Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The St Albans Benefactors Book

The British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog recently had a post about the St Albans Benefactors Book. This is a volume that is well known for its illustrations of individuals who made gifts to the abbey and were members of its Fraternity. These pictures are quite often reproduced as book illustrations. Now, thanks to digitisation, the complete text and illustrations are available in their entirety.

The book was commenced in 1380, just before the serious outbreak of trouble at St Albans with the townspeople in 1381 during the Peasants Revolt.

Abbot Thomas de la Mare commissioned the manuscript and William de Wyllum, one of the monks, was responsible for the marvellous calligraphy. The illuminator was Alan Straker, who donated the materials he used in return for admission as a member of the Fraternity himself.

The book was intended to be kept on the High Altar as a reminder of benefactors both living and departed. The Fraternity was a guild like organisation, somewhat analogous to a modern organisation of Friends of a cathedral or church or to commemorating appeal donors today on a permanent memorial.

From the post one can go to the complete digitised text and look through it and in effect turn the pages. One can appreciate the charm and idiosyncrasy of Straker’s portraits of the great and the good since King Offa as founder down to the late fourteenth century plus later additions. Many of the benefactors hold their benefactions or at least the document giving land, rights or privileges.

St Albans abbey is, I consider, a deeply moving building in its strange vulnerability, a building whose very survival seems almost miraculous and one which emanates a deep sense of the spiritual and of the history of the monastery and indeed the country. Making this manuscript available renders the medieval community of benefactors and their relationship with the abbey and its monastic community come alive to the modern eye and mind.

St Albans Abbey in the later Middle Ages
Joan Freeman. Reproduced courtesy of the St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban
Image: St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeolgical Society

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