The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of 'Merrie England'

By Camille, Michael | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of 'Merrie England'


Camille, Michael, History Today


One of the things I most look forward to seeing relocated and freshly exhibited at the new British Library near Kings Cross is that much loved illuminated manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter, with its famous marginal scenes of medieval work and play. There are many reasons why this particular manuscript has played such an important role in the English national consciousness -- most obvious is the superb quality of its illumination. The naturalistic detail and inventive fantasy are the credit of its major artist who, inspired by the words of the Psalms, started work on the manuscript in the late 1320s but left it mysteriously unfinished, even before the death of his patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in 1345. Two aspects of the manuscript's more recent history show how it came to exemplify `Merrie England' -- the idea of an English `golden age' of a structured but stable society based on shared community values. First was its scandal-ridden sale on the London art market in 1929 and, second, the long tradition in which historians have employed it to present a mirror, or picture-window, onto the English past.

On July 6th, 1929, The Illustrated London News carried a special thanksgiving section with floral and heraldic borders copied from Gothic manuscripts framing photographs of George V who had recently recovered from an illness. The king is shown `returning to the capital of his empire' in a sequence of images that seem as removed from us today as those represented in the Luttrell Psalter. Yet in the same issue, the Psalter itself appears under the title `Medieval Cookery; Music; Rural Life: The Luttrell Psalter'. Eleven photographic details follow, including images of `a medieval banquet' and `a medieval prototype for an invalid chair' -- all set in elegant art deco frames. These scenes were reproduced `by courtesy of Messrs. Sotheby and Co.' in whose salerooms the manuscript was then on display, due to come under the gavel at 1 o'clock on Monday, July 29th, 1929. The Psalter had recently been exhibited to the public at the British Museum, but to the dismay of many, its new owner, Herbert Weld, had now put it on the market, along with another manuscript masterpiece in his possession, the Bedford Horae. Both appeared destined to leave the country.

Things turned out quite differently, however. Three days before the sale was due to take place, the British Museum discovered evidence which revealed that the Luttrell Psalter was not, in fact, the legal property of Mr Weld, but belonged to Mrs Alfred Noyes.

Mrs Noyes finally agreed to sell the Luttrell Psalter directly to the British Museum for 30,000 guineas, the highest price ever paid for an illuminated manuscript at that time. But how did the Museum manage to raise this vast sum? The day after the sale, The Times informed the public that the Psalter had been `provisionally secured for the nation by an anonymous benefactor' and that the Government Ways and Means Committee had

...expressed their readiness to do all in

their power to co-operate with the

British Museum in retaining this, perhaps

the most outstanding English illuminated

manuscript of the fourteenth

century with its famous illustrations of

contemporary life.

On August 5th, the benefactor's identity was announced with his consent and it is his name that one sees first on opening the Luttrell Psalter today. A large handwritten label pasted on the inside verso of the modern leather binding declares:

This great monument of fourteenth

century England was saved for the

British Nation by the generosity of an

American citizen, John Pierpont Morgan,

who advanced the entire purchase

money, thirty thousand guineas, lending

it to the Trustees of the British

Museum without interest for one year.

The entrepeneurial knight in shining armour, John Pierpont Morgan, Jr. …

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