The First Manuals of English History: Two Late Thirteenth-Century Genealogical Rolls of the Kings of England in the Royal Collection
By Olivier de Laborderie
Electronic British Library Journal (2014)
Abstract: The reign of Edward I (1272-1307) witnessed the creation of numerous genealogical rolls of the kings of England from Egbert to the reigning king, initially in Latin (for instance BL, Add. MS. 30079), but then more often in Anglo-Norman. As Thomas Wright first intuited in 1872, these much innovative aide-mémoire represent the first ‘feudal manuals of English history’. Their overall design owes much to the various visual abstracts of English history designed in the 1250s by the great St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris (such as his famous ‘portrait gallery’ in BL, Royal MS. C. VII, ff. 8v-9 or his genealogy in BL, Cotton MS. Claudius D. VI, ff. 5v-9v). The two royal genealogies in the Royal Collection, Royal MSS. 14 B. V and Royal 14 B. VI, are particularly representative of this kind of historical abstract, all the more so as they can be counted among the most finely illuminated of them and the only ones offering original ‘marginal’ drawings and grotesques that enhance their attractivity.
Introduction: When in 1872 Joseph Mayer, the great Liverpool collector, showed to his friend Thomas Wright, probably the greatest nineteenth-century English antiquarian, the late thirteenth-century genealogical roll of the kings of England written in Anglo-Norman he had just acquired, Wright made some searches in the British Museum Library collections to see if he could find some similar manuscripts. Curiously enough, he found only two other closely related rolls (MSS. Lansdowne rolls 3 and Add. 21368), but none of the illustrated ones which were already among the various collections: MS. Cotton Roll XV. 7 and the two beautiful rolls of the Royal collection that are the subject of the present article: Royal MS. 14 B. V and Royal MS. 14 B. VI, which were so well displayed in the ‘Royal Manuscripts’ exhibition. Fortunately though, these rolls in the British Library have been preserved, whereas Joseph Mayer’s roll has disappeared since its publication by Wright and did not form part of Mayer’s bequest to Liverpool University Library,
Although he saw so few of them, and certainly not the finest of them, Thomas Wright had the brilliant intuition that these genealogical rolls were much more than curiosities likely to hold the attention of the antiquarian alone, unlike E. W. Godwin, who, a few years later, presented another such roll to the Society of Antiquaries in London as ‘a very curious genealogical roll’: this was the Chaworth Roll, recently thoroughly studied by Alixe Bovey when exhibited at Sam Fogg’s. Wright called them ‘feudal manuals of English history’, and very rightly so.