De regimine principum and the education of the Northern Earls: A Richard III manuscript

Provenance is a tool by which to establish both the general history of a written work and the individual history of a specific volume; where visible, it may illustrate aspects of a text’s reception over the centuries, or reveal the changing fortunes of an institution or a family through the dissolution of large collections or the use of individual books as portable currency. Volumes that have been owned by figures of political or military importance may also offer thrilling historical insights. Provenance can be traced in several ways: by names written or bookplates pasted into the volume, by coats of arms on pages or bindings, by itemised booklists, and by records of sales or gifts. These factors allow us to chart the trajectory of a single book, but may also afford us glimpses into the personal lives of its owners.

Items at Lambeth Palace from the foundation collections of Archbishops Bancroft and Abbot often bear the names or arms of multiple fifteenth- or sixteenth-century owners, some linked by politics or patronage, others by blood. According to a now-lost inscription, MS 474, a Book of Hours, belonged for a time to Lady Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509), mother of Henry VII. How it came into her possession is not known precisely, although it is believed that it was found by her third husband Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, in the tent of its previous owner, Richard III, after the Battle of Bosworth. While the book was not commissioned by or for Richard, this ownership is clearly marked: at some point between 1483 and 1485, Richard’s birthday was written into a calendar on fol. 7v by the king himself.

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IMAGE 1: Attributed arms of King Arthur, fol. 84v.

Another of Richard’s manuscripts, from the Sion College collection now housed at Lambeth Palace, reveals the connections between several of England’s most influential families during the Wars of the Roses. Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum was remarkably popular for a text of its genre – concerning the education of aristocratic boys – and survives in over fifty manuscripts with an English provenance. Some of the leading grandees of late medieval England, including Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (d. 1447), John Talbot, first Earl of Shrewsbury (d. 1453), and Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York (d. 1500), commissioned or owned copies. Sion College MS L40.2/L26 contains an inscription, now only visible under infrared light, declaring it the ‘Liber illustrissimus Principis Ducis Gloucestr.’ [the most noble book of the prince, the Duke of Gloucester], thus indicating that it came into Richard’s possession before the summer of 1483. The creation of the manuscript has been dated to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, before Richard’s birth, and although it contains several royal coats of arms – most notably, the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor impaled with the arms of Richard II on fol. 1r and the attributed arms of King Arthur on fol. 84v – there is nothing to indicate that this book ‘on the guidance of princes’ was indeed created for a prince. Rather, it appears to have been commissioned by a member of the Percy family, most probably Henry, second Earl of Northumberland (d. 1455).

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IMAGE 2: Arms of Richard II impaling the attributed arms of Edward the Confessor, fol. 1r.

The Percy family was one of the major landholders in the north of England in the later Middle Ages, although many of their estates had been forfeited to the crown in the aftermath of risings against the King in 1403-5, depicted by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1. While the second Earl is known to have given a manuscript of Giles of Rome’s work, now in the Bodleian Library, to his confessor William of Norham in 1419, the intended recipient of the Sion College copy is unclear. The manuscript contains coats of arms associated with northern England, including those of Durham, York and Beverley, where several members of the Percy family are buried, as well as arms possibly meant to signify towns in Cumberland and Westmorland. The distribution of arms in the manuscript gives few indications of the status or relative importance of the people whose arms are depicted, and where one might expect the commissioner/owner’s arms to be displayed prominently at the beginning of the text, here Northumberland’s personal arms appear only on fol. 51v. The arms on fol. 1r instead emphasise the royal associations of Giles of Rome’s title, with the combined arms of Richard II and Edward the Confessor, and the Royal Arms of Henry III, which had become the emblem of the House of Lancaster.

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IMAGE 3: Arms of Percy impaled by Neville, fol. 51v.

The political and dynastic complexities of northern England in the period are also well-represented in the manuscript: on fol. 51v the Percy arms are impaled with those of their great northern rivals, the Nevilles, reflecting Northumberland’s marriage to Eleanor, daughter of Ralph Neville, first Earl of Westmorland. The marriage of Eleanor’s sister Cecily to Richard, Duke of York (d. 1460), may have occasioned the inclusion of his arms on fol. 42r, incorporating an inescutcheon of the Mortimer Earls of March, incidentally the family of Northumberland’s mother. The Neville family was devoted to the House of York in the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, until Westmorland’s grandson Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, defected to the Lancastrian cause and brought about Henry VI’s brief restoration to the throne in 1470; both of Warwick’s daughters married Yorkist princes. Other members of the Neville family had strong associations with offices and locations whose arms are depicted in the manuscript: the family boasted two Archbishops of York – Alexander Neville (d. 1392), uncle to the first Earl, and Westmorland’s grandson George Neville (d. 1476) – while Westmorland’s son Robert Neville (d. 1457) served as Bishop of Durham from 1438 to his death. A member of the House of Neville or York could well have commissioned the manuscript’s decorations, were it not for the prominent display of the Lancastrian arms.

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IMAGE 4: Arms of Richard, Duke of York, inescutcheon of Mortimer, fol. 42r

The Percys’ loyalty to the Lancastrian cause defined their fortunes in the Wars of the Roses: several members of the family died fighting for Henry VI, including the second and third Earls, who fell at St Albans and Towton respectively, while Edward IV deprived the fourth Earl (d. 1489) of his title and lands, bestowing them on John Neville, another of Westmorland’s grandsons. After the restoration of his inheritance the fourth Earl gave his nominal support to both Edward and his brother Richard and was allied to the King at the Battle of Bosworth, where his decision not to engage his troops in fighting contributed to Richard’s defeat. Whether this was motivated by an assessment of the battle’s likely outcome or by a latent enmity towards the House of York cannot be known. Likewise, how Richard came to own this book is uncertain: it may have been a direct gift from one of his Percy relatives, perhaps his aunt Eleanor, Countess of Northumberland (d. 1472), or one of her descendants; it may have been given by the fourth Earl, or a member of his household, to ingratiate himself with his cousin-once-removed during his period of disgrace; it may even have been confiscated from the fourth Earl by Edward IV and given to the king’s brother. Such were the many connections between the Houses of York and Percy.

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IMAGE 5: Attributed arms of St John of Beverley, fol. 6v.

With their dual focus on motifs of kingship and the Percy family’s spheres of influence, the decorations in the Sion College manuscript speak to the concerns of the late medieval magnate: political advancement, strategic marriages and the comprehensive education of heirs. The Percy Earls of Northumberland struggled throughout the fifteenth century to maintain their status, with the alliances represented in the manuscript contributing as much to their periods of disfavour as to their successes. This manuscript depicts the second Earl’s wealth and connections as the embodiment of good governance, but its trajectory offers a more nuanced image of the family’s fortunes. Howsoever Richard acquired it, the manuscript’s decorations attest to the web of familial and political alliances amongst the English nobility, and the aspirations that initiated the Wars of the Roses and led to the downfall of the Yorkist King who owned this book.


Further Reading

Ralph A. Griffiths, ‘Local Rivalries and National Politics: The Percies, the Nevilles and the Duke of Exeter, 1452-1454’ in King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1991), 321-364.

C.F. Briggs, ‘Manuscripts of Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum in England, 1300–1500: A handlist’, Scriptorium Vol. 47, no. 1 (1993), 60-73.

Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books: Ideals and Reality in the Life and Library of a Medieval Prince (Stroud, 1997).

Alexander Rose, Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History (London, 2002).

Richard Palmer and Michelle P. Brown eds., Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London, 2010).