In the final of three programmes examining the Royal Manuscripts Collection held at the British Library in London, Dr Janina Ramirez draws to a conclusion her insight into the Medieval world of the kings who commissioned them.
Of all the manuscripts and books contained within the British Library's Royal Manuscript Collection, one of the most magnificent has to be that of the Quadripartite Indenture for Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey, still inside its original, extravagantly-decorated burgundy velvet cover. This document typifies the last great hurrah of the manuscript, a final flourish of stunning illumination and book binding at the court of the first Tudor kings.
It required the help of two members of the British Library staff, wearing gloves as against the norm to handle the manuscripts with bare hands, simply because the outer silver metal bindings were so delicate. Dr Ramirez also showed the viewer the wax seals attached to the document, still in their original cases. It was a pretty profound moment to be watching, seeing something which had been created to document the final wishes of the man who had wrested the throne of England from Richard III in 1485.
Dr Ramirez was also pretty inspired by it, describing it as 'a manuscript which makes me go weak at the knees, possibly the most magnificent binding to survive from Tudor times.' The manuscript is a legal contract between Henry VII and Westminster Abbey. The King is depicted giving the very manuscript to the monks on the frontispiece of the document in vivid colours and great detail. It contains the King's plans for his afterlife, the requirements he is making of the monks of Westminster Abbey to pray for him and his family in perpetuity. Dr Ramirez pointed out this wasn't a 'wish list' but a legally binding document, made in duplicate and that the wavy edge on the upper part of the book would have matched exactly that of the copy held in Westminster Abbey. The cut edge was, she said, where the use of the legal term 'indenture' originated, from the French for 'toothed.'
In this final programme, Dr Ramirez also looked at the collections of Edward IV, believed to have had 50 books of illuminated manuscripts commissioned during his lifetime, those of Henry VII and that of his son, Henry VIII. She explained how the advent of the printing press, developed by William Caxton in 1476, didn't have the expected outcome for illuminated manuscripts. Instead, they became the province of the truly wealthy, who were the only ones able to afford the costs of having one produced. Edward IV used manuscripts to rebuild the reputation of the monarchy after the disastrous reign of Henry VI. At his favourite palace in Eltham, South London, Edward displayed his collection of beautifully illustrated manuscripts, books and vellum rolls within a great timbered hall which still remains today. One of his manuscripts also contains an image of him within the great hall, lined with tapestries and all his books on display. They were used as 'props' for the Monarchy, said Dr Ramirez.
However, she said there were problems for Edward in collecting his manuscripts. England no longer had the best illuminators and scribes, they were in France, which was off limits to the King because of the wars. So he went instead to Bruges, now in modern Belgium but in the 15th century it was part of the Duchy of Burgundy, where his sister Margaret held sway at court. It was the centre of trade for luxury goods, said Dr Ramirez, but also the place where the beginnings of the great art of landscape painting could first start to be seen within the manuscripts commissioned by Edward IV. The other telling point of the manuscripts commissioned by Edward was that they were no longer being created by monks in abbeys, but in craftsmen's workshops.
Following Edward's death in 1483, England was again in a period of conflict which ended only when Henry VII claimed the throne from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field. Henry's claim to the English throne was a tenuous one, through both the female line and through illegitimacy and so he used manuscripts to help bolster his right to the crown.
He used the hawthorn bush he was reputed to have plucked the crown of England from after the death of Richard on the battlefield, as well as the Welsh dragon used by Cadwaladr, the last of the Kings of the ancient Britons which he had flown on his standard at Bosworth, alongside the white greyhound of his powerful Lancastrian ancestors on all his heraldry, and these appeared regularly on all the manuscripts commissioned by Henry, added Dr Ramirez. Henry used these images as symbols of mystique to add weight to both his right to the throne and to his nobility. He also used the intertwined red and white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York to show that he had united the warring factions by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV.
The contents of the books and manuscripts commissioned and received by Henry VII were also different than those of Edward, said Dr Ramirez. Instead of the histories favoured by his predecessor, Henry chose works of science, astrology and astronomy, which were closely linked in the late 15th Century. She examined in detail a manuscript created by John Killingworth, which detailed the mathematical data for the movements of the planets, as well as astrological symbols for the astrological signs. One of the other manuscripts was a work created by William Parron, an Italian who was appointed as the first official Court Astrologer by Henry VII. He had been commissioned to produce a book of predictions about the life of his son, Henry Prince of Wales. The horoscope must have been completed before 1503, as one of Parron's predictions was that the Queen, Elizabeth of York, would live into her 80s. Unfortunately, she died in 1503 aged only 37 and Parron disappears from both the English court and historical records.
Detail from William Parron's Horoscope
Having looked at another of the impressive surviving Tudor bound manuscripts from Henry's library, a guide to the Holy Land, Dr Ramirez visited James and Stuart Brockman, bookbinders who are still carrying out work which would have been recognised by the makers of illuminated manuscripts 300 years earlier, where she had a go at stitching a book from the 15th Century and watched gold leaf being applied to the edges of a manuscript. It showed, she said, that the kings who commissioned the books wanted them to look as beautiful from the outside as they were on the inside.
The final set of manuscripts which Dr Ramirez looked at were those belonging to Henry VIII, where she found not only love notes written by the king and his future Queen Anne Boleyn inside a Book of Hours, but also a manuscript containing musical notes, written in a circular format. But, Henry VIII, while possessing not only the most beautiful and impressive manuscripts now in the Royal Collection, also turned out to be the means of their end. With his break from Rome in 1534, Henry began to move away from the 'trappings of popery' and that included illuminated manuscripts.
One of the most beautiful books Dr Ramirez examined was given to Henry in 1516, by which time he had been king for seven years, by an Antwerp merchant. The book begins with a poem praising his name and the artwork is filled with images of England and the Tudors. Henry VIII was a very well educated king, he was also a sportsman, he wrote poetry and music and could speak many languages. The book was, said Dr Ramirez, specifically designed to appeal to a Renaissance prince. One of the full page illustrations shows a single root from which grow three different roses, to symbolise Henry and his two sisters, Margaret and Mary. There is also a pomegranate tree, heavily laden with ripe fruit, an allegorical nod to Henry's then wife, Catherine of Aragon. They are within an English garden, which is heavily fortified and guarded by warships, demonstrating the power of the King and the country over which he ruled.
But the most surprising things contained within the manuscript were pieces of music, written in circular script surrounding a Tudor rose. It was full of music, explained Dr Ramirez, which would have been designed to be heard by the king, who was a noted composer himself. The viewer was then treated to a performance of the music by The Brabant Ensemble, specialists in bringing back to public life the sacred music and works of forgotten composers of the 16th Century. The manuscript was the 'most multi-dimensional' one Dr Ramirez had encountered. "I can read the words, I can see the notes and the beautiful illuminations and I can hear it," she said. There were several other pieces of music written for the manuscript, all sharing a particular theme, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, which reminded Dr Ramirez that, before his divorce, Henry VIII was a famously devout Catholic. The idea, she added, was that anyone hearing the music would think of Catherine of Aragon and how she was going to produce an English heir. When that failed to happen, Henry not only divorced her but broke with Rome.
This then brought the viewer's attention to a Book of Hours, a personal prayer book used within the Royal Household in which the aforementioned notes from Henry to Anne Boleyn, the woman who replaced Catherine of Aragon in both his affections and on the throne, can be found. Although this was supposed to be a sacred book and yet Henry had used it to write a note to Anne in French underneath an image of the Man of Sorrows. He wrote: "If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever." What makes the book even more remarkable is that Anne has replied on another page which depicts the Annunciation, (when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to bare a son): "By daily proof you shall me find To be to you both loving and kind." It is Anne telling Henry what he wants to hear, that she will bare him a son.
Unfortunately for Britain's manuscripts, this desire for a son is what causes their ultimate downfall and, in the case of thousands of documents held by the great abbeys of England and Wales, their destruction. The Act which established the Book of Common Prayer specifically called for the 'abolishment and putting away of diverse books and images.' Dr Ramirez said she felt real sorrow at the words of the Act, at the thought of the thousands of beautiful manuscripts which must have been lost.
Henry VIII as King David
The final book which Dr Ramirez examined was a Psalter, an edition of the Book of Psalms, featuring the life work of King David. It wasn't unusual, she said, for a monarch to have a Psalter as the Biblical King David was widely regarded as being a model for kingship. But what was illuminating was that, whenever an image of David appeared within the book, he bore a remarkable resemblance to the Psalter's owner Henry. This book can be examined online at the British Library using their 'Turn the Pages' software application. This was a very personal book, intended only to be used and seen by Henry and he has written a running commentary within the margins of its pages which demonstrated that be believed he was doing God's will, said Dr Ramirez.
"This is such a strange experience for me," said Dr Ramirez. "I am touching the very pages that Henry VIII himself touched and he didn't just read this book, he read it again and again, and he invested part of himself in it. More than any other manuscript I've encountered, I really get a sense of the real man coming out of these pages."
The earliest royal books, those of the Anglo-Saxon kings, were largely public books, displayed on altars, their power coming from the church, as did that of the kings. Six centuries later, by the time of Henry VIII, the king is the one in control of the institution his predecessors had depended upon and he relies on no-one but himself for both his relationship with God but also that with his country. Henry is shown alone, in the pages of a book for his own private use, and this was, for the English manuscript, the end of the line.
Changes in fashion, alongside developments in technology and art, meant that by the later half of the 16th Century the printed book had taken over from the manuscript even within the Royal Household. All was not lost though, said Dr Ramirez. There was a successor to the illuminated manuscript - the Royal Portrait. Now that the monarch was head of the Church as well as the State, their image needed to be disseminated throughout the country.
The printed book spread their words, official copies of their Royal Portrait were sent out across the land to be displayed where they could be seen by the general populous, rather than the select few at court who had previously had access to Royal Manuscripts. Portraiture also drew on the iconography of the earlier manuscripts, using symbols which would have been familiar to those earlier scribes to illustrate the power of the subject being depicted. Because manuscripts were not mass produced, they have a history and a weight which cannot be equalled, said Dr Ramirez. They are an object which exists in the present in exactly the same way as they did when first commissioned. They were created as pieces of propaganda or patronage but now they give the viewer an insight into the private lives of long dead Kings of England.
More about the exhibition can be found at the British Library's website. There is also a DVD of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings available from the British Library's shop.
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