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New Testament owned by royalty at risk of leaving UK

Export bar placed on the manuscript, formerly owned by French and English royalty to allow time for a UK institution to acquire it for the nation.

  • The work, which was formerly owned by both King Jean II ‘le Bon’ of France and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, deemed to be hugely important for the study of Anglo-French cultural exchange
  • The manuscript has been valued at £800,000

A New Testament manuscript owned by members of the English Royal Family in the 14th and 15th centuries is at risk of leaving the country unless a UK buyer can be found.

The manuscript, valued at £800,000, was previously unknown to scholars as it has been in private ownership for at least 300 years. It contains the signature of the former king, who ruled France from 1350 to 1364, during the Hundred Years’ War with England.

It is possible that the manuscript, which contains an early translation of the New Testament into French, was captured at the Battle of Poitiers. It has been in England ever since.

Ownership inscriptions made in the book reveal that it has also been owned by members of the English Royal Family, the most prominent of whom was the renowned mediaeval collector and son of King Henry IV, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (1390–1447). It was also owned by his elder brother Thomas, Duke of Clarence (1387–1421), and by Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset (1406–1455).

The manuscript, which is decorated with illuminations, may have been used by the Lancastrians to boost their claims to the French throne.

There are also several erased ownership inscriptions in the volume, as yet undeciphered. Further analysis could allow academics to discover more about the manuscript’s provenance.

Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said:

This extraordinarily well-preserved New Testament, with its delightful, intricate decorations, is an exciting opportunity for scholarship as well as a great reminder of the long impact that French culture has had on Britain.

I hope that a buyer comes forward to make sure it can continue to be researched and its revelations shared with generations to come.

Committee Member Caroline Shenton said:

This late-thirteenth-century New Testament is of extraordinary importance to our understanding of English mediaeval royal culture, politics, and diplomacy during the Hundred Years’ War. Although as the work of the Cholet Master its decoration makes it a very attractive object in its own right, it is its textual interest and staggering provenance which make it a national treasure. The manuscript is previously unknown to scholarship, having been in private hands for over 300 years. Excitingly, the particular French translation of the New Testament it contains appears to be unique and ripe for significant philological research. Furthermore, it was owned by Jean II ‘le Bon’, King of France (1350-1364), whose signature – an exceedingly rare survival – is on its final page. It is highly likely that it was seized as war booty when he and his possessions were taken hostage at the Battle of Poitiers by the Black Prince in 1356, and it has been in England ever since.

Even more remarkably, the very recent discovery under ultra-violet light of several erased ownership inscriptions indicates that it subsequently passed through the hands of a number of English royal owners, grandsons of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), including Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. No doubt this was part of a concerted ‘soft diplomacy’ effort by the Lancastrians to bolster the English claim to the French throne. Duke Humphrey is widely  regarded as the most important English mediaeval book collector, but only 47 of his original library of some 500 volumes are known to survive. Now a 48th has suddenly come to light. I very much hope that an institution will come forward to save this jaw-dropping manuscript which still has so much to tell us about its story and the stories of those who owned it.

The Minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.

The Committee made its recommendation on the basis that the manuscript met the first and third Waverley criteria for its outstanding connection with our history and national life and its outstanding significance for the study of Anglo-French cultural exchange, learning and patronage during the period of the Hundred Years’ War, with special relevance to the book collections of Jean le Bon and of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

The decision on the export licence application for the manuscript will be deferred for a period ending on 7 February 2024 inclusive. At the end of the first deferral period, owners will have a consideration period of 15 business days to consider any offer(s) to purchase the manuscript at the recommended price of £800,000. The second deferral period will commence following the signing of an Option Agreement and will last for four months.

Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through the private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered by the Minister. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefit to a public institution wishing to acquire the item.

Notes to editors:

  1. Lord Parkinson discussed the Waverley criteria in a speech to mark their 70th anniversary, and used the opportunity to invite thoughts on the way they work – for instance, whether the Committee should say more about how it has considered items’ connection to the history of other countries as well as to the UK’s, or whether the items it considers are destined for public display rather than private collection. Read his full speech
  2. Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the manuscript should contact the RCEWA on 02072680534 or
  3. Details of the manuscript are as follows: The New Testament in an Old French translation, with fine illuminated initials, attributable to the Cholet Master. Contains the autograph inscription of Jean II (Jean le Bon), King of France (reigned 1350–1364). Owned by members of the English royal family in the 1400s, as revealed by a series of erased inscriptions.

Manuscript on parchment, c. 1270–1300, post-mediaeval binding. Fair condition.

  1. Provenance: Owned by Jean le Bon, King of France, whose name is inscribed on the final page. Other erased inscriptions, readable under ultraviolet light, show that the manuscript was owned by Thomas of Lancaster, Duke of Clarence (1387–1421), second son of King Henry IV of England, and by Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset (1406–1455). Beaufort gave the manuscript to Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390–1447), fourth son of Henry IV and bibliophile. Owned after 1700 by Thomas Martin FSA (1696/7–1771), antiquarian and lawyer, and by Sir George Augustus William Shuckburgh-Evelyn, 6th Baronet (1751–1804), MP for Warwickshire, mathematician and astronomer, and then by descent. 
  2. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England (ACE), which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of  national importance under specified criteria.

Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture. Its strategic vision in Let’s Create is that, by 2030, England should be a country in which the creativity of everyone is valued and given the chance to flourish and where everyone has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences. ACE invests public money from the government and the National Lottery to support the sector and deliver the vision. Following the Covid-19 crisis, ACE developed a £160 million Emergency Response Package, with nearly 90 per cent coming from the National Lottery, for organisations and individuals needing support. It is also one of the bodies administering the government’s unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund.

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