THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

24 February 2012

The Wheel of Fortune

E027044 Royal 18 D. ii f. 30v

Detail of a miniature of the Wheel of Fortune with a crowned king at the top, from John Lydgate's Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 30v.

Historical and legendary figures were often used as models in the education of princes and other young nobles. See our Facebook page for the Instruction section of our Royal exhibition, which features many of these so-called 'Mirrors for Princes'.  The legend of Troy was particularly popular because all European royalty traced their descent from Trojan heroes.  In the fifteenth century the poet John Lydgate (d. c. 1451) provided an English version of these stories, which had previously only circulated in French and Latin.

The present manuscript (Royal 18 D. ii) was commissioned by Sir William Herbert (d. 1469) and his wife Anne Devereux (d. c. 1486), who are depicted in a large image with their arms and motto, kneeling before an enthroned king (see below).  It is likely, therefore, that the Herberts presented the copy to a king, although opinions differ about whether this was the Yorkist Edward IV (r. 1461-1483) or the Lancastrian Henry VI (r. 1422-61, d. 1471).  Lydgate himself was a Lancastrian supporter, as is clear from the text of his prologue, which praises Henry V.  The inclusion of this prologue makes it more likely that this book was intended as a gift to Henry's son, Henry VI.

The illumination pictured above - the Wheel of Fortune - is unique amongst the seven extant illuminated copies of the Troy Book.  The Rota Fortunae was a concept familiar to the medieval reader, and this image would have reminded the viewer of the fragility of power, a lesson appropriate to either of the manuscript's possible royal recipients.  In the miniature, a crowned king is shown sitting atop a gold wheel, which is being turned by a crowned personification of Fortune. Other richly dressed figures are toppling from the wheel - a fitting metaphor for the shifting fortunes of the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings.

E071486 Royal 18 D. ii f. 6

Detail of a miniature of a king enthroned surrounded by courtiers with Sir William Herbert and his wife, Anne Devereux kneeling before him, wearing clothes decorated with their coats of arms, from John Lydgate's Troy Book and Siege of Thebes, with verses by William Cornish, John Skelton, William Peeris and others, England, c. 1457 (with later additions), Royal 18 D. ii, f. 6.

Royal 18 D. ii is currently on display in the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (until 13 March 2012), and is also featured in the Royal app, available for iPhone, iPad or Android.

- Royal Project Team

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