruges, 1479. Owned by Edward IV. Royal 17 F. ii, f. 9r about La Grande histoire César. Bruges, 1479. Owned by Edward IV. Royal 17 F. ii, f. 9r
  • Image of The Secretum secretorum, London, 1326–27. Purchased for the nation in 1952. Additional 47680, ff. 10v-11
    The Secretum secretorum, London, 1326–27. Purchased for the nation in 1952. Additional 47680, ff. 10v-11 about The Secretum secretorum, London, 1326–27. Purchased for the nation in 1952. Additional 47680, ff. 10v-11
  • Image of Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, England, c. 1430–38
    Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, England, c. 1430–38 about Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, England, c. 1430–38
  • Image of Matthew Paris, maps from the Historia Anglorum and Chronica Maiora, St Albans, c. 1250.
    Matthew Paris, maps from the Historia Anglorum and Chronica Maiora, St Albans, c. 1250. about Matthew Paris, maps from the Historia Anglorum and Chronica Maiora, St Albans, c. 1250.
  • Image of Jean Rotz, Boke of Idrography, Dieppe and England, c. 1535-42
    Jean Rotz, Boke of Idrography, Dieppe and England, c. 1535-42 about Jean Rotz, Boke of Idrography, Dieppe and England, c. 1535-42
  • Image of Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings. England (East Anglia?), c. 1300–07; (addition) c. 1340–42. Owned by Henry VIII Royal 14 B. vi
    Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings. England (East Anglia?), c. 1300–07; (addition) c. 1340–42. Owned by Henry VIII Royal 14 B. vi about Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings. England (East Anglia?), c. 1300–07; (addition) c. 1340–42. Owned by Henry VIII Royal 14 B. vi
  • Image of The Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Northern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-25. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 14 E. iii, f. 89
    The Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Northern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-25. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 14 E. iii, f. 89 about The Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Northern France or Flanders (St Omer or Tournai), c. 1315-25. Owned by Henry VIII. Royal 14 E. iii, f. 89
  • Image of The Shrewsbury Book. Rouen, 1444–45. Royal 15 E. vi, ff. 2v-3
    The Shrewsbury Book. Rouen, 1444–45. Royal 15 E. vi, ff. 2v-3 about The Shrewsbury Book. Rouen, 1444–45. Royal 15 E. vi, ff. 2v-3
  • Image of Motets for Henry VIII. Southern Netherlands (Antwerp?), dated 1516. Royal 11 E. xi, f. 2
    Motets for Henry VIII. Southern Netherlands (Antwerp?), dated 1516. Royal 11 E. xi, f. 2 about Motets for Henry VIII. Southern Netherlands (Antwerp?), dated 1516. Royal 11 E. xi, f. 2