Illuminations: The Private Life of Medieval Kings

Illuminations: The Private Life of Medieval Kings
Presented by Dr Janina Ramirez

In this popular three part series, Art Historian Dr Janina Ramirez tells the story of the Medieval monarchy as revealed through stunning illuminated manuscripts from the British Library's Royal Manuscripts collection.
Embellished with gold, painted in jewel-like colour these manuscripts took months, even years, to produce and were priceless beyond compare. Few people have ever seen them, other than the kings who owned them. As vibrant today as when they were first penned, they are miraculous survivors of a lost world.
By using her unique expert knowledge to decode these manuscripts, Dr Ramirez offers us a unique insight into the lives of long-dead kings. From the rueful footnote detailing Edward II's demise - 'I am called the tumbledown king and all the world mocks me' - to Henry VIII's scribbled love notes to Anne Boleyn in the margins of his Bible, we see a succession of kings battling to shape an unruly nation and sometimes fighting for their lives.
It's an epic story which spans 800 years, beginning with the unification of England under the Anglo-Saxons continuing with the 100
Years War with France, and ending with the brutal magnificence of Henry VIII.
I recently had the great pleasure of watching the three part documentary entitled

Illuminations: The Private Life of Kings which looked at manuscripts and illuminations from the time of the Anglo Saxon Kings right through to the reign of Henry VIII. I was absolutely fascinated by this series and found it a wonderful presentation not just about the use of manuscripts but how they were so closely linked with the great Kings of England.

The series was presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, whom I admit that I had never heard of before, but after watching this series now think that she is utterly fantastic. Dr Ramirez is an art historian with a degree in English Literature and Language. She is wonderfully exciting and brings a real love and passion to this series which can be seen through her delight and joy at looking through the manuscripts.

The series looked at the development of the manuscript and how it was used by English Kings and Kings of other nations throughout the years. Manuscripts were not just books to be read, they were extraordinarily powerful tools which conveyed a multitude of meanings. Dr Ramirez showed through this series that the illuminations within the pages of a manuscript were just as important, if not more so than the actual text itself. These illuminations were a fantastic propaganda tool in which the King could depict himself in a manner and style in which he wanted to be seen. The illuminations within the pages of the manuscript conveyed a multitude of meanings from the King’s religious views, his thoughts and feelings on war to his determination to create a strong and powerful country. 

Many of the manuscripts that survive today are religious texts and books of prayer and the images within these were linked to this idea of the King’s connection and devotion to God and the Catholic faith. They are beautiful ways to deptict the holy divinity of the King and how he was destined to rule England. It was also fascinating to see actual pictures of Kings painted into the pages of these books, faces of real men who lived hundreds upon hundreds of years ago. 

What I really enjoyed about this series was how Dr Ramirez linked the images and details within the manuscript with the happenings of England throughout the ages. She did not just sit down and look through the pages of the manuscript, she showed the viewer where some of these manuscripts may have been made. She walked the halls of great buildings and gave detailed history behind the Kings represented within the pages of each book. She talked about the English history and how details of great battles and events were depicted within different books. It was a wonderful way to connect the illuminations with the actual happenings of the time.

Dr Ramirez also showed how the vellum of the manuscripts were made. She spoke about how cow and other animal skin was used and the viewer got to see the actual, if not a little disgusting, process used to make the delicate yet durable pages. My three year old daughter found this part of the series absolutely captivating and now refers to paper as cow paper! Dr Ramirez also showed how the ancient manuscripts were bound so delicately and carefully and how sturdy these ancient books became. I was really fascinated with the actual illumination process and the great care, time and devotion that went into creating a single image. Gold was used for the most magnificent manuscripts and truly these books would have been great treasures only affordable by Kings and the very wealthy. 

I must admit that I also had a little shiver run down my spine when Dr Ramirez presented the prayer book that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had written messages of love to one another. I am particularly interested with the reign of Henry VIII and the life of Anne Boleyn so to see a book held by these two personally important figures was just wonderful. 

I also really loved the sound of the pages being turned of these amazing and ancient manuscripts. I am the sort of person that will chose a book over a kindle any day! I love the feeling of a book, the sound of the pages being turned, the weight in my hands, the smell of the old pages, really there is nothing quite like the experience of holding and reading a book and I can only imagine how wonderful it must have been for Dr Ramirez to turn the pages, to breath in the scent and to marvel at these manuscripts which were hundreds upon hundreds of years old. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this series and am so glad that I was able to watch. I found that I learnt such a great deal about previous Kings and Queens of England and events that happened within the history of England. I learnt about how manuscripts were more than just books, but they were extraordinarily powerful tools used for propaganda, spreading views and opinions. Certainly the illuminations within the pages of these ancient books spoke far louder than the text ever could. They were simply breathtaking and it is quite sad that many of these illuminations are hidden away in libraries and not on display because they are just as beautiful and breathtaking as many portraits and paintings of the time. This was an absolutely fascinating series, one in which I would suggest that any lover of English history, art or books must watch. 

 Dr Janina Ramirez looking through a manuscript.
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