Once in a lifetime glimpse of Royal Manuscripts as Genius of Illumination dazzles at the British Library

By Jenni Davidson | 11 November 2011
An image showing a Medieval manuscript featuring a King and his servants
King Solomon instructing his son, Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris (1411)© British Library Board
Exhibition: Royal Manuscripts - Genius of Illumination, British Library, London, until March 13 2012

We are used to associating medieval history with grey stone castles and cathedrals, but a look at the manuscripts reminds you of the other side of late medieval and Renaissance courtly life: a love of colour and spectacle and a dramatic story.

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelves, and the Genius of Illumination is a fascinating glance along the bookcases of three centuries of English kings and queens, sumptuously illustrated in primary colours and gold highlights that shows some of the finest work of the period.

The manuscripts are not really one library, but collections of books acquired by successive monarchs and used for different purposes: some for show, some for proof of identity, some for education and others for religious devotions.

Even after printing was available, manuscripts continued to be commissioned by royalty for their prestige.

The exhibition contains more than 150 manuscripts from the Old Royal Library, a collection founded by Edward IV in about 1470 and gifted to the nation in 1757 by George II.

The manuscripts have various European origins – French, Netherlandish, Burgundian, as well as English – and the library contains a spectrum of works, including history, genealogy, music, astrology, maps and bibles.

The first manuscripts in the collection were commissioned by Edward IV. Many of them are from Bruges, which was at that time one of the most important artistic centres in Europe. However, older manuscripts were also collected later.

Each has a different purpose and the exhibition is divided into sections around these themes.

There genealogies demonstrating the family histories of the royal lines were particularly important when it came to proving who had the strongest claim to the throne during the Wars of the Roses.

Mirrors for princes were instructional books for future monarchs on appropriate behaviour. These included lives of saints and classical heroes as models for leadership and instructional books on warfare and chivalry, such as the Roman de la Rose, a medieval poem on courtly love, as well as bestiaries and apocalypses.

Among the most exciting items on display are two fragments from The Cotton Genesis, a highly illustrated Greek text of the book of Genesis from about 500AD.

Matthew Paris's map of the pilgrimage route from England to Jerusalem dating from 1250, showing the roads and sights you would pass on the way, is displayed vertically between sheets of glass so you can see both sides of the sheets, almost as you would hold them up if you were using them as a travel guide.

An atlas belonging to Henry VIII features a surprisingly detailed ethnological study of a tribe on the coast of Brazil.

Histoire ancienne jusqu’ à César, a Neapolitan book dating from about 1330-40, has an amazing page and a half depicting the arrival of the Greeks at Troy with houses, men on horseback and rows of sailing ships.

Henry VIII's Contract is particularly interesting for its surviving binding. It is enclosed in a huge velvet case with gold thread and five enormous seals hanging from it.

Many of the manuscripts belonged to Henry VII and VIII and show something of their personal interests. Henry VI seems to have had a fascination for health, while Henry VIII was surprisingly religious.

The Genius of Illumination is a once in lifetime chance to see an incredible display of manuscripts in one place. It is a unique insight into the heart and intellect of the English royal family in the Middle Ages.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday and public holidays). Admission £3.50-£9 (free for under-18s).

More pictures from the show:

An image of a Medieval illustration showing a King at his throne
The Coronation of Henry III, Images of English Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I, England (circa 1280-1300). Cotton Vitellius© British Library Board
Charles of Orléans in the Tower of London, Charles of Orléans, Poems; with other Texts relating to love and princely instruction, Bruges and London (circa 1483)
Charles of Orléans in the Tower of London, Charles of Orléans, Poems; with other Texts relating to love and princely instruction, Bruges and London (circa 1483)© British Library Board
An image showing a Medieval manuscript with black text and an illustration of holy servants
The peers of France sustaining the King’s crown, Coronation Book of Charles V (Livre du sacre des rois de France) Paris (1365). Cotton Tiberius© British Library Board
An image of a Medieval manuscript showing thick black text and an illustration of a figure
King David and the arms of England, The Alphonso Psalter, London (circa 1284)© British Library Board
An image of a Medieval manuscript illustration showing a Kingly figure against gold symbols
Robert of Anjou enthroned, addressed by a personification of Italy, Carmina regia: Address of the City of Prato to Robert of Anjou, Tuscany (circa 1335)© British Library Board
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