Trinity College Library has lent five manuscripts to the British Library’s major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. In five blog-posts between now and Christmas we will take a closer look at each of these manuscripts, beginning with the ‘Trinity Gospels’, produced in the early eleventh century.
Several grandly illuminated Gospel books survive from Anglo-Saxon England, and the British Library exhibition brings a number of them together under the same roof for the first time in their history. Perhaps the most sumptuous of these is Trinity MS B.10.4, which is the only late Anglo-Saxon Gospel book to preserve full double-page illuminated openings at the start of each of the four Gospels. The title of each of the Gospels is written in large interlocking gold capitals, after which there is a full-page illustration of each of the four evangelists facing a large initial letter for the opening word of each Gospel. Sadly the opening pages of the Gospels of Luke and John have been rather badly affected by damp in the distant past, but the earlier pages are particularly pristine.
This book was prepared with exceptional care to ensure that its appearance would be as fine as possible. The illuminated canon tables (listing congruent passages in the four Gospels) and the opening pages of each Gospel were prepared on much thicker parchment than the remainder of the book, presumably to prevent the risk of the rich colours showing through to the other side of the skin. This gives the book an unusual structure.
The main text of the Gospels is also executed with exceptional care, with several gold initial letters on every page. It is written in a particularly attractive Anglo-Caroline minuscule hand, by a scribe who is known to have worked on several other books, including three other surviving Gospel books. One of these is now in Copenhagen and the other two are both in the British Library: the Kederminster Gospels, on loan from Langley Church (BL Loan 11) and the ‘Cnut Gospels’, Royal MS 1 D x. This scribe shares several characteristics with the finest work of Christ Church, Canterbury from the early eleventh century, especially the work of the famous scribe Eadwig Basan, and this has led some scholars to associate this group of Gospel books with Canterbury too. However, various other possible places of origin have been proposed more recently, including Peterborough and a possible association with Bury St Edmunds.
By the time of the Reformation, the Trinity Gospels was one of the manuscripts that came into the hands of Archbishop Matthew Parker. Parker left most of the manuscripts in his library to his alma mater, Corpus Christi College Cambridge, but some passed to his son, and we may assume that this Gospel book was among those. It later came into the hands of Thomas Nevile (who held two offices concurrently: Dean of Canterbury 1597-1615 and Master of Trinity College 1593-1615) perhaps through his brother Alexander Nevile, who was involved in the same scholarly circles as Matthew and John Parker. The Trinity Gospels was one of 126 medieval manuscripts presented to Trinity College in about 1612 by Thomas Nevile.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library until 19 February 2019.