Op-Ed: Ramirez 'illuminates' the world of England's long dead kings

Posted Jan 26, 2012 by Louise Auty
In a series of three programmes, art historian Dr Janina Ramirez examines the illustrated documents held in the British Library's Royal Manuscripts Collection. These stunning works provide an insight into the lives of those who commissioned them.
A Donation of King Cnut and Queen Emma to New Minster The New Minster Liber Vitae
A Donation of King Cnut and Queen Emma to New Minster The New Minster Liber Vitae
British Library
Originally intended only for the eyes of Britain's earliest rulers and their selected courtiers, the near 2000 illuminated manuscripts now held within the British Library in London provide a unique insight into a world which very nearly vanished with the Tudor Reformation.
Beginning with 'La grant hystoire Cesar,' commissioned by King Edward IV in 1479, Dr Janina Ramirez set off to demonstrate how the manuscripts were more than just books. These were documents intended to inspire and intimidate. For Edward, himself a powerful King who had won his throne in combat during the turbulent Wars of the Roses (1455 to 1485), the life of Julius Caesar would have had deep significance and meaning and this was demonstrated within the illustrations of the manuscript.
One, showing Caesar's birth, is clearly intended to represent a 15th Century English court, not that of Rome. In the illustration the viewer is shown all the trappings of state, the huge bed, the rich table linens, the gold objects on the table, a bowl of blood which is itself scattered with the same precious metal, showing it belongs to someone of importance.
However, it is not these things which mark this as of particular interest, it is that his coat of arms appears within the illustration's borders, along with that of his two sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, within a tangle of Yorkist roses which grow up from Edward's arms to the illustration, linking him directly with Caesar.
In choosing to show this illustration first, commissioned directly by Edward for the sum of around 3,000 groats from master craftsmen working in Bruges, in what was then the Duchy of Burgundy, Dr Ramirez set out her stall for the remainder of the programme - these manuscripts were commissioned by kings, they were about kings and they were to be read by kings.
Through her analysis of the images, the text which accompanied them and the original purpose of their commissions, Dr Ramirez argued convincingly that these manuscripts were not only important in their own right, but also because they gave a unique insight into how the monarchy and its use of art within England changed across an 800 year period between the 9th and 16th century.
The power of the manuscripts beyond simply the written word was perfectly demonstrated by Dr Ramirez when she examined the earliest work held in the collection, inscribed for the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelstan (ruled 924 to 934). This Psalter (Book of Psalms) holds what is believed to be the first image of a King of England outside of those found on coinage. In the manuscript, Aethelstan is depicted with St Cuthbert. What sets this illustration apart from the norm, is that the King is presenting St Cuthbert, who was Bishop of both Lindisfarne and Durham, with a book. It demonstrates the importance of manuscripts both to the monarchy and to the church. They were expensive and rare.
The use of manuscripts for propaganda purposes was perfectly illustrated by Dr Ramirez when she examined a legal document created for King Edgar the Peaceful. Edgar's close links with the church were emphasised in this Royal Charter, which depicted the King actually linked to the clergy through the use of ropes and bindings. The power of the throne was, she explained, inextricably linked with that of the church, which was all powerful in early Medieval England.
Dr Ramirez also visited one of the few companies still preparing vellum in the United Kingdom and learnt for herself just how laborious the task was to create parchment. It gave the viewer a far greater appreciation for the work which went into these illuminated manuscripts and the monks who created them.
Another beautiful example of the propaganda manuscript was actually commissioned by a woman, one of the few not created for a King of England. The New Minster Liber Vitae was created at the behest of Emma, widow of King Cnut (Canute) and was intended to show England as a peaceful kingdom while she was married to him, rather than the turmoil of the succession upon his death. The Liber Vitae sought to establish the reign of her son, the future Edward the Confessor, who she had given birth to while married to a previous English King, Aethelred the Unready, rather than Cnut's own offspring.
This illustration actually portrays a real event, the donation of the golden cross itself to the Abbey at Winchester, then the capital of England and seat of the monarchy. The cross, which would be seen by those visiting the Abbey, is shown in the illustration along with the book itself. This would have been displayed on the altar alongside the plate and other religious objects.
Dr Ramirez concluded the first episode with manuscripts which demonstrated the legitimacy of William the Conqueror to hold the English throne with a genealogy stretching five metres in length, the work of Matthew Paris, a monk at St Albans widely regarded as one of the greatest illustrators of manuscripts, and a look at the Liber Regalis (Coronation Book), which began with the joint Coronation of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia brilliantly covered in gold leaf and vivid blue ink.
In the second of the series, Dr Ramirez moves onto the manuscripts in the Royal Collection concerned with examples of kingship and examines how they were gifted to the sons of kings as guides for how to be a better ruler.