Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


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

23 May 2015

When the French Invaded England

Add comment Comments (0)

By King John’s death in October 1216, England was in the midst of civil war, the eastern half of the kingdom controlled by those opposing the king. Following the papal annulment of Magna Carta, the rebel barons had invited Louis, the king of France’s eldest son (the future Louis VIII, r. 1223–1226), to invade England, offering him the English throne. Louis’s supporters pointed out that John had illegally surrendered his kingdom to the Pope without the consent of his barons. Louis also had something of a claim to the English throne through his marriage to Blanche of Castile, one of John’s nieces.

An initial contingent of knights were sent to protect London in November 1215, before Louis landed along the Kentish coast in May 1216 and first made his way towards London. There he was welcomed by the rebel barons and citizens of London with a great procession at St Paul’s Cathedral. Sermons preached in the churchyard at St Paul’s Cross urged Londoners to support the French prince.

St Paul’s Cathedral at the centre of London from the itinerary from London to Apulia preceding Matthew Paris’ History of the English, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

According to calculations, by October 1216 a large majority of the barons were in revolt: only the holders of one quarter of the baronies and just under one third of the greatest barons remained loyal to the king. Ultimately, however, Louis’ campaigns in England proved unsuccessful. John’s death and the coronation of his young son Henry III (r. 1216–1272) on 28 October 1216 meant that the target of many of the barons’ personal complaints was no longer in the picture, paving the way towards an eventual conclusion to the barons’ revolt.

While King John had quickly sought Magna Carta’s annulment, Henry III’s regency government revised the charter and on 12 November 1216 issued the first of what would be several new versions throughout the 13th century. It was issued in the 9-year-old king’s name but sealed by the papal legate, Guala, and the regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1219).

Magna Carta 1216_Archives Nationales
A single-sheet copy of Magna Carta, 12 November 1216, Archives nationales, Paris, MS J655 Angleterre sans date no.11

This new version omitted the security clause and other controversial features of the 1215 charter, making it a much shorter text, 2106 medieval Latin words compared with 3541. Thanks to a loan from the Archives nationales in Paris we’re able to include this contemporary copy of the charter in our major exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. This copy most likely ended up in Paris after coming into Louis’ possession before his final departure from England in 1217.

By reissuing Magna Carta, Henry III’s supporters hoped to tempt away Louis’s supporters or at least tempt them into negotiations. Unfortunately, though, there were limited immediate effects and conflict continued into the following year, until a decisive confrontation on 20 May 1217 at Lincoln Castle finally broke a long siege of the city by Louis’ forces. The final blow to Louis and his supporters came two months later when Hubert de Burgh, castellan of Dover, destroyed a fleet bringing reinforcements from France in a sea battle off the coast at Sandwich.

The chronicler of St Albans, Matthew Paris (d. 1259), illustrated both events on two facing pages of his Chronica maiora, where he also included detailed accounts of the reigns of John and Henry III. This fantastic manuscript has been loaned to the British Library from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

49. MS 16, f. 55v detail

49. MS 16, f. 56r (detail)
The siege of Lincoln and the Battle of Sandwich in Matthew Paris’ Chronica maiora, St Albans Abbey, 13th century, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 16, ff. 55v–56r

On the left page, Lincoln Castle has already been taken by the king’s forces – the royal standard flies from the castle turret while a hand emerges from the base killing Thomas, count of Perche and commander of the French troops. The facing page is in the midst of the Battle of Sandwich where an English soldier boards a French vessel while Frenchmen jump overboard to escape capture. Immediately to the left one of the bishops, via a scroll-shaped speech bubble, absolves ‘those who died for the liberation of England’.

A peace treaty drawn up between the two sides on 11 September 1217 saw Louis relinquish his claim to the English throne, his English lands, and agree to return to France. A further condition of the peace treaty was the confirmation of Magna Carta. Like in 1216, the 1217 charter was also authenticated with the seals of Guala and William Marshal since Henry III still had no Great Seal of his own. You can see an engrossment of the 1217 charter in our exhibition, alongside the other reissues of Magna Carta, thanks to the Bodleian Library loaning to us the charter preserved at Oseney Abbey, just outside Oxford.

51. Magna_Carta
Magna Carta with the seal of Cardinal Guala, November 1217, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142c and Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142c*

This reissue included an important new clause on the running of county and hundred courts and the stipulation that all unauthorised castles built during the war were to be destroyed. Also, for the first time there was a separate charter for the royal forests, which included relevant clauses once in Magna Carta. It was to differentiate the two charters that Magna Carta was first referred to as ‘Magna Carta’ (the Great Charter).

We are very grateful to the Archives Nationales in Paris, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for loaning these fascinating documents for our Magna Carta exhibition, open now until 1 September. 

Katherine Har

21 May 2015

Something for Everyone

Add comment Comments (1)

Additional MS 36684 is a Book of Hours, about the size of a small paperback, made in Northern France in the area of Saint-Omer, near where our large set of Arthurian volumes (recently immortalised in cake) were made and decorated, also in the 2nd decade of the 14th century. Though this is a completely different type of book, it was probably aimed at a similar audience. Delightfully idiosyncratic and amusing images once again decorate the text, in seeming contrast to its serious purpose as a devotional aid. The medieval imagination is allowed to run riot, with every aspect of human and animal physiognomy, and everything in between, on display.

The twelve opening pages contain the calendar with activities for the months of the year. Here is the page for January. Rather than attempting it ourselves, we would like to ask you our readers to write a caption for the image in the lower margin. This will be the first in a series of ‘Invent a caption’ competitions on our blog, so over to you, dear readers!

Calendar page, northern France (Saint-Omer or Therouanne), c. 1320, Add MS 36684, f. 1v

Go on, provide us with a caption to f. 1v, the wittier the better. You can enter via Twitter @BLMedieval or in the comments section below this post.


Some of the pages of this manuscript are almost unbeatable for sheer weirdness:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins containing hybrid creatures,  Add MS 36684, f.17r

Others are jewel-like, a perfect ensemble of colour and design to delight the eyes of the reader (is that the legs of a pair of bell-bottomed trousers emerging from a cauldron?):

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins including butterfly, Add MS 36684, f.50v

Birds and fish are favourite subjects, but not always as we know them:

Page from the Hours of the Virgin with border and margins decorated with birds,  Add MS 36684, f.31v

Large historiated initials have scenes from the life of Christ, including the Nativity: here the angel appears to the shepherds, one of whom is playing a bagpipe-like instrument.

Historiated initial with the angel appearing to the shepherds and decorated border,  Add MS 36684, f.43v

This Book of Hours was owned by none other than John Ruskin in the 19th century. It was in his library at Brantwood and contains his bookplate. Unfortunately there is no record of what he must have made of some of the marginalia!

The images here are just a small selection, evey page is filled with delights. Feast your eyes on our Digitised Manuscripts site, Add MS 36684.

Chantry Westwell

19 May 2015

Magna Carta, Super Charter!

Add comment Comments (0)

What do the following people (and 200 others) have in common?

Alan Rusbridger, Antony Gormley, Brian Eno, Caitlin Moran, Caroline Lucas, Clive Stafford Smith, Doreen Lawrence, Edward Snowden, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Gareth Peirce, Germaine Greer, Helena Kennedy, Igor Judge, Jarvis Cocker, Jeanette Winterson, Jimmy Wales, Jon Snow, Julian Assange, Kenneth Clarke, Mariella Frostrup, Mary Beard, Michael Mansfield, Moazzam Begg, Paddy Hill, Peter Tatchell, Philip Pullman, Baroness Warsi, Shami Chakribarti, Shirley Williams, Tessa Blackstone and Tom Watson


Jarvis Cocker, who stitched 'Common People' on Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (photography by Joseph Turp)

They all contributed to Cornelia Parker's major new artwork, Magna Carta (An Embroidery), which was unveiled last week and is on show at the British Library in London until 24 July 2015. We have been delighted both by the critical response to this embroidery -- which reproduces the Magna Carta Wikipedia page on 15 June 2014 (Magna Carta's 799th birthday) -- and by the number of visitors the artwork has already attracted. You may have read curator Claire Breay's account of how the embroidery was commissioned and how she stitched her own contribution to it.

Detail from 'Magna Carta (An Embroidery)' by Cornelia Parker being hand stitched by Embroiderers' Guild member Anthea Godfrey (photograph by Joseph Turp)

Of course, also at the British Library until 1 September 2015 is our own major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. For the first time in history, you'll be able to see the Library's two original manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta alongside the Articles of the Barons, the papal bull that annulled the Great Charter, King John's teeth, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson's own manuscript of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Delaware copy of the US Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an account of Nelson Mandela's 1964 trial, plus countless paintings, drawings, costumes and other artefacts. Phew! It is, quite simply, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta.

Magna Carta Exhibition DSC00595 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Last, but not least, we also have an extensive programme of events that accompany our exhibition. Forthcoming highlights include Professor A E Dick Howard talking on Magna Carta's American Adventure (1 June), Revelations of the Magna Carta Project (5 June) and a special lunchtime concert on 15 June.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1 September. Entry costs £12 with many concessions available; under 18s enter free. Most of the exhibits and other educational resources can be seen on our dedicated Magna Carta website. Follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval.

And if you're wondering where the line "Magna Carta, Super Charter" comes from ... then you'll have to visit our exhibition!