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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

20 January 2022

‘As goodly a child as I have seen’

In March 1543, King Henry VIII sent Sir Ralph Sadler as ambassador to Scotland. A protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Sadler had his first audience with the dowager queen, Mary of Guise, within days of arriving. The subject of their interview was the new Queen of Scots, the 4-month-old Mary. Afterwards, Sadler was taken to see the child for himself. In this letter to Henry, written in his own hand, Sadler declared Mary to be ‘as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age’.

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

For Henry, the infant queen offered a golden opportunity to unite the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland under one monarchy by means of a ‘godly’ marriage to his heir, Prince Edward (Add MS 32649, f. 173r).

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist, c. 1540: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in the depths of winter on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise. The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens displays an oak panel of the arms of Scotland, carved and hung in Linlithgow Palace during these years, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland, Linlithgow Palace, mid-16th century: National Museums Scotland

In summer 1542, war had broken out between England and Scotland after Henry VIII failed to persuade his nephew, James V, to repudiate Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and the Pope’s authority. Two weeks before Mary’s birth, an opportune raid into northern England had gone disastrously wrong when the Scottish army surrendered at the Battle of Solway Moss. James returned from the frontier in a disconsolate state. He visited his wife briefly at Linlithgow, dying at Falkland Palace 6 days after the birth of his daughter and heir. 

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility: Harley MS 115, f. 16r

Under the circumstances, the English warden of the marches, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, called off a counter-raid into Scotland, saying it would be dishonourable to ‘make warre or ynvade vppon a dedd bodye or vppon a wydowe, or on a yonge sucling his doughter’ (Add MS 32648, f. 225r). Henry duly negotiated a truce with the Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was described in contemporary reports as ‘delyueryd before hir tyme[,] … a vereye weyke childe and not like to lyve’ (Add MS 32648, f. 199r-v). Within days of her father’s funeral, she was baptized in January 1543, named for her mother Mary of Guise and for the Virgin Mary. Unusually for the time, Mary was ‘nurssed in her [mother’s] owne chambre’, rather than separately (London, The National Archives, SP 1/175, M. f. 17r). This was because Mary of Guise feared for her daughter’s safety in the turbulent first months of her reign, when various Scottish prelates and nobles vied for control of the regency government established in the young queen’s name. In early January 1543, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, emerged victorious, being appointed governor of Scotland and granted custody of the queen. A great-grandson of James II, Arran was also declared heir presumptive.  On arriving in Scotland in March, Sadler had his first interview with the new regent, a 23-year-old who Sadler thought ill-prepared for the great responsibility he was undertaking.

A few days later, on 22 March 1543, Sadler visited Mary of Guise at Linlithgow, hoping to learn if she favoured the marriage between Edward and her daughter. He ‘founde her most wyllyng and conformable in apparence’, and wrote to Henry the following day describing how she had asserted that her ‘chief suretie’ was to have her daughter ‘delyuered fourthwith’ into the king’s hands (Add MS 32650, f. 72r). ‘It is the woorke and ordinance of god for the coniunction and vnyon of bothe thies Realmes in one’, she said. But she warned Henry to beware of Arran’s motives, telling him through Sadler that the governor was only using marriage negotiations as a delaying tactic to preclude renewed war and to consolidate his own position. Arran would ultimately never consent to the union. Although Sadler listened intently, he told Henry that he did not believe everything Mary of Guise said, including her protestations that Cardinal David Beaton supported the marriage. Beaton’s longstanding hostility to English influence in Scotland was well-known. Mary of Guise then claimed that Arran had said that

'The chylde was not lyke to lyve[.]  but yow shall see … whither he saye trew or not[.]  And therwith she caused me to go with her in to the chamber where the chylde was, and shewed her vnto me and also caused the Nurice [nurse] to vnwrapp her oute of her clowtes that I myght see her naked[.]  I assure your Maieste it is as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age and as lyke to lyve with the grace of god.'

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

This kind of display was common practice, in case of future marriage negotiations, to show that the infant was without deformity. (In April 1534, Princess Elizabeth had also been presented, both richly dressed and naked, to the French ambassadors Louis de Perreau, sieur de Castillon, and Gilles de la Pommeraye.) Sadler duly took his leave of Mary of Guise in order to report back to his master.

Events would prove that, in supporting marriage between Edward and her daughter, Mary of Guise had been playing for time. In March 1543, Beaton and she engineered the return from exile of Arran’s greatest rival, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who also had a strong claim to be recognized as heir presumptive. Together, in late July, they forced Arran to concede custody of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her mother. On 27 July, Lennox escorted both queens to the safety of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds and part of Mary of Guise’s jointure. Mary of Guise retained firm control of her daughter from then onwards, determined to prevent her falling into anyone else’s hands.

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2022

Portraits of Elizabeth I

The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens offers visitors the opportunity to see five portraits of Elizabeth I. At the start of the exhibition, Elizabeth’s beautiful mother of pearl locket ring is displayed open to reveal enamelled miniature portraits of her and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth is depicted in profile as she looked in the mid-1570s; her mother’s likeness is similar to a portrait medal struck in 1534. 

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

Locket ring containing portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, c. 1575: The Chequers Trust

Inside the ring there is a small oval plate of gold ornamented in enamel, with a phoenix rising in flames. A mythological bird reborn from its own ashes, the phoenix became associated closely with Elizabeth after her accession to the throne of England in 1558. It symbolised the virtue of chastity, but also Elizabeth’s reversals of fortune under her father, brother and sister, and her restoration of Protestantism from the ashes of the persecutions of Mary I’s reign. Elizabeth had endured her deepest calamity when not yet 3 years old. In July 1536, she was declared illegitimate and excluded from the succession, following Anne’s execution on charges of adultery and incest. The locket ring suggests that Elizabeth never accepted the guilty verdict and found ways to honour the memory of her mother.

On a number of occasions when she was a child, marriage negotiations were opened on Elizabeth’s behalf, only for them to collapse due to her illegitimacy. But, from autumn 1542, Henry VIII made gestures towards rehabilitating his daughter, describing her as ‘endewed with vertues and qualities agreable with her estate/ whom we esteme and regarde, as natural inclination with respecte of her place and state doth of congruence require’ (Add MS 32650, f. 127r). As a precaution against dying on campaign in a new war with France, in spring 1544 Henry restored both his daughters Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, but did not legitimate them. Among the most striking pieces of evidence for Elizabeth’s new-found status is a portrait of her by the court painter Guillim Scrots. Commissioned in about 1546, it is one of the few likenesses of Elizabeth made before she became queen. Dressed in crimson silk and the cloth-of-silver ‘tissued’ with gold that was restricted to the royal family, she is portrayed as self-possessed, pious and scholarly. She marks her place in the book she is holding, possibly a primer. Another book, a Bible perhaps, sits on a lectern in the background. The portrait may, in fact, have been completed during the reign of her brother, Edward VI, which is probably also when the near-contemporary copy on display in the exhibition was made.

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth after Guillim Scrots, 16th century: Private Collection

At her brother’s request, in May 1551 Elizabeth sent Edward another portrait of herself, telling him ‘for the face, I graunt, I might wel blusche to offer, but the mynde I shal neuer be asshamed to present’. 

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]

Letter from Princess Elizabeth to Edward VI, 15 May [1551]: Cotton MS Vespasian F III, f. 48r

Made by the court painter Levina Teerlinc for marriage negotiations underway between Elizabeth and a French prince, the portrait itself does not appear to have survived. But another likeness of her from this time does, at least in a mid-17th-century copy generously loaned to the exhibition. Elizabeth appears in a family portrait, the original of which probably dated to Edward’s reign because of the prominent position he occupies in the centre of the composition, with Henry VIII to his right, and both his sisters to his left. The figure standing behind Edward and his father has been identified as the court fool Will Somer, who served in the royal household for many years. Somer’s presence here, and in a number of other royal portraits, perhaps represents continuity between reigns or offers ways of interpreting each image allegorically.

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist

Group portrait of Henry VIII and family by an unknown artist, 17th century: By kind permission of His Grace, the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, KBE, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even after she became queen in November 1558, Elizabeth’s reluctance to sit for her portrait continued. Most early portraits of her as queen are simple images depicting her in black, some of them poorly executed. In April 1565, during an audience with the English ambassador, Catherine de’ Medici had complained ‘by that that everie bodie telleth me [of Elizabeth’s beauty], and that which I see painted, I must say she hath no good painters’. ‘I will send my self a painter ouer’ to England, she concluded (London, The National Archives, SP 70/77, M. f. 125v). Over the next few years Elizabeth’s portraiture changed, with the production of more realistic likenesses for the purpose of marriage negotiations. These include a full-length and a small portrait bust, both recently attributed to the English painter George Gower, and made directly from life. The portrait bust, currently on loan to the exhibition, may have been commissioned specifically for presentation to Archduke Charles II of Austria, with whom marriage negotiations were underway. In June 1567, Elizabeth sent the chief proponent of the Austrian match, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd earl of Sussex, as her ambassador to the Hapsburg court. He probably carried this portrait bust with him, which he showed to Margaret of Parma, the governor of the Netherlands. One of Margaret’s courtiers declared that the portrait ‘lacked but speche’ (London, The National Archives, SP 70/92, M. f. 19r). Capturing her guarded self-possession, it is among the very best likenesses of Elizabeth, then aged about 34.

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower

Portrait of Elizabeth I attributed to George Gower, c. 1567: Private Collection

As Elizabeth aged, her portraiture became more elaborate and less lifelike, as realistic depictions of her were no longer required for the purpose of marriage negotiations. The queen was still occasionally painted from life, as for instance in the ‘Darnley portrait’ of about 1575 (London, National Portrait Gallery, 2082). But most works were based on patterns. One imposing example, displayed in the exhibition, dates to the late 1580s. Elizabeth is shown in her Parliament robes of ermine-lined crimson velvet, which create an exaggerated silhouette, subsuming her as an individual into an icon of queenship. Demand from her loyal subjects for Elizabeth’s portrait was growing, particularly after the outbreak of war with Spain in 1585, and this painting may have been commissioned for a public space like a guildhall.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist

Portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, late 1580s: Private Collection

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

11 January 2022

Reach for the stars

Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.

Animation of the constellation Sirius, based on a drawing from a medieval copy of Cicero's Aratea
An animation of the constellation Sirius the Dog Star, from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122): Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.

Portrait of Cicero
'Portrait' of Cicero and his friends from a Renaissance copy of his treatise on friendship (France, Tours, 1460), Harley MS 4329, f. 130r (detail)

Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.

Papyrus fragment of Aratus’s Phaenomena
Fragment from a papyrus codex containing Aratus’s Phaenomena in Greek with marginal notes (Egypt, 4th/5th century) Papyrus 273 (fragment B)

The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).

St Paul preaching in Athens
St Paul preaching in Athens, in a Bible historiale (Paris, c. 1350), Royal MS 19 D II, f. 498v (detail)

It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.

Allegories of five planets
Allegories of five planets from a 9th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (France, Reims, c. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 13v 

One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.

The constellation of Cygnus the swan
The constellation of Cygnus the swan, Cicero, Aratea (France, Reims, ca. 820), Harley MS 647, f. 5v

This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.

The constellation of Cygnus the Swan
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan from a 12th-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea (England, Peterborough, around 1122), Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 24r

Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.

Peter Toth

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