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)
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…

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