‘Royal Correspondence in 14th-century England’: Louise Gardiner on the Royal Letter Book

The Centre for the History of the Book recently began its afternoon seminar series for the term. The first of these presentations was done by the Centre for Research Collections Honorary Research Fellow Louise Gardiner, MSc, who presented this past Friday on a “royal letter book” manuscript from the reign of Richard II (1377-1399). Louise’s seminar was illuminating both to the history of the manuscript and royal administrative duties of the fourteenth century. However, she made clear that this is work in progress, as the manuscript itself is a bit of a mystery.

The Royal Letter Book (EUL MS 183) has been held in the University of Edinburgh’s Library since the early twentieth century, when it was acquired by the university as a part of the David Laing collection. Previously, it was bound together with another manuscript (also in the Edinburgh University collection, EUL MS 182) and owned by Thomas Nichols in the early nineteenth century until his death, then by Arthur Taylor briefly until David Laing acquired it. The two manuscripts were split and rebound for the university by WHSmith.  The provenance of the manuscript prior to Thomas Nichols (give or take 400 years) has yet to be discovered. We can only know that in the fourteenth century it most likely belonged to a royal scribe named Roger Fry.

It is important to note that this letter book contains contemporary copies of the letters sent and received during the reign of Richard II, not the actual letters. Additionally, the copied letters are out of chronological order (according to those letters that can be dated). Both of these facts add to the mystery of EUL MS 183. Why have these letters been copied in the first place? Who commissioned this project? What is the significance of these letters? Who read this book? Where did it go for 400 years?

To further understand the manuscript and the mysteries it presents, Louise turned first to the historical context of the manuscript, then to its physical attributes, the contents of the letters, and finally its potential authorship.

The royal letter book was copied between 1390 and 1410 and contains letters that center around the reign of Richard II, but it also includes letters relating to his predecessor Edward III and his successor Henry IV. During these kings’ reigns, they faced such political and social upheavals such as the Peasant’s Revolt, the 100 Years War, the Black Death as well as many other historical events that impacted the world at large, and consequently the contents of correspondence.

However, Louise has identified the 370+ letters copied in the Royal Letter Book as written in either French, the language of the English Court during the fourteenth century, or Latin, the language of the learned and the Church. The writing is well preserved and all of the letters are written in the gothic style on low-quality vellum sheets, with stretch marks clearly visible on many of the pages. The book itself is roughly A4 paper size and contains 128 folios, made up of 17 quires. As Louise noted, 17 quires is an irregular number of such to have, but is not unheard of. This perhaps further denotes the haphazard way this collection was copied and assembled.

Louise has distinguished many different hands of scribes who copied these letters, but one scribe has emerged as the dominant hand of the book, now identified as Roger Fry. Fry was a royal scribe who worked in both the Signet and Privy Seal office of the crown, the two primary royal writing offices. The letters contained in the book support this, as their contents indicate they would have belonged to both offices. (The Signet office was used as the King’s personal writing office, while the Privy Seal office focusing mainly on diplomatic affairs.) Fry also “signed” his name to the book with a distinctive “F”, which can also be found in a letter to his mother during the same period, thus identifying him as the primary hand in the royal letter book and as a proud son.

The letters contained within the book are relevant to both domestic and international affairs and, with the exception of a scattering of marriages and ransoms, are fairly dry administrative correspondence. (At least those Louise has examined. Again, there are over 370 of them.) Many of them are letters of introduction, references to trade issues, or addressed to Rome. Interestingly, ship confiscation features prominently. However, though the topics of the letters may not excite, the subtleties of correspondence decorum do.

One memorable example Louise mentioned was a letter from King Edward III of England to the newly crowned King Philip VI of France. King Edward addresses the new king in his letter simply as “Philip de Valois”, purposefully omitting any titles, and thus insulting Philip. Edward denied King Philip these courtesies because he believed he held the greater claim to the French throne.

Additionally, multiple letters contained in the book are “imaginary letters” from legendary lords and ladies of courts long past. These letters, Louise explained, often provided the romantic setting for an upcoming tournament and were used as literary exercises. Here, Louise notes, another mystery of the letter book emerges: why are these imaginary letters included in this book at all?

As Louise’s work continues, she hopes to answer many of the questions surrounding the Royal Letter Book, but her main purpose is to provide a calendar for EUL MS 183 so that other scholars may continue her work. In the meantime, we can rely on the answers she has already provided to put forth our own theories on this mysterious manuscript.

Report by Katherine Holderith, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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