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UK government hopes to raise £300,000 to keep 15th century manuscript

The British government has placed a temporary export bar on a 15th century manuscript 
in a bid to keep the work in the United Kingdom.

The manuscript was completed by Lewis of Caerleon (c.1440 – c.1500), a Welsh physician and highly accomplished astronomer. He played a crucial role in the royal court of the period, brokering the alliance of the future King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, serving as a physician and astrologer to both the Houses of York and Lancaster, including Henry VII himself. Lewis also spent time imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Richard III for his close association with the Lancastrians.

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Lewis of Caerleon was a highly skilled astronomer who carried out observations and recorded detailed calculations aimed at predicting eclipses. He commissioned this manuscript, probably in London or Cambridge, in the later 15th century, and likely intended it as a gift to a patron or library. While some of its texts and tables are similar to those in Lewis’s personal notebook held in the collections of Cambridge University Library, a number are unique to this manuscript and hold the potential to shed new light on late-medieval mathematical astronomy.  It contains 64 leaves, measures about 445 x 330mm, and is generally in good condition.

Caroline Dinenage, the British Minister of Culture, placed the export bar to give time for a UK buyer or institution an opportunity to purchase the work for the national collection. The manuscript is worth £300,000, and will not leave the United Kingdom until at least until 12 June 2020. If a serious intention to raise funds to purchase it is made at this price, then the parties will have until 12 September 2020 to meet this goal.

“This manuscript is an important part of the story of how ancient beliefs led to our modern scientific understanding of the world we live in,” explains Minister Dinenage. “It is a remarkable piece by a Welsh scholar that would make an excellent contribution to the national collection. I hope a buyer can be found so we can keep this important work in the UK.”

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The Minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee noted that the manuscript displayed the progression from ancient theories of astronomy toward a modern, mathematical approach. They agreed that Lewis of Caerleon was a significant contributor to the study of astronomy and the development of science in the late medieval era.

Committee Member Peter Barber explains, “This beautifully written volume, still in its handsome original binding, was made for presentation, very possibly to Henry VII. Its author – a Welshman serving a Welsh king, a patriotic antiquary who was also a physician/scientist – prefigured great figures of a century later, like John Dee, while himself building on the writings of his medieval predecessors. At a time when astronomy and astrology were synonymous, Lewis of Caerleon’s skills had political ramifications. They may well have contributed to Richard III’s decision to keep him out of harm (and the later Henry VII’s) way in The Tower.

“The text was meant by Lewis, who annotated it in his own hand, to be the definitive version of all of his writings and calculations. It includes notes on how far his predictions of eclipses had been fulfilled and also full versions of hitherto only partly known writings by medieval scholars. It would be a great pity if this volume by an early Welsh scholar who deserves to be better known, with its links to courtly culture, with a distinguished provenance and with its immense research potential, were to be allowed to leave this country.”

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Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the manuscript should contact the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) on 0845 300 6200.

Top Image: Collected scientific works (in Latin) of the physician and astronomer Lewis of Caerleon. Photo courtesy GOV.UK

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