The Wren Library’s most famous music manuscript has been loaned to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, as part of a major exhibition commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.
The English defeated the French army on the Feast of St Crispin, 25 October 1415, with the help of their superior longbows, firing a hail of arrows so devastating that 6000 French soldiers were killed in a day. The exhibition in Paris places this catastrophic defeat at the start of a period of renewal and development of military capability, which would lead a century later to a French victory over Swiss pikemen at the Battle of Marignan in 1515.
Trinity regularly lends treasures from its collections to exhibitions around the UK and abroad: other loans this year have included the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Treasured Possessions’ show, and displays at Lincoln Cathedral and Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s house in the Lake District. The Carol Roll is exceptionally fragile and valuable, so the Library’s conservator constructed a special box for it to be safely transported. Sub-Librarian Sandy Paul delivered the manuscript to the museum and oversaw its installation.
The Trinity Carol Roll was probably compiled shortly after the victory at Agincourt: its neat English script is characteristic of the early decades of the fifteenth century, and some of the spellings suggest a Norfolk origin. Seven of the thirteen carols written on the roll are for Christmas, the rest for other times of the year. The Agincourt carol consists of a narrative account of Henry V’s victory in English, interspersed with the Latin refrain ‘Deo gracias anglia, redde pro victoria’ (‘England, give thanks to God for victory!’). The carol became widely known after being published in Victorian times, and was used in William Walton’s classic score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.
The roll consists of three parchment membranes sewn together to make a single long scroll. Musical rolls of this format were commonplace in the late Middle Ages, to judge from the numerous depictions of singers holding them, but only a very few have survived: they were inevitably more vulnerable to wear-and-tear than the more permanent format of the bound volume. This roll was presented to Trinity College in 1838 by H. O. Roe, but nothing is known of its earlier history. It made a brief excursion to the Fitzwilliam Museum for an exhibition in 1982, but this is the first time it has travelled abroad.
See the Trinity Carol Roll at the exhibition ‘Chevaliers et Bombardes’, Musée de l’Armée, Les Invalides, Paris until 24 January 2016