The illuminations

Pages xxii-xxiii

The Cartulary of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1971.

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Although not as lavish as that found in contemporary liturgical manuscripts, the decoration in the Aldgate cartulary is rich when it is compared with other books of its type, and is certainly the work of professionals. Two types of illumination are to be distinguished in it. First is a series of initials painted in gold and colours with feather-like ornamental sprays growing from them. Secondly there are a large number of monochrome capitals in blue and gold with fine red and purple penwork ornaments springing from them. Within the letters the background has been filled in with colour, the same as the penwork ornaments, leaving a design in white camaieu. While these penwork initials are to be found throughout the manuscript, the richer painted capitals are confined to the opening pages of each of the three main sections of the book. First is the section with the copies of the title deeds, etc. This has painted initials on ff. 1–5. Second is the section relating to the 'Soca extra Algate', which has painted initials on ff. 149–150 r, and thirdly is the section entitled 'Carte de pluribus parochiis' with letters of this kind on f. 179 r and v.

Four separate hands may be distinguished at work on the illumination: two in the painted and two in the penwork initials. The first hand in the latter worked on ff. 1 v–147 r, and from f. 169 to the end. It is a neat formal style with blue capitals, usually taking up two lines, and red penwork ornaments. The second hand is confined to the first eighteen pages of the second section, ff. 149–66. It is a much more interesting style, being more exuberant and inventive, and is easily recognized by its use of gold for some of the letters and by the purple ink of some of the decoration. A number of grotesque human heads have also been introduced as ornament, whereas the first hand has only one rather discreet one on f. 180.

The opening page of the manuscript, f. 1, has by far the most elaborate scheme of decoration. This consists of a large initial A surmounted by a jewelled crown. Within the letter is a blue shield on which is painted in gold the well-known triangular device known as the 'Scutum Dei Triangulum' or the 'Scutum Fidei' with its inscriptions producing in diagrammatic form a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. (fn. 1) Such shields are found on numerous medieval works of art. The Aldgate version is somewhat more elaborate than is usual. At the base of the triangle is a T-like projection. On the cross-bar is written 'Vera trinitas' and on the vertical is 'est homo'. The whole of this vertical from the middle of the shield reads now 'Deus est filius est homo'. Thus the doctrine of the Incarnation also finds a place in the scheme. (fn. 2) It would seem that this form of the 'Scutum' may have been regarded as the arms of Aldgate Priory. British Museum Harleian Charters 44.F.52 and 53, which are releases for rent given by John Bradwell, prior of Aldgate, in 1521 and 1522, are both sealed with the same small circular seal which is described as the seal which 'utimur in talibus signatis'. (fn. 3) It is not the great seal of the priory which had a different design, but must have been a signet used for less important documents. Its design consists of the 'scutum dei' of exactly the same form as the one in the initial in the cartulary.

Surrounding the text is a border of red and blue edged with gold from which grow conventional leaves and flowers. These sometimes terminate in penwork sprays decorated with small gold dots and what look like small peascods. The coloured initials on the following eight pages are in the same style and are by the same hand. The initials on f. 179 r and v are also the same. All are typical of the illumination found in English manuscripts of the first half of the fifteenth century. Rather similar leaves with sharply serrated edges and feather-like terminations are found in such books as the Admiralty Ordinances in British Museum Cotton MS. Vespasian B.XXI (fn. 4) datable about 1413–15 and the Psalter of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, British Museum Royal MS. 2 B.I, made between 1420 and 1430. Some of the grotesque flowers may be compared with f. 1 of British Museum Royal MS. 8 G.III, which can be dated about 1420. (fn. 5)

The second artist of the painted pages, ff. 149–50, worked in the same style as the first. His colour is a little less rich and he uses a daisy flower in either an elongated form or in the more usual shape. He also adds the spoon flower to his vocabulary. Besides this floral decoration he introduces a crown into the initial E with which the copy of the writ of Edward the Confessor begins on f. 149 and also hangs a shield of the anachronistic arms of the Confessor on the lower border. (fn. 6) On f. 150 at the foot of the page is a tinted drawing of a mitred ecclesiastic. This is probably purely decorative and cannot be regarded as representing anybody.

For the history of English illumination the decoration of the Aldgate cartulary is valuable because it can with some certainty be dated within a decade, and comparison with other English manuscripts confirms that the ornaments are contemporary with the writing of the rest of the book.


  • 1. For other examples with various minor differences, see F. Bond, Dedications and Patron Saints of English Churches (1914), 251.
  • 2. In B.M. Cotton MS. Julius D.VII, f. 3 v, there is a 13th-century drawing of the 'Scutum fidei' in which a figure of the Crucified is placed on the vertical bar running from the base to the centre of the shield. It bears the inscription 'Ihesus incarnatus'.
  • 3. W. de G. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, i (1887), nos. 3567, 3568.
  • 4. See British Museum, Reproductions from Illuminated Manuscripts, Series ii (1910), pl. xvii.
  • 5. G. F. Warner and J. P. Gilson, British Museum, Catalogue of Western Manuscripts in the Old Royal and King's Collections, iv, pl. 62.
  • 6. For a discussion of the mythical arms of the Confessor, see R. H. M. Dolley and F. Elmore Jones, 'A New Suggestion concerning the so-called "Martlets" in the "Arms of St. Edward"', Anglo-Saxon Coins, Studies Presented to F. M. Stenton, ed. R. H. M. Dolley (1961), 215–26.