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The emergence of the universities in the late twelfth century created a growing demand for academic books which transformed Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge into important centres of manuscript production. Few scholars and students needed lavishly decorated books for their studies and even fewer could afford them. Those who could, would have commissioned illustrated copies of legal and theological texts, of Aristotle and the most popular medieval encyclopaedias. The Reformation rendered most of these texts obsolete. The University books of medieval Cambridge have left only faint traces.

Unlike textbooks, the foundation charters and official documents of the University and its Colleges survive and provide vital evidence for the practice of illumination in Cambridge. They also preserve some of the earliest representations of academics whose status, obligations, and privileges were endorsed by successive monarchs. The rich and hieratic illustration of these documents reflects the authority of University institutions and the pride of the individuals associated with them.

Charter of Edward I confirming privileges of Cambridge University
England, London and Cambridge, issued 6 February 1292

The preparation, writing and sealing of a royal charter was the business of the Royal Chancery in London. But the addition of the illumination could be left to the grantee to supply later on. This document contains one of the earliest examples of illumination produced in Cambridge. The initial E depicts King Edward I (1272-1307) presenting the charter to a doctor of canon law in cappa clausa, a doctor of civil law in cappa manicata, and two kneeling doctors of theology in cappae clausae.

Cambridge University Archives, Luard 7


The Old Proctor’s Book
England, Cambridge, c.1390

The Old Proctor’s Book contains University statutes and documents for the use of the proctors, the Chancellor’s executive officers. It includes two full-page tinted drawings, St Christopher with the Christ Child (shown here) and the Virgin and Child enthroned under a canopy with niches inhabited by members of the University and laity. These images are intended to underline the solemnity of oaths sworn by civic officials. St Christopher was sometimes invoked against lies and false witness. This is a unique example of Cambridge figural illumination at the end of the century and of the diverse influences upon contemporary English art: from Lombardy to Bohemia and from Paris to the lands of the Teutonic Order. The University of Cambridge, with its international academic contacts, was as likely a place as the court of Richard II for a manifestation of this eclecticism.

Cambridge University Archives, Collect. Admin. 3, fol. 6

Foundation Charter of King’s College, Cambridge England, London, 1446
England, probably London, 1587-1589

The lavish decoration of this charter and the concessions, exemptions and privileges it confers indicate the importance of the foundation of King’s College to Henry VI (1422-1471). The charter was written by John Broke (documented 1443-1450) clerk of the chancery, and illuminated by the London artist William Abell (documented 1450-d.1474). The calligraphic initial of ‘Henricus’ shows the king holding the charter and announcing: ‘Fiat ad laudem gloriam et cultum tuum’, ‘Be it done to thy praise, glory and worship’. Behind him are the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, headed by the Lord Chancellor, Archbishop Stafford, and Cardinals Beaufort and Kemp. Below is one of the earliest representations of the Houses of Parliament. The process of parliamentary petitioning is reflected by a heavenly hierarchy. Henry’s prayer is directed to the patrons of the College, St Nicholas and the Virgin.

King’s College Archives KC/18

Robert Hare, Registrum novum monumentorum universitatis Cantebrigie
England, probably London, 1587-1589

Robert Hare, a former fellow commoner of Gonville Hall, was entrusted by John Copcot, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, with preparing a collection of charters and privileges in favour of the University. Hare presented the resulting two-volume work to the University in 1590. The first volume is displayed, open at an illustration which depicts the mayor of Cambridge taking an oath before the Chancellor to preserve peace between the town and the University.

Cambridge University Archives, Hare A, vol. I, fol. 152