Royal Manuscripts

The Shrewsbury Book, 15th Century

I have always loved manuscripts, particularly those with more gold on them than is sensible. The Royal Manuscript exhibition at the British Library was, therefore, top of my list of things to do this winter. As I walked in I was immediately struck by how many people were in the exhibition space. Rather than being thrilled by the thought that I am evidently not alone in my geeky love for manuscripts, I had a moment of considering each elbow and how much trouble I would get into if I was to knock people to the floor to get to the display cases.

Choosing to avoid using common assault I wheedled my way to the front of the crowd and was completely overwhelmed by the sight of glinting gilded pages and bright colours. The manuscripts really are breathtaking and you could easily spend hours over each one.

The image above shows a painting from The Shrewsbury Book which was crafted in Rouen between 1444-45. It was a gift from John Talbot the first Earl of Shrewsbury to Margaret of Anjou, who was Henry VI’s wife. I have always been interested in Margaret of Anjou as she was Queen Consort of both England and France and due to Henry VI’s mental health problems, she would often rule in his place.  Just considering this text in isolation, it is remarkable how the manuscripts have survived over the centuries, have been passed down through the generations and have been handled by hugely important people in British history. 

Miniature of Henry VI / Dauphin Louis with St Louis before the Virgin & Child, from the Psalter of Henry VI, Paris, c. 1405-10  

The above page is absolutely breathtaking, the ivy leaves around the border are gilt, and the light in the display case is focused on the page in a way that makes the manuscript shine out. All the manuscripts in the exhibition are displayed perfectly. The psalter, from which this page is taken, may have been owned by Henry VI as a small boy. It has been written for both English and French royalty and reminds us how closely these two countries have been allied in the past (at times!). I fell in love with the detail, from the animals and ivy in the border to the design of the young King’s cape. I’ve always loved the use of natural imagery in medieval manuscripts and the combination of images with words. 

Texts such as these were incredibly expensive to produce and obviously took months of hard work. You can almost see the respect and value placed upon them; even by looking at each word on the page you can see how much care went into the formulation and design of every element on the page. They were intended to generate awe and 600 years later they are still just as enthralling and inspirational.I love the page below taken from the same Psalter. I wonder what the monks are gossiping about?

This page below was one of my favourites in the exhibition. You cannot quite see it here but the background design behind the figures is a wonderful pattern in gold leaf on a musky pink pigment. It is beautiful and I stood entranced before it for ages. 

Miniature of Prince Henry presenting the book to John Mowbray, 2nd duke of Norfolk, who kneels before him, Arundel 38, f. 37.

There are 150 manuscripts in the exhibition, ranging from religious texts to guides for the monarchy and instructive texts for princes who would one day become kings. There are also maps which provide some very interesting routes to the Holy Lands! Apparently, if you turn right at some point you might get to Jerusalem. I think they must have been the medieval satnav. The exhibition closes on 13 March but the British Library have this fantastic blog that is worth exploring.