In the second of three programmes examining documents held in the Royal Manuscripts Collection in the British Library, Dr Janina Ramirez shows how they were used to steer young princes in the right direction for kingship.
When Edward III was still a young boy his father Edward II was removed from his throne in a coup orchestrated by his mother's lover Roger Mortimer. In the Grandes Chroniques de France, part of the great collection of manuscripts stolen from the French court during the early period of the Hundred Years War, there appeared a somewhat incongruous note - 'I’em m’apele rois abatu, Et tut le secle me veet gabant' (‘I am called the tumbledown king, and all the world mocks me,’) - attributed to the deposed king. Originally the image was accompanied by a Latin poem, but after Edward’s deposition (or death) around 1327 this text was erased and replaced with the lament in French verse, styled as the King’s own words.
Standing inside a room at Berkeley Castle where Edward II was incarcerated after his downfall, Dr Ramirez's description of the king penning the verse was both sincere and edifying. It was easy to picture the destitute king, once the most powerful man in England, defacing a precious manuscript which would once have helped to symbolise his position.
In contrast to this, the Secretum Secretorum, or A Mirror for Princes, was a document intended to inspire. The 152-page manuscript, dating from 1326-1327, was written in Latin and illustrated with exquisite miniatures flecked with gold, each of which would have taken professional scribes up to a week to paint. Given to Edward III at the beginning of his reign by the court cleric Walter of Milimete, it included advice based on Aristotle's text written for the Greek Alexander the Great. This covered everything from what to look for in a future Queen, to what to eat depending on the season and how to sleep correctly. What made it more interesting was that it wasn't finished. Many of the illustrations in the margins were still outlines and it also contained what is now believed to be the first image of a cannon shooting bolts, used by Edward III at the Battle of Crecy in 1346.
The document contained evidence that Edward was very learned when it came to warfare. He had taken three years to build up a stockpile of five million arrows before heading to France to defend his right to the throne through his mother Isabella. While interviewing noted historian Ian Mortimer, Dr Ramirez drew attention to the fact this document presented a 'living history' of the time and not just a static interpretation of the past. Mortimer agreed, saying the document demonstrated how Edward had deliberately engaged in battle tactics designed to take advantage of his smaller, more mobile army. It was a fabulous insight into how these manuscripts were not only important historical documents in their own right, but also how they could be used to vividly bring to life the times of these early English rulers in a way possibly not expected by the viewer.
However, it also contained a warning to Edward. The arms of his mother, Mortimer and his two uncles were emblazoned on the margins, reminding him of how quickly his father, also the anointed king, had been removed from power.
Henry V receiving the book
Another of the manuscripts was one given to Henry V while still Prince of Wales. The Regiment of Princes (De Regimine Principum) is a poem which extols the virtues of both kingship and princedom. In it Henry is told he should seek the advice of older, wiser men instead of the 'perilous council of youth'. He is also advised to be aware of his own shortcomings - 'For a king is but a man, for sure,/And no matter how intelligent, he may/Err and sometimes make mistakes.'
Written by Thomas Hoccleve, a clerk in the office of the privy seal in 1411, the document also gives us a glimpse into the fashions of the day in an era when very few paintings or tapestries survive, the illuminated manuscripts should be treated as works of art and not just historical writings.
Dr Ramirez also visited illuminator Patricia Lovett to see how the painstaking work of creating the images in the manuscripts took place. Ms Lovett explained how the illuminated sections of the manuscript would be drawn out in pencil first and the areas where gold leaf was to be used would be marked out in gesso, a traditional mix of an animal glue binder, chalk and white pigment, and then breathed on to make it sticky, before the precious metal was applied. It was a slow job and a single illustration could take weeks to complete.
She also visited the site of Pleshey Castle, once home to the powerful de Bohan family, who employed their own scribes to turn out illustrated and illuminated manuscripts. Between 1361 and 1384 a group of Augustinian friars created the de Bohun manuscripts at Pleshey Castle, a total of eleven books, one of them was a Psalter (Book of Hours) which celebrated Mary de Bohun's marriage to Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, King of England. The du Bohun's were earls of Hereford, Essex and Northampton for most of the 13th and 14th Centuries and powerful figures at Edward's court.
In conclusion, Dr Ramirez said the manuscripts of the later Medieval kings had demonstrated a change in attitude from those of the Anglo-Saxon period. No longer was the monarch being inextricably linked to the church. Various kings had 'reinvented' the rules of kingship to the point that they were being hailed for their own majesty as much as the 'divine' right to be king. Their manuscripts were becoming more elaborate, more decorative, works of art in their own right to be displayed prominently in what were becoming the first libraries.
Illumination from the du Bohun Book of Hours
In the final programme in the series, Dr Ramirez shows how the link between church and monarchy had eroded by the time King Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church of England.
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