Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life


What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

19 May 2018

Everyone loves a royal wedding

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The wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Meghan Markle on 19 May at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, will include centuries-old royal traditions and ceremonial, as they take their vows before God, their families and the Queen. To celebrate this happy occasion, we are displaying two medieval manuscripts with stunning images of royal weddings in our Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between weddings then and now.

Medieval royal weddings were lavish occasions with full traditional regalia, including gold and ermine, gifts and feasting. But these marriages were usually dynastic arrangements rather than love-matches, and the couple were sometimes still children. English kings often chose brides from among the French royalty, to seal a truce or to guarantee the support of the French king.

The Wedding of King Edward II and Isabella of France


The wedding of Edward II and Isabella, daughter of Philippe IV of France, from Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre, Bruges, between 1471 and 1483: Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v

On 25 January 1308, in Boulogne, northern France, the French princess Isabella, aged only 12, was joined in marriage to the new king of England, Edward II (r. 1307–1327), who was then almost 24. The ceremony was depicted by an artist working in Bruges in the 1470s, who imagined the ceremony taking place outside, on the parvis of a Gothic church, in a beautiful landscape in the Flemish style. The illumination shows the bride centre-stage, dressed in shining blue and gold, with a sparkling crown and gorgeous flowing hairstyle. Both bride and groom wear the royal ermine and the long, pointed shoes that were fashionable in this period. Edward would have had trouble going down on his knees to Isabella, as Prince Harry reputedly did to Miss Markle when he proposed. 600 lucky guests have been invited to the wedding this weekend. Here, Edward and Isabella are accompanied by a crowd of courtiers, all wearing gorgeous coloured robes and hats.

The Wedding of King Henry V and Catherine de Valois

Although royal love-matches were rare in the Middle Ages, King Henry V (r. 1413–1422) seems to have been attracted to Catherine de Valois, if Shakespeare’s Henry V is to be believed. Perhaps the fact that their union guaranteed the English succession in France may have been a factor! Their wedding ceremony took place in 1420 and is shown in this magnificent illumination in a huge copy of Jean Chartier’s Grandes Chroniques de France. It was copied in Calais in 1487, probably being commissioned as a gift for King Henry VII of England.

K90033-32 Royal 20 E vi  f. 9v

The wedding of Henry V and Catherine de Valois, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, Calais?, 1487: Royal MS 20 E VI, f. 9v

Unfortunately Henry V died after only two years of marriage, with the widowed Catherine secretly marrying his squire, Owen Tudor. Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) was their grandson, and needed to establish his legitimate claim to the throne after defeating Richard III. This book was probably a political gift to him and the borders are crammed with royal emblems and devices, and particularly of the new Tudor dynasty. 

You can see the two manuscripts shown above on display at the British Library in London. With the country in the grip of royal wedding fever, we have found more gorgeous images of royal weddings from our manuscripts.

The Wedding of Richard II and Isabel of France

K046161 Royal 14 D vi  f. 268v

Detail of a miniature of Richard II, king of England, receiving his bride, the Princess Isabel, from her father, Charles VI, king of France, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, Bruges, c. 1480–1494: Royal MS 14 D VI, f. 268v

This picture of the second marriage of Richard II (r. 1377–1399) in 1396 shows the king about to kiss his young bride. Isabel was only six years old when she married Richard, six years younger than the age limit for marriage decreed by canon law, and again a purely political alliance. We should note that the kiss did not take place on the palace balcony, as is traditional with most modern marriages. This Saturday, however, the royal couple will not be posing on the balcony for a photo, according to a palace spokesperson, as they will not be at Buckingham Palace, where the balcony shots are traditionally taken. 

The Wedding of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence

C13123-17 Royal 14 C vii  f. 124v

Detail of a marginal painting of the marriage of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence: Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, St Albans, 1235–1259: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 124v

Royal wedding rings are today made from Clogau or Welsh gold, a tradition dating back to the wedding of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mother, Harry’s great-grandmother) in 1923. This marginal painting was done by Matthew Paris in his History of the English to illustrate a passage in which he discusses the marriage between King Henry III of England (r. 1216–1272) and Eleanor, daughter of Ramon Berenguer V, Count of Provence, and Beatrice of Savoy. The ceremony that took place in 1236 in Canterbury Cathedral is symbolised here by the king's gesture of placing the wedding ring on the queen's finger.

The Wedding of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou

No doubt the modern royal couple will receive many gifts. This gorgeous collection of chivalric romances and treatises was a wedding gift probably presented by John Talbot (d. 1453), Earl of Shrewsbury, to Margaret of Anjou, future queen of England.

C12262-10a Royal 15 E vi  f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to Queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside King Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, in the 'Talbot Shrewsbury book', Rouen, c. 1445: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

This glorious miniature shows Henry VI (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1471) and Margaret of Anjou holding hands. The wedding ceremony took place on 24 May 1444 in St Martin's Cathedral at Tours. The English king was not present at the ceremony, and so the Earl of Suffolk acted on his behalf, whereas Prince Harry will be waiting for his bride at the altar of St George’s Chapel.

The Celebrations following the Wedding of Louis XII of France and Mary Tudor 

By all accounts the wedding of Prince Harry and Miss Markle will focus on fun, joy and a chance to celebrate with the public. After the wedding of Mary Tudor (1496–1533), sister of King Henry VIII, to Louis XII of France, a sumptuous pageant was presented to celebrate the entry of the eighteen-year-old bride to Paris on 6 November 1514.


The final pageant, with the Annunciation (above) and with Louis XII and Mary seated, flanked by Justice and Truth, with their royal arms linked by lovers' knots above; below is a pastoral scene with shepherds and shepherdesses, from Pierre Gringoire, Pageants for the Reception of Queen Mary of France, Paris, 1st quarter of the 16th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B II, f. 15r


                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Chantry Westwell

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17 May 2018

The legends of King Arthur

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Have you ever wondered who King Arthur really was? The British Library's Discovering Literature: Medieval site features a fascinating essay on this very subject, written by Dr Hetta Elizabeth Howes of City, University of London. Howes traces and contextualises the evolution of the Arthurian legend, based on the historical and literary sources, and illustrated with images of manuscripts in our collections, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory. As the essay pertinently asks, 'Will the real King Arthur please stand up?'

Among the manuscripts featured in The legends of King Arthur is Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem written in Anglo-Norman French. In the copy shown here, made in England in the 14th century (Egerton MS 3028), Arthur's exploits are described in a series of narrative images.


The coronation of King Arthur, in Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r



The opening page of Wace's Roman de Brut: Egerton MS 3028, f. 1r



Another page from Wace's Roman de Brut, showing the building of Stonehenge: Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r


Wace's work was translated in turn by LaČťamon into Middle English, known as LaČťamon's Brut. This manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A IX) was made probably in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is one of two surviving copies of LaČťamon's work, but the second (Cotton MS Otho C XIII) was damaged by fire in 1731.


The opening page of LaČťamon's Brut: Cotton MS Caligula A IX, f. 3r


Medieval manuscripts such as these helped to popularise the legend of Arthur. As Howes fittingly concludes, 'King Arthur may not have returned from the dead, as the myths promise, [but] he has certainly enjoyed a number of afterlives in popular culture.'

The legends of King Arthur is one of many essays found on our Discovery Literature website. Other include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction by Simon Armitage, Old English by David Crystal and Dream visions by Mary Wellesley.


Julian Harrison

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12 May 2018

The female pope

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Rihanna recently created headlines when she appeared at the 2018 Met Gala, wearing a white mitre, in the guise of a bishop or even a pope. People have long been fascinated with the idea and imagery of a female pope. In the later Middle Ages, there was an oft-repeated story about Pope Joan, a highly educated woman who pretended to be a man and was elected to the papacy. Pope Joan almost certainly never existed, but it's interesting to see how this story evolved.

Royal MS 14 E V   f. 468
Image of Pope Joan, from a copy of Laurent Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De viris illustribus and De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 14 E V, f. 468r

Some of the earliest references to a female pope appear in 13th-century chronicles, such as the Universal History of Metz, a history of the whole world from the beginning of time. The basis for the most common medieval legend of Pope Joan is found in the Chronicle of Popes and Emperors compiled by Martin of Troppau (d. 1278, also known as Martin of Opava or Martinus Polonus). According to this chronicle, Joan was an Englishwoman who was born in Mainz in the 9th century. She fell in love and dressed as a man in order to follow her lover on his travels to Athens. The brilliant Joan became very well educated and was elected pope. However, her secret was revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a papal procession and died, and the popes never used that route for their processions again. Versions of this story became increasingly elaborate, claiming that Joan had been killed or that a statue was later constructed on the site of her death.

Harley 641   f. 118
Image of Martin of Troppau from an historiated initial in a copy of his chronicle: Harley MS 641, f. 118r

Earlier sources do not support this narrative. Martin and others claimed Joan lived in the 9th century and succeeded Pope Leo IV (d. 855), but they may have confused her with one of the Pope Johns who reigned in the second half of the 9th century. The 9th- and 10th-century papacy was also scorned by contemporary and later writers for its corruption, with some writers suggesting that the popes were controlled by the women in their lives, including their mistresses and such accounts may have fueled ideas about a female pope. The story about Joan's statue may also have resulted from confusion over one of the statues of the Virgin and Child in Rome.
The story of Pope Joan was frequently found in later medieval chronicles, including the 'official' account of the lives of the popes written by the Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Platina (d. 1481). Joan also became a major figure in literature. Boccaccio included Joan in his Book of Famous Women, holding her up as a negative example of a clever woman who had the audacity to infiltrate male institutions and brought dire consequences in her wake. Christine de Pizan certainly knew the story of Pope Joan, but she pointedly omitted Joan from her City of Ladies, a text written primarily to praise women and counteract what she claimed was a misogynistic literary culture.

Royal 16 G V   f. 120
Pope Joan giving birth during a procession, from a French translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris: Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

Other writers treated Joan differently. She was praised by the humanist writer Mario Equicola (d. 1525), who wrote: 'What shall I say of John/Joan VII? It is clear that a woman can ascend to the papacy, the highest rank in Christendom.' Equicola's attitudes may have been informed by his role as a courtier of Isabella d'Este, an Italian noblewoman and influential patron during the Renaissance.

One modern commentator, Thomas Noble, has described Pope Joan as 'a woman who never lived but who nevertheless refuses to die'. Given modern fashion trends, it looks as though interest in the idea of a female pope may continue for many more years to come.

Alison Hudson

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