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British Library hosts Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

Beginning on November 11th, the British Library will be hosting a new exhibition entitled Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. It is the Library’s first major exhibition to bring together the its Royal collection, a treasure trove of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th centuries.

Curated by Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classical Studies, British Library; Professor John Lowden, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library, the exhibition features stunning manuscripts that are among the most outstanding examples of royal decorative and figurative painting from this era surviving in Britain today, their colours often as vibrant as when they were first painted.

However, the manuscripts do much more than declare the artistry of their makers; the luxurious objects unlock the secrets of the private lives and public personae of the royals throughout the Middle Ages and provide the most vivid surviving source for understanding royal identity. As well as providing clear instruction on appropriate regal behaviour they also give a direct insight into royal moral codes and religious belief and shed light on the politics of the day.

Dr McKendrick commented, “The surviving manuscripts associated with successive kings and queens of England form a remarkable inheritance. Together they offer by far the largest body of evidence for the relationship between two critical parts of British cultural heritage: its monarchy and its medieval art. Parts of the built legacy of the British monarchy, such as Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey, occupy a very special place in the public consciousness but the royal manuscripts have largely remained hidden from view.

“The very fact that they have been less accessible has in turn meant that they are fantastically well preserved; their gold still making their pages glow and flicker in the light for us, as they did for those who first viewed them centuries ago. The exhibition is the culmination of a major research project started three years ago. It is with great pleasure that we are able to share the collection’s beauty with a wider audience.”

A few exhibition highlights include:

  • Illuminated manuscripts of Edward IV. Edward IV, now typically remembered, if at all, as the father of the ‘little Princes’, consciously created a court that would be the equal of any in Europe. The best surviving material record of this endeavour is the remarkable collection of large-scale historical and literary manuscripts in French ordered by or associated with the King. These illuminated manuscripts, totalling nearly fifty, are perhaps the best known of the Royal manuscripts as a group, and are remarkable for their survival as a collection. Seventeen of these spectacular manuscripts are exhibited together, forming the first section of the exhibition. This first ‘coherent collection’ of royal books provides the basis for the generally accepted view of Edward IV as the ‘founder’ of the Old Royal library.
  • Henry VIII’s Psalter (London c. 1540). The illustrations that Henry VIII commissioned in a Psalter for his own use demonstrate that he wished to be identified with the biblical King David, traditionally regarded as the author of the Psalms. In the Psalter’s opening portrait of Henry seated in a chair in his bedchamber holding an open book, the King looks out at the viewer, who was initially Henry himself. Henry was forty-nine when the book was made, and in this image he looks his age. It is not too fanciful to see the open book as a representation of this very Psalter, the red velvet binding of which still survives, albeit in a rather worn state. By this date a manuscript Psalter in Latin rather than the more popular Book of Hours was an unusual choice. Perhaps the opportunity presented for a direct alignment with David accounts, in part, for the commissioning of such a personalised copy of the text.
  • A history of England by Matthew Paris, adviser to the king (St Albans c.1250). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was one of the foremost English historians of the Middle Ages. A monk of St Albans throughout his adult life he was often called upon to advise King Henry III. His principal works include the extensive Chronica Maiora (Major Chronicle), an ambitious project covering world history from the Creation to the present day, and the Historia Anglorum (History of the English), which begins with the Norman conquest of England and continues into the reign of Matthew’s contemporary monarch Henry III. As a preface to an autograph copy of his history, this map drawn by Matthew shows the pilgrimage route from London through France, to Apulia in Italy ending Jerusalem (even though Matthew himself had never made this journey). His map unfolds as a diagram of major stops and landmarks on the pilgrim’s route, with the distance that could be covered each day marked. The itinerary culminates with a large map of the Holy Land featuring crusaders’ castles, towns, and churches, and descriptions of distant lands.
  • Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes (1411-1413). During the Middle Ages a genre of text was developed to instruct princes on how to be effective rulers. These writings are known collectively as ‘mirrors for princes’ because they provide exemplars of behaviour, both positive and negative, for the prince to use as a mirror to illuminate his own conduct. Hoccleve’s text in English verse survives in only three illustrated copies. Two of these are featured in the exhibition, including one with an elegant presentation image of Henry, Prince of Wales who became Henry V in 1413.
  • Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings (c. 1300). Chronicles of English history were presented both in codex or book form and in a roll format on sheets of parchment glued together end to end. This format was ideally suited to the presentation of history as genealogy or a royal family tree, with detailed long diagrams of royal descent. Two copies are included in the exhibition, one nearly five metres long. This roll starts with Anglo-Saxon kings and then begins again with Rollo, 1st Duke of Normandy and his son William I continuing to Edward III, added by a later scribe.
  • The Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, 1445). The Shrewsbury Book is one of the most remarkable manuscripts preserved in the Old Royal library, and is particularly celebrated for the monumental frontispiece images. Presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to Henry VI by renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, the images are designed to present the genealogical claim of Henry VI to be the rightful king of France. The French claimant to the throne, Charles VII, is discreetly omitted from the line, replaced by his sister, Catherine of France, Henry VI’s mother, opposite her husband, Henry V.
  • Some additional objects on loan from other institutions include a Netherlandish tapestry from the late fifteenth century, The Anniversary of Hector’s Funeral from the Burrell Collection, a stone shield with the arms of England from the Museum of London, and a medieval lion’s skull from the Natural History Museum that was found at the Tower of London.

Visitors to the exhibition will discover a series of spaces where they will be able to get up close to the objects, and will learn how the manuscripts were created. In addition, visitors will be introduced to the background of the collection, including how and why Edward IV turned the collection into a library after years of personal collecting by the monarchs and laid the foundations for the present British Library.

As part of the Library’s ongoing relationship with high-profile media companies the Library is pleased to be working alongside BBC Four. In the autumn this year BBC Four will air a three part series, The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, made by Oxford Film & Television and presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, a specialist in medieval art history with a particular focus on examining art works in their historical context. The series will take an in-depth look at the unique insights that the manuscripts reveal into the medieval world and mind, focusing on how they were used to establish the right to rule. It will also explore the relationship between the monarchy and the church and how they were used to instruct and educate young princes in moral and behavioural codes.

Richard Klein, Controller, BBC Four said: “BBC Four is delighted to collaborate with the British Library in order to explore this significant collection in more depth on-air. The series, The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, will give viewers an insight in to the private lives and public personae of the medieval monarchy in a way that has never been seen before.”

Please visit the British Library website for more details.

Source: British Library

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