There are some things as a historian that you read about, quote, see in pictures or on documentaries and feel in total awe at the thought of them. Today I saw one of those special treasures. This object I have seen on TV, heard David Starkey animatedly write and talk about, quoted and imagined and today through glass, in a dimly lit exhibition space at the British Library, quite unexpectedly I came face to face with this amazing and beautiful object.
The treasure is not the most glamorous book in the room in fact its small with no elaborate fine decorated boarders or large capitals. It is amazing because it is a translation of religious text in several languages written by a 12 year old girl who not only wrote but translated the religious text herself. The girl is called Elizabeth Tudor, a princess and later a Queen, who translated works by her 4th stepmother, Katherine Parr, for her father, Henry VIII, King of England and religious reformer. Tudor tradition was to give gifts at New Year rather than at Christmas and this was given on 31st December 1545. Not only had the 12 year old princess translated the religious text into several languages in beautiful handwriting the young princess also embroidered the cover of the small book which had Katherine and Henry’s initials interwoven.
This treasure was amongst 150 other illustrated manuscripts being displayed at the British Library in their new exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. On show were books and manuscripts showing some of the only art from the 10th century onwards. Although many were biblical histories and gospels there were also examples of Arthurian grail stories, medieval histories of Jews and Rome and even royal family trees. Many of the examples depicted the kings and queens who commission the works or at the very lease depicted an image of their there coats of arms.
The skill of the artist varied from piece to piece but considering the age of many of these objects the colour and condition were breath taking. My favourite exhibits were the brightly coloured highly gilded (slightly gaudy and bling bling) manuscripts; the strange depictions of animals some more accurate than others and the touching depictions of every day life from the medieval lives knights fighting to a naves cutting crops.
If you can not get to the British Library while the exhibition is on (closes 13th March 2012) you can glimpse this amazing collection of manuscripts in a great new BBC4 series called Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings presented by Dr Janina Ramirez.
Today I came face to face with a treasure I had only imagined, I was centimetres away from a book written held by Elizabeth I and treasured read and maybe used by Henry VIII – history became real and I was as close I could be to the history of my mind; the people I have studied loved and written about – today was a good day.