Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

The British Library is giving visitors a rare chance to look inside the handwritten books from the Middle Ages that belonged to kings and queens of England.

Writing in Art Quarterly magazine, Scot McKendrick argues that they are valuable not just for their beautiful illuminations, but also for what they reveal about their owners:'Despite centuries of warfare and social, religious and cultural disruption, royal manuscripts still exist in large numbers, and their tens of thousands of pages contain some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting made in Britain from the 8th to the 16th century. The state of preservation of these illuminations is remarkable, their colours often as vivid as when they were first painted; their gold still makes their pages glow and flicker in the light for us, as they did for those who first viewed them centuries ago. Their creators evidently took great pride in them: as one contemporary inscription puts it, 'The beauty of this book displays my genius.''However, royal manuscripts do much more than declare the artistry of their makers. They offer unique insights into the life and aspirations of those for whom they were made. In them we have the most vivid surviving sources for understanding royal identity, moral and religious beliefs, learning and politics. Through careful interpretation of their texts and images, we can deepen our understanding of what it was to be a king in the Middle Ages, and find answers to some key questions about medieval monarchs.'

Venue details

British Library 96 Euston Road London NW1 2DB 020 7412 7332

Entry details

50% off with National Art Pass – £4.50 (standard entry charge is £9)

Main building

Mon – Thu, 9.30am – 8pm

Fri, 9.30am –​6pm (Sat until 5pm)

​Sun, 11am-5pm

Treasures Gallery and PACCAR exhibitions

Tue –Thu, 9.30am-8pm, Mon & Fri until 6pm, Sat until 5pm, Sun 11am – 5pm

What the critics say


The show is a window into a world that is all too rarely seen...


The first substantial showing of the collection since 1949, it is a coup for the National Galleries and marks the start of a series of long-term loans from Bute.

  • Jackie Wullschlager
  • FT