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Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

26 April 2015

The Paston Letters Go Live

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The collection known as the Paston Letters is one of the largest archives of 15th-century English private correspondence, comprising about 1000 letters and documents including petitions, leases, wills and even shopping lists. They offer a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk over a period of 70 years -- the family name comes from a Norfolk village about 20 miles north of Norwich. The Pastons rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just a few generations: the first member of the family about whom anything is known was Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, who gave an excellent education to his son William (d. 1444), enabling him to study law. William’s sons and grandsons, two of whom were knighted, continued his relentless quest for wealth, status and land, and their story was acted out against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses. 

Caistor
 A 19th-century view of the ruins of Caistor Castle in Norfolk. This 15th-century 'castle' was built for a prominent aristocratic family, the Fastolfs. It passed to the Paston family who occupied it for the next century (British Library KTop XXXI.47)

For the first time, part of the British Library’s large collection of Paston family correspondence and documents has been digitised and is available to view in full. Five volumes containing some of the most studied items have now been published on our Digitised Manuscripts website: four volumes from 1440-1489 (Add MS 43488, Add MS 43489Add MS 43490Add MS 43491) and a volume that contains further material from the second half of the 15th century, together with later correspondence from of the later 16th century (Add MS 33597). One of the most famous items in the Paston collection is the oldest Valentine letter (London, British Library, Additional MS 43490, f. 24), featured on this blog in 2011 when it was displayed in the British Library's Evolving English exhibition.

One of the earliest of the surviving letters, dated 20 April, ?1440, is from Agnes Paston to her husband, William, the patriarch of the family, in which she tells him that their son, John, seems to like the ‘gentilwomman’ that his father has chosen to be his bride, and asks him to buy her a wedding gown in ‘a godely blew or ellys a bryghte sanggueyn [red]’. Her mother has promised to supply the fur to go with it. She ends the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast … for defaute of a good secretarye’, so it would appear that this letter was written by Agnes herself. Unfortunately we do not know if the bride, Margaret Mautby, liked her gown, but she did marry John later in 1440!

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Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)

The titles in modern handwriting show that this is the first letter in volume I of five volumes of Original letters, written during the Reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III…, edited and bound by their owner, John Fenn, the Norfolk antiquary in 1787-89 . The first two volumes were presented by him to King George III (1760-1820) at St James’s Palace in 1787, but then disappeared from view until they were found  in the library of Colonel George Tomline at Orwell Park, Suffolk, around 1890. Tomline was a descendant of the private secretary to William Pitt the Younger, so they may have been in Pitt’s library in the late 18th century, but there is no record of how he obtained them from the Royal library. They were bought by the British Museum in 1933 after the Pretyman-Tomline family put them up for sale at Sotheby’s.

Each letter has the address and remains of a wax seal on the rear.

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Verso of the above letter: ‘To my worshepefulle housbond W. Paston be this letter takyn’, Norfolk,  20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4v)

Official family business is the major topic of the correspondence. Margaret Paston, nee Mautby, wife of John Paston I (d. 1466), a London solicitor, was left to manage the estates in Norfolk while he pursued land claims against the estate of Sir John Fastolf, a career soldier (d. 1459) and one of the major correspondents of the family. Topics of a more personal nature include family fall-outs, parental nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties thrown while parents were away from home. In December 1441 Margaret writes to John to ask him for a new girdle as she has grown ‘so fetys’ (fat): she is 6 months pregnant with their first child, who is born in April 1442.  The letters provide a colourful portrait of medieval provincial society: feckless sons and aging daughters are married advantageously and a manor house is besieged in a land-dispute. Dinner parties are planned and the topics discussed range from local gossip, the problems of cash-flow and the wool trade to the shortage of good servants.

Among the letters and documents is an inventory of ‘Englysshe bokis’ owned by John Paston II (b. 1442, d.1479); unfortunately, the paper has decayed on the right-hand side so the titles are incomplete. Paston’s library included copies of romances that were popular at the time, for example ‘a boke of Troylus’, ‘þe Dethe off Arthur’ and a printed book listed as ‘a boke in preente off þe Pleye of þe… ‘, which has been identified as a copy of Caxton’s printed edition of ‘The Game and Playe of the Chess’, published in 1475. Unsurprisingly there are several books of heraldry, religious and classical texts.

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Inventory of books belonging to John Paston II, Norfolk, between 1475 and 1479 (BL Additional MS 43491, f. 26r)

Sometimes the events described in the letters are remarkably familiar. While studying at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, probably in his late teens, John Paston I loses his wallet somewhere between Cambridge and Newmarket! Here is an edition of the letter written by a certain John Gyne, known to the family, who found it on the ‘high weye’. The letter is from a collection that is soon to be digitised, and is transcribed in James Gairdner’s 1904 edition of the letters.

 

JOHN GYNE TO JOHN PASTON

To the worthy and worshipful sir and my good maister, John Paston of Trynyte hall in Cambrigge

1435–6

Right worthy and worshipfull sir, and my good maister, I comaund me to yow. Like it yow to witte that on the Soneday next after the Ascencion of oure Lord, in the high weye betwex Cambrigge and the Bekyntre toward Newmarket, I fonde a purs with money ther inne. Th’entent of this my symple lettre is this, that it please to your good Maistership by weye of charite, and of your gentilnesse, to witte if ony of youre knowleche or ony other, swich as yow semeth best in your discrecion, have lost swich a purs, and, the toknes ther of told, he shal have it ageyn, what that ever he be, by the grace of oure Lord, Who ever have yow in his blissed kepyng. Wretyn at Sneylewell the Moneday next after the seid Soneday. By youre pover servaunt, John Gyn.

As most of the letters are dated or datable, they are invaluable primary sources for historians and are, in addition, of outstanding interest to linguists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development.  There are 2185 entries from the Paston letters in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Visser’s monumental work,  An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Leiden: Brill, 1972), they are a major source of examples of Middle English usage. One example is found in a letter from John Paston III (John Paston I has two sons called John Paston, just to confuse historians!) to his mother, Margaret Paston, where he informs her that my lord of Oxynforth … sent to my lady of Norffolk by John Bernard only for my mater and for non othyr cawse, myn onwetyng … (‘Lord Oxford sent a message to Lady Norfolk just to raise my business with her and for no other reason, without me knowing’). This construction, myn onweting (literally ‘mine unknowing’), is unfamiliar to us now. In modern English we would use the preposition ‘without’ to introduce an adverbial phrase with a present participle but we would be more likely to replace it with a noun, e.g., ‘without my knowledge’. The vocabulary, too, is interesting. ‘Onweting’ is a form of the Old English verb, ‘witen’, an alternative to ‘cnawan’ (to know), which survives in noun form in Modern English, in the word, ‘wit’ or ‘witless’ but is no longer used as a verb.     

This letter was written in the midst of the confusion surrounding the restoration of Henry VI, who was recrowned the day after it was written, on 13 October 1470. John Paston tells his mother ‘tydyngys’ of the imminent death of the Earl of Worcester, who was to be executed a week later.

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Letter from John Paston III to Margaret Paston, London, 12 October 1470 (BL Additional MS 43489, f. 40r)

These 5 volumes are just a part of the large collection of Paston letters in the British Library. Further volumes of the family’s letters and documents are scheduled for digitisation in the future, so watch this space!

Chantry Westwell

25 April 2015

King John's Last Will and Testament

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Did you know that the oldest surviving original English royal will is on display in our Magna Carta exhibition? And that it was written on behalf of King John in October 1216? Here, Katie Har -- who was part of the team which worked on the exhibition -- examines its context.

Will B1693
The will of King John (Worcester Cathedral Muniments B1693), on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

In the autumn of 1216, with the kingdom still embroiled in civil war, King John fell ill, probably of dysentery, while in the prosperous -- and, more importantly, friendly to the Crown -- port and town of Lynn. His illness steadily worsened as he made his way back through Lincolnshire, making it as far as the bishop of Lincoln’s castle at Newark just over the border in Nottinghamshire. Then, on the 18th or 19th of October (depending on which sources are to be believed) John eventually succumbed to his illness.

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Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire by the River Trent

In the last days before his death John had his will drawn up. In it he specifically stated that the gravity of his illness prevented him from drawing up an itemized will, so instead he named 13 men to oversee the fulfilment of his wishes. Here is the text of his will, in English translation (taken from S. Church, English Historical Review, 125 (2010)):

I, John, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou, hindered by grave infirmity and not being able at this time of my infirmity to itemize all my things so that I may make a testament, commit the arbitration and administration of my testament to the trust and to the legitimate administration of my faithful men whose names are written below, without whose counsel, even in good health, I would have by no means arranged my testament in their presence, so that what they will faithfully arrange and determine concerning my things as much as in making satisfaction to God and to holy Church for damages and injuries done to them as in sending succour to the land of Jerusalem and in providing support to my sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance and in making reward to those who have served us faithfully and in making distribution to the poor and to religious houses for the salvation of my soul, be right and sure. I ask, furthermore, that whoever shall give them counsel and assistance in the arranging of my testament shall receive the grace and favour of God. Whoever shall infringe their arrangement and disposition, may he incur the curse and indignation of almighty God and the blessed Mary and all the saints.

In the first place, therefore, I desire that my body be buried in the church of St Mary and St Wulfstan at Worcester. I appoint, moreover, the following arbiters and administrators: the lord Guala, by the grace of God, cardinal-priest of the title of St Martin and legate of the apostolic see; the lord Peter bishop of Winchester; the lord Richard bishop of Chichester; the lord Silvester bishop of Worcester; Brother Aimery de St-Maur; William Marshal earl of Pembroke; Ranulf earl of Chester; William earl Ferrers; William Brewer; Walter de Lacy and John of Monmouth; Savaric de Mauléon; Falkes de Bréauté.

If concessions are made for the practice of sealing rather than signing documents, this is a valid will as we would know it today. It fulfils all the criteria: that the person writing the will must be 18 or over; that they make it voluntarily; be of sound mind; make it in writing; sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18; and have it signed by their two witnesses, in their presence. Perhaps, following the use of the Latin word ‘testamentum’ in this document, we should refer to it as a ‘testament’ rather than a ‘will’. Our modern use of the word ‘will’ links back to the Old English phrase ‘ic wille’ (I desire), used in the Anglo-Saxon period in documents directing the disposal of one’s property after one’s death.

014621
The alleged poisoning of King John by a monk of Swineshead Abbey (London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v)

While there is an entire corpus of these sorts of documents going back to the Anglo-Saxon period, King John’s will is the earliest English royal will to survive in its original form. We have later copies of wills of two Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred (d. 899) and Eadred (d. 955), as well as multiple copies of the will of John’s father, Henry II (d. 1189). There are references to, but no texts for, those of his brother Richard (d. 1199) or his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204). There was no regular practice of enrolling or necessarily carefully preserving royal wills in the governmental records, either before John's reign or subsequently under his son Henry III, so it’s perhaps a fluke that this document has managed to survive to this day.  

The document itself is small, around the size of a postcard. From the fold at the bottom and the slits found there, the royal seal clearly once hung from the bottom of the will, likely accompanied by the seals of the 8 appointed executors present at the drawing up of the will. With only half of the kingdom under royal control at his death, one of the responsibilities of the men chosen to execute John’s last will lay ‘in providing support to [his] sons towards obtaining and defending their inheritance’. Among the 13 overseers we find named Guala (d. 1227), the papal legate, and the future regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219). Both men played a major part in securing the throne for Henry III, including being instrumental in the 1216 reissue of Magna Carta.

King John's will has been very generously loaned by Worcester Cathedral to the British Library's major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. John was buried at Worcester in accordance with the terms of his will. Next year Worcester Cathedral will be commemorating the 800th anniversary of King John's death, and in 2015-16 they are also hosting a series of special events relating to King John and Magna Carta.

 

Katherine Har

Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. There is also a comprehensive events programme and a website dedicated to Magna Carta.

23 April 2015

John Wilkes and Magna Carta

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As curators of the British Library's major Magna Carta exhibition, we're often asked how we've managed to bring to life the story of what one British government official, writing in March 1941, described as 'a bit of parchment, of no intrinsic value whatever, rather the worse for wear'. The simple answer is that we've presented numerous stories of how Magna Carta has been used (and abused) across the centuries, to show how the text has evolved and what it means to us today. Among the men and women featured in our exhibition are: Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, Edward Coke and King Charles I, William Penn, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, William Blackstone and John Wilkes, Rudyard Kipling, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and Helena Normanton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Here, to mark the 252nd anniversary of the publication of the infamous issue number 45 of The North Briton, our researcher Alex Lock tells the story of John Wilkes and Magna Carta.

Portrait-john-wilkes-parliament-2935-1-ha[1]
A portrait of John Wilkes by Robert Edge Pine (d. 1788), kindly loaned to our Magna Carta exhibition by the Palace of Westminster, London 

Since the lapse of pre-publication censorship in England in 1697 newspapers could be published relatively freely throughout Great Britain – a liberty vaunted by many Britons, especially when they compared themselves with the ancien regimes of Europe. For successive British governments, frredom of the press created major problems. Uncensored and scurrilous, newspapers could be used to cultivate public opinion and to question the government’s activities. In order to suppress some of the more radical publications, the Secretary of State could therefore issue General Warrants, authorising the arrest without charge of anyone suspected of involvement in the publication of a ‘seditious libel’ (that is, anything that was deemed to insult a ‘public person’, the government or monarchy regardless of the truth of the claims). Given this broad definition of what constituted a seditious libel, and the fact that the names of the suspects did not need to be recorded, General Warrants presented a continual threat to authors, editors and publishers in the 18th century.  

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This Wedgwood teapot (c. 1774) shows John Wilkes associated with emblems of English liberty, among which is Magna Carta, kindly loaned to the British Library by the Victoria & Albert Museum

The constitutionality of General Warrants had long been debated, but the scandal that surrounded them following the arrest of the newspaper editor and politician John Wilkes (d. 1797) marked a step change in the growth of popular opposition to them. In 1763 Wilkes was arrested under a General Warrant for publishing a seditious libel against King George III in the infamous no. 45 issue of his newspaper The North Briton. As an MP, Wilkes was quickly released on the grounds of parliamentary privilege, and he soon launched a campaign against the legality of his arrest and the constitutionality of General Warrants. Wilkes and his supporters invoked Magna Carta extensively as a symbol of the ancient rights and liberties that were under threat from the government. Indeed, Wilkes was a master propagandist and his use of Magna Carta in his defence, in print, portraits and caricatures, became closely associated with the ideals of ‘English liberty’. In the 1760s mobs calling out ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ became a common phenomenon on the streets of London.

B20162-18
The Appendix to issue no. 45 of The North Briton, in which John Wilkes set out the circumstances of his defence, beginning by citing Magna Carta

The association of Wilkes with Magna Carta was further enhanced by enterprising businessmen seeking to profit from Wilkes’ growing popularity. A range of items flooded the market, from teapots to jugs and porcelain figurines, all displaying Wilkes with the Great Charter in his hand. Caricaturists also capitalised on his renown, and made numerous prints of Wilkes with Magna Carta in order to lambast his political enemies.

Eventually, however, the law caught up with Wilkes. The House of Commons soon resolved that parliamentary privilege did not cover seditious libel. Having been expelled from Parliament, the prosecution of Wilkes was begun. The day after the Commons debate, Wilkes was seriously injured in a duel (against a fellow MP who had impugned Wilkes’ character in the preceding debate!); unable to appear before court to answer any charges, he was outlawed and forced into exile in Paris. Although resident in Paris, the propaganda celebrating Wilkes and liberty did not diminish, and there continued to be a steady stream of effective propaganda which connected Wilkes with the symbols of ‘English liberty’, most frequently Magna Carta, such as had raised his profile in the first place.

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This porcelain figure vies with the Wilkes teapot to be one of our favourite items in the exhibition (kindly loaned by the Trustees of the British Museum): 'Magna Carta' is inscribed on the scroll just above the Bill of Rights

After 4 years in exile on the Continent, Wilkes returned to England in 1768, having run out of money, and handed himself over to the authorities. As popular with the public as ever, and although he had voluntarily delivered himself into custody, Wilkes was freed by a mob and was ultimately forced to re-enter prison in disguise. Indeed, so popular was he that he managed on several occasions to secure re-election to Parliament from his prison cell, even though the result was declared void each time by the government!

John Wilkes's successful use of Magna Carta in the 18th century was a landmark in changing interpretations of that document. What had originated in the 13th century as a peace treaty between the king and the barons was now being used to challenge the very authority of Parliament and the government, on the path to securing greater liberties for the population at large.

Alexander Lock

 

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, is on at the British Library until 1 September 2015. Most of the items on display can also be seen on our dedicated Magna Carta website. Please follow us on Twitter (@BLMedieval, using the hashtag #MagnaCarta).