When George II gifted the Old Royal Library to the new British Museum in 1757 he gave more than just a set of books, he provided an insight into the minds of Kings of England stretching back almost a thousand years.
By the time his son, George III, came to the throne of England in 1760, there were only a small amount of books and manuscripts left in the royal palaces and so the king set about to create a new library to replace the one his father had handed over to the nation.
By the time of the King's death in 1820, the Library comprised around 65,000 volumes of printed books, with a further 19,000 pamphlets, manuscripts and bound volumes of maps and topographical views. They are all now housed within a six story purpose built tower at the heart of the British Library's St Pancras building where they are regularly accessed and used by readers in the Rare Books and Music Room.
Part of this new library is at the heart of an exhibition on at The British Library in London until March 13 which looks at the illuminated manuscripts of the Royal Collection. Collected by the kings and queens of England during a period stretching more than 800 years, the manuscripts are outstanding examples of the craftsmanship and art work in this era.
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, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination features stunning manuscripts that are among the most outstanding examples of royal decorative and figurative painting from this era surviving in Britain today. They aim to disprove the mythology that there was anything "Dark" about the Middle Ages.
On entering the exhibition the first thing which strikes you is the sheer volume of manuscripts on display. Six separate areas are laid out with more than 150 richly decorated manuscripts owned in most part by English monarchs in carefully lit display cases, complimented by computerised imagery, floor to ceiling length posters and huge tapestries.
At the heart of the collection are 50 volumes commissioned and collected by the Yorkist King Edward IV during a time when England was ravaged with unpredictability and strife - the period we now know as The War of the Roses. The manuscripts collected by Edward are huge, with single plate illuminations which leap off the page as if they are freshly painted and gilded. Bright reds and blues mingle in the margins along with delicate greens and pinks, earthy browns and yellows and all are made even more glorious by the careful addition of gold leaf, which decorates the title letters and provides a border to the illustrations.
They are magnificent and designed to impress. Huge books which also shed a light into the minds and lives of the people who commissioned them. For Edward IV they were all about creating an impression not only of wealth but of education and learning, a discerning taste and a display of the most up to date fashions. Edward's manuscripts are Flemish, created in Bruges (now in modern day Belgium) by the best craftsman of the day, working in one of the most important centres for arts in Medieval Europe. His books were intended to be admired but also to be used, to be read aloud to entertain the court and to educate them.
He succeeded, according to well-travelled Bohemian visitor to England, Gabriel Tetzel, Edward IV had, by February 1466, "the most splendid court ... in all Christendom."
The books selected for the exhibition reflect Edward's focus in collecting instructional or historical texts. The ancient history of both England and France appear in glorious techno-colour, looking as if the artist has simply walked away to perhaps get a new quill, alongside works which provide instruction on chivalry and warfare.
Part two of the exhibition is perhaps the most awe-inspiring, containing bound manuscripts now more than a thousand years old. The earliest work in the exhibition is also one of the smallest, an insular Gospel book dating from the first half of the 8th century once owned by Charles II. Believed to have been created at Lindisfarne, it also contains an inscription in Old English which commemorates King Athelstan. Written in 925 it is the earliest surviving English manumission (freeing of a slave). It reads: "‘King Athelstan freed Eadhelm straight away, as soon as he became king."
It uses the same Latin text as that of the Lindisfarne Gospels but was made for regular use not occasional display and so the illuminations themselves aren't as rich. The ornamentation is limited, a set of line-drawn canon tables, simple decorated initials and a display script which marks the start of each gospel.
Also included in this section of the exhibition are psalters (small prayer books), charters, a compendium on the Anglo-Saxon church dating from the 2nd quarter of the 11th century, a beautifully illustrated Gospel believed to have belonged to King Cnut (Canute). Having seized the throne of England by force, Cnut used various methods, not the least of which was marrying his predecessor's widow, to keep it but also to enforce his position.
Cnut, and his wife Emma (known as Aelfgifu in Old English), also appear in another of the manuscripts in this section of the exhibition. They are seen donating a golden cross for the altar at New Minster, Winchester in a plate in the Liber Vitae (the Book of Life, a list of names of those the monks would commend to God in the daily mass).
What made this section of the exhibition so fascinating was the knowledge that these Gospels and Psalters were used, on a daily basis, by the earliest monarchs of the united English Kingdom pre-Norman Conquest and their courts. This was an England with a capital city at Winchester not London, a world in which the Word of God was law and the church was as powerful as the monarch. It was humbling to see the well thumbed pages and realise they were used to seek counsel from as well as inspiration.
The remaining four parts of the exhibition focused on Royal Identities, How to Be a King, The World's Knowledge and The European Monarchy. Among the texts on display included a five metre long genealogy commissioned by William the Conqueror to demonstrate he had a right to the English throne through matrilineal descent as well as histories of England showing kings descending back to the legendary King Arthur.
Perhaps the most poignant exhibit was the Alphonso Psalter. This beautifully illuminated miniature book was commissioned in 1284 to celebrate the betrothal of the young Earl of Chester, at that time the eldest surviving son of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor.
The opening page contains Alphonso's coat of arms, alongside that of his bride-to-be, Margaret, daughter of Floris V, Count of Holland. Sadly he died, aged 10, only three months before the wedding was due to take place and before the Psalter could be finished. It bares witness to his untimely death, the Psalms, Canticles and Litany had been scribed but the original artist had only illuminated the book up to folio 18, where he stopped working. A second artist took over and added decorated initials on the next seven leaves, but the Psalter itself was not finished for another decade when the young Margaret's brother John I married Aphonso's sister Elizabeth and the two coats of arms were no longer obsolete.
That this book had stayed within the royal household until a chance to complete it came 10 years later through the marriage of another of Edward and Eleanor's children was both disturbing and yet somehow humbling. It was disturbing to think that dynastic manipulation provided another reason for the Psalter to become relevant but also humbling to think the book had been lovingly kept as a memorial to lost child. Edward and Eleanor's marriage was a love one, it's nice to think that they also had loving relationships with their children (of which they had 16, although most were girls and died in infancy). On Eleanor's death, her heart was buried alongside that of Alphonso's at the now destroyed Dominican Friary at Blackfriars in London.
The exhibition runs until March 13 daily at The British Library, Euston Road, London. Tickets cost between £3.50 and £9 depending on qualifications. The exhibition is open from 10am daily. For more details visit the British Library website.