bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and Magna Carta

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 January, 2021

As this evening I will be giving a lecture to the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, and the organisation has kindly agreed to my request that it should be a free event, it seems only fitting that I should share a nugget of unpublished research with you.

The title of my talk is ‘St Albans, Oxford and the fate of the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’. This will be, in fact, the second time in just over two years that I have spoken to a St Albans audience. The previous occasion was memorable for taking place in the city’s cathedral, the former abbey; my lectern was close to where the duke’s impressive chantry still stands. This time, there can, of course, not be any trip to Hertfordshire; all will take place thanks to the magic of Zoom. It is also made possible by the riches of manuscript material which is now online, and it is about one such volume that I have something to reveal.

Frequent visitors to this site might realise that I have a long-term project to reconstruct the history of the library of that most ostentatious of fifteenth-century English collectors, the royal prince, Humfrey. This is long-term not in the sense that a funding body might imagine, taking three or so years; this is one which is being undertaken (on and off) over decades. It might prove a life-time’s work, if my life is long enough. As readers of this site will know, I make no apologies for offending the gods of REF: I am a devotee of slow scholarship.

This, yes, is a long-winded manner of saying that what I am about to discuss involves research from the BC era — that is Before Covid-19. I have returned to it in these winter days thanks to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. It involves one small piece of information which needs to be placed into a wider context, and that will be provided by my eventual study of the duke’s library. For today, I want to concentrate on that single detail.

Humfrey’s connexions with the abbey of St Albans are well-known; he is often talked of as a friend and intellectual soul-mate of its long-term abbot, John Whethamstede. The latter, we know, gave manuscripts of his writings to the duke — it is symptomatic of the losses that have occurred from the duke’s book-collection that none of those survives. Indeed, the only manuscript that care now bear witness to the association between the insitutional library of St Albans and the private one gathered by Humfrey is a famous volume of part of the history of Matthew Paris. It was written by the author himself, was kept at the abbey and is now in the British Library, as MS. Royal 14.C.VII. In between, it was for a few years, owned by the duke of Gloucester.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 9

Quite how Humfrey came to possess it is not apparent; the assumption that he was given it by Whethamstede is understandable but unproven. What precisely happened to it after it left his hands is another interesting and shady story, which I will touch upon in my talk this evening. What I want to mention now is what happened to the book while it was (presumably) at his palace of Greenwich.

One of the issues around the duke’s book-collecting is the issue of his personal involvement with the volumes he owned. On the one hand, those who sought his patronage expressed their astonishment at how learned he is — but they say that before they met him (if they ever did) and they would say that, wouldn’t they? On the other, he was willing to give away over three hundred of his manuscripts during his lifetime, to the University of Oxford — was he bored of them? The situation, of course, is more subtle and, indeed, of wider significance: we need to places what habit around him in the wider context of the practices and purposes of courtly reading. It was much more often a group activity than a solitary one; it could also be a delegated habit, with prince expecting others to do it for him. I have, however, over the course of my research, come across some cases where Humfrey himself does write in the margins of his books — not simply his ownership notes, which are well-attested, but notes engaging with the text. This manuscript gives a notable example of this.

Humfrey annotates the volume on a few occasions, and far less regularly than some other readers, like Polydore Vergil in the next century. One instance, however, is of particular interest. It occurs next to Matthew Paris’s discussion of Magna Carta.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 155v with annotation by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester

Humfrey paused at this point and picked up his pen. He wrote ‘nota bene’ (his most frequent intervention in the books he read) but then goes on: ‘nota de Illis qui faciunt contra magnam cartam anglie quomodo incurrunt sentenciam excommunicacionis’. That is, ‘note about those who act against England’s Magna Carta how they incur the punishment of excommunication’. Here we have a royal duke, a descendant of Kings John and Henry III, noting the importance of obedience to Magna Carta.

We might like to see in this some sign of a ‘constitutionalist’ mindset on the part of Humfrey. We might also want to claim that the fact this is one of the rare occasions on which he felt compelled to write demonstrates how important this was to him. Or we might wonder what propelled him to write and for whom he was writing. The sense I often get when seeing his interventions in his books is that he sees himself being seen: this prince whose life could hardly ever be private was expecting an audience even to these acts we would imagine as moments of inward reflection. What I sense and what I will talk about at length another day is that, for Humfrey, the page was his stage. There is a theatre to annotations.


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