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Illuminating nature: Canterbury’s James I charter

Illuminating nature: Canterbury’s James I charter

August 2014 sees the second anniversary of ‘Picture this…’, and to celebrate the occasion Karen Brayshaw and I are delighted to announce the expansion of our original project of a collaboration between Canterbury Cathedral Library and the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent; ‘Picture this…’ will now also include materials from the Cathedral Archives. Already spoiled for choice with a wealth of diverse sources from the Library, we will now also be including charters, records and manuscripts from the archives. Cressida Williams, Cathedral Archivist, begins this interesting new phase of ‘Picture this…’ with an article on a rather glamorous and sumptuously illuminated charter from James I’s reign.

Happy reading and viewing, Jayne Wackett (editor)

Illuminating nature: Canterbury’s James I charter

In the Middle Ages, Canterbury Cathedral was a renowned centre of manuscript production, and the home of a fabulous library. Somewhat ironically, one of the most significant illuminated manuscripts held here now is not medieval. The story of the dispersal of the Cathedral’s library after the Reformation is well known; other institutions now house the great majority of books which survive. By contrast, the Cathedral’s medieval archive, including charters dating back to the 9th century, has been reasonably well preserved here.

Our most visually impressive charter, though, comes not from the Cathedral’s collection, but from the collection of the City of Canterbury. This is the charter issued in 1608 by James I, reincorporating the City (ref CC/AA/56). Written in Latin, the charter confirmed previous grants and liberties, but also granted new privileges, including permission for a sword to be carried before the mayor. The charter is sizeable, being written on three membranes of parchment, measuring some 88cms by 72cms, sealed with the Great Seal. It is significant for its content; it is highly remarkable for its fine illumination.

Canterbury’s James I charter: FrogIlluminated charters of the Stuart period prove a topic in need of further study. Elizabeth Danbury has studied the decoration and illumination of royal charters until the year 1509. She noted the challenges of studying illuminated charters for this period: such charters are dispersed across the country in various record offices, and catalogue entries often do not give details of the illumination. In Tudor Artists, published in 1954, Erna Auerbach examined illuminations on the Plea Rolls of the King’s Bench for the Tudor period, noting in her ‘epilogue’ the Canterbury 1608 charter and also a James I charter of 1612 to Oxford University.

While earlier charters granted to the City were illuminated, the James I charter bears by far the richest illumination. The embellishment of documents developed in the medieval period, often featuring details such as elongated letters in the top line. Previously reserved for religious manuscripts, the arts of the illuminator began to be applied to secular manuscripts and charters, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries. Royal portraits were included in initial letters from the years of Henry VI onwards, and decoration expanded significantly in the Tudor period. The age of Elizabeth I saw further developments, with the emergence of a native school of portraiture. An Order in Council dated 1916 finally ended the practice of any marginal decoration other than the royal arms.

The James I charter cost the City £379 13s 4d, an astonishing sum which is reflected in the quality of the charter received. Each membrane of the charter is decorated at its head and down both sides. The charter begins on the bottom membrane, with a portrait miniature of the King within a capital ‘J’, showing him seated on his throne, holding orb and sceptre, wearing a tall hat rather than a crown. James appears in a similar hat in the portrait by John De Critz, painted in about 1606, and also wears hats in portraits by the famous miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard. James I disliked sitting for his portrait, and few survive; thus, miniaturists had few examples to follow.

Canterbury’s James I charter: BirdOn the first and third membranes are the royal coat of arms and other royal symbols. The second membrane bears the shields of the City of Canterbury, Archbishop Richard Bancroft and the Cathedral, and two further shields. On all three membranes is a delightful decorative scheme of birds, insects and flowers, a celebration of wildlife. We find birds and butterflies, cowslips and foxgloves, cherries and grapes, a frog and a grasshopper. All of this is set against a background of small flowers, gold dots and black stippling. Overall, the illumination is exquisite, and highly accomplished.

So who carried out this remarkable piece of work? Surviving city records do not provide much information about the granting of the charter. Indeed, the Burghmote Book for this period is missing. Records of the royal chancery could assist, but have not yet been sufficiently studied. As for the portrait of the King, Auerbach hints at similarities with the work of Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) and his fellow miniaturist Isaac Oliver (c1565/7-1617), but comes to no conclusions.

Illuminated charters of James I identified in other record offices show a wide range of styles, themes and levels of accomplishment. Many include flowers, foliage and wildlife. A charter at Essex Record Office bears illumination with very strong similarities to that of the Canterbury charter (ref ERO D/DMg F1). This is a single-sheet charter issued by the King granting to Sir William Maynard the Barony of Maynard, dated 1620. The Maynard charter includes a very similar scheme of birds, flowers and wildlife, in a very similar style to the Canterbury charter, dare one say in the same hand. The decoration of the first line is also similar. The portraits in both charters are comparable, although in the Maynard charter the King wears a crown. It is notable that these similarities are with a charter written 12 years later than the Canterbury charter, and issued to an individual rather than a City.

Canterbury’s James I charter Catriona Murray has carried out a detailed assessment of a charter of James I in the British Library, dating from 1610. This charter created James’s son Henry as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Its illumination and its complexity reflect the importance and ceremonial nature of the document. A single-sheet charter, it bears rich illumination along its head and sides, featuring a portrait of the King and his son. Murray suggests that there may have even been four artistic hands at work on the charter: one working on the coats of arms, one on the robes and other aspects of the portraits, one on the faces of the portraits, and perhaps even one on the marginalia. She suggests that the third hand is that of Isaac Oliver. Could the Canterbury charter have similarly involved so many in its production? Are any of the same hands at work in the Canterbury charter? The marginalia are certainly in a different style, yet there are some strong comparisons between the styles of the first line, the initial letter and the King’s portrait. This, however, needs to be examined by a more expert eye.

This article has raised many questions, but answered few. The Canterbury charter of James I is a complex document, and clearly presents fertile ground for research. Even if we cannot yet fully understand the charter, we can take great pleasure in the beautiful depictions of wildflowers and wildlife which it bears, many of which flourish here in the Garden of England.

Cressida Williams, Cathedral Archivist

Further reading

  • Borough Charters: catalogue of an exhibition at the County Hall, Westminster Bridge (British Records Association, 1959)
  • Erna Auerbach, Tudor Artists (London, 1954)
  • [C R Bunce], A translation of the several charters etc granted by Edward IV, Henry VII and James to the citizens of Canterbury (Canterbury, 1791)
  • Elizabeth Danbury, ‘The decoration and illumination of royal charters in England, 1250-1509: an introduction’, in England and her neighbours, 1066-1453: essays in honour of Pierre Chaplais (London, 1989)
  • Catriona Murray, ‘Letters Patent of James I, creating his son Henry, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester’, available at [accessed July 2014]
  • M Weinbaum (ed), British Borough Charters 1307-1660 (Cambridge, 1943)
  • Illuminated charters at King’s College Cambridge: [accessed July 2014]
  • Maynard charter: [accessed July 2014]

In addition, I am most grateful to advice received from Elizabeth Danbury and Avril Leach in the preparation of this article. I would also like to thank all who replied to my email to the archives-nra emailing list asking for information for this article.

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