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Books Held by Kings

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

an exhibition at the British Library, London, November 11, 2011–March 13, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden, and Kathleen Doyle
London: British Library, 448 pp., $65.00 (distributed by the University of Chicago Press)
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British Library
An angel appearing to the Magi, from The Queen Mary Psalter, circa 1310–1320

A reader climbing the great staircase of the British Library’s modern premises near St. Pancras Station in London is confronted suddenly by that wonderful building’s most wonderful feature. Behind the glass walls of an internal tower six stories high, more than 60,000 sumptuously bound books stretch upward, shelf upon shelf, a cliff-face of leather and gilt lettering gleaming softly through the tinted glass. In that architectural coup de théâtre, a world of learning serves as the visible core of a building created to contain all the learning of the world.

In its day that display, the so-called King’s Collection, made up one of the greatest of Enlightenment libraries, assembled over a lifetime of dedicated book-buying by the bookish King George III. It rests now at St. Pancras because within ten years of the old king’s death in 1820, his books were presented to the nation by his son, King George IV. “Prinny,” as his subjects liked to call him (half affectionately, half contemptuously), was a lavish patron of the visual arts, but not much of a reader. More to the point, perhaps, he was eager to clear the site of the run-down royal residence at the western end of the London Mall where his father’s library was stored, in order to build Buckingham Palace, a lavish setting for his own overblown notions of royal grandeur.

George III had created a great library for himself in part because the monarchy he inherited in 1760 from his grandfather had disposed of all its books just three years earlier. The Old Royal Library had been a magnificent collection of more than two thousand medieval manuscripts and nine thousand printed books. Begun in the 1470s by King Edward IV, though incorporating many older books, it had been expanded over the centuries, not least by an influx of loot from the monastic libraries dissolved during the English Reformation. But the entire collection was signed away to the nation in 1757 by King George II.

His motives are far from clear, but he almost certainly felt no pang at the parting, for he cared nothing about books. “Rex illiteratus est quasi asinus coronatus,” declared the twelfth-century scholar John of Salisbury: “A king without learning is like a donkey with a crown.” If so, George II was to father a long line of donkeys, for, his grandson George III apart, the monarchs of the House of Hanover were more noted for their devotion to horses and the hunting field than to the pursuit or patronage of libraries. Alan Bennett playfully exploited the persisting reputation of royal philistinism in the House of Windsor in his 2007 comic novella The Uncommon Reader. In it, Queen Elizabeth II happens upon a van containing a circulating library, intended for the use of the palace servants, and discovers in herself a compulsive love of reading. There follows a sharp decline in her attention to duty, with disturbing consequences for the constitutional position of the Crown.

Bennett’s fable depended for its humor on the wild improbability of a bookish monarch. But it was not ever thus. For earlier English royal dynasties, as for their European counterparts back into late antiquity, the creation of lavish royal libraries had been one of the pillars of royal reputation and display. The Yorkist King Edward IV, the Tudor Henry VIII, and the Stuart Charles II, as well as the Merry Monarch’s uncle, the young Prince Henry Frederick, who had died while heir apparent to James I in 1612, were all avid book collectors. Between them they assembled the superb collection that George II parted with so lightly in 1757.

Allowing for items mislaid or misappropriated during the many mishaps and migrations of the collection before and after 1757, that collection, the Old Royal Library, remains one of the glories of Britain’s national book collection. Unlike George III’s books, however, on spectacular permanent display in their new tower of glass, no one for centuries has seen the Old Royal Library assembled in a single place. Its two thousand manuscripts have been absorbed into the library’s general holdings, and lie hidden from view in the air-conditioned obscurity of the stacks.

The “Genius of Illumination” exhibition recently put on show 111 of the Old Royal Library’s 1,200 illuminated books, together with thirty-seven complementary manuscripts with royal associations, drawn from other collections. All are illustrated in the exemplary catalog, which also provides three fascinating essays by the editors tracing the history of the royal libraries. Though fewer than a tenth of the royal collection’s illuminated books were included, the show offered a concentration of pictorial glory surviving with an intensity and opulence that exists in almost no other medium. Most medieval art objects—wall paintings, panel paintings, jewelry, or carved statuary—have fallen casualty to time in one way or another. The majority have been lost, and what remains is often dilapidated, faded, incomplete. Medieval paintings and statues were mostly religious, and myriads of images were therefore scraped or hammered or burned into oblivion by zealous Protestant iconoclasts in the sixteenth century. And most of the precious metalwork into which so much medieval craftsmanship and wealth were poured has long since been broken up and melted down for its bullion and gemstone value.

Most medieval manuscripts, too, have perished. But where they survive, they are often in better condition than any other kind of medieval artifact. The splendor of an illuminated manuscript constituted a form of conspicuous consumption valuable only for itself. A book, however costly, is a book: it cannot be melted down for bullion. Pages might be removed for the sake of the individual miniatures they contained, whole volumes might be ripped up or burned as the superstitious rags of popery, texts considered redundant might be carelessly dismembered to wrap cheese, or to do humbler duty still in the privy. In the course of the English Reformation, whole libraries were lost in this way.

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British Library
Robert of Anjou enthroned, addressed by a personification of Italy; from the Carmina regia, circa 1335

But for all that, medieval books endure still in their thousands. The sheep- or calfskin on which they were written is remarkably durable, and a closed book protects bright colors from the bleaching light. So the British Library exhibition was, among other things, a heart-stopping display of some of the most perfect surviving medieval works of art, pictures and text created for monarchs, centuries old, yet as fresh as the day they were completed. Their bright pages, many included in the catalog under review, offered window upon window into the medieval world as it imagined itself, gloriously frozen in vermilion and lapis lazuli and burnished gold.

Not all these royal books, though, were displayed for the splendor of their pictures. The very first item in the exhibition was a worn and rather dowdy early eighth-century Latin gospel book, with few illuminations and no pictures, though it was probably written in the same scriptorium as the more famous and far more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels, the illuminated Latin manuscript now in the British Museum. But the Old Royal Library gospel book is remarkable all the same, for it contains an added note in Anglo-Saxon, recording the manumission of a slave by King Athelstan, immediately on his accession in 925. This moving record of the king’s magnanimity (the earliest such manumission to survive) suggests that the book was being used for services in Athelstan’s own chapel royal at Winchester.

The Lindisfarne book is exceptional in the Old Royal Library because it is a liturgical book, designed for weekly use at Mass. It is not in itself surprising that altar and choir books, however sumptuous, rarely feature in the catalogs of aristocratic or royal libraries, for they were kept where they were needed, in the vestry or the chapel book chest. But in any case, the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century took their toll on these kinds of books in particular. In 1550, Edward VI’s Protestant government decreed the systematic destruction of every medieval liturgical book in England, and in 1551 the Privy Council specifically ordered “the purging of his Highnes Librarie at Westminster of all superstitiouse bookes.”

As a result, the Old Royal Library contains not a single missal, and only eight other liturgical manuscripts of any kind. It is equally thin in medieval books of personal devotion, with only eight books of hours and eighteen illuminated psalters, half of which entered the Royal Library only in the seventeenth century. These absences are truly remarkable, for psalters and books of hours are the most common of all medieval manuscripts, and every other comparable library contains multiple examples of them. The great eighteenth-century library of the Earls of Oxford, for example, whose manuscript collections are similar in scale and opulence to those of the Old Royal Library, and which is also in the British Library, has sixty-one psalters and 103 books of hours.

But the religious upheavals of mid-Tudor England brought gain as well as loss. Two of the psalters that do survive in the collection were presented to Queen Mary I, as part of the restoration of Catholicism after 1553. And one of those two, the so-called Queen Mary Psalter, has a fair claim to be one of the most beautiful books produced anywhere in the whole of the Middle Ages. The work of a single anonymous early-fourteenth-century English master, its 319 leaves contain no fewer than 223 prefatory tinted drawings, recapitulating the Old Testament from the creation of the world to the death of Solomon; twenty-four calendar pages with signs of the zodiac and labors of the months; 104 whole- or half-page miniatures; twenty-three historiated initials (i.e., enlarged and containing a figure or scene); and 464 marginal drawings.

No one knows for whom this sublime and lavish book was made, but in 1553 the manuscript, with its parade of delicate, curly-headed holy figures and its furred and feathered marginal bestiary, belonged to Henry Manners, Earl of Rutland. An ardent Protestant, Manners had made the huge mistake of supporting the Duke of Northumberland’s attempt to prevent Queen Mary’s accession, long after it was clear that this coup had failed. Imprisoned in the Fleet in July 1553, Manners’s goods were forfeit: his psalter, that miraculous and exquisite survivor of the Edwardine holocaust of “superstitious books,” entered the comparative safety of the royal collection.

As that suggests, English monarchs might acquire books by many means—by gift, by marriage, by spoil of war, and by confiscation. But some of them at least set out to buy them. In this they were self-consciously following the pattern set by fabled European royal book-collectors like Alfonso the Wise of Castile or Robert the Wise of Anjou, king of Naples. Looted and dispersed in the 1340s, much of Robert’s magnificent library found its way to the royal library of France, and from there a few of his books, including a lavishly illustrated history of Troy, even found their way to England: two of them were on display at the British Library.

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