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Through the Looking Glass

Category: Exchequer Docs, Medieval Manuscripts

Although I carry out most of my research in the Map and Large Document Reading Room at The National Archives, the most precious and sensitive items in its extensive collection have to be viewed under supervision in the Invigilation Room on the floor below – a much less daunting process than it sounds.

A member of staff escorts the reader into a spacious well-lit room – better lit and equipped with higher quality supports and weights than either of the main Reading Rooms – locks the reader inside, collects the given record from a nearby safe, delivers it, and locks the door again on departure.  The invigilation itself is unobtrusive, as three-quarters of the length and height of the inside wall are clear glass, so staff can monitor the safety of the record from outside, and readers signal when they’ve finished by pressing a silent buzzer at the far end of the room near the door.  The entry protocol is then repeated in reverse, with the record removed and inspected to ensure it’s in the same condition as when delivered, and the reader escorted out after it has been returned to the safe.

My first visit there was to view the Black Book of the Exchequer (Liber Niger Parvus), its binding noted in TNA’s online Discovery Catalogue as “stamped leather on boards, with remains of brass clasps.  Later re-binding now loose in box”, which required very delicate handling while transferring it to foam supports placed either side of its spine.


The National Archives of the U.K., E 164/12, 13th c.

On turning over the loose front board and seeing the exposed first folio – which wasn’t the object of my visit – I instantly downed tools to take some personal time, as the volume opens with a rare 13th century copy of the Will of King Henry II, with a staggeringly beautiful historiated initial top left:


TNA E 164/12, f.1

The contents of this copy (fos. 1-3 of the Black Book) record that the will was made at Waltham in the year of the Incarnation 1182, presumably coinciding with King Henry II’s calling of the Great Council at Bishop’s Waltham in preparation for going on a Crusade he never actually undertook, with the Bishops of Winchester and Norwich among the named witnesses.  He lived on for another seven years, dying on this day – 06 July – in 1189, but the illuminated initial conflates events to depict King Henry dictating it to the bishops on his deathbed in the top half of the historiated ‘H’, while the lower half pictures the same bishops overseeing the court scribe as he draws up a fair copy, the original of which has not survived:

Funny how he bears no physical resemblance to Peter O’Toole’s Henry in The Lion in Winter, hosting the ultimate disfunctional family Christmas in 1183 – a perennial seasonal favourite.

“Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

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