THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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53 posts categorized "Events"

06 September 2013

Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation

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It is a week since Famous Seamus sadly passed away. Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate for Literature, came to the British Library as part of our Beowulf week in October 2009. In front of an enthralled audience, he read extracts from his award-winning translation of Beowulf. Heaney then listened in turn as Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby performed their respective versions of the poem, before all three discussed Beowulf under the expert chairmanship of Michael Wood.

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The Beowulf event at the British Library in 2009, featuring (from left to right) Michael Wood, Michael Morpurgo, Benjamin Bagby and Seamus Heaney

As a curator at the British Library, it's always rewarding to find ways of making our medieval manuscripts come to life, and to demonstrate how they remain relevant to modern and future generations. Seamus Heaney's participation in our week of Beowulf events was a notable highlight -- how to take an epic written in a long-dead language, and to re-invent and re-interpret it for modern listeners.

Heaney's version of Beowulf had won the Whitbread Prize for Book of the Year in 1999. Around that time, the British Library acquired from him nine typewritten drafts, with handwritten annotations, of the first page of his version of Beowulf (Additional MS 78917). When visiting us in 2009, Seamus Heaney expressed his delight to see examples of his draft displayed alongside the original manuscript of Beowulf, together with paintings loaned by Michael Foreman, the illustrator of Michael Morpurgo's re-telling of the story for children.

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A draft of Seamus Heaney's award-winning version of Beowulf (London, British Library, MS Additional 78917).

Before appearing onstage at the British Library, Seamus Heaney had attended the previous evening's performance by Benjamin Bagby, who sings the story of Beowulf and Grendel in the original Old English, to the accompaniment of the harp. I gave Heaney a copy of our Treasures in Focus introduction to Beowulf, and he very kindly signed my own copy of his Beowulf translation. I thanked him for so kindly agreeing to perform in our event; but no, the pleasure was his, he replied, it had been a privilege to see Bagby sing Beowulf, the poem which Seamus Heaney had in turn transformed into a modern masterpiece. It was one of those truly special moments, to witness the coming together of two great poets, wordsmiths who lived a thousand years apart but were united by their love of the poetic form.

The Old English poem Beowulf ends with the burial of the eponymous hero. We can do Seamus Heaney no better compliment than to repeat here the same lines in his own words, with the gracious permission of Faber and Faber, his publishers.

"Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,

chieftain's sons, champions in battle,

all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,

mourning his loss as a man and a king.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,

for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

and cherish his memory when that moment comes

when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home."

 

Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Historical Manuscripts

24 August 2013

Mary, Queen of Scots Manuscripts On Loan

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The British Library is delighted to have loaned a number of important historical documents to the excellent Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.  Our loans are displayed alongside jewellery, textiles, furniture, paintings, maps and manuscripts, all of which are used to re-examine the life and legacy of Scotland’s most famous Queen.

On 16 May 1568, Mary fled to England after being forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son, the future James I of England. As Elizabeth I’s cousin, Mary fully expected to be invited to court, but her Catholic faith and claim to the English throne made her a natural focus for discontented Catholics who refused to conform to Elizabeth's Protestant faith. For reasons of security, therefore, Mary was placed under house arrest and for the next nineteen years would be moved with her household from one secure location to another. 

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Sketch of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire: London, British Library, MS Additional 33594, f. 174

One of the British Library loans currently on display in Edinburgh is this sketch of Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire, in which Mary was first imprisoned in 1569 and again in 1584.  Mary complained that ‘I am in a walled enclosure, on the top of a hill exposed to the winds and inclemencies of heaven’, and that her own apartments were ‘two little miserable rooms, so excessively cold, especially at night’.  The castle bridge and gate-house are visible bottom-right and on the left the Queen’s presence chamber and bedchamber have been identified along with rooms for her gentlewomen of the chamber, surgeon, ‘poticary’ and her secretary, Claude Nau.

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Sketch of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots: London, British Library, MS Additional 48027, f. 569* 

In 1586, Mary was brought to trial for complicity in the Babington plot.  The hearing took place on 14–15 October 1586 in the Great Chamber at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, and is illustrated in this pen-and-ink sketch from the papers of Robert Beale, Clerk of the Privy Council.  Mary is shown twice: aided by two gentlewomen as she enters the court room (top-right), and sitting in a high-backed chair (upper-right, marked ‘A’).  Elizabeth did not attend the trial and therefore her chair of state on the dais is empty (top-centre).  The trial commissioners are identified by numbers.  Elizabeth’s chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, shown seated opposite Mary, is ‘2’, and Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s principal secretary, shown opposite the vacant chair of state, is ‘28’.  The commission of thirty-six peers, privy councillors and judges found Mary guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. 

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Letter from James VI to Elizabeth I, 26, January 1587: London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula C IX, f. 192  

On 26 January 1587, in a final attempt to save the life of the mother he barely knew, James VI of Scotland wrote to his ‘dearest sister’, Elizabeth I.  Beginning two lines from the bottom of this page he asks, ‘Quhat thing, Madame, can greatlier touche me in honoure that is a king and a sonne than that my nearest neihboure, being in straittest [friend]shipp with me, shall rigouruslie putt to death a free souveraigne prince and my natural mother, alyke in estaite and sexe to hir that so uses her … to a harder fortune, and touching hir nearlie in proximitie of bloode?’

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Sketch of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots: London, British Library, MS Additional 48027, f. 650*

Although Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant on 1 February 1587, she remained extremely reluctant to execute an anointed sovereign and instructed her secretary, William Davison, not to send it.  Lord Burghley, however, acted quickly and had the death warrant carried to Fotheringhay by Robert Beale, who read it aloud to Mary on 7 February, the evening before her execution.  This drawing shows Mary three times: entering the hall; being attended by her gentlewomen on the scaffold; and, finally, lying at the block with the executioner's axe raised ready to strike.  The Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent are seated to the left (1 & 2) and Sir Amias Paulet, one of Mary’s guards, is seated behind the scaffold (3). 

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Letter from James VI to Elizabeth I, March 1587: London, British Library, MS Additional 23240, f. 65

When Elizabeth found out that Mary had been executed, she was furious and wrote to James VI apologising for ‘that miserable accident’ and protesting her innocence.  This is James’s unsigned draft reply to Elizabeth, dated March 1587, in which he assures her that given ‘youre many & solemne attestationis of youre innocentie I darr not wronge you so farre as not to judge honorablie of youre unspotted pairt thairin …’  Then, seizing the opportunity to press his case to be named as Elizabeth’s heir, he added ‘I looke that ye will geve me at this tyme suche a full satisfaction in all respectis as sall be a meane to strenthin & unite this yle, establishe & maintaine the trew religion’.

The Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition is on at National Museums Scotland until 17 November 2013.

21 August 2013

King Athelstan's Books

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Are you tired of the Anglo-Saxons yet? No, we're not either! Those of you who have been engrossed by Michael Wood's recent series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, may have seen the beautiful Athelstan Psalter in last night's programme. We featured this manuscript in a previous blogpost; but it's worth looking at again, and you may like to know that the entire Psalter is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The Athelstan Psalter (London, British Library, MS Cotton Galba A XVIII, f. 21r).

The Athelstan Psalter is a curious little book, just large enough to fit into an adult male's hand. The script of the original portion indicates that the manuscript was made in North-East France, in the 9th century; but by the middle of the 10th century the Psalter was in England, where it received a number of accretions, including a metrical calendar and some computistical texts.

The association of this manuscript with King Athelstan, the first king of England (reigned 924–939), is unproved. A note by a later owner, Thomas Dakcombe (d. c. 1572), describes the book as "Psaltirum Regis Ethelstani"; and this is echoed in the list of contents made for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631). As Professor Simon Keynes has commented, "the claim of the so-called Athelstan Psalter once to have belonged to the king is based on the slenderest of evidence". Michael Wood himself spoke on the Athelstan Psalter at the British Library's Royal manuscripts conference in 2011, the proceedings of which are shortly to be published by the British Library.

It's amazing how such a little book has survived the ravages of time (it escaped destruction by fire in 1731) to become a modern star in the age of television! Episode 3 of Michael Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, entitled Aethelstan: The First King of England, can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.

Further reading

Simon Keynes, ‘King Athelstan’s books’, in Michael Lapidge & Helmut Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 143–201, at pp. 193–96

Robert Deshman, ‘The Galba Psalter: pictures, texts and context in an early medieval prayerbook’, Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 109–38

20 August 2013

St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels

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St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 209v).

Now on show in Durham, until 30 September 2013, is this miniature of St John the Evangelist in the Lindisfarne Gospels. The page in question prefaces the Gospel of John in this famous, Anglo-Saxon gospelbook. John is depicted sitting on a blue cushion, with a scroll held in his left hand, and with his evangelist symbol (an eagle, imago aequilae) above his head. The pigments are as rich as the day they were painted, a combination of oranges, reds, blues and greens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is the centrepiece of the Durham exhibition, staged in Palace Green Library, a stone's throw (literally) from the impressive Romanesque cathedral. Also are show are other British Library manuscripts, most notably the St Cuthbert Gospel (which we bought for the nation in 2012 for £9 million), plus treasures from the British Museum, Corpus Christi College Cambridge and other institutions, and items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Catch the exhibition while you can, it's a treat!

You can read more about the exhibition here. And you can see the Lindisfarne Gospels in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @blmedieval.

15 August 2013

Credo: British Library Manuscripts in Paderborn

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The British Library has loaned three manuscripts to the exhibition 'Credo', which opened in Paderborn on 26 July 2013. The exhibition explores the Christianisation of medieval Europe, covering aspects such as the foundations of the missionary church and its spread through the Roman Empire, the Christianisation of Ireland, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the missionary initiatives from the British Isles to the Continent, and the Christianisation of Scandinavia and of Lithuania under the rule of the Jagellonians.
 
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Detail of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C II, f. 5v)
 
The section on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons opens with an early, Kentish copy of Bede's Historia ecclesiaistica gentis Anglorum (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius C II), displayed open at Bede's famous description of Britannia. Also on loan is the early-9th century Anglian Collection (British Library MS Cotton Vespasian B VI), showing the royal pedigrees of Deira and Bernicia, which traced the origin of the Northumbrian kings back to Woden. Paulinus, the Italian missionary who went to the north of England to convert King Edwin of Northumbria (d. 633), is there named as the first bishop of York.
 
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Detail of Alcuin's letter (London, British Library, MS Harley 208, f. 73v)
 
The third British Library loan is exhibited in the section of the exhibition examining the process of conversion by conquest under Charlemagne. British Library MS Harley 208 is a collection of letters written by the theologian Alcuin of York (d. 804), who was an advisor to Charlemagne. The letter displayed is an important witness of early medieval missionary thinking, the theology of conversions and a crucial document for the history of Charlemagne's struggle with the Saxon people. The entire manuscript is available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
 
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Image courtesy of the 'Credo' website.
 
The British Library is very pleased to be able to support this exhibition. Credo: Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter is open in Paderborn until 3 November 2013, and is definitely worth a visit. In-Credo-ble: sorry, couldn't resist!

13 August 2013

The Lady of the Mercians

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Some of you may already have watched the first episode of Michael Wood's new series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, which is still available on the BBC iPlayer. (We're very hopeful that the whole series will eventually be broadcast worldwide.)

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Detail of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, from a 13th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).

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King Alfred and his daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B V).

Episode two will be shown tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00), and is entitled "The Lady of the Mercians". Æthelflæd (d. 918) was the daughter of Alfred of Wessex, and the wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Having become sole ruler of the Mercians following her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd is credited with helping to reconquer the Danelaw (the English lands under Viking rule) in tandem with her younger brother Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924). As Michael Wood concludes, without her "England might never have happened".

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Roundels depicting Alfred, Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder, from a 14th-century genealogical chronicle (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 B VI).

Episode three of Michaels Wood's King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons will be shown next week. Many of the manuscripts featured in the series are held at the British Library, and some of them can be explored in more detail on our Digitised Manuscripts site or the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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This manuscript of Aldhelm's De laudibus virginitatis was made around AD 900, possibly in Mercia, and later belonged to Worcester Cathedral Priory (London, British Library, MS Royal 5 F III, f. 35r).

06 August 2013

Michael Wood and King Alfred

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The opening words of King Alfred's will, beginning "Ic Ælfred cinge", in an 11th-century copy: London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v.

Earlier this year, Michael Wood, the historian and broadcaster, came to film some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts for his new television series, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons. Some of you may know Michael's previous books and programmes, such as The Story of England, The Story of India, Conquistadors, and In Search of the Dark Ages; and he is a familiar face at the British Library (for instance, he chaired a discussion with Seamus Heaney, Michael Morpurgo and Benjamin Bagby at our Beowulf festival in 2009, and he was a speaker at our Royal manuscripts conference in 2011).

Two of our curators, one conservator and several British Library manuscripts feature in episode one of the new series, to be broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00). It's always a pleasure to work with Michael Wood, who is a trained Anglo-Saxonist, and we look forward (like everyone else!) to watching his new programme, entitled "Alfred of Wessex". As ever, it will be available subsequently on the BBC iPlayer (United Kingdom viewers only).

Meanwhile, you might like to know that can see the whole of King Alfred's will on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site ... and you can read more about it here.

15 July 2013

Magna Cartas to be Unified for First Time

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The British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral are delighted to announce that their copies of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215, are to be unified for the first time in 2015. In an event to be staged at the British Library in London, scholars, curators and conservators closely involved in the study of Magna Carta will be given the unique opportunity to examine the Magna Cartas side-by-side. What's more, no fewer than one thousand, two hundred and fifteen (1,215) members of the public, selected in a ballot, will be able to view the original documents together for themselves.

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Miniature of King John in Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum: St Albans, c. 1250 (London, British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, f. 9r)

The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. The three institutions have been working closely to organise this one-off event, which will initiate a year of global celebrations of this key constitutional document. Claire Breay, Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts at the British Library, says "Magna Carta is the most popular item in the Library’s Treasures gallery, and is venerated around the world as marking the starting point for government under the law. Bringing the four surviving manuscripts together for the first time will create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for researchers and members of the public to see them in one place, and will be a fantastic start to a year of celebrations." The unification is kindly supported by the law firm Linklaters, whose partner Richard Godden comments: "The arbitrary authority of the state is just as much a threat today as it was in the day of King John and the principles enshrined in Magna Carta remain essential not only in relation to personal liberty but to creating an environment in which business can prosper. We forget them at our peril."

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Detail of one of the British Library's copies of the 1215 Magna Carta (London, British Library, MS Cotton Augustus II 106)

Magna Carta was issued by King John of England in June 1215, in an attempt to stave off the demands of his rebellious barons. Although Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III within ten weeks, revised versions were issued on behalf of John's successors Henry III (1216–1272) and Edward I (1272–1307), in 1216, 1217, 1225 and 1297 respectively. On this final occasion Magna Carta was entered onto the statute roll, and thus became enshrined in English law. Its key clause has never been annulled, and has ensured Magna Carta's status as one of the foundations of international law, since it influenced the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other constitutional texts. The relevant clause (actually clauses 39 and 40 combined) reads as follows:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

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Miniature of King John hunting on horseback: England, 14th century (London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius D II, f. 116r)

Once Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) by King John, a number of copies were distributed to the sheriffs and bishops of England in June and July 1215. Just four of these copies of the original 1215 version of Magna Carta have survived, two of which are now held at the British Library and one each at Lincoln and Salisbury. The Lincoln and Salisbury Magna Cartas are presumably those sent to the respective cathedrals in 1215; the British Library's two copies both belonged to the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631), one of them being sent to him in 1630 by the lieutenant of Dover Castle, and the other being found in a London tailor's shop. Only one of the four original documents still has its seal attached, but that copy (at the British Library) was damaged badly by a combination of fire in 1731 and a failed attempt at restoration in 1834.

Lincoln Cathedral's copy of Magna Carta on occasion travels for display at other institutions, while one of the British Library's two copies was loaned to the Library of Congress for the United States bicentennial celebrations in 1976. However, it is still exceedingly rare for these documents to leave their usual homes, and entirely unprecedented for them to be brought together in one place. The fact that they were written and distributed over a number of weeks in 1215 means that this is the first time ever that these copies of the original Magna Carta have been unified.

You can read more about Magna Carta, including seeing the Magna Carta viewer, a complete translation, and virtual curator videos, on the British Library's website.