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144 posts categorized "Royal"

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

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.

02 August 2013

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons on BBC Four

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A major television series featuring some of the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts is to air soon on BBC Four. Presented by Michael Wood, King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons examines the careers of King Alfred the Great, the Lady Æthelflæd and King Athelstan respectively. Episode one, entitled "King Alfred", will be broadcast on Tuesday 6 August (21.00–22.00), and will then be available on the BBC iPlayer.

 

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The beginning of King Alfred's will (London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, f. 29v).

 

Alfred the Great (reigned 871–899) is perhaps the best-known Anglo-Saxon king. The son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded his three older brothers to the throne in 871. At that time, Viking invaders had conquered much of England, and Alfred struggled to prevent Wessex from succumbing to the same fate, until his victory over the Vikings at Edington in 878. Alfred's reign is also marked by the revival of learning – for example, he instructed that certain works be translated from Latin into English – and by the reform of the coinage, the issuing of new laws, and the creation of fortified towns (or "burghs"). Alfred's defence of Wessex, combined with his administrative reforms, ultimately paved the way for the formation of the kingdom of England during the 10th century.

 

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A page from Bald's Leechbook (London, British Library, MS Royal 12 D XVII, f. 71r).

 

Much of Michael Wood's television series was filmed on location at the British Library. The first episode promises to include Bald's Leechbook (BL MS Royal 12 D XVII) and the copy of Alfred's will found in the New Minster Liber Vitae (BL MS Stowe 944), the second of which can be seen in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site. (You may also recall that we featured the other medieval copy of King Alfred's will in a recent blogpost.)

Episode one of King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons is broadcast on BBC Four on 6 August (21:00–22:00). Episodes two and three will be screened on 13 August and 20 August.

19 July 2013

Royal Babies and Celebrated Infants

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With all of the excitement surrounding the impending arrival of Britain's newest Royal baby, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look at the medieval representations of birth - that blessed, everyday event.

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Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from the The Hours of René d'Anjou, France (Paris), c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 24v

The most frequently depicted newborn in medieval art is, of course, the infant Christ, who is usually shown in the manger, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, a curious ox and ass, and occasionally choirs of angels (see above and below).  One imagines that the future king or queen of England will be born in a cozier setting, although perhaps with slightly less celestial fanfare.

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Miniature of the Nativity of Christ, from a book of prayers and Gospel lessons, Netherlands or England, c. 1490 - c. 1510, Harley MS 1892, f. 8v

The births of saints and kings were also a popular subject for medieval illuminators.  The miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great below is a typical example, albeit one in a particularly luxurious setting. 

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Detail of a miniature of the birth of Alexander the Great, from Historia Alexandri Magni, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1485 - 1490, Royal MS 20 C III, f. 15r

An image of another well-appointed birthing suite can be found in Harley MS 2278, a manuscript containing Lydgate's lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.  In the miniature on f. 13v (below), the new mother is being attended by a group of ladies, while another looks after the newborn, complete with tiny halo, before a roaring fire.  

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Detail of a miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The 14th century Queen Mary Psalter was most likely produced for a royal woman, and includes quite a few bas-de-page paintings of nativities (with a small ‘n’).  A particularly charming example is that of St Nicholas, who can be seen lying swaddled in his cot, watched over by his tired mother and a busy servant.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of the birth of St Nicholas, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 - 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 314v

These scenes are overwhelmingly female ones, populated almost entirely by women (and of course their babies).  Men, when they are present, are most often onlookers, claiming an active role only when medical intervention seems to have been necessary.  The most common depiction of this type of exigency is with the birth of Julius Caesar, who according to legend, had to be cut from his mother’s womb (hence our current term ‘caesarian’).  This operation has been captured in medias res in Royal MS 16 G VIII, where the future emperor can be seen emerging from his otherwise fully-dressed mother, surrounded by medical men.  Caesar’s mother seems relatively calm in this miniature, but is slightly less so in another Royal manuscript, which shows us the immediate aftermath (both below).

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Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

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Detail of a miniature of the birth of Caesar, from La Grande histoire César, Netherlands (Bruges), 1479, Royal MS 17 F II, f. 9r

Not all the medieval depictions of childbirth and infancy fit into these familiar patterns, however.  A copy of the Roman de la Rose dating from c. 1490 – c. 1500 includes a miniature of the personification of Nature literally forging a baby, hammering his shape on an anvil while discarded attempts lie on the floor nearby. 

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Detail of a miniature of Nature forging a baby, from Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 - c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a lion suckling an infant, from the Smithfield Decretals, France (probably Toulouse), with marginal illustrations added in England (London), c. 1300 - c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 121r

A bas-de-page scene in the Smithfield Decretals (above) shows a rather unusual caretaker for a newborn; illustrating a popular legend, a series of marginal miniatures show a lion suckling and tending to a baby.  And Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus includes a well-known episode in the (almost certainly apocryphal) life of Pope Joan, who was said to have masqueraded so successfully as a male pontiff that her true gender was only revealed when she gave birth in the middle of a religious procession (below).

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Detail of a miniature of Pope Joan giving birth, from Giovanni Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus, France (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 120r

By and large, however, most medieval births were seen as occasions of great joy, as they still are today.  It seems fitting to conclude with this miniature of the birth of St Fremund from Harley MS 2278, which shows the celebration of both men and nature at the blessed event.

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Detail of a miniature of a rainbow after the birth of St Fremund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434 - 1439, Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

04 July 2013

Fancy a Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks?

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One of the most common types of enquiry we in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts department receive is whether or not a particular manuscript has been uploaded to the Digitised Manuscripts site (second only in frequency to the question of how we have gotten to be so fabulous).  This latter mystery has no simple explanation, but hopefully in future it will be easier to answer the 'Is it digitised yet?' question.  We have put together a master list of all of the manuscripts that have been uploaded by our department, including hyperlinks to the digitised versions; you can download an Excel version of the file here:  Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 04.07.13

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Miniature of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, before Psalm 80, with a curtain above, and a bas-de-page image of cannibalistic grotesques pointing to our spreadsheet, from the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925, f. 83v

A few notes - this list covers only material from the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts collections, mostly items digitised as part of the Greek, Harley Science, Royal, and Medieval Manuscripts projects.  The spreadsheet is currently sorted by shelfmark, although of course you can do what you like with it.  We will be updating this list every three months, and the newest versions will be posted on this blog.

Enjoy!

01 July 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham

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The British Library is delighted to be a major lender to the exhibition The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, which runs from 1 July to 30 September 2013. No fewer than six of the Library's greatest Anglo-Saxon and medieval treasures are on display at Palace Green Library in Durham, among them the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ceolfrith Bible and, of course, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels.

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The Lindisfarne Gospels (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D IV, f. 11v).

The loan of these treasures marks the culmination of many years' planning and collaboration between the British Library, Durham University, Durham Cathedral and Durham County Council. It provides an outstanding opportunity for visitors to examine these books at close-hand, and in the context of other artefacts including objects from the Staffordshire Hoard and from the tomb of St Cuthbert.

The star object in this exhibition is undoubtedly the Lindisfarne Gospels, which (according to a colophon added on its final page) was made by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-c. 721). The monastic community of Lindisfarne fled its home in response to Viking raids, carrying their books with them, settling temporarily at Chester-le-Street and finally at Durham. Every page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is witness to Anglo-Saxon artistic craftsmanship. Particularly noteworthy for art historians are its carpet pages, evangelist portraits and decorated initials; but the meticulous, half-uncial script is also of the highest calibre. The pages currently on display are from the canon tables which precede the four gospels (one of which is shown above). The Lindisfarne Gospels can be viewed in its entirety on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site, and can also normally be seen on display in our Treasures Gallery.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library, MS Additional 89000, f. 28v).

Another manuscript to be seen in the Durham exhibition is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book, still to be found it its original leather binding. This book was purchased for the nation in 2012 following the largest such fundraising campaign ever conducted by the British Library. Most scholars agree that it was made in around AD 698, at the time when Cuthbert's body was translated to a new tomb at Lindisfarne. The coffin was re-opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and the book (a copy of the Gospel of St John) found inside. Two of its text-pages can be seen at the Palace Green Library, one of which has a contemporary annotation, as also seen above. Once again, the entire manuscript can be viewed on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

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The Ceolfrith Bible (London, British Library, MS Additional 45025, f. 15r).

An early Bible associated with Anglo-Saxon Northumbria has also been loaned by the British Library to Durham. The fragmentary Ceolfrith Bible (Additional MS 45025) was one of three great pandects (single-volume Bibles) commissioned by Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow (690-716). This Bible seemingly left its home at a very early stage, perhaps as a gift to King Offa of Mercia (757-796), before arriving at Worcester Cathedral Library. After the Middle Ages it was broken up to be used as binding papers in a set of Nottinghamshire estate accounts, before a handful of leaves were subsequently rescued and purchased on behalf of the British Library. This manuscript was the subject of a recent blog-post, describing its fortuitous survival.

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The Royal Athelstan Gospels (London, British Library, MS Royal 1 B VII, f. 15r).

As well as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a second Anglo-Saxon gospel-book has been loaned by the British Library to the Durham exhibition. This is the so-called "Royal Athelstan Gospels" (Royal MS 1 B VII), which was also shown at our own recent Royal Manuscripts exhibition, and is described in more detail in its accompanying catalogue. Made in Northumbria in the first half of the 8th century, this book contains an added manumission in Old English, stating that King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939) had freed a certain Eadhelm from slavery.

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The Durham Liber Vitae (London, British Library, MS Cotton Domitian A VII, f. 7v).

The fifth British Library manuscript in the new exhibition is the Durham Liber Vitae or Book of Life (Cotton MS Domitian A VII). This book was made in the 9th century, written in gold and silver ink, and was continued by generations of monks until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. It contains the names of members of the monastic community, together with those of other religious and benefactors, including various Anglo-Saxon kings: you can read more about it in our post The Durham Book of Life Online.

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Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 11r).

Last, but definitely not least, the British Library's famous illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Yates Thompson MS 26) forms part of the Durham exhibition. This book contains the text of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert, accompanied by a series of exquisite full-page miniatures. It has been featured regularly on our blog, most notably in the post entitled A Menagerie of Miracles (who can forget the image of the otters washing Cuthbert's feet?).

Lending these manuscripts to Durham underlines the British Library's commitment to increase access to its world-famous collections, and to promote new research into medieval manuscript culture. To find out more about them, have a look at Digitised Manuscripts, where all six books can be examined in great detail. Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: One Amazing Book, One Incredible Journey is on show at Palace Green Library until 30 September 2013.

06 June 2013

What Did Medieval Kings Really Look Like?

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The first 10 folios of Royal MS 20 A II (the newest upload to our Digitised Manuscripts site) are a portable portrait gallery of the kings of England in chronological order.  Each king is depicted in a tinted drawing, surrounded by symbols or events from his reign. The images of later kings are followed by genealogical tables or Latin verses about the monarch in question.

Here are some examples of the ways that artists in the 14th century portrayed their rulers.  The question is - can the images tell us anything at all about how these kings really looked?

Edward the Confessor is shown in the manuscript as tall, upright, and elegantly dressed, posing with a sceptre and a book, looking pensively into the distance.

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Detail of a miniature of Edward the Confessor, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 5r

In his portrait, Richard I (or Richard the Lion Heart), though seated on his throne, appears ready to leap into action and his garments seem rather ill-fitting. He is cross-eyed and looks somewhat belligerent. The heads of three Christians and three Saracens - a reference to his Crusading fame - glare at each other from either side of his throne.

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Detail of a miniature of Richard the Lionheart, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8r

Compare the above to the fine figure on the 19th century statue in front of the House of Lords in London!

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Statue of Richard the Lionheart, before the Palace of Westminster, via Wikipedia Commons

King John is shown in the manuscript smiling tenderly at his dogs, while stroking one of them playfully.  He has a simple, open face, and does not seem to be weighed down by the cares of state.

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Detail of a miniature of King John, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 8v

Henry III, on the other hand, looks rather disgruntled in his portrait as he shows off the bells of his new cathedral, Westminster Abbey.  He does not seem very pleased with the way his project has turned out, or perhaps he is frustrated by the building costs!

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Miniature of Henry III enthroned, flanked by Westminster Abbey and church bells, with a genealogical table of his descendants below, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 9r

The portrait of  Edward the Confessor (top) is one of 10 produced by the same artist, which can be found on folios 2 to 5 of the manuscript, beginning with legendary kings like Vortigern and Arthur.  They are all framed in black.  The portraits on folios 5v to 10 are by a second artist, who drew the later kings from Edward the Confessor to Edward II.  In this final portrait (below), Edward II is referred to as prince (‘princeps’), in the caption, indicating that the image might date from before or around the time of his coronation in 1307. He has a rather pretty face, and the person presenting the crown is looking at him sideways, apparently unsure of him.  Beneath the image, a poem in praise of King Edward has been erased, and replaced by a lament, allegedly written by the king after his deposition in 1327, bemoaning his fate as ‘le roys abatu’ (the beaten-down king) who is mocked by everyone.

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Miniature of Edward II enthroned, being offered the crown, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 10r

This series of portraits of English kings precedes a copy of Peter of Langtoft’s French verse chronicle, tracing the history of Britain from the early legends of Albion and Brutus up to the time of Edward II.  Langtoft was a canon at an Augustinian priory called Bridlington in Yorkshire, and this manuscript of his work was copied in the North of England.  It also contains fragments of the Lancelot-Grail romances and a letter attributed to Joanna, Queen of Sicily.

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Section of Langtoft's Chronicle detailing battles of King Arthur, England, c. 1307 - c. 1327, Royal MS 20 A II, f. 34r

Royal 20 A II was one of the manuscripts displayed in last year's Royal exhibition, and can be seen in its fully digitised version here.

- Chantry Westwell