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Knowledge is power: queens and their books

13 November 2020

For the last few years, it has been hard to ignore the success of The Crown, Netflix’s £100 million gamble on creating a drama that follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The fourth series, with Olivia Coleman reprising the central role, airs from 15 November and follows ‘The Firm’ from 1977 to 1990. Set pieces will include Lord Mountbatten’s funeral, the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, the Falklands conflict, and a flight on Concorde.

We trust that Queen Philippa of Hainualt – in whose honour The Queen’s College was founded – would approve. Some of the Queen’s Library team are also looking forward to the new series – and it has prompted us to take a closer look at three books in the College’s collections which have a close association with royal women.

The first of these (pictured) is also a drama: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s, L’escole des femmes, printed in 1663 by Guillaume des Luynes. A small, elegant volume (duodecimo; that is, its pages folded and cut to one twelfth of a folio-sized sheet of paper) bound in a luxurious red goatskin, its covers bear the arms of Anne of Austria, the queen of Louis XIII of France. Queen Anne played a powerful role at court, as a leading figure in the Catholic dévot faction and drawn into opposition to Cardinal Richelieu. In 1643, Anne became regent following the death of Louis XIII, and with her close confidant Cardinal Mazarin, defeated the revolt of the aristocracy known as the Fronde.

A strong supporter of the arts, who helped to establish the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648, Queen Anne also patronised the playwright, now better known by his stage name, Molière. First performed in 1662 at the Palais Royale theatre, L’escole des femmes became a great, if controversial, hit.

This copy was owned by Queen Anne herself, as the arms on the binding attest. It has been corrected in a number of places, although the hand is unknown. Anne has not yet garnered a series on Netflix, but was played by Dominique Blanc in Versailles (Canal+), and is immortalised in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844). The play was also directed by Ingmar Bergman for Swedish television in 1983.

Three years before L’escole des femmes was printed, the great benefactor of the College Sir Joseph Williamson served as Keeper of the Royal Library, and in consequence a handful of royal books are within the collections. The College holds at Sel.d.21 a copy of the New Testament in Greek, printed in Paris in 1550. Cambridge University donated the title to Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. The fine red velvet binding (pictured below), with gold and enamel decorations, is as such suitable for a queen.

The gift from Cambridge was accompanied by a by a pair of perfumed and embroidered gloves that cost 60s. The day of the donation (27 July) was a hot one, and after receiving the gifts, the Queen removed to her rooms. The rest of the party retired to Lord Leicester’s apartments, and fortified by beer and wine discussed the topic of ‘Mercy versus Severity in a Prince’ and, according to the plans for the disputation, the popular topic of the influence of astrology on the affairs of men. The discussion lasted three hours, and we may conclude that Elizabeth had made a good decision.

Finally, the College’s collection of illuminated manuscripts is largely the consequence of post seventeenth-century donations. These include MS 349, a Book of Hours from Flanders, produced in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Decorated by perhaps two artists, the Masters of the Dark Eyes and The Master of Queens 349, it includes a number of miniatures, including a zodiacal calendar and a series of scenes, including the martyrdom of Thomas à Beckett and St Bridgett writing her Revelations. Animals in the borders include a marsupial playing a flute, a dragon, and a monkey playing a harp.

Produced on very fine parchment, it was made in Flanders for the English Bourchier family, which accounts for the gold Bourchier knot, carefully erased throughout the volume by later owners or someone concerned about the possible Yorkist associations of the symbol. The family had royal connections, and in 1550 the manuscripts was given to Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Queen of Louis XII of France, and inscribed ‘This booke is the Ladie Florence Cliffordes, by the gift of L. Frauncis Dutchesse of Suffolk: Dowghter to Marie the Frenche quean, who was sametyme [sic] owner of this Booke. Ao.Di. 1550o. Good Maddame forget not in your prayers to god, your welbelouid Soon: the wryter hereof.’ (fol. 32r).  Mary is recorded as having intellectual interests. She was taught Latin and French by her schoolmaster, was accompanied to France by her tutor John Palsgrave who began to write a French grammar for her and, as David Loades (ODNB) notes, ‘she had a reputation for piety in the humanist mode.’ Described in a contemporary letter to Margaret of Savoy as ‘very lively’, her husband Louis XII died a few months after her marriage, as Loades notes, ‘danced to death, it was said, by his energetic young consort.’

The manuscript was given to The Queen’s College by Thomas Wilbram, who matriculated in 1607. It is inscribed in his hand, ‘of youre charyte pray for ye wryt[er] who from his infanci[e] hath ben an offender’.  At one point, the volume contained illuminations taken from MS 299 as well as a number from MS 349 itself. A note records that ‘these illuminations, taken out of this book or some other in Queen’s college library, were sent back to Dr. Gibson by an unknown hand, his conscience pricking him. And so may conscience prick all those, that have wronged the Library.’ It is hard to disagree.

As these three volumes attest, books potentially carry more meanings than just the texts inside them. They might be edited, annotated, and as object decorated and shared as tokens of loyalty or the currency of patronage. It has to be said that books, as far as I’ve noticed, do not play much of a part in The Crown. The Duke of Edinburgh’s extensive, and well-used, library is not much of a character in the series. The fictional Professor Hogg, roped by the young queen to get her up to speed in international affairs is seen carrying a selection of books, but to little avail. In this episode (Scientia Potentia Es, 2016), her own self-confidence is suggested to be more of a vital quality for a monarch than book learning. At the end of the episode, the young Elizabeth, however, draws cleverly on her childhood notes on Walter Bagehot’s constitutional thoughts, and gives her prime minister, Winston Churchill, a reminder to give her the respect ‘her office and rank’ deserve, rather than ‘that my age and gender suggest’. We might quibble with the implied qualification of these two latter categories nowadays, but it is still a reminder of the usefulness, indeed the power, of thoughtful reading.

Matthew Shaw, The Queen's College Librarian