Decorated initial at the beginning of the English
Prose Brut Chronicle: 'I n the nobul
lande of Surre (Syria)
ther was a worthi Kyng…', from The Prose Brut Chronicle of England (common version to 1430), England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2256, f. 1r
our recent post on the French Prose Brut, we promised a follow-up on the
manuscripts of the English version.
There are 38 in the British Library, out of a total of 181 surviving
manuscripts listed by the Middle English scholar, Lister M. Matheson of the University of Michigan. A digital version of Matheson’s comprehensive
study, The Prose ‘Brut’, The Development
of a Middle English Chronicle is available online on the OpenLibrary
It is not surprising that so many manuscripts survive,
as the Brut chronicle was one of the most popular accounts of
English history among the lay audience in the Middle Ages and in the early modern
period. From the fifteenth century, it has been used as the standard account of
English history and was the first chronicle of England to be printed by William
Caxton (the Chronicles of England, 1480). In addition to the
manuscript copies, there were 13 early printed editions.
Decorated initial and border at the beginning of the
Brut, with the title 'Here begynnyth the kalendare of Brute in Englysshe
tunge', and the introduction: 'Here begynnyth a Booke in Englyssh tung that is called
Brute of England which Declarith and tretith of the furste beginning of the
lande of Englande. How hit was furst wildernesse and noo thing ther in but
wormes and wylde bestes and a cuntre desolate. And afterward how hit was
inhabite and by whom and in what manere.' From The Prose Brut (Chronicle of England), England, 2nd or 2rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 24, f. 1r
The original Middle English version of the chronicle
is based on the Anglo Norman French text, (see French Prose Brut Chronicles in the British Library and How to Find Them) and is believed to have been produced between 1380 and 1400. Harley MS 3945 contains the earliest version to
1333, known as the common text. It is a
15th century manuscript and is described in the British Library
Search our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts.
The Common Text begins with the mythical origins of
the English and ending with the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, where the Scots
were defeated by the army of Edward III.
Historiated initial of Diocletian and his daughters, with the chronicle beginning: 'In the noble land of Syrie
th[er] was a noble kyng and mighty and a man of grett reno[u]n that men called Dioclitian'. The story continues with the 33 daughters of
Diocletian, the eldest named Albyne (Albina), who murdered their husbands and
were set adrift at sea before they landed on an island, which they named Albion. From the Prose Brut Chronicle of England, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1568, f. 1
The chronicle was amended and updated during the 14th
and 15th centuries, with the first continuation taking it up to the
death of Edward III in 1377, an addition associated with the chroniclers of Westminster. One of the British Library
manuscripts containing this text to 1377 is Stowe MS 68, which is described
with images in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts here.
A champ initial and decorative border marking the familiar opening chapter of the chronicle, from The Brut Chronicle, England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 68, f. 1
The chronicle to 1377 was then updated in some
versions to 1419, taking events from the death of Edward III to the siege of Rouen, with the majority ending, 'and manfully
countered with our English men'. One of the manuscripts of this version is
Harley MS 1568, which contains the picture of Diocletian and his daughters
above. The catalogue entry can be viewed here.
The continuation to 1419 is found in Harley MS 7333,
which is believed to have been copied in the mid-15th century by the
amateur scribe John Shirley of Leicester,
and which also contains Chaucer’s Canterbury
Tales, part of Gower’s Confessio
Amantis and Lydgate's Life of Saints
Edmund and Fremund.
A passage from The Canterbury Tales, which follows the Brut Chronicle, England (Leicester), 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 7333, f. 37r
The final extension is to 1461, the accession of
Edward IV, found in British Library Additional MS 10099, a paper manuscript of
the late 15th century, under the title 'A breve tretise compiled for to bringe the people
oute of doute, that han not herd of the Cronycles and of the lineal descensse
unto the crownes of Englande, of Fraunce, of Castel Legiouns, and unto the
Duchie of Normandie, sith it was first conquest and made'. It also contains
Higden's Polychronicon and a text
entitled Doctrina Sana (Rules for
healthy living). See the catalogue
entry online here.
The relationships of the texts and continuations are
extremely complicated, and Matheson classified them into four groups, the Common text, the Extended
Version, the Abbreviated version and a looser grouping which he called the
Peculiar Version, which includes a translation from the French Brut by John
Mandeville (British Library MS Harley 4690 contains this translation). Records show that they were owned by religious
houses, aristocratic families, and merchants, from London
to Yorkshire to Wales.
second half of the fifteenth century, the chronicles were spread to an even
wider audience as they were used by Jean de Wavrin as the basis of his Recueil des Croniques d’Engleterre which he composed for the Burgundian court,
allies of the English.
Miniature of the Siege of Troyes, 1419, from Wavrin's Croniques, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1470 - c. 1480, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 57r