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

03 March 2015

Canterbury Cathedral and Magna Carta

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The countdown continues until the opening of our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Today we're delighted to announce that the show will feature a number of stunning loans from Canterbury Cathedral, which will illuminate the story of how and why Magna Carta was first granted in 1215. As ever, we're indebted to the generosity of our friends at Canterbury for so kindly agreeing to lend these items to our exhibition at the British Library.

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The mitre of Archbishop Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The Canterbury objects on display in London comprise the vestments and crozier of Hubert Walter (Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England under King John), a 13th-century seal press (remember, Magna Carta was sealed, not signed) and a letter excommunicating the rebel barons. The vestments are outstanding examples of Opus Anglicanum (medieval English embroidery), and were found in Hubert Walter's tomb when it was opened at Canterbury Cathedral in 1890. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will feature the archbishop's mitre, slippers, buskins (boots) and stole, as well as his crozier, made of beechwood and featuring settings for four jewels.

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The buskins of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

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The stole of Archbishop Hubert Walter (courtesy of Canterbury Cathedral)

The seal press was made for the monks of Canterbury Cathedral around the year 1232. A similar press would have been used to create the impression on both sides of the Great Seal of England and to attach it to Magna Carta. It would have applied pressure to two metal matrices engraved with the design on the seal, two discs of beeswax, and the plaited silk cords which joined the seal to the document.

The letter is dated 5 September 1215, and it commands Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, to excommunicate the rebel barons, on the grounds that they had violated the terms of Magna Carta. Nine barons are singled out for condemnation, together with six clerics, including Giles, Bishop of Hereford. This signalled the start of a new rebellion, which continued up to and beyond the death of King John in 1215.

We are very excited to have these magnificent objects in our exhibition, and are extremely grateful to Canterbury Cathedral for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy opens to the public on Friday, 13 March, and closes on 1 September 2015. Book your ticket now, they're selling fast!

Julian Harrison (@julianpharrison)

01 March 2015

A Calendar Page for March 2015

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To find out more about the London Rothschild Hours, take a look at our post A Calendar Page for January 2015

Calendar page for March, with decorative border comprising a Zodiac sign, architectural column and suspended roundel, and bas-de-page scene, from the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

In this month’s border decoration, a roundel for the Feast of the Annunciation is suspended from a perpendicular gothic column. This elaborate architectural design itself encloses a scene showing the Mass of St Gregory, who died on 12th March 604. According to Paul the Deacon’s 8th-century biography of Gregory, the Man of Sorrows appeared as Gregory celebrated mass as Pope, in response to his prayers to convince someone of the doctrine of transubstantiation – that is, Christ’s physical presence in the consecrated host. 

At the top of the page, there is the Zodiac sign for March: Aries the Ram. At the bottom, there is another scene of agricultural industriousness. Three peasants labour in a fenced-off garden: the men digging and planting fruit trees, the woman pulling up weeds. They are overseen by a gentlewoman, who is holding a small lapdog in her arms, and her female attendant. A large and imposing building, presumably the woman’s residence, stands in the background. 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants labouring in a garden,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

Detail of an architectural column enclosing the scene of the Mass of St Gregory,
Add MS 35313, f. 2v 

- James Freeman

26 February 2015

Magna Carta: The Worcester Connection

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There are now just a few weeks to the opening of our magnificent Magna Carta exhibition. We're very excited today to announce that on display will be some extremely precious items loaned to us by our friends at Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

King John teeth

King John's molars, found in his coffin in 1797 (image courtesy of Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum)

For starters, you'll be able to see King John himself at the British Library this spring and summer or, at the very least, those parts of him that survive outside his tomb! John's tomb at Worcester Cathedral was opened for a brief period in 1797, and certain of his body parts removed as souvenirs. On display in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be two of King John's molars, taken from the tomb by William Wood, a stationer's apprentice, and kindly being loaned to our exhibition by Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum. On show with them will be a thumb-bone, reputedly that of King John, which was returned to the cathedral in 1957. We're thrilled that we are going to have these items in our Magna Carta exhibition, and we're extremely grateful to the two institutions concerned for so kindly agreeing to lend them to us.


A piece of textile identified as the shroud wrapped round the body of King John, with a heraldic lion or "leopard" (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Worcester Cathedral will also be lending some other items to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. Also found in the tomb in 1797 were some pieces of textile, identified as parts of King John's hose and shroud, together with a portion of his leather shoe. Come and admire how a medieval king was dressed, and what he wore on his feet! In addition to this, we're very pleased to announce that we will also be displaying King John's own will in our exhibition, again on loan from Worcester Cathedral. This is the earliest surviving original English royal will, and it attests to John's deteriorating condition in his final days, since he left the distribution of his effects and the administration of his kingdom to a group of close advisers, being in an unfit state to make more detailed provisions. Once again, we are delighted that this key witness to King John's final days will be on display in London, where it can be seen alongside other books and objects relating to this troubled period in English history.

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The will of King John, October 1216 (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy promises to be the largest exhibition ever devoted to the Great Charter, and the centrepiece of international celebrations to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta in 1215. This could not have been made possible without the generosity of our lenders, among whom we wish to particularly acknowledge Worcester Cathedral and Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum.

Thumb bone

The thumb-bone of King John (image courtesy of Worcester Cathedral)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy is sponsored by Linklaters, and is open from 13 March until 1 September 2015. Tickets are on sale now but beware, they are selling fast!

You can learn more about the history of Magna Carta on our dedicated site. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter (@julianpharrison and @BLMedieval) for more updates.

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The teeth and thumb-bone of King John, prior to their installation in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library