Illuminated manuscripts, Uncategorized

Illuminated manuscripts fit for a King

In the British Library we have a collection of illuminated manusripts that are as important to our national culture as the history of battles won and lost by kings long gone. Gifts by George II and George III form the core of the British Library known as the King’s Stack. George II gave 2000 volumes, and these manuscripts are identified as Royal then the number. Those dontated by George III carry the identifier of King then the number. The Old Royal Library forms part of the Royal Collection and is kept at Windsor Castle. Despite our violent history, the iconoclasm of the vehemently Protestant Edward VI and then the later the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, some religious illuminated manuscripts have survived. There are links to specific documents within this essay. To access these click the manuscript number in bold to open the  link to the whole document in an new tab.

The creation of the illuminated manuscript died out within a century after the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. Before that monks slaving away in monastic scriptoria during the middle ages and specialist lay workshops, created these priceless works. Clearly monastic scriptoria produced religious documents, but the creation of these manuscripts was not restricted to monasteries. Lay workshops also produced books of hours, breviaries, missals in addition to secular subjects such as books of instruction designed for the edification of princes destined to power, histories, romances and poetry.

This laborious production process was expensive. A master of a workshop would have a host of journeymen and apprentices as part of manuscript production. In both the monasteries and the lay workshop there would have been artists who specialised in specific subjects such as painting flora and fauna, or creating trompe l’oeil architectural surrounds. However to become a master it was necessary to know all there was about illumination. Clearly one had to have a talent for drawing, but before the apprentice was allowed any where near a piece of parchment or vellum, the first thing he would have to learn was the grinding and mixing of pigments. From grinding the common cheap ochres to expensive blue lapis lazuli all the way from the mines of Afghanistan the process was the same and had to be mastered. Then there was the dangerous pigments such as the creating of vermillion by heating sulphur and mercury together, which produced deadly fumes. These were skills that had to be mastered and then honed before an apprentice could be let loose on any document. Mixing the resulting colours also required specific knowledge. Some pigments were mixed with water; others required egg yolk or egg white to bind them; some required the addition of sugar to prevent the finished surface from cracking during the drying process. The most bizarre ingredient was ear wax and specifically the best was the wax from the ear of a pig. History does not tell us how it was discovered that the addition of this helped pigment to flow.

Unfortunately rarely do we know the specific identity of these artists, or the workshops, so the works are accredited to “The Master of . . .” and this then might reference a specific work such as “The Master of the Hours of Mary of Burgundy” (now in Vienna), “The Master of the Wolsey Lectionaries” or “The Master of the David Scenes in the Grimani Breviary”. This does not mean these Masters were coy about their abilities. In the introduction to the catalogue of the 2011 British Library exhibition Royal Manuscripts:The Genius of Illumination Scot McKendrick quotes a contemporary inscription to one of these manuscripts “The beauty of this book displays my genius”.

During the 100 Years War books played their part in ransom. In 1356 John II of France, (aka John the Good) was captured by The Black Prince at the battle of Poitiers. The English won and John was taken prisoner. His ransom was set at 3million gold ecus and land being most of southwest France. John was released and returned to France to raise the ransom; hostages were exchanged to take the French king’s place including his son. When the Dauphin escaped and returned to France, John the Good felt so dishonoured he returned to England to take his son’s place. However, during the battle of Poitiers a Bible Historiale was captured. This Bible remained in England as part of the ransom payment. Click this link to take you to the document.  Ms Royal 19 D II   

Henry VI (1421-1471) came to the throne he was only a few months old, but did not take the reigns of power until 1437 at the age of sixteen despite having been crowned in Westminster Abbey on 6th November,1429. Not only was Henry king of England, but he also succeeded to the French throne. He was anointed in Paris, but spent little time in France and Charles VII of the House of Valois also claimed the throne. During this period, the English representative in Paris was John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury (1384/87-1453) who held the post of Connêtable de France. During his time as the Connêtable de France, John Talbot took the opportunity of ‘liberating’ the French royal libraries and sending them to England.

At this time Paris was the centre of illumination and manuscript production and to celebrate the union of Anjou and England when Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, Talbot commissioned what we now know as the Talbot Shrewsbury Book. The book contained histories, poetries, romances and the Statutes of the Order of the Garter.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.34.14

Folio 2r shows the king and his bride being presented with this precious item by John Talbot. Royal Ms 15 E V

The various authors included Christine de Pisan, Regnaut de Montauban, Gilles de Rome; Alain Chartier. Christine de Pisan (1397-1430) was a Venetian author who employed female illuminator for her books.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.41.58
Christine de Pisan in her scriptoria. The illumination is folio 259 in BL Harley MS 4431

Widowed in 1387 at the age of twenty five and after ten years of marriage, she set about earning a living as an authoress in order to support her family. Her career spanned thirty years and she served two dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold and John the Fearless, Louis, Duke of Orleans and King Charles VI of France. She is an interesting woman who succeeded in a patriarchal society. This illuminations comes folio 259v from BL Harley MS 4431. This manuscript will appeal to those who study feminist writings. 

Other elements of the Royal MS 15 E V are a romance of Alexander the Great, various chansons, the Chronicles of Normandy, books of government of kings, and the Statutes of the Order of the Garter. There is an illuminated genealogy in the stylised shape of a fleur de lys showing Henry VI’s right to rule both England and France on folio 3. The initial illumination showing John Talbot kneeling as he presents the book to Margaret of Anjou is designed to tell future generations of Talbot’s loyalty to both his king and queen.

A 15th century illuminated psalter was thought to be originally created for Louis, Duke de Guyenne and Dauphin of France in about 1405-10. Around 1430 it was seems to have been adapted for Henry VI of England and the French coat of arms were overpainted with those of England. Folio 13r depicts a kneeling prince, but whether this is a realistic portrait of either man is inlikely. On folios (pages) 13r, 50r, 75r and 207r we see a kneeling prince whose cape is painted with the English coat of arms. Examination of other pages shows various religious images of monks and nuns praying, the Virgin with the Christ Child and King David. Click on the link to take you to the manuscript where you will have to click on the book to access the 586 images of all the pages. CottonMs Domitian A XVII

Unfortunately the majority of the considerable library amassed thanks to Talbot’s acquisitive fingers, was dispersed and it was Edward IV who established what formed the basis of a permanent royal library. Edward also championed William Caxton. Edward was keen to show the world that he was not just a warrior, but also had all the other attributes of a great ruler such as an interest in the arts and the sciences.

Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York, was the third wife of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and she was also interested in new technology. By the 1450s the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy were based in Bruges where London merchant William Caxton (1422-1491) had settled and set up a printing press. Caxton had started translating his Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye and the Duchess persuaded him to finish it. Caxton finished this translation in 1471. By 1476 Caxton had returned to London and set up his printing press in Westminster. The invention of printing tolled the death knell of the illuminated manuscript. Within a hundred years the illuminated manuscript would be a rarely commissioned item, mostly seen in charters, patents and treaties.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 15.23.54
A 19th c painting of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth visiting Caxton’s printing press in the almonry at Westminster. (Source Wikipedia).

One of the illuminated manuscripts that was to be presented to Edward IV was a manuscript created by Jean Wavrin (Royal 14 E IV). This was a recounting of the chronicles of England. Wavrin used an earlier chronicler as his inspiration and this book was probably commissioned by the Edward IV because we see from the Great Wardrobe Accounts of 1480 there were payments for books to a foreign merchant called Philip Maisertuell. This suggests the books was bought circa 1479-80. The illuminators were the Master of the Toison d’Or, the Master of the White Inscriptions and The Master of Edward IV. The scribe was Jean du Quesne. Clearly the king was keen to add to his library and valued the illuminated manuscript as there are other examples of commissions of this nature.

Royal 16 F II was started before 1483, and probably originally intended for Edward IV, but this is where the marginal symbolism gives us a clue to the history not only of the book, but also of England. This is a book of poems composed by the captive Charles, Duke of Orleans, and someone called the pseudo Heloise. The poems cover the art of love, the demands of love and how this all related to the governance of a prince.

The opening illumination shows the court of love where Lady Jeunesse is presenting the author (but we only see the back of their heads) to Lord Bel Acqueil and his Lady Plaisance. Other members of the court are seen witnessing this presentation and the only person looking out of the picture at us, is the court jester. 

The whole scene is set within a courtyard where the fountain of youth is situated. In the distance we see a river and stone fortification. On the wall of the courtyard stands an Indian peacock. Whether this symbolises Christianity or royalty in this particular image is open to debate.

Royal 16.F.II, f.1
Royal Ms 16 F II f1. The Court of Love

Two mottoes – La plus eure and honi suit qui mal y pense are written in two scrolls above the image. Then as we look down the margins, on the right we see the cross of St George on a black shield. This shield would have once glittered as it is silver leaf that has oxidised over the years and gone black. On the left are the arms of Edward the Confessor. Then come the white rose of York set en soleil (that is the description for the gold rays radiating from these) in each margin. On the left are the coat of arms of Elizabeth Woodville and to the right, those of England and both are surmounted by a closed crown. The en soleil Yorkist rose is then repeated. Below this we again see the coat of arms of England and the one to the left has no crown, whereas the one on the right has an open crown. So far this is clearly a visual reference to Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. The change of reference comes in the bas de page image.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 15.11.17
Bas de page of f 1.

The marginal illumination that is right underneath the image of the Court of Love has a red rose and a white rose placed on either side of a greyhound and a dragon that are holding a red rose. The background is a rich blue and there are what appear to be strawberry leaves strewn across this portion of the margin. This has to denote the change of kings. The presence of the red rose of Lancaster held by the Tudor symbols of the greyhound and dragon tells the viewer that Lancaster is now the ruling house. The outer red rose possibly represents the person of Henry Tudor and the white rose of York, Elizabeth of York telling us how the two houses were united by marriage. No one had yet thought of combining the two roses to make the red and white rose we recognise as the Tudor rose. The experiments for this can be seen in the margins of other contemporary manuscripts. 

Folio 73 shows the captive Duke seated in the Tower of London (distinguished by the white Caen stone) writing his poems. The onion domes we see on the corner towers today were added by Henry VIII to celebrate his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Royal 16.F.II, f.73
Royal Ms 16 F II f73

The river Thames flows by the imprisoned Duke and we can see Traitor’s Gate. In the background is London Bridge and a palace where pennants showing the English royal coat of arms are flying. At the bottom of the page there are two lions of oxidised silver leaf holding the royal coat of arms with the closed crown atop. It was Henry Tudor who adopted the closed crown, but I do not know if this was an overpaint. Scientific non-invasive examination may resolve this question, but if the white area with black dots is painted with white lead pigment, then this would not be penetrated by X-ray or any other form of the non-invasive techniques.

Where the imagery is totally Tudor is in the margins of folio 9. The main image is of the crucifixion which is shown as taking place outside Paris. The Oriflamme of France flies from the battlements. However, the ostrich feather piercing the scroll with the words Ich Dene references a prince of Wales; the crowned Beaufort portcullis references the indomintable Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry VII and the bas de page repeats the Tudor greyhound and dragon holding the red rose of Lancaster. There are no references to the House of York in the margins at all.

Roayl a6 F II Crucifixion - outside Paris
Royal Ms 16 F II f9.

There are clearly two illuminators at work. One is thought to be Dutch and painted folios 1 and 73 being the Court of Love and the Duke of Orleans working on his poetry whilst incarcerated. Unfortunately he is not even given soubriquet, unlike the other illuminator who is known as the snappy title of Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500. The latter illuminator worked under Henry VII’s keeper of the royal library, Quentin Poulet who came from Lille.

Poulet was also responsible for Royal 19 C VIII, which is a book of instruction for a royal prince. Lady Imagination instructs how one of noble birth should behave. Our prince meets her on the road to Halle and she introduces him to three virtues. She is also keen for him to be able to identify those with no chivalry and the identifier is the man who has a gap between his elbows and shoulders. He is dressed as a wealthy merchant.

Royal 19 c viii    32v
Lady Imagination introduces the prince to the man without chivalry. The chickens and rooster are the pun on Poulet’s name.

Perhaps this is significant. Nobles were not supposed to trade and derived their income from their land, so it may be a comment that those who traded were not to be trusted. It is a novel way of suggesting this character trait, but clearly this illuminator has a sense of humour. Underneath this particular image is a visual pun on Poulet’s name. The rooster also appears in the bas de page of the previous image from Royal Ms 16 F II, so it seems that Quentin Poulet is keen that those who read this manuscript in the future know who  was responsible for commissioning the illumination of these manuscripts.

Illuminated bibles and other specific religious illuminated manuscripts were in the ownership of the Church, but were only seen by priests, bishops and princes of the Church. During the dissolution of certain monasteries under Wolsey, those manuscripts claimed became the property of the bishops and archbishops. Under the dissolution undertaken by Thomas Cromwell many were destroyed. However, the one time prince of the Church Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had an eye for the beautiful artefact and had commissioned two exquisite beautiful manuscripts that have survived. They are held by the two Oxford colleges – Christ Church and Magdalen. This link will take you to the website dedicated to these two documents and to see them in high resolution, click on the the word Manuscripts. The Wolsey Manuscripts. These two documents were written by a one eyed Dutchman called Pieter Meghren and an illuminator known as The Master of the Wolsey Lectionaries. The articles on this website are far more eloquent than I, so I urge you to take a look at these rare surviving examples of early 16th century religious illuminations commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey. You will recognise the Cardinal’s coat of arms from the inclusion of his cardinal’s hat.

Books of Hours were another example where the illuminator took great delight in illustrating the life of the Virgin. Originally designed as books for women but in reality owned by men too, these books followed the monastic day and this table shows the images associated with the various services.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 14.54.12

A queen was supposed to be the exemplar for all women of the nation, setting an example of humility, piety and chastity. Clearly only an educated woman would own one of these exquisite books, which were often given as wedding gifts.

Hidden away in the Biblioteque Municipale de Lyons is the Hours of Mary Tudor, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. (Bibliotheque Municipale de Lyons Ms 1558) Illuminated by either Jean Poyer, or Jean Boudichon, either way this is an example of the the work of one very best French early modern illuminators. The characters who appear in the story of the life of the Virgin are all clad in white giving a ghostly feel to the paintings. The anomaly is the page showing St Jerome kneeling at the foot of the cross. This is a double page illumination with a strewn naturalistic border on the right hand page, while St Jerome is contained by an architural frame.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 16.16.50
Biblioteque Municipale de Lyons 1558 ffs 7-8.

On the page opposite where the Magi kneel to the infant Christ, Mary has scribbled a note. “your louffyng frend and evere woll be dowryng my lyffe marie the french quene.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 14.22.56
Mary’s note can be seen underneath the text page. ff.35-36

Some believe this was actually a note to Mary’s brother, Henry VIII, but it could equally have been meant for her husband, Louis XII of France. The eighteen year old Mary was widowed only three months after her marriage: Louis was considered old, but he was only fifty three.  Mary was about set off for Calais (still English in 1514) from where she would proceed through France and marry Louis XII, the French king, but she had made her brother, Henry VIII, promise that if she married Louis, and Louis died without an heir, Mary could choose her next husband. At the end of January 1515 in France, Mary secretly married the man Henry had sent his best friend, Charles Brandon, to France to accompany her (and as much of her dowry as Brandon could negotiate) back to England. How the book came to be in the municipal library of Lyons is not described on the library website. If the book did return to England with Mary in 1515, then perhaps it was smuggled out again at a later date either during the religious reforms of Edward VI or during the Puritan Commonwealth of the 17th century.

The idea of scribbling notes in the spaces on illuminated pages might be thought of as nothing short of vandalism bearing in mind the cost of these books. However, I do not believe that cost entered into the minds of those who owned them. The reason for entries in the calendar pages can certainly be understood. These record important family births, marriages and deaths, but personal notes on random pages are more difficult to understand. The words may be supplemental to the intended message and the image has been selected to endorse an act, or perhaps hide another message. Mary Tudor’s note may well have been a plea to her brother. Perhaps she she see herself in the place of the kneeling Magi offering a gift, this time of this book of hours, and gave it to her brother on her return to England with her new husband. Henry was a keen bibliophile, but this theory is yet to be proved. It could well allude to Mary’s relationship with Louis, who was ill and perhaps unable to consummate the marriage. We can only speculate.

In the Hours of Anne Boleyn (Kings Ms 9) there are two similar scribbled messages. Underneath folio 66v – an image of the Annunciation – Anne Boleyn has written a note to Henry VIII. ‘Be daly prove you shall me fynde / To be to you bothe lovynge and kynde.‘ 

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.52.44
The Annunciation f66v with Anne’s note to Henry written across the bottom.

This is very similar in tone to the message Mary Tudor has written next to the Adoration of the Magi. Clearly both women chose their images carefully. Mary was pandering to kings, Anne seems to have had another agenda completely. Bearing in mind Henry VIII’s obsession to ensure a male heir, is the choice of the Annunciation image possibly deliberate? The big unknown is the date of when Anne wrote this note.

On folios 231-232  Henry replies – in French! Si silon mon affection la sufvenance sera en voz prieres ne seray yers oblie car vostre suis Henry R. a jammays‘. This translates as “If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever”.

Henry’s response in French.

The choice of the illumination of Christ as the Man of Sorrows suggests this exchange of love notes was towards the end of 1532 when Henry was still married to Queen Katharine of Aragon and was desperate for a divorce. Christ is surrounded by the instruments of torture used during the scourging and he kneels before what appears to be an open tomb. Spots of blood cover his body.

What should we make of their choice of images? Is Henry telling Anne that he is in torment because there is still no divorce, but he will love her unto death? That not being with her is torturing him? Is she adding pressure to get a divorce by giving him a clue that she is now pregnant? Why else did Anne chose this particular image? You will have to make up your own minds, but for me it suggests Anne was pregnant with the child who would become Elizabeth I.

During Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) printing had become the normal process of book production. Illumination was kept for charters and had expanded and illuminators had developed the stand alone portrait miniature. Dr Lipscomb recently posted photographs of the 1585 charter for Ashborne school in Derbyshire. Elizabeth I granted the people of Ashbourne a charter for the founding of a free grammar school. The petition had come through Sir Francis Walsingham, a very determined Protestant and one of Elizabeth’s most trusted servants. She called him her ‘Moor’ because of his swarthiness. The petition contained the following words: “for wante of scholes the youthe of that cuntrye followe the olde traditions of men and rather cleave to Papistrye than to the truthe of the gospelle’ and were ‘given over to wickedness and vyces such as swearing, Drunckedness, whordome, idleness and such lyke.” The mention of Catholicism (Papistrye) and the olde traditions demonstrates how the northern parts of England still followed the old faith. No wonder Sir Francis was keen to enable this petition for a free grammar school to teach the truthe of the gospelles – as taught by the Protestants.

The illuminator of this document was Nicholas Hilliard and the decoration is Renaissance in flavour. The seated portrait of Queen Elizabeth is similar to those seen in his portrait miniatures of her. Hilliard had a close relationship with the queen creating many portrait miniatures of her to give as gifts to diplomats and favoured people. Even though he was trained as a goldsmith, he is better known as a limner – the old word for illuminator.

The illuminated E is almost identical to that seen on the charter for the founding of Emmanual College, Cambridge and Hilliard had been commissioned by Walter Mildmay to illuminate the statutes for the college. These are dated 1st October 1585. The charter for Ashbourne School is dated 17th July 1585, so clearly Hilliard had the Ashbourne illuminated E fresh in his mind when he received the commission from Walter Mildmay. 

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.15.31
Illuminated E of the Ashbourne Charter of 1585 by Nicholas Hilliard.

It is often debated as to how often Elizabeth either thought of, or referred to her mother. There is the Chequers ring that contains enamelled portraits of Elizabeth and another woman under a lid encrusted with an E made of diamonds over an enamelled blue R. The shank is made up of rubies set in gold on mother of pearl. It is generally accepted the other woman is Anne Boleyn. Whoever gave her this gift knew her well: perhaps it was created by Hilliard? He had learnt the art of enamelling during his stay in Paris (1576-78) and was a master goldsmith, but did he present it as a gift, or was it given to the queen by another? Yet another one of those tantalising mysteries of this period.

Included in the margins is a crowned grey falcon standing on a tree stump from which come two rose stems. Pink stylised roses adorn this charter. Like the falcon, these roses have changed colour over the years.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.19.09
Anne Boleyn’s emblem of a white falcon, once glittering silver leaf, but now oxidised to a dull grey.

By now you will have deduced that the falcon was probably originally done in silver leaf that has oxidised over the centuries to a dull grey. The roses are probably painted with an organic red pigment that has now faded to pink. The margin shows a stand alone closed crown with a red insert which is still a very bright red. Clearly a more expensive and more stable pigment, such as vermillion, has been used for this. Vermillion being the more expensive pigment would reflect the greater status of the crown emblem.

Anne had wanted the proceeds of Cromwell’s dissolution of the monasteries to be used for education and other good works. Cromwell had a better knowledge of the emptiness of the royal coffers, so there was no possibility of these rich pickings being used for anything the queen might want. This charter is a rare example of how Elizabeth I honoured her mother by granting this charter for an educational institution and it is probable she instructed Hilliard to include her mother’s emblem in remembrance of her mother’s wish for people to be able to receive an education. Unfortunately the charter is no longer on view to the public and is back in the Derbyshire county archive.

By the end of the 16th century the invention of printing meant books were now within the range of most people’s pockets. Education, even as simple as learning to read, meant more people could access these cheaper books, some with woodcut illustrations. It was not until the 19th century was the book reconsidered as a luxury item. William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press and the books published by this company are beautiful examples of the Victorian fascination of the illuminated manuscripts of the past. Burne-Jones designed many of the black and white illustrations and decorated margins of many of the titles. Today, instead of having bookshelves that groan under the weight of rare books hiding wonderful images, we can view these exquisite digitised rare manuscripts from the golden age of illumination in the same way as the kings of old, and all for free. However, if you are feeling rich and prefer to hold a book, there are companies who replicate the very best of these illuminated manuscripts, but these limited editions still cost thousands of dollars/pounds sterling – just like the originals.


The 1573 Anonymous Treatise of Limning.

1598 Draft Treatise of Nicholas Hilliard. 

Royal manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. British Library. 2011. Exhibition Catalogue.

Illuminating the Renaissance; Royal Academy; Getty Publications. 2003. Exhibition Catalogue.

Professor Eamon Duffy: Marking the Hours: English People & Their Prayers;Yale University Press. 2011

Professor Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars; Yale University Press; 2nd Edition 2005.

Roger S Wieck, William M Voellde & K Michelle Hearne; The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyer; George Braziller in association with The Pierpont Morgan Library. 2000.

Ashbourne Charter 1585 – Suzannah Lipscomb website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.