THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

05 November 2012

Beautiful Contraband: The Queen Mary Psalter

We are thrilled to announce the long-awaited upload of the Queen Mary Psalter to our Digitised Manuscripts site (click here for the full manuscript).  We discussed the Psalter last year in our post Rival Queens, Precious Books, but here is a bit of a recap...

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f256v

Miniature of the Crucifixion, with eight niches occupied by male figures, with an historiated initial 'A'(d), with a pope, king, bishop and two others kneeling before an altar, with a bas-de-page scene of Christina cast into the sea and rescued by angels, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 256v

 

The Psalter is named, as you might imagine, for Queen Mary Tudor (1516 - 1558), daughter of King Henry VIII, but the manuscript was not made for her - in fact, it was produced nearly 200 years before Mary's birth.  The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320.  Some scholars argue that it was made for Isabella of France (1295 - 1358), Queen of England and consort of Edward II, but unfortunately there is no certainty about this point.  The Psalter was certainly created for an aristocratic patron, and possibly a royal one, but the lack of any colophon or coats of arms in the manuscript means that it has been impossible to conclusively link it to any original owner. 

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f067v

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 67v

 

More is known about the manuscript itself, which was put together with an enormous amount of care.  The Psalter opens with a unique cycle of Old Testament miniatures, which details events from the Fall of Lucifer to the death of Solomon and is accompanied by an Anglo-Norman commentary found nowhere else; it was probably commissioned particularly for this manuscript. This is followed by a calendar, the Psalter (Book of Psalms) proper, Canticles, and Litany, and virtually all of the manuscript is in the hand of one scribe.

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f151r

Miniature of Christ in the Temple speaking to the doctors, with the Virgin and Joseph behind, and six niches with prophets, accompanying the text of Psalm 52, with a bas-de-page scene of a mounted man and two mounted women hawking, with a man on foot holding a lure, and a hawk attacking a duck, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 151r

 

The layout of the text was meticulously planned to fit almost seamlessly with the nearly unparalleled program of decoration in the Psalter.  The sheer number of images throughout are staggering; there are 223 Old Testament images, 24 calendar scenes, 104 half- or full-page miniatures, 23 historiated initials, and 464 marginal or bas-de-page drawings.  Most remarkably, every image in the manuscript was produced by a single highly-skilled artist, now known as the Queen Mary Master.

We know very little about where the Queen Mary Psalter was during the first two centuries of its existence.  By the early 1550s it had come into the hands of Henry Manners, the 2nd earl of Rutland (1526 - 1563), who as a devout Protestant was arrested by Mary in May of 1553, shortly after she took the throne.  A much-erased note on f. 84r reads:  'This boke was sume tyme [under erasure: the Erle of Rutelands], and it was his wil / that it shulde by successioun all way / go to the [under erasure: lande of Ruteland] or to / [partially erased: him that linyally succedis by reson / of inheritaunce in the seide lande'].

 

G70036-68

 

It is uncertain what happened to the Psalter after Rutland's arrest, but in October of 1553 it was seized by an eagle-eyed and opportunistic customs officer named Baldwin Smith; there presumably had been an attempt to remove the manuscript from England.  Smith inscribed his name and the circumstances of this seizure at the end of the manuscript (see f. 319v) and then presented it as a gift to Queen Mary.  Mary clearly valued the Psalter very highly; she had it rebound to include the pomegranate device that she had inherited from her mother (see above, now much worn), and there is some evidence to suggest that she used it in her personal devotions. 

If you would like more information about the Queen Mary Psalter, it is among those manuscripts featured in the Royal app, which is still available for download.  We hope that you enjoy paging through this treasure on Digitised Manuscripts (online here); a few of our favourite images are below.

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f001v

Miniature of God the Creator holding a compass with angels and cherubins, and Lucifer with fallen angels and devils, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 1v

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f082r_detail

Detail of a miniature of two centaurs with bows, aiming their arrows at nearby birds (for the zodiac sign Sagittarius), from a calendar page for November, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 82r

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f131r_detail

Detail of a miniature of the three Magi before Herod, with a bas-de-page scene of a bear on a chain springing at a woman, while a man is whipping him, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 131r

 

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f143v_detail

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of two hybrid grotesques (each half-fish), with shields and lances, jousting with one another in the ocean, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London or East Anglia), between 1310 and 1320, Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 143v

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