Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination 11 November 2011- 13 March 2012

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is the British Library’s first major exhibition to bring together the Library’s Royal collection, a treasure trove of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th centuries. This dazzling exhibition will debunk the myth that these were ‘the Dark Ages’ by showcasing beautiful artistic artefacts. www.bl.uk/royal

Curated by Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of History and Classical Studies, British Library; Professor John Lowden, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and Dr Kathleen Doyle, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library, the exhibition features stunning manuscripts that are among the most outstanding examples of royal decorative and figurative painting from this era surviving in Britain today, their colours often as vibrant as when they were first painted.

However, the manuscripts do much more than declare the artistry of their makers; the luxurious objects unlock the secrets of the private lives and public personae of the royals throughout the Middle Ages and provide the most vivid surviving source for understanding royal identity. As well as providing clear instruction on appropriate regal behaviour they also give a direct insight into royal moral codes and religious belief and shed light on the politics of the day.

A few exhibition highlights include:
• Illuminated manuscripts of Edward IV. Edward IV, now typically remembered, if at all, as the father of the ‘little Princes’, consciously created a court that would be the equal of any in Europe. The best surviving material record of this endeavour is the remarkable collection of large-scale historical and literary manuscripts in French ordered by or associated with the King. These illuminated manuscripts, totalling nearly fifty, are perhaps the best known of the Royal manuscripts as a group, and are remarkable for their survival as a collection. Seventeen of these spectacular manuscripts are exhibited together, forming the first section of the exhibition. This first ‘coherent collection’ of royal books provides the basis for the generally accepted view of Edward IV as the ‘founder’ of the Old Royal library.

• Henry VIII’s Psalter (London c. 1540). The illustrations that Henry VIII commissioned in a Psalter for his own use demonstrate that he wished to be identified with the biblical King David, traditionally regarded as the author of the Psalms. In the Psalter’s opening portrait of Henry seated in a chair in his bedchamber holding an open book, the King looks out at the viewer, who was initially Henry himself. Henry was forty-nine when the book was made, and in this image he looks his age. It is not too fanciful to see the open book as a representation of this very Psalter, the red velvet binding of which still survives, albeit in a rather worn state. By this date a manuscript Psalter in Latin rather than the more popular Book of Hours was an unusual choice. Perhaps the opportunity presented for a direct alignment with David accounts, in part, for the commissioning of such a personalised copy of the text.

• A history of England by Matthew Paris, adviser to the king (St Albans c.1250). Matthew Paris (d. 1259) was one of the foremost English historians of the Middle Ages. A monk of St Albans throughout his adult life he was often called upon to advise King Henry III. His principal works include the extensive Chronica Maiora (Major Chronicle), an ambitious project covering world history from the Creation to the present day, and the Historia Anglorum (History of the English), which begins with the Norman conquest of England and continues into the reign of Matthew’s contemporary monarch Henry III. As a preface to an autograph copy of his history, this map drawn by Matthew shows the pilgrimage route from London through France, to Apulia in Italy ending Jerusalem (even though Matthew himself had never made this journey). His map unfolds as a diagram of major stops and landmarks on the pilgrim’s route, with the distance that could be covered each day marked. The itinerary culminates with a large map of the Holy Land featuring crusaders’ castles, towns, and churches, and descriptions of distant lands.

• Thomas Hoccleve, Regement of Princes (1411-1413). During the Middle Ages a genre of text was developed to instruct princes on how to be effective rulers. These writings are known collectively as ‘mirrors for princes’ because they provide exemplars of behaviour, both positive and negative, for the prince to use as a mirror to illuminate his own conduct. Hoccleve’s text in English verse survives in only three illustrated copies. Two of these are featured in the exhibition, including one with an elegant presentation image of Henry, Prince of Wales who became Henry V in 1413.

• Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings (c. 1300). Chronicles of English history were presented both in codex or book form and in a roll format on sheets of parchment glued together end to end. This format was ideally suited to the presentation of history as genealogy or a royal family tree, with detailed long diagrams of royal descent. Two copies are included in the exhibition, one nearly five metres long. This roll starts with Anglo-Saxon kings and then begins again with Rollo, 1st Duke of Normandy and his son William I continuing to Edward III, added by a later scribe.

• The Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, 1445). The Shrewsbury Book is one of the most remarkable manuscripts preserved in the Old Royal library, and is particularly celebrated for the monumental frontispiece images. Presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to Henry VI by renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, the images are designed to present the genealogical claim of Henry VI to be the rightful king of France. The French claimant to the throne, Charles VII, is discreetly omitted from the line, replaced by his sister, Catherine of France, Henry VI’s mother, opposite her husband, Henry V.

• Some additional objects on loan from other institutions include a Netherlandish tapestry from the late fifteenth century, The Anniversary of Hector’s Funeral from the Burrell Collection, a stone shield with the arms of England from the Museum of London, and a medieval lion’s skull from the Natural History Museum that was found at the Tower of London.

Visitors to the exhibition will discover a series of spaces where they will be able to get up close to the objects, and will learn how the manuscripts were created. In addition, visitors will be introduced to the background of the collection, including how and why Edward IV turned the collection into a library after years of personal collecting by the monarchs and laid the foundations for the present British Library.

Other sections of the exhibition will explore:
• The Christian Monarch – how the manuscripts reveal the role of religion in royal life, from public worship to private devotion
• Identity – the right to rule as defined by their lineage and traditions such as the coronation process - which exist today
• Instruction/knowledge – how the manuscripts shaped the education and knowledge of the royal family, from scientific learning to etiquette
• England and the Continent – Many of the most beautiful manuscripts acquired by English monarchs during the late medieval period originated not in England, but in France or the Burgundian Netherlands. These manuscripts bear witness to the close affinity of English royalty with fashionable Continental artistic styles and their appropriations of the art and culture of their longstanding political rival, France, to which English kings laid claim throughout much of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Dr Scot McKendrick, curator, commented: “The surviving manuscripts associated with successive kings and queens of England form a remarkable inheritance. Together they offer by far the largest body of evidence for the relationship between two critical parts of British cultural heritage: its monarchy and its medieval art. Parts of the built legacy of the British monarchy, such as Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey, occupy a very special place in the public consciousness but the royal manuscripts have largely remained hidden from view. The very fact that they have been less accessible has in turn meant that they are fantastically well preserved; their gold still making their pages glow and flicker in the light for us, as they did for those who first viewed them centuries ago. The exhibition is the culmination of a major research project started three years ago. It is with great pleasure that we are able to share the collection’s beauty with a wider audience.”

As part of the Library’s ongoing relationship with high-profile media companies the Library is pleased to be working alongside BBC Four. In the autumn this year BBC Four will air a three part series, The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, made by Oxford Film & Television and presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, a specialist in medieval art history with a particular focus on examining art works in their historical context. The series will take an in-depth look at the unique insights that the manuscripts reveal into the medieval world and mind, focusing on how they were used to establish the right to rule. It will also explore the relationship between the monarchy and the church and how they were used to instruct and educate young princes in moral and behavioural codes.

Richard Klein, Controller, BBC Four said: "BBC Four is delighted to collaborate with the British Library in order to explore this significant collection in more depth on-air. The series, The Private Lives of Medieval Kings, will give viewers an insight in to the private lives and public personae of the medieval monarchy in a way that has never been seen before."


Notes to Editors:

The research for this exhibition has been made possible by research generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Additional funding has also been gratefully received from a number of philanthropic sources.

Media partner – The Times

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is open from 11 November 2011 – 13 March 2012 in the PACCAR Gallery at the British Library.

Admission £10 with Gift Aid, concessions will be available including free admission for under 18s and schools. An audio guide will be included in the price of admission.

Booking information
For further information please visit www.bl.uk/royal and register for our e-what's on newsletter www.bl.uk/newsletters/subscribe.html

Exhibition opening hours
Open Mon, Wed-Fri 10:00am-6pm; Tue 10:00am-8pm; Sat 10:00am-5pm; Sun 11am-5pm

All galleries are accessible by wheelchair. Information can be requested from Visitor Services staff on: T +44 (0)20 7412 7332.

Exhibition design
The exhibition, which was designed by Urban Salon in collaboration with graphic designer, John Morgan Studio incorporates a striking white double height nave and uses different designs to orientate visitors through the thematic sections of the exhibition.

Interactive elements of the exhibition will include
• Introduction - a short film explaining how manuscripts were made in the medieval period
• Christian monarch - interpretation of some of the most frequently occurring religious scenes and symbols
• Henry VIII Psalter - visitors will be able to ‘turn the pages’ of Henry VIII’s Psalter and find out more about its contents
• Identity - includes an illustrated genealogical diagram of English kings allowing visitors to view and enlarge the entire manuscript digitally with explanations
• Instruction - visitors will be able to ‘turn the pages’ of this 13th-century bestiary - a book of real and imaginary beasts
• Knowledge - a pilgrimage map made by the historian and artist Matthew Paris around 1250 allowing visitors to follow and understand the journey
• England and the Continent - visitors will be able to ‘turn the pages’ of the Bedford Hours

The public events programme accompanying the exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius Of Illumination will include lectures by leading writers and scholars of the Middle Ages, taking in art history as well as the political, social and intellectual context of the period. Curators will also offer gallery talks of the exhibition. Including:

• All That Glisters: the Art of Illumination, Friday 18 November 18.30 – 20.30 Michelle Brown and Patricia Lovett
• The Great Lost Library of England’s Kings, Monday 21 November 18.30 – 20.00, Nicholas Vincent
• The Diamond Queen, Friday 25 November 18.30 – 20.00, Andrew Marr
• The English Kingdom of France, Monday 28 November 18.30 -20.00, Juliet Barker
• The Story of a Book , Monday 12 December 18.30 – 19.45, Michael Wood
• The English Castle, Tuesday 13 December 18.30 - 20.00, John Goodall
• The King of Beasts, Friday 16 December 18.30 – 20.00, Deirdre Jackson
• Royal Manuscripts Conference Monday 12 December and Tuesday 13 December, 18 speakers
• Royal Manuscripts Study Day Friday 17 February 10:15-4:00, Alixe Bovey, Patricia Lovett, Kathleen Doyle

Learning programme
An exciting range of free workshops exploring Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination will be available for primary, secondary and further education students.

Workshops for primary aged pupils will explore medieval life through the illuminated manuscripts and images on display. Using creative activities, students will gain an understanding of royal identity, religious beliefs and education during this fascinating period. Looking closely at the items on display, groups will deconstruct the symbols of the paintings and develop an understanding of who the manuscripts were made by, who they were made for, and how they were made.

Workshops for secondary and further education students will examine a range of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from colourful histories, genealogies and Bibles to scientific works and accounts of coronations. By interpreting the artistry and symbols within the images on display, students will gain new insights into faith, learning, the monarchy and international politics in medieval times. Groups will evaluate the reliability of sources and develop skills in interpreting historical texts.

Exhibition catalogue
Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination
Illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England from the 9th to the 16th century form the heart of a unique and visually stunning collection held by the British Library. A key figure in the formation of the collection is King Edward IV (1461 – 1483), who commissioned luxury manuscripts decorated with his arms. Subsequent monarchs added to this library, which was given to the nation by George II in 1757.

Over 150 examples from this exceptional collection are presented in this catalogue. These manuscripts contain paintings produced by some of the finest artists of the Middle Ages and together provide the most vivid surviving source for understanding royal identity, moral and religious beliefs, learning, faith and international politics.

The catalogue features a full-page entry of around 750 words on each manuscript included, as well as three illustrated essays that explore the wider history and context of this unique collection. It is lavishly illustrated, with a beautiful reproduction of an image from each manuscript presented alongside the text for every entry.

Paperback £25 (ISBN 978-0-7123-5815-6), hardback £40 (ISBN 978-0-7123-5816-3), 448 pages, 288mm x 230mm, publishing November 2011.

Highlights book
Royal Illuminated Manuscripts From King Athelstan to Henry VIII
This book showcases forty-one of the illuminated manuscripts featured in the exhibition, chosen for their beauty and significance. Each image is explored in detail, the content and symbolism explained, the provenance of the manuscript considered and the item placed within the wider context of the tradition of illuminated manuscripts. The manuscripts selected are presented chronologically, starting in the Anglo-Saxon period when the English were first unified under a single king and ending after the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, broke with the Church in Rome. Together they provide a vivid insight into a world very different from our own.

Paperback £10 (ISBN 978-0-7123- 5855-2), 96 pages, 222 x 166mm, publishing November 2011

Phone and Ipad Application
The Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination application will feature nearly sixty illuminated manuscripts from the exhibition and will contain nearly 500 images. There will also be a selection of videos featuring experts discussing the illuminated manuscripts.

£2.39 iPhone and Android, £3.49 iPad, with an introductory offer of £1.19 for iPhone and £2.39 for iPad until the exhibition opens.

The app will be available to download worldwide for iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

Eleanor Hutchins, Emily Alexander or Tom Ville at Four Communications

+ 44 (0) 870 626 9000


For more information contact:

  • Miki Lentin
  • The British Library
  • t:+44 (0) 20 7412 7112
  • m:+44 (0) 7976 793 666
  • f:+44 (0) 20 7412 7168
  • e: miki.lentin@bl.uk


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  

Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £102 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,350 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk

The Courtauld Institute of the University of London, since its foundation in 1932, has played a leading role internationally in teaching and research in the history of art and its conservation.  Directors and curators of some of the world’s best-known museums and galleries studied and were trained at the Courtauld.  The present exhibition builds specifically on a long history of collaboration between the Courtauld and the British Library at various levels, notably research and publication of illuminated medieval manuscripts. 




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