Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Adventures of the Queen’s Book

By Patricia Bracewell

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a Latin manuscript that scholars have dated to A.D. 1041-1042. It was written by a Flemish monk and dedicated to the Dowager Queen of England, Emma of Normandy. The author (Encomiast) addressed Queen Emma in his Prologue, stating that the book had been written at her behest, and that it was a “record of deeds…which touch upon the honour of you and your connections.” These ‘deeds’ were reported as Emma wanted them reported, and there were some intriguing omissions; for instance, any mention of Emma’s first husband, King Æthelred, something that has been the cause of speculation among scholars for centuries. (Was the marriage unhappy? Did she despise the king, despise her children? Was any mention of an Anglo-Saxon king in those years of Danish rule unwise?) But even aside from its content and its use of what we today call political spin, the book’s thousand year journey from the 11th century to the 21st  is an interesting tale.

Encomium Emmae Reginae
This manuscript, probably a COPY of the original book that was delivered to the Queen, has a drawing of a monk placing a book into Emma’s hands while her sons Harthacanute and Edward, both of whom are mentioned on the book’s final page, watch from the wings. The original book – the one that Emma is holding in the drawing – has been lost. This copy of it, though, has survived for more than ten centuries.

In the 15th century it was listed among the treasures of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. Had it been there for 300 years, a gift from Emma herself? Certainly she had presented many other treasures to St. Augustine’s, but if this was one of them, no record of the gift has been found.

Ruins of St. Augustine's, Canterbury

Although the manuscript survived the dissolution of St. Augustine’s, its whereabouts for the next 250 years are uncertain. In 1566 a member of the College of Antiquaries, Thomas Talbot, made a copy of it, but there is no indication of where he did it. Talbot’s transcript became part of the library of Sir Robert Cotton, and while there it was copied at least twice. One copy was sent to France in 1618, where it was printed in 1619. The second copy was made by the Welsh antiquary Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in about 1624. It is now in the National Library of Wales.

Talbot’s own hand-written transcript disappeared, perhaps a victim of the fire that ravaged the Cottonian Library in 1731, destroying many ancient manuscripts (as well as singeing the sole surviving 11th century copy of Beowulf).

When next we hear of the 11th century Encomium the year is 1819 and Emma’s book has found its way from Canterbury to the library of the 10th Duke of Hamilton in Scotland. In 1882 it was acquired by the Royal Library of Berlin, so it went overseas. In 1887 it was purchased by the British Museum, and today it resides in the British Library in London.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley
But there’s a twist to this story, and to understand it we have to go back to the 16th century when William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, came into the tale. Lord Burghley owned a manuscript that was an abridged version of the Encomium. It still exists. It is written in a 16th century hand on 16th century vellum, and it is clearly not abridged from the 11th century Canterbury manuscript. We know this because at the end of the Burghley document there is a brief mention of the accession of Edward the Confessor to the throne of England – an event that took place in 1043 and of which there is no mention in the Canterbury Encomium.

Scholars hypothesized that there must have been a revised version of the Encomium written in 1043 after Edward became king, and that Lord Burghley’s abridged version was based on that. (And at this point I cannot help conjecturing that Elizabeth I, a Latin scholar and a Queen who relied on Lord Burghley for counsel throughout her reign, might have read this abridged version of the Encomium. There is absolutely no proof for this, and historians would probably be appalled at my suggestion, but still…)

In 1687 the Burghley manuscript (abridged) was sold to the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, where it now resides. But scholars were so convinced that there must have been a revised, complete version of the Encomium written in 1043 that they began referring to it as the Edwardian Recension, even though they couldn’t prove it really existed.

The Encomium's hiding place: Powderham Castle. 
And then, in 2008, a 14th century manuscript of the Encomium appeared at auction at Sotheby’s. (Out of nowhere!!! Well, out of the library of the Earl of Devon, but where had it been hiding for 600 years???) The text was nearly identical to the 11th century Canterbury Encomium, with one significant difference: the ending. After describing the bond of motherly and brotherly love between Emma and her sons, the Encomiast writes of the death of King Harthacanute and the sorrow of his people at this loss. But God, the Encomiast insists, had provided the English a legitimate heir – Edward, son of Æthelred.

So now we have a 14th century copy of a document that must have been written shortly after the death of King Harthacanute – the Edwardian Recension that scholars had been looking for. It appears that in 1043 the Encomiast – and presumably Emma – found it expedient to revive her “connection” to Æthelred when Emma’s son by Æthelred took the throne. This 14th century Encomium now resides in Copenhagen.

In an era when it sometimes feels as if printed books (never mind handwriting!) seem to be going the way of the dinosaur, how astounding that ancient documents are still being unearthed, and that a six-hundred-year-old manuscript can enrich our understanding of events that occurred a thousand years ago.

Emma with sons Edward & Alfred

Campbell, A., ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae, Camden Classic Reprints 4, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Keynes, Simon and Love, Rosalind, “Earl Godwine’s Ship”, Anglo-Saxon England 38 (2009), pp. 185-223.

Patricia Bracewell’s novel, Shadow on the Crown, is the first book of a trilogy about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy. The book is available in the United States, Canada, Britain and the Commonwealth; it is available as well as an e-book and an audiobook. For more information, please visit her website and look for her on Facebook at PatriciaBracewell/Author.

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