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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.
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/.
The Cnut Gospel, Southern England, early 11th century (between 1017-1020).
about The Cnut Gospel, Southern England, early 11th century (between 1017-1020).
Owned by Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (d. 1612). Royal 1 D. ix, f. 45The Christian MonarchKing Cnut as Benefactor of the ChurchThe inscription on the left-hand page in this book of the Gospels identifies King Cnut as a benefactor of the monastic community at Christ Church, Canterbury. Having established himself king of England by force, Cnut went to great lengths to justify his rule, and it is plausible that he might have donated this rich book to Christ Church, though there is no record of such a gift. The lavishly framed page to the right marks the beginning of the Gospel of Mark.
The Westminster Psalter, London, c. 1200 (Psalter) and 1250 (tinted drawings).
about The Westminster Psalter, London, c. 1200 (Psalter) and 1250 (tinted drawings).
Owned by Charles II. Royal 2 A. xxii, f, 14vA Psalter for Westminster the Coronation ChurchThis richly illuminated book belonged to the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, Westminster, and was probably commissioned by one of the community’s high-ranking brethren. The striking image on the left, King David portrayed as author of the Psalms, was painted by an unknown artist, probably an itinerant professional. The style shows the influence of some of the greatest artists working in southern England at the time. Further tinted drawings were added fifty years later during the period of heightened local artistic activity that accompanied Henry III’s rebuilding of Westminster Abbey.
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.
Henry VIII Praying in his BedchamberPortrayed as we might expect him to appear at the age of 49 (his age when this book was made), Henry VIII holds a book that represents this book, his own Psalter. The writing in the margin is one of the King’s many annotations; he has written in Latin, ‘note who is blessed’. Placed at the beginning of the Psalms, Henry VIII’s portrait aligns him with King David, the supposed author of the Psalms. As seen in other copies of the Psalms in this exhibition, David’s portrait typically occupies this place in Psalters.
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.
Owned by Edward IV. Royal 15 E. iv, f. 14rEdward IV: Founder of the Old Royal LibraryA Chronicle of English HistoryAmong the most impressive and lavishly illustrated of Edward IV’s collection of historical texts are two volumes containing part of the Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre (Chronicle of England) by Jean de Wavrin. Monumental in scale, this compilation in French prose told the history of Britain from its legendary origins to the reign of Edward IV. Its completion took the noble author the last 25 years of his life. In the first volume (displayed here) a large illustration shows Wavrin presenting his book to Edward IV.
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
A Biography of Julius CaesarThe scribe of this manuscript wrote that it was made in Bruges in 1479 by order of the ‘treshault, tres excellent, et tres victorieux prince’ (very exalted, excellent and victorious prince) Edward IV. The copyist included a French biography of Julius Caesar, long popular with the nobility, as well as two additions that may have been made at the King’s request – an account of the reign of Augustus and a list of Roman emperors. The opening illustration shows Caesar’s fabled birth by Caesarian section, a term derived from this event.
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
How to be a KingPrince Edward’s Manual of KingshipThe king’s clerk Walter of Milemete commissioned this manuscript of the Secretum secretorum (Secret of Secrets) as a gift for the future Edward III. In the Middle Ages the Secretum compendium of knowledge for a king was believed to be a work that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had composed for his pupil Alexander the Great. Here, Alexander receives the book from a messenger who bears on his girdle the heraldic arms used by Prince Edward when Earl of Chester. In the lower margins, Edward’s arms are accompanied by those of his father, Edward II, and his two uncles.
Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, England, c. 1430–38
about Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes, England, c. 1430–38
Owned by Prince Henry Frederick (d. 1612), Royal 17 D. vi, f. 40.A Book of Advice for Prince HarryThe author Thomas Hoccleve is shown here presenting his book, the Regement of Princes, to the future Henry V. He completed this poem of instruction and political advice in 1410–11, when Henry IV was incapacitated by illness and Prince Henry governing on his behalf. None of the surviving copies of the Regement of Princes seems to be the book that Thomas Hoccleve presented to the Prince. This manuscript belonged to William Fitz Alan, Earl of Arundel, and bears his coats of arms.
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.
Owned by Prince Henry Frederick (d. 1612), Royal 14 C. vii, f. 4vThe World’s KnowledgeRoute-Map to the Holy LandThe St Albans monk Matthew Paris (died 1259) never made the journey to the Holy Land. He did however draw a fascinating map of the pilgrimage route from England to Jerusalem. It is displayed on four parchment sheets and divided in seven sections that allow the viewer to follow in the footsteps of a medieval pilgrim. The route begins in London and progresses from the bottom to the top of each page. The final destination is the Holy Land depicted on two leaves.
Jean Rotz, Boke of Idrography, Dieppe and England, c. 1535-42
about Jean Rotz, Boke of Idrography, Dieppe and England, c. 1535-42
Royal 20 E. ix, f. 28.Henry VIII’s AtlasJean Rotz, an expert compiler of sea charts and navigator from Dieppe, left the court of Francis I of France to enter the service of Henry VIII. In 1542, he presented his Boke of Idrography to the English monarch, wishing to provide a ‘recreation of the king’s mind’. The volume was also a tool for learning some of the principles of navigation and discovering the countries of the world and their inhabitants. Rotz’s atlas contains 11 regional charts. Here, the map of the coast of Brazil includes an ethnographically precise depiction of a village and several activities of the Tupinamba tribe.
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
Royal IdentitiesGenealogy of the Dukes of NormandyThis royal genealogy gives unprecedented visual prominence to the ancestors of William the Conqueror. The family line of the dukes of Normandy extends from Rollo (died around 932), to Henry I, with Matilda (labelled Maud) to their left. By this means the creators of the genealogy highlighted the important dynastic change that resulted from the Conqueror’s invasion of England. They also integrated his Norman lineage into the line of English royal succession.
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
King Arthur and the Holy GrailThe Quest for the Holy Grail, the mythical chalice containing Christ’s blood, is at the centre of this beautifully illustrated collection of tales that ends with the downfall of King Arthur. The texts in this volume combine chivalric and Christian legend and omit frivolous exploits involving damsels, thereby appealing to a high-minded aristocratic patron. On the right-hand page, Lancelot is pictured taking leave of Arthur and Guinevere and later knighting his son, Galahad, who will complete the quest.
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
The European MonarchA Wedding Present for Margaret of AnjouThis remarkable book was a gift to Margaret of Anjou from the renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury (died 1453), here presenting the book to her. On the right is the genealogical claim of Margaret’s husband, Henry VI, to be the rightful king of France. In the diagram the descent of Henry (lower centre) from St Louis IX (at the top) is shown both from the English line, on the right, and the French line, on the left.
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
Music Written for Henry VIIIThis large and grand choirbook produced for Henry VIII is filled with allegorical and symbolic imagery unique to Henry. Dominating the top centre of the page is a crowned Tudor rose of red and white. The poem below this expresses the virtues of the two roses, finally united in the King. Below is the garden of England, guarded by Henry’s supporters, the red dragon and the white greyhound, with Catherine of Aragon’s pomegranate tree. The daisies or marguerites and the yellow marigolds at the base of the rose’s stem refer to Henry’s sisters Margaret and Mary.