Illuminations: The Private Lives of Kings – Ruling by the Book

New Minster Charter
Edgar the Peaceful from the New Minster Charter

Well, I forced Sir Timothy to sit through a history programme last night and he actually enjoyed it! We sat down and watched the first part of the BBC4 series “Illuminations: The Private Lives of Kings” which was entitled “Ruling by the Book”. In this first part, art historian Dr Janina Ramirez looked at the illuminated manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, which are preserved today in the British Library’s collection of around 2000 royal manuscripts. I made some notes, so here goes…

Dr Ramirez opened the programme by looking at “La grant hystoire Cesar”, a biography of Julius Caesar which was made for King Edward IV in 1479. OK, so this was not an Anglo-Saxon manuscript but it was a good introduction to a programme which looked at illuminated manuscripts as propaganda, as messages of kingship. Ramirez explained that the accounts of Caesar’s military career would have appealed to Edward IV and that the manuscript mirrored the turmoil and turbulent times of Edward’s reign. Ramirez pointed out that in the illustration depicting Caesar’s birth – see – the attendants are actually wearing 15th century costume, so the illustration educates us about that time. Also, Edward IV was shown as being linked to the famous Caesar by roses going from Edward’s arms at the bottom of the page to the illustration of baby Caesar. She also mentioned how the bowl of blood on the table was speckled with gold to show royalty and power.

This set the scene for illuminated manuscripts as messages and Ramirez moved on to looking at the earliest English manuscript which dates back to the first half of the 8th century. This illuminated manuscript, containing the four gospels written in Latin, was inscribed to King Athelstan who was crowned King in 925. Ramirez pointed out that the earliest surviving portrait of an English king (apart from those on coins) was actually one of King Athelstan in an illuminated manuscript, where he was depicted with St Cuthbert. She also pointed out that the style of the illustrations in Athelstan’s manuscripts were European and were probably from the Low Countries, showing that Athelstan’s reach went further than England.

Ramirex then moved on to Edgar the Peaceful who ruled from 959. She looked at the royal charter which emphasised his power and how that power came from the Church. It was written in gold on vellum and was created by the monks of the new minster at Winchester. Its flattering portrait of the King showed him holding a book, a sign of royal power just like the crown, and this showed the connection between the monarch and the giving of manuscipts. She turned the pages to show Edgar’s name on one page and that of Christ on the next, on facing pages: Edgar the King and Christ the King.

Ramirez spoke of Winchester being the capital at this time and also being one of the centres of the Church, and the place where scribes made illuminated manuscripts. In Edgar’s reign, there was a close relationship between the Church and the State, and Edgar had actually had a bishop as his royal tutor. However, he did turn out to be a bit of a womaniser and was even said to have tried to seduce a nun! This side of him was obviously not shown in manuscripts, which were used as propaganda. One particular manuscript showed Edgar actually bound (with ropes of fabric) to the clergy, showing that he was the Vicar of Christ, Christ’s representative on Earth, and that kingship was like a clerical office.

Then she moved on to Cnut the Dane who ruled England from 1016. Ramirez showed The Liber Vitae (Book of Life) – see – which was a list of Anglo-Saxon names written by the monks of Winchester. The list was of those who were members of the minster and those who were to be prayed for. Those names were said to be those who would go to Heaven and Cnut’s name was added to it. Ramirez showed various illustrations of Cnut from the book. In one, he was depicted drawing a sword, showing that he took the throne by force, but then the illustrations also emphasised the legitimacy of his claim in their similarity to earlier depictions of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It was unusual for women to be depicted in manuscripts, yet Cnut’s Anglo-Saxon wife (Queen Emma or Ælfgifu) was depicted and monks were also shown supporting his kingship. The beautiful gold cross in the manuscript, Ramirez said, acted as a portal between Earth and Heaven. Ramirez also commented on how the altar would have had the books of Edgar and Cnut side by side, which also would have emphasised Cnut’s legitimacy as Edgar’s rightful successor.

Ramirez then looked at vellum, the material the monks actually used to write on and which is still being made and used today. She visited vellum makers in Buckinghamshire who used calf, goat and sheep skin to make vellum, although they soaked it in a lime bath rather than urine. Apparently, monks would soak the skins in the Abbot’s urine as his urine was supposed to be the best because he had the best diet! The hair was then scraped off with a knife and the skin was stretched and had the fat removed. The process still takes weeks. Interestingly, the marriage certificate of Prince William and Kate Middleton was vellum and was made by that company.

Ramirez then looked at the manuscript commissioned by Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, which gave her version of their reign as being one of peace compared to the trouble afterwards caused by wranglings over the succession. Her manuscript emphasised her sons’ legitimacy as rightful heirs to the throne.

Then we came to William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard. Ramirez compared the Bayeux tapestry, which showed English history being ruptured by William’s invasion, and the Genealogical Chronicle – see which was a 5m roll produced to prove the Normans’ place in the English royal family tree and the continuity of the English Kings. She pointed out how Harold, William’s predecessor, was depicted in isolation whereas William was shown as being part of a long line of the Duke of Normandy. Henry I (William’s son) was shown as being linked to the Anglo-Saxon Kings through his wife, Queen Maud.

Ramirex then talked about the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, from St Alban’s Abbey, who was a chronicler during the reign of Henry III. She explained how his manuscripts read like journalism because he could be quite critical of his king at times. He obviously worried later at how critical he had been because he tried hiding bits by sticking bits over them or would write “vacat” (disregard) next to the text!

By the 13th century, the best illuminated manuscripts were being produced in London and Ramirez explained the importance of psalters (books of psalms) in the lives of kings and the education of princes because the Biblical King David, writer of the Psalms, was seen as the model of Kingship. She showed one which was made as a wedding gift for the ten year old Prince Alphonso, son of Edward I, and which featured colourful fantastical images and illustrations of battles which would have appealed to a young boy. Sadly, the marriage never took place because the prince died and the psalter came to a sudden stop. It was later added to when Alphonso’s sister got married to her brother’s fiancé’s brother (complicated!) and the book, which showed the uniting of the English and Dutch arms, could be reused.

Ramirez ended the programme by talking about the Coronation Book which began with the joint coronation of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. In a beautiful image, the King and Queen were shown with enormous crowns and lavish regalia, framed by two archbishops – see This harked back to the coronation of Edward the Confessor, who was crowned by two archbishops, and emphasised the King and Queen’s divinity and power.

If you’re in the UK, you can catch up with the first episode of Illuminations: The Private Lives of Kings – Ruling by the Book in BBC iPlayer, see If you’re in London between now and the 13th March make sure you go to the British Library’s special exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination – see Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination for more information and lots of beautiful images. There is also a book available at that link.

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7 thoughts on “Illuminations: The Private Lives of Kings – Ruling by the Book”
  1. This was a very interesting programme.
    The one thing that puzzled me was what was said about Cnut’s marriage. I always understood that at the time of his conquest, he was already married to an English wife, Aelfgifu, but that this did not stop him from marrying Emma, Aethelred’s widow. Last night’s programme implied that the two women were in fact one.
    Unfortunately, my daughter has borrowed my copy of Millennium (Tom Holland) which best explains this but the info I have says that Aelfgifu was the daughter of the Earl of Northampton.
    Anyway, it’s a minor point which doesn’t really detract from anything which was said about the propaganda value of the books.

    1. Hi Ceri,
      Aaaaggghhh, I can’t find my book on England’s queens and that period is definitely not my expertise but Cnut’s second wife, Emma of Normany and widow of Æthelred, seems to have also been known as Ælfgifu on royal occasions and in manuscripts – so two Ælfgifus! Cnut put aside his first wife Ælfgifu of Northampton after his conquest of England and married the other Ælfgifu, Emma of Normandy. Having read through my notes, Ramirez is talking about Cnut after his conquest so is talking about the second Ælfgifu. Very complicated!!

  2. I also watched this programme last night and enjoyed it.

    To clear up the issue over Canute’s wives; when Etheldred died, Edmund Ironside took the throne. Canute invaded and a treaty was drawn up that Canute had the north of the country and Edmund the south, this devision of the country would remain until the death of one of them at which time the all lands would be united under one king. Shortly after this treaty Edmund died in unknown circumstances and Canute took the throne of all England. As a consilatory measure he repudiated his wife Elgiva and married Emma (widow of Ethelred).

    I hope that explains things.

      1. Thanks Claire and Lindsey,
        That helps clear it up. Maybe “Emma” was too foreign-sounding for the Anglo-Saxons, so Aethelred’s queen had to take an English name. Aelfgifu must have been a popular one!

  3. THanks so much for sharing this info–of course, I didn’t get the program here. Maybe it will come at some point–I love illluminated manuscripts–they are like little jewels of art and are so lovely. I didn’t realize how vellum was made nor did I know the manuscripts were provided for kings–I did know they were valuable and only the upper crust could have them…What a fascinating show–imagine what the monks would think now of the internet!!

    1. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme and was blown away by the beauty of the illuminated manuscripts and to think that some of them were over 1000 years old and yet were in pristine condition! Amazing! Yes, it was very interesting seeing how vellum was made, Janina actually had a go at scraping off the hair with the knife and it came away really easily. When she felt a manuscript later she said that you could kind of feel where the hairs had been. I forgot to say that the Caesar biography cost Edward IV around £100,000 ($155,000) in today’s money!

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