A little late to the party but I recently went to see the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library. Many of the manuscripts from the exhibition are also now featuring in a BBC4 series on the private lives of medieval kings, along with our own MS 183, a copy of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert which was commissioned by King Athelstan for Cuthbert’s own community at Chester-le-Street, with its frontispiece portrait of Athelstan presenting the book.
The exhibition is stunning, ranging from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts definitely or reputedly owned by Athelstan to Renaissance jewels from the libraries of Henry VIII and Edward VI. My only criticism would be that the exhibition is just too big. There are six thematic sections, some of them rather broad, including the BL’s current slogan. Although the exhibition is related to the ongoing project to catalogue the illuminated manuscripts of the Old Royal library donated by George II, more than thirty of the 150 manuscripts in the exhibition are taken from other collections in the British Library.
It’s clear that one of the stars of the show is Royal 14 C.VII, better known as the third part of the autograph copy of the Chronica maiora of Matthew Paris, and in particular, its itinerary. Matthew (d. 1259) was a monk of St Albans abbey whose chronicle is renowned not only for his lively descriptions of personalities and events but also for his beautifully detailed and vivid illustrations. Parts 1 and 2 of the Chronica maiora (Creation to 1188 and 1188-1253) are MSS 26 and 16 respectively in the Parker Library and Royal 14 C.vii covers the years 1254-1259. The leaves exhibited in the BL exhibition are not part of the chronicle itself but contain an itinerary bound at the beginning of the manuscript which shows the route a pilgrim should take from London to the Holy Land.
These leaves have been detached from the chronicle and are displayed in the BL exhibition in glass panels so that both sides can be seen.
Another copy of the same itinerary is bound at the beginning of our MS 26 and I was struck by how very similar they are – even down to the friendly camels one finds in the Holy Land!