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English kings, queens and ladies of the late 15th century and their books….

On a whim, I acquired a copy of The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, edited by Marion Glasscoe. It concerns the papers that were the proceedings of the Exeter Symposium IV: Dartington 1987. And the first of these papers concerns The Mystics and the Early English Printers, and is by George R. Keiser.

I confess this is not my usual territory, but I found it all very interesting. The objective of this particular paper is to argue about points regarding Wynkyn de Worde’s significance in printing in England. Wynkyn was a Dutch emigrant who first worked with Caxton, but in 1500 set up on his own to approach printing from his own perspective. Caxton was apparently not much inclined to print in English, but Wynkyn de Worde did just that.

That is not my interest here, because my Ricardian leanings take me down a side road. By that I mean, a little delve into the literacy, or lack of it, of the royals of the late 15th century.

Edward IV - Caxton

edward_iv_signature

Caxton had done well under the Yorkist kings. There is a famous Victorian painting of Edward IV and his family visiting Caxton’s printing press, and according to Weiser, it is generally accepted that the kings who preceded Henry VII were well educated and prepared for their royal role. According to me, this is especially true of Richard III, Edward’s youngest brother, who was particularly literate.

Richard's Books

Strangely, he doesn’t get a mention. I know he only reigned for two years, but that is no excuse for eliminating him, so I will rectify the omission by directing you to http://www.richardiii.net/2_1_0_richardiii.php where the section on his books reveals him to have been unusually steeped in literature. So, far from having little to do with printing, he was quite clearly very interested and involved. And he possessed a copy of the Bible in the English language.

Flourishing under the Yorkists meant life was not so easy after Bosworth, of course, and both Caxton and Wynkyn rather cannily approached Margaret Beaufort, who, whatever we may think of her, was a very literate woman. Wynkyn eventually styled himself “Prynter vnto the moost excellent Pryncesse my lady the Kynges mother”. She and Elizabeth of York were often approached together, and appear to have commissioned a number of book editions to give to their friends. It is not so well known how literate Elizabeth of York was, but there is, apparently, a surviving print book that contains the signatures of both ladies.

That the printers approached the ladies rather than King Henry VII might be explained by the following passage from Keiser’s paper: “…The new king had apparently come to the throne without the education and training that his predecessors had enjoyed (Chrimes Henry VII). Whether he had the literary, chivalric and devotional interests that might have inspired his patronage of the press remains an unanswered question; so too does the question why the new dynasty did not seize the opportunity to exploit the press for propaganda purposes…”

Huh??? Henry missed a chance for more propaganda? Hard to believe.

But I must be fair to Henry regarding his literacy. He spoke a number of languages, and was a highly intelligent man! Mind you, I must say that it is easier to speak a language than to write it. Even so, I have always regarded him as well educated, if not exactly well prepared to be king.

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, (mother of Edward IV and Richard III, and grandmother of Elizabeth of York, and Henry’s grandmother-in-law) was particularly distinguished for her pious life and collection of devotional writings which she bequeathed to various granddaughters.

So the royal ladies of the late 15th century were educated and literate, a fact that is often overlooked. The men are credited with being as deft with the quill as they were with the sword, while the women did nothing in particular. Is that not the usual image with which we are presented?

Finally, a rather favourite of lady of mine; indeed, the lady after whom I called myself ‘viscountessw’. Cicely, Viscountess Welles, was Elizabeth of York’s next sister in age, and therefore another daughter of Edward IV. She became the wife of John Welles, Viscount Welles, who was Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother. Thus Cicely was also Henry VII’s sister-in-law…and his aunt by marriage was well! A very highly connected lady.

Cecyll the kyng's dotther - 2

 

Cicely alone again.3

Above is an example of her signature, which has been described as ‘barely literate’. It has always grieved my modern self to think this description might indeed be appropriate. However, today, in this newly acquired book, I found the following:- “…A book-list preserved in British Library MS. Royal 15.D.2 attests that yet another of her [Cecily Neville’s] grand-daughters, Cicely Welles, had an extensive library of chivalric and devotional writings, some of which must have been printed books…”

Here is a transcript of the BL MS:-

“…Origin: England. Lionel de Welles (b. c.1406, d. 29 March 1461), 6th Baron Welles, perhaps owned by him (see M. Hamel, ‘Arthurian Romance’, Modern Language Quarterly, 51(1990)). John Welles, Viscount Welles (d. 1499), soldier and administrator, perhaps belonged to him: a list of woods sales mentioning John’s property in Well (now Welle Park, Lincolnshire) and other places in the proximity of his properties in Well and Belleau, including a reference to a personal property ‘a nacur in my nawn manour in modurwode [Motherwood, near Alferd]’, (f. 215v) (see Egbert, ‘The So-called “Greenfield” La Lumiere as lais’, Speculum, 11 (1936), pp. 446-48); and a list of books in English, written probably in the same hand, including the present manuscript: inscribed, ‘In primus a boke in France clakld pokelypse / A boke of knghte hode / A boke of Caunturbere tlase / A boke of Charlman / A boke þe lyfe of our ladys lyfe / A boke the sheys of Thebes / A boke cald vita mixta / A boke cald þe vii poyntes of true love / A boke cald þe sheys of Jherusalem / A boke cald mort Arthro / A boke cald dyuys et paupar / A boke cald cronackols / A boke cald legend aure / A boke cald facekelus temporum [perhaps a text by the Carthusian Rolevink, printed in 1475]’, end of the 15th century (f. 211r).Cecilia Welles (d. 1507), daughter of Edward IV, king of England, wife of John Welles: inscribed with her name ‘Ciecyl Welles’ (now effaced…”

Well, the above paragraph does not say all the books were inscribed with Cicely’s name…or does it? I’m not quite sure. And yes, she may simply have liked looking at them, but on the other hand, perhaps she could read them perfectly well. I hope so. She became very close to Margaret Beaufort, which perhaps would not have been the case if Cicely had been an uneducated nitwit.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “English kings, queens and ladies of the late 15th century and their books….

  1. halfwit36 on said:

    I recall reading somewhere that up till the 18th century, reading and writing were not taught at the same time, as they are now. Many people could read and cipher perfectly well, but could barely write their own names – sometimes had to sign with an ‘x’.
    If I were to be judged by my signature, people would think I am barely sentinent, much less literate!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. viscountessw on said:

    You must be a doctor at the very least, halfwit36.

    Like

  3. Phoenix Woman (@PhoenixWomanMN) on said:

    One thing that has always struck me is how much more legible Richard’s writing is compared to that of other nobles. His hand is almost Chancery quality; he could have earned his keep as a scrivener or a clerk.

    Liked by 2 people

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