In 1757 George II presented to the nation the collection of nearly 2000 manuscripts (including around 1200 illuminated or decorated volumes) that previously belonged to his predecessors. The royal donation was housed in the newly founded British Museum and now is held at the British Library. The manuscripts together with a large collection of about 9,000 printed books, also donated by George II, is often referred to as the ‘Old Royal library’ to distinguish it from a later royal gift to the Museum of books and manuscripts from George IV (known as the King’s collection), and the current royal library at Windsor Palace.
The beginning of the Old Royal library as a coherent collection can be traced to the reign of Edward IV. Both documentary evidence and surviving manuscripts demonstrate that earlier monarchs collected and owned books, but Edward’s collection was the first to be preserved as a group. Only a small number of manuscripts in the Old Royal library have been identified as having been in a continuous royal possession before Edward’s accession.
The Royal collection of manuscripts grew considerably under the first Tudor kings, Henry VII and notably, his son Henry VIII. Henry VIII’s personal search for biblical and legal texts to support his case for annulment of his marriage and subsequently the sequestration of books from the dissolved monasteries under the Act of Supremacy resulted in the biggest influx of manuscripts in the history of the Old Royal library (c. 400 volumes).
Henry VIII’s children and successors, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I did not make significant contributions to the Royal collection of manuscripts. The last two major acquisitions of medieval books were made by the Stuarts. Prince Henry Frederick, the son of James I, acquired the library of the Elizabethan collector John, Lord Lumley, in around 1609. Later, around 1678, Charles II purchased the collection of the antiquarian John Theyer, which comprises over 330 manuscripts.
Note: This virtual exhibition was composed as part of the Royal Manuscripts Project funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.