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128 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxon"

23 October 2016

Fire, Fire! The Tragic Burning of the Cotton Library

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2016 has been a year of anniversaries, some of them more notable than others. Already this year we have commemorated 350 years since the Great Fire of London (1666), the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and 1,000 years since the Battle of Assandun (1016). The 285th year since the infamous Cotton Library fire (1731) falls on 23 October, and although this may not be a date that immediately leaps to mind, it is a cause of great sorrow for many medievalists.


A portrait of Sir Robert Cotton, commissioned in 1626 and attributed to Cornelius Johnson

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was one of the greatest British collectors of manuscripts of all time. His library was vast and of huge national significance, especially when one recounts some of the books and documents it contained: two of the original manuscripts of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Cotton Genesis, the state papers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Vespasian Psalter ... one could easily go on. Cotton made his library available to other scholars during his own lifetime, and enabled certain books to be borrowed (which is why some items, such as the famous Utrecht Psalter, ultimately entered other collections). Finally, 70 years after Cotton died, his manuscripts were accepted on behalf of the nation, and in 1753 they formed the first foundation collection of the new British Museum.

  Cotton_charter_xiii Studio c06259-02
The fire-damaged manuscript of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, rendered almost illegible following the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton Charter XIII 31A.

Acquiring the Cotton collection for the nation should be regarded as a moment of great rejoicing. This was the first occasion in the British Isles that any library had passed into national ownership, bringing with it such treasures as Magna Carta and the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts assembled by any antiquary. But, sadly, a less joyful event happened in 1731, that threatened to destroy this gift for all time.


The beautiful Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, one of the many treasures of the Cotton Library: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v.

By October 1731, the Cotton manuscripts had been placed for storage at Ashburnham House in London, adjacent to Westminster School. Their former home had been regarded, ironically, as a fire hazard; and so the books had been transferred to the ill-fated (and unfortunately named) Ashburnham House. There, on the night of 23 October 1731, a terrible fire broke out, perhaps starting in a fireplace below the floor where the manuscripts were kept. Despite the efforts of the Deputy Librarian and others, who reportedly were forced to fling scores of books out of the building, a great number of the Cotton manuscripts were badly damaged by the flames and the water used to extinguish them, and a few volumes were destroyed in their entirety. Many unique manuscripts were lost for good, such as Asser's biography of King Alfred of Wessex. The following day, the Westminster schoolboys were said to have gathered fragments of manuscripts floating like butterflies in the wind, some of which have survived until this day (some leaves of the Cotton Genesis, for instance, passed into a collection at Bristol, before being returned to the British Museum in the 1960s).

Cotton MS Fragments XXXII

Boxes containing portions of the manuscripts almost destroyed in the 1731 fire, now classified as Cotton Fragments XXXII.

During the 19th century, a restoration programme was carried out at the British Museum, during which many of the burnt volumes were separated, their pages flattened, inlaid in paper mounts and then rebound. There is a masterful study of this process by Andrew Prescott, in Sir Robert Cotton as Collector, edited by Christopher Wright (The British Library, 1997). Meantime, however, many of Cotton's precious manuscripts had suffered irreversible fortunes. One of the two surviving copies of King John's Magna Carta, 1215, and the only one with the Great Seal still affixed, was rendered illegible as a result of the fire and efforts to save the text, and the seal was reduced to a glob of molten wax. The illustrated Cotton Genesis, already mentioned, suffered severe damage to its illuminations. The pages of Beowulf were burned along their edges, with the result that small portions of the letters reputedly started to crumble, before the volume was inlaid and rebound.

Cotton MS Tiberius E VI

An example of an inlaid Cotton manuscript, following the restoration process: Cotton MS Tiberius E VI.

All of this is extremely tragic, and the story is too detailed and complicated to tell in a single blogpost. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Cotton manuscripts survived the fire, many of them intact: the fate of others is described in an earlier account entitled Crisp as a Poppadom. But today, on 23 October, we should spare a moment to remember the beautiful and historic manuscripts damaged in the Cotton fire, the people who fought valiantly to rescue them, and those who restored them in the 19th century.

Julian Harrison



18 October 2016

Remembering Assandun

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It has been a busy week of anniversaries of early medievalists with an interest in north-western Europe. Last week was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. This week starts off with the anniversary of another conquest, as 18 October 2016 is exactly 1000 years after the Scandinavian leader Knútr (or Cnut or Canute) defeated Edmund Ironside at the battle of Assandun. While Edmund survived the battle, soon after he agreed to split his kingdom with Cnut, before dying on 30 November and allowing Cnut to take the rest of England into his Anglo-Scandinavian empire.

The only known manuscript portrait of Cnut and Emma made during Cnut’s lifetime, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, Winchester, c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r

Assandun inspired fewer surviving sources than the Battle of Hastings and even less is known about it: in fact, there is some debate about exactly where Assandun was. The battle probably took place somewhere in Essex. Nevertheless, Cnut’s conquest and its aftermath did inspire a variety of interesting sources, from sagas to charters to an early account of a queen’s life. In fact, a whole case in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblatt Treasures Gallery is currently devoted to Cnut’s conquest and reign. So if you are in London any time soon, you can see one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of the Battle of Assandun, with Edmund’s name in capitals, on display.  

Detail of the account of the Battle of Assandun (spelled Asse(a)ndun), from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England, 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 67v

The battle itself still inspired dramatic literary retellings. 11th-century accounts describe Edmund being betrayed by the treacherous Eadric Streona (whom Cnut would later execute before he could turn on him as well), a lengthy period of fighting, and eventual flight by the English as night fell. One of the longest and most spectacular accounts of the Battle of Assandun, complete with invented speeches for leaders on both sides, comes from another manuscript, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (Add MS 33241), which has just been digitised as part of our newly announced project in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae Reginae showing its writer presenting his work to Queen Emma with her sons looking on, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 1v

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a rather extraordinary text among early medieval manuscripts from north-western Europe. It is a work of praise/propaganda about Emma and her husband Cnut, possibly aimed at disaffected nobles during the reign of her son Harthacnut. Emma (also known as Ymma and Ælfgifu) was a daughter of the count of Rouen: she became the second wife of Æthelred the Unready and in 1017 married the new ruler  of England, Cnut, also as his second wife. Emma may have helped Cnut navigate English politics, as Emily Butler and others have noted: her role was certainly remembered by whoever drafted a charter for Christ Church, Canterbury (also on display in the British Library's Treasures Gallery), which credits Emma with persuading Cnut to make a donation to Christ Church. Likewise, Cnut and Emma are both commemorated in the opening image of the New Minster Liber Vitae, making that image possibly the earliest contemporary manuscript portrait of a queen of England. By contrast, one of the models for that image, from the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), only features the king, Edgar, even though his spouse is mentioned throughout the text. 

Opening page of the Encomium Emmae Reginae, England or France, c. 1040s, Add MS 33241, f. 2r

Emma’s strategical ability and priorities are hinted at in the text made for her. The Encomium Emmae Reginae commemorates Emma while also trying to exonerate her from any wrongdoing, especially concerning her children from her marriage to Æthelred. It was written by a monk of the monastery of St Bertin, in what is now Northern France, during the joint reign of her sons Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  

'[The Danes] seemed to rage rather than fight. Accordingly the English, turning their backs, fled without delay on all sides, ever falling before their foes, and added glory to the honour of Knutr...', from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 41r  (trans. by A. Campbell, Encomium Emmae Reginae (Cambridge, 1998), p. 27)

The British Library’s manuscript of the Encomium Emmae Reginae can now be viewed online, thanks to the generosity of The Polonsky Foundation. The British Library’s copy was for a long time believed to be the only medieval copy in the world, but recently another, later medieval copy was discovered and is now held at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This version has a different ending, perhaps changed when Edward the Confessor, Emma’s son from her first marriage, became sole king. Attempts to change texts remind us that while battles were important, they continued to be fought in texts and retellings long after. The Battle of Assandun was not an end, but the starting point for the writers of the texts currently preserved at the British Library. 

Detail of an initial, from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Add MS 33241, f. 8r

Alison Hudson


13 October 2016

And Always After That It Grew Much Worse

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14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It is sometimes said that ‘winners write the history books’. However, some recently digitised accounts of the Battle of Hastings held at the British Library show that this was not always the case.

Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve, and as soon as they were able to move on they built a castle at Hastings… There King Harold was killed... and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).


Detail of the final lines of version D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ('... from England. And Bishop Odo and Earl William stayed behind and built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. May the end be good when God wills!'): Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

950 years ago, King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) died, sparking a contest for the throne of England. Edward was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, a member of an ambitious political family. King Harold’s rule was soon challenged by the Scandinavian leader Harold Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig, and William, duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson defeated Tostig and Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed in turn by William at the Battle of Hastings. William took the crown of England and became known as King William I, or William the Conqueror (1066–1087).

Edward and William seals
: seal of Edward the Confessor, from a partially rewritten writ pertaining to the jurisdiction and lordship of Archbishop Stigand and Christ Church Canterbury, allegedly 1052 x 1066 with later interventions, Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5; 
Right: seal of William the Conqueror, from a confirmation to St Mary's Coventry, allegedly 1070, Add Ch 11205

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest inspired a great deal of historical writing. Over a dozen writers recounted the battle and its aftermath within a century of those events taking place, and the British Library holds manuscripts of many of these texts. These manuscripts represent a variety of perspectives, from an account closely based on the work of William the Conqueror’s personal chaplain, William of Poitiers (Cotton MS Nero A XI); to chronicles from Battle Abbey (Cotton MS Domitian A II), built near the site of the battle; to much later, fanciful legends which claimed Harold survived the battle and went on to live as a hermit on the Welsh border. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts composed by writers who identified with the losing, Anglo-Saxon side. 

Opening of second part of the Vita Ã†dwardi Regis, England (Christ Church, Canterbury?), c. 1100, Harley MS 526, f. 52r

Early references to the Battle of Hastings can be found in an anonymous Life of Edward the Confessor known as the the Vita Ã†dwardi Regis. This Life was written for Edward's queen, Edith, in two parts: the second part, which laments the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, may have been finished by 1067 and certainly by Edith's death in 1075. This second part begins: 'Amid the many graves, hurt by the death of kings, what, Clio [muse], are you writing now?' (translated by F. Barlow, The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster  (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 56.) Edith was Harold II's sister and, unsurprisingly, the account written for her praises Harold in exaggerated terms, as the best soldier ever and Edward's chosen heir. The sole copy of the Life is preserved at the British Library (Harley MS 526, ff. 38r-57v).

Other Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the battle can be found in the series of related Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of the six surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, four cover the year 1066. Of these four, the two most extensive accounts for the year 1066 (in the C and D recensions of the Chronicle) are held by the British Library and are also now available online. The C version (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), probably compiled somewhere in southern England, offers a lot of detail about the earlier invasions, but frustratingly it cuts off just before the Battle of Hastings.

By contrast, the D version of the chronicle (Cotton MS Tiberius B IV) offers an early account of the Battle of Hastings. This chronicler claimed that William built a ‘castel’ at Hastings before Harold arrived. Harold then gathered a large army, but, according to the chronicler, William attacked before Harold could organise his troops:  

Description of the Battle of Hastings, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80r

King Harold… assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree. And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. There King Harold was killed and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyth his brother, and many good men, and the French remained masters of the field, even as God granted it to them because of the sins of the people…  (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066)

It is not clear how accurate this description of the battle is: there are a mass of contradictory accounts about Hastings, and there is no particular reason to believe this Anglo-Saxon chronicler was an eyewitness. The compilers of this version of the chronicle have been associated with a northern monastery, such as York, or a monastery with northern connections, such as Worcester, and this manuscript may have been written more than a decade after the battle. Nevertheless, this account is witness to the beliefs held by at least one Old English speaker within living memory of the battle.

The compiler(s) of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D blamed the defeat of Harold’s forces on ‘the sins of the [Anglo-Saxon] people’. However, this Old English chronicler (or chroniclers) was also uncomplimentary about the next regime, concluding the entry for 1066 with the famously pessimistic assessment:

[O]n Christmas Day, Archbishop Aldred consecrated [William] king at Westminster. And…  he swore (before Aldred would place the crown on his head) that he would rule all this people as well as the best of the kings before him, if they were loyal to him. All the same he laid taxes on people very severely… And Bishop Odo and Earl William… built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).

End of the entry for 1066, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England (?Worcester or ?York), Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D is the longest Old English account of the battle. By contrast, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173), sums up the whole year in only two sentences:

In this year King Edward died and Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 40 weeks and one day; and in this year William came and conquered England. And in this year Christ Church was burnt and a comet appeared on 18 April. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, 1066).

This chronicle was probably being compiled at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, hence the reference to Christ Church.

The version of the battle found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 636) is also brief:

Count William landed at Hastings on Michaelmas Day, and Harold came from the north and fought with him before all the army had come, and there he fell and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine; and William conquered this country… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1066).

This manuscript was made at Peterborough in the 12th century. It was probably copied from a Canterbury manuscript to replace a manuscript lost in a fire in Peterborough’s library in 1116.

These two accounts were not, however, the shortest descriptions of the Norman Conquest in the Old English annals. One set of Easter table annals, also kept at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, did not even mention the Norman Conquest. The lines adjacent to the entry for the date of Easter in 1066 and 1067 simply say, ‘Here King Edward died. Here, in this year, Christ Church burned.’ A later hand has added ‘At this time came William’ (‘her co[m] Willehm’) to the side. One wonders why the original annalist, who wrote the annals up to 1073, did not think the Battle of Hastings was worth mentioning. Equally, why did the later hand amend the entry for 1066?

Cotton Caligula A XV f135r
Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th
 century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r

Between the time the Christ Church Easter table annals were being compiled, the only surviving copy of Vita Ã†dwardi Regis was copied around 1100, possibly at Christ Church. Meanwhile, the monks at the nearby monastery of St Augustine, Canterbury, also remembered the Battle of Hastings in their martyrology. Under 14 October in this martyrology made at St Augustine’s in the late 11th century, someone noted the deaths of ‘Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers.’ The entry for each day in the martyrology was supposed to be read out in the daily chapter meeting of the monastery, and so the Battle of Hastings may have been commemorated there every year.

Entry for 14 October with addition mentioning the death of ‘Harold king of the English and many of our brothers’, from Usuard’s Martyrology, Canterbury (St Augustine’s), c. 1075–1125 with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 145v

All these accounts of 1066 imply that the fallout from the Norman Conquest was not a simple, clear-cut story of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The complexity of the situation is revealed by the abundance of differences in their accounts, even though they all identified with or primarily remembered the losing side. While one Old English speaker recorded details like the type of tree near where Harold assembled his troops, others were more concerned with the burning of Christ Church than with the Battle of Hastings, while others did not even mention the battle at all. Moreover, the extent to which any of these writers can be considered ‘losers’ is debatable. The scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles portrayed themselves as ‘wretched’ following the conquest, but they belonged to institutions which still had substantial resources. The martyrology which records the deaths of ‘King Harold and our brothers’ from St Augustine’s Abbey contains finely decorated initials, belying the community’s wealth and cultural creativity in the decades immediately after the Conquest.

Detail of initial for the month of October, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 143v

These manuscripts disprove the view that only winners write history. The views of people who identified with the losing side at the Battle of Hastings can still be read today, thanks to these British Library manuscripts. This abundance of perspectives on the battle and its aftermath may be one of the reasons the Norman Conquest still continues to fascinate us, 950 years after the sun set on the battlefield.

Sympathy for the losing side at Hastings continued long after the Conquest. In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey. If you are interested in learning more about this alternative perspective on the Norman Conquest, you can visit Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey, which has an exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Vita Haroldi (Harley MS 3776) to this exhibition. 

Alison Hudson


All translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are taken from D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961).

12 October 2016

England and France, 700-1200: Manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library

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We are delighted to announce a new project to open up further the unparalleled collections of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. In a ground-breaking new collaborative project the national libraries of Britain and France will work together to create two innovative new websites that will make 800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely. The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will create a bilingual website intended for a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts and articles commissioned by leading experts in the field. Both websites will be online by November 2018.

Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand as manuscripts. The most luxurious of these were illuminated, literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. All manuscripts — whether they are luxurious biblical or liturgical manuscripts, copies of classical literature or patristic, theological, historical or scientific texts — are valuable historical documents that can deepen and expand our understanding of the political, social and cultural life of the eras in which they were made. Their research value is inestimable.

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world. As a result of France and England being so closely entwined through periods of war, conquest and alliance and, in the medieval period, both nations claiming territory in France at times, both libraries have particularly strong holdings of French manuscripts produced in France or in Britain (but written in French or Latin).

This new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscript material available in full online as part of wider programmes to make these cultural treasures available to everyone around the world. At the British Library, over 8,000 items are currently available on our Digitised Manuscripts website. Similarly, thousands of items are available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections on its website, Gallica.

Signing 2
Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project.

This exciting project is made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky remarks that 'our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public'.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.

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Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections and Curation of the British Library, Rachel Polonsky, and Marc Polonsky viewing a manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (British Library Royal MS 4 D II).

The focus on the digitisation project will be on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel between 700 and 1200. The manuscripts from this period open up a window on a time of close cultural and political exchange during which scribes moved and worked in what is now France, Normandy and England. Decorated manuscripts containing literary, historical, biblical and theological texts will be included, representing the mutual strengths of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Online access to these manuscripts will support new research into how manuscripts — and people — travelled around Europe in this period. New connections will be made possible by studying the two collections side by side.

For example, the manuscripts selected will include a number of illuminated Gospel-books, providing a witness to the changing tastes, influences and borrowings reflected in the books’ design and script. So a 9th-century, a 10th-century and a late 12th-century Gospel-book all have colourful illuminated initials with geometric patterns, floral decoration or animals heads, yet their execution is very different. The script, colours, style and subjects of the illumination all provide clues to the time and place of their composition. With the digitisation of manuscripts all these features may be studied and enjoyed in detail.

Egerton MS 609 f46 Blog1
Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century (British Library Egerton MS 609, f. 46r).

Add MS 40000 f34v Blog1
A book of Gospels from Thorney Abbey, originally produced in France, possibly Brittany, in the early 10th century, but which made its way to the abbey by the late 10th or early 11th century (British Library, Add MS 40000 f. 34v)

Royal 4 D ii f2v Blog1
Illuminated initial 'I'(nitium) with dragons and human masks in medallions, England or France, late 12th century (British Library, Royal MS 4 D II, f. 2v).

As well as making 800 manuscripts freely available online, the project will be part of a wider programme of activities aimed at researchers and the general public. A number of the manuscripts digitised will be displayed in a major international exhibition on Anglo-Saxon England to be held at the British Library from October 2018 to February 2019, which will highlight connections between Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent. Manuscripts included in the project may also feature in another major exhibition to be held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris focusing on Merovingian manuscripts, opening on 26 October 2016.

A conference at the British Library will coincide with the Anglo-Saxon exhibition (December 2018), and a project conference will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. We will also produce an illustrated book showcasing beautiful and significant manuscripts from the collections. Another output will be a film on the digitisation project that, together with the other aspects of the public programme, will open up new paths into our collections for a variety of audiences.

We look forward to working closely with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this exciting project to enhance access to and understanding of the written cultural heritage of England and France.

Tuija Ainonen, Project Curator


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07 October 2016

Die Another Day? The Vita Haroldi at Waltham Abbey

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14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England. One of the most iconic but also most debated parts of that battle was the death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold. Was he killed by an arrow to the eye as Amatus of Monte Cassino claimed and as may be shown on the Bayeux Tapestry? Was he hacked to bits, as recounted by Guy of Amiens? Or was he shot with arrows and then put to the sword, as described by Henry of Huntingdon?

One medieval tale, currently on display at Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey until 24 December 2016, has a very different version of events: it claims that Harold did not die at all. The manuscript in question, British Library Harley MS 3776, forms part of the Epping Forest exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England

Opening page of the Vita Haroldi, Waltham Abbey, 1345–c. 1370, Harley MS 3776, f. 1r

In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey, the church which claimed to hold Harold’s remains and where Harold may have been regarded as a saint. This text, which survives only in a 14th-century copy (Harley MS 3776), claims Harold was merely wounded at Hastings. In this version of events, he escaped and recovered with the help of a ‘Saracen lady’ at Winchester and travelled to Saxony and Scandinavia to try to get military support to retake the throne. Eventually Harold returned to England in disguise and lived out his life as a hermit in a cave before dying at St John’s Church in Chester. 

There is no reason to give any historical credence to this claim that Harold survived Hastings. Nevertheless, the form and content of this vita are fascinating insights into post-Conquest literature and memory-making. Laura Ashe and Stephen Matthews, among others, have shown that this unusual vita contains aspects of both hagiography and chivalric romance. Harold may have lost the battle of Hastings, but he succeeded in being remembered by some as both swashbuckling and saintly, even centuries after his death.

YT 33 f167
Miniature depicting the Battle of Hastings and Harold’s body being carried to Waltham Abbey, from the Grande Chronique de Normandie, Brussels, c. 1460–1468, Yates Thompson MS 33, f.167r

If you are interested in learning more about Harold and how he was remembered, you can visit the newly refurbished Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey. Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England is on until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned Harley MS 3776 to this exhibition.

Alison Hudson


05 October 2016

Reading and Writing Greek in Britain

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The Greek language has a long history in the British Isles. The earliest surviving examples of Greek text found in Britain date from its days as a Roman province, on multi-lingual curse tablets now held by the Museum of London. Although located at the north-western extreme of the Roman Empire, Britain nonetheless saw its share of Greek-speaking soldiers and civilians living within its shores.

It is less clear what happened to any Greek-speakers remaining in Britain after the Romans withdrew around 410. However, by the 7th century, we have clear evidence once again of prominent Greek speakers on the island, when Theodore of Tarsus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Few in the medieval Latin west could read Greek, but there is clear evidence from early on of an awareness of the importance of Greek as the original language of the Gospels, in particular. So, for instance, we can find Greek letters used occasionally in the Lindisfarne Gospels. At the incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, the word ‘Filii’  (‘son’) is written once with an F and once with a Greek letter Φ instead.


The incipit from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the Greek letter Φ in place of an F in the word ‘Filii’. Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r. England (Lindisfarne Priory), c. 700.

The Athelstan Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in Francia and taken to England shortly afterwards, contains Greek prayers transliterated into Latin letters. These examples indicate that even if Greek was not widely understood, its significance as the language of the early Church was recognised by scholars and clergy in medieval Britain. More information about knowledge of Greek in the early medieval West can be found in an article on the British Library’s new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Greek Litany and sanctus written in Latin letters. Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 200v. North-East Francia, 9th century.

The revival of interest in Greek learning in the West during the Renaissance also had an impact on Britain. Schoolboy compositions in Greek written and presented to members of the royal family during the Tudor era are now kept at the British Library. These make it clear that Greek was being taught in some public schools, but as Matthew Adams shows in his article on this topic, its availability varied and depended on a number of factors. There was considerable suspicion of the Greek language in the early 16th century as a result of the appearance of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament, and the study of Greek was briefly associated with heresy. After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), however, who was herself a keen student of Greek, the language regained favour and began to be taught more widely in schools.


The Etheridge Encomium, presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1566. Royal MS 16 C X, f. 1r. England, 1566?

Over the following centuries, increasing interest in Greek in Britain saw the arrival on the island of many manuscripts and printed books in that language. Some notable figures whose collections are now in the British Library from this period include Hans Sloane and Robert Harley. But it was the 19th century, and the great increase in philhellenism resulting from the rise of the Grand Tour, sympathy for the Greek War of Independence, and other factors, that saw the most interest in Greek literature and Greek manuscripts in Britain. Many British aristocrats travelled to Greece and Greek monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean, and returned with substantial collections of manuscripts. The acquisitions of some of these figures are detailed in an article on British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

These are only a few instances of the long history of knowledge of Greek in Britain. Many more can be found in our collection items, or in the articles to be found on our new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan


25 September 2016

The Ceolfrith Leaves Are 1300 Years Old

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25 September 2016 marks the 1300th anniversary of the death of Abbot Ceolfrith of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This means that three sets of fragments in the British Library have had their 1300th birthday. Abbot Ceolfrith is most well-known for the trip he intended to make to Rome at the end of his life, to present a majestic manuscript to the pope. Sadly, Ceolfrith passed away at the grand age of 74 before he reached the Holy City, and the manuscript he brought with him on his journey never found its way to Rome. The manuscript was instead kept at the Abbey of the Saviour, Monte Amiata in Tuscany, before it moved to its current home, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

This legendary manuscript is now known as the Codex Amiatinus, and is famous for its great size, extravagant design, and for being the oldest complete copy of the Vulgate Bible in existence. The manuscript is over 48cm tall, weighs 35kg and has more than one thousand pages. As can be seen in the photograph below, it was an extremely impressive manuscript and was designed to make a statement.

Codex Amiatinus at Cluny
The Codex Amiatinus on display, photographed by Maxence

What makes the achievements of the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow even more remarkable is that they not only produced the Codex Amiatinus, but also two more copies of this great Bible. In Bede’s History of the Abbots he described how Abbot Ceolfrith had commissioned three copies of the Bible, ‘one of which he took with him as a present when he went back to Rome in his old age, and the other two he bequeathed to his monasteries’ (trans. by J.F. Webb, in D.H. Farmer (ed.), The Age of Bede, (London, 1983).) Within the collections here at the British Library are a number of fragments which are believed to be the remains of the two bibles which remained in Anglo-Saxon England.

Page from the Middleton Leaves, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 45025, f. 3v

These show that in addition to their magnificent size, the interior of these pandects was also designed to be visually impressive. The script and decorative images were specifically chosen to replicate an Italian design. This Italian style of script was different in many ways to another script which was commonly used in Northern England at the same time. Can you spot the differences between this script used in the Codex Amiatinus and Ceolfrith Leaves and the script used in an early copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History?

Add 37777 + Cotton Tib A XIV
Left: detail of script from the Greenwell Leaf, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow), before September 716, Add MS 37777, f. 1v; Right: 
Detail of script from Bede, Ecclesiastical History, England (Southumbria or Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 875-925, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 15r

The British Library’s fragments all survive in the form of single leaves of parchment and are catalogued under three separate references, Add MS 45025, Add MS 37777 and Loan MS 81. These fragments have all taken rather unique and remarkable journeys from the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow into the collection here at the British Library. The fragments in Additional MS 45025, more commonly known as the Middleton Leaves, were discovered being used as covers for deeds pertaining to the lands owned by the Willoughby family of Wollaton Hall (Nottinghamshire). These fragments were bought from Lord Middleton in 1937 by the Friends of the National Libraries for the British Museum. A previous blog post also discussed the possible link between these fragments and a ‘great Bible’ given to the monks of Worcester by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th century. 

Add MS 45025, f.6r.

This fragment represents both stages in the lifecycle of these pieces of parchment. The parchment contains an extract of the Book of Kings in the original script, with its characteristically Italian style which can still be seen in the Codex Amiatinus today. In the upper margin it is also possible to see the later annotations made to the parchment when the leaf was used by the Willoughby family to wrap land grants. Fragments of manuscripts have often been reused in creative ways, as discussed in this blog post

When viewing these leaves on Digitised Manuscripts, it is easy to forget that they were once part of two great Bibles which would have matched the magnificent size and splendour of the Codex Amiatinus. These three Bibles would have been an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship, using a wealth of resources to produce, and would have been extremely impressive to those at the height of Anglo-Saxon and Italian society. The Codex Amiatinus and its two sister pandects are most definitely among brightest lights of intellectual achievement which shine from the supposed ‘Dark Ages’.

Rebecca Lawton


Further reading:

Another incredibly important manuscript which was supposedly produced by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow was the St Cuthbert Gospel. This is a copy of the gospel of St John, which was produced in honour of St Cuthbert in the late 7th century and was buried within his coffin. This manuscript shows the same beautiful uncial script found in the Codex Amiatinus. More information about how this manuscript came to reside in the care of the British Library can be found two previous blog posts.  

24 September 2016

British Libraries: The Panizzi Lectures 2016

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Every year since 1985, the British Library has hosted a series of lectures on the history of the book. These lectures are known as the Panizzi lectures in honour of Sir Anthony Panizzi (1797–1879), an Italian immigrant and patriot who became the Keeper of Printed Books and later Principal Librarian of the British Museum. He doubled the reading room’s staff and number of printed books, transforming the British Museum’s library into a world class institution.


Miniature of a seated scribe (possibly Bede), from Bede’s prologue to his prose Life of Cuthbert, Northern England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

This year, the Panizzi Lectures are being delivered by Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and former archbishop of Canterbury, on the subject of ‘British Libraries: the literary world of post-Roman Britain’. Dr Williams’s lectures will focus, in turn, on the libraries and books which influenced ‘Gildas and the Invention of Britain’; ‘Bede and the Invention of England’; and 'Nennius and the Invention of Wales’.

Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

The British Library holds several early copies of the texts on which the lectures will focus. For example, our manuscript of Gildas’s De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (‘On the ruin and conquest of Britain’) is now available on Digitised Manuscripts (Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Apart from a shorter, 9th-century fragment that survives in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414, this 10th-century copy is the oldest surviving copy of Gildas’s admonition of British leaders for their sins and defeats. This copy was rescued from the Ashburnham House fire of 1731, hence the fire and water damage to its pages.


Detail of a page from Gildas, De excidio, England, mid-10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

Several copies or fragments of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People are also available on Digitised Manuscripts, such as Royal MS 13 C V and Egerton MS 3278. These include Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV which, although not the very earliest copy of the Ecclesiastical History, is among the important early witnesses of Bede’s work. The manuscript was made sometime in the late-8th or early 9th-century, within a few decades of Bede’s death. Although this manuscript could arguably have been made in either Southumbria or Northumbria, some scholars have linked it to Bede’s own monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. This manuscript might therefore have belonged to one of the most notable early British libraries, as well as demonstrating that monastery’s output.


Page from Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 760–830, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 20v

The British Library also holds several copies of the Historia Brittonum (which used to be attributed to Nennius), an account of the history of Britain from the alleged settlement of the island by Trojan refugees to about 829 AD. One of the earliest of these manuscripts is Harley MS 3859


Account of St Patrick’s life from the Historia Brittonum, England or France, Harley MS 3859, f. 186r.

To learn more about these historical texts, come to the Panizzi lectures on Monday 10 October, Wednesday 12 October, and Monday 17 October at 18.15 in the British Library’s Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. There is free admission and no ticketing: seats will be available on a first come, first served basis. Hope to see you there!