Magdalen Illuminated! Medieval Charter Decoration in the Magdalen Archives

04 May 2023

In 2022, the Magdalen Archives became the latest UK cultural heritage institution to partner with the University of Bristol and its Centre for Medieval Studies. As part of the partnership scheme, students enrolled in Bristol’s flagship MA Medieval Studies programme are able to take up a bespoke placement at Magdalen, during which they have the opportunity to put theory into practice by working with the college’s internationally significant collection of medieval records. As well as learning key transferable skills, placement students also help shed light on their host institution’s collections, discovering connections and generating new insights of which their custodians might otherwise never become aware.

This year’s inaugural placement student, Annabel Davis, fulfilled the promise of the scheme in spades. Working on two charters among Magdalen’s enormous collection of medieval deeds, she discovered important and hitherto unnoticed links between the decoration on these documents and that found in a celebrated manuscript now in The National Archives at Kew.

Fig. 1 Sele Priory deeds (large box, bottom right) in situ in the Muniment Room

The charters in question were issued by two English kings, Richard II (1377–1399) and Henry IV (1399–1413), for Sele Priory, located in what is now West Sussex. Founded at some point before 1126, the priory was a dependant of the abbey of Saint-Florent-lès-Saumur, not too far from Angers. Appropriated by our founder, William Waynflete (c. 1398–1486), the priory’s lands and administrative documents were eventually transferred to Magdalen’s benefit in 1474.

The Richard II charter is one of whose striking decoration we have long been aware. Housed today in its own bespoke archive box, it is notable not just for its illumination but also its beautifully patterned seal bag. Those lucky enough to visit Magdalen’s muniment room, in which the charter has been kept since the 1480s, will likely have seen me pull the box from its shelf and reveal its contents. This I did for Annabel during her first day with us, when, having discovered that she had a particular interest in medieval illumination, we decided to take a trip up the Muniment Tower to explore some of its treasures.

Fig. 2 Annabel with the charters of Richard II and Henry IV

Suitably impressed, Annabel asked whether there were any similarly decorated charters among Magdalen’s deeds. The question seems a simple one, but giving an answer on the spot is not so straightforward. In the first instance, Magdalen’s collection of medieval charters totals around 13,000, such that getting to know them all individually is nearly impossible. Second, the finding aids we use to navigate the collection are still in a non-digital form (a multi-year project is underway to correct this), meaning they must at present be searched manually.

Standing next to the finding aids themselves, I suggested to Annabel that we perhaps take a couple of volumes off the shelves to try our luck. No sooner had we started leafing through the volume for Sele than Annabel chanced upon the entry for the abovementioned charter of Henry IV, which described its initial letter as ‘very nicely illuminated’.

Unlike its Richard II counterpart, this charter turned out to be housed in one of the wooden boxes (or pyxides) in which the college’s deeds have been kept since the 1480s. It soon became clear, however, that its decoration was just as striking and bore just as many of the same artistic characteristics as its slightly earlier counterpart. It also quickly became apparent that we had the beginnings of a project on our hands, one that would speak both to Annabel’s own interests and take two Magdalen documents in new directions.

Fig. 3 Annabel’s comparison of the Magdalen initials with the Great Cowcher

Quite what these directions would be at that point remained to be seen. But, after weeks of detailed research, Annabel began to explore new and hitherto unnoticed links between our two charters and the illuminated initials found in a near contemporary document, known as the Great Cowcher, which is today housed at The National Archives (DL 42/1 and DL 42/2).

Written in around 1402, just two years or so after Magdalen’s charter of Henry IV for Sele was issued, the Great Cowcher was produced on the king’s orders to provide a comprehensive survey of all the Duchy of Lancaster’s possessions. Today bound in two volumes, it is richly illuminated throughout, and is considered by staff at The National Archives to be second only to Domesday Book in its importance as a survey of English and Welsh landholding and lordship.

Annabel’s research has subsequently shown that, while we cannot claim the artist responsible for illuminating our charters was the same as the one who worked on the Great Cowcher, he was very likely working in the same artistic circles, especially those then developing in London.

Fig. 4 Annabel installing her exhibition

As for publicising her work, Annabel has curated a brilliant exhibition in the Longwall Library showcasing her discovery. Working with our team of conservators, she arranged to have Henry IV’s magnificent charter specially mounted for display, surrounding it with her own beautifully designed information panels to explain the charter’s origins and contextualise its decoration both in relation to the Great Cowcher and other similarly illuminated charters from around medieval England.

If you’re a Magdalen member, please do therefore take the time to swing by the Longwall to bask in some truly beautiful medieval art, and to learn more about how Annabel has used a part of illuminated Magdalen to illuminate our rich and varied history.

Written by Dr Richard Allen, Archivist and Records Manager