The contrasting colours of a lady’s dress have unlocked the true provenance of one the most important surviving books from medieval England.
The Percy Hours manuscript was purchased by the British Library three years ago and reunited with the Percy Psalter, which the library bought in 1990. Both works formed a single-volume illuminated book when they were created in the North of England in the late 13th century.
The Psalter-Hours contains the Book of Psalms and other devotional material such as a calendar of saint’s feast days, and the Hours of the Virgin — a series of prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary. It boasts jewel-like illustrations of religious scenes along with boisterous vignettes of animals and monsters in the margins. Clues to the book’s northern origin include the prominent role of saints such as former archbishops of York and the Yorkshire abbess St Everild of Everingham.
Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, and author of the study in the Journal of Medieval History, said: “It started when we were acquiring the Percy Hours in 2019. As part of an acquisition, we look into the provenance. That’s how I came to find out about this puzzle where, in the past, people had tried to identify the coats of arms. There had been a few suggestions but none of them were very compelling. It was too good a challenge to pass up.”
Now her study of heraldry and clothing depicted in the Percy Hours has overturned received wisdom to reveal that the book’s first owners were not leading aristocrats from the famous Percy family of Northumberland but members of a rising proto-gentry class that helped to broaden book ownership.
Past interpretations linked the arms showing fusils to the Northumberland Percies on the grounds that they used the same design with the colours reversed — gold fusils on a blue background — until about 1296. The assumption was that the arms showing the lion rampant were those of the lords of Brabant, from whom the Northumberland Percies were descended in the male line. The Percies adopted a version of the Brabant arms from the late 1290s. Again, however, the colours are different in the Percy Psalter-Hours.
The first page of the Psalms has a fine illustration of the Tree of Jesse. Portraits of the owners appear in the margins of the lower part of the page. They show a knight in armour holding a lance carrying a rectangular banner, and a lady in a gown and headdress.
The man and woman are holding identical shields, each bearing two coats of arms side by side. The same arms appear on the man’s surcoat and lance banner. On the left-hand side is a black lion rampant on a gold background. On the right, there are five narrow blue lozenges (fusils) on a gold background. These arms also appear in the page’s lower margin on either side of a third coat of arms depicting a lion rampant against a red background. The illustration is damaged so that it is impossible to make out the colour of this lion.
“Books were becoming far more widely used and owned by laypeople, as opposed to being mostly kept in monasteries”Eleanor Jackson
Scholarly opinion previously settled on Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy of Alnwick, and his wife Eleanor Fitzalan as the best fit for the heraldry. Henry was an important military commander under King Edward I and founder of the powerful Percy dynasty of Northumberland. Eleanor was a relative of the king.
The third coat of arms, with the damage, was assumed to be that of Fitzalan, showing a gold lion on a red background.
In her review of the evidence, Jackson realised that the arms resembling the Northumberland Percy arms were probably deliberately “differenced”. This occurred when junior branches of an aristocratic family, or other families connected to the family, used the arms of the main line with the colours altered. She found that the Percy family of Bolton Percy in North Yorkshire used arms depicting fusils exactly as shown in the Psalter-Hours. These Percies were tenants of the Northumberland Percies and may have been distant relatives.
Although they did not share the Northumberland Percies’ descent from the rulers of Brabant, they may have copied their lords in experimenting with the Brabant arms, hence the lion alongside the fusils.
Turning to the damaged coat of arms depicting the lion on a red background, Jackson observed traces of blue pigment on the lion’s body. A blue lion on a red background would not have been permitted under the rules of heraldry. However, she noted that the outfit of the woman in the illustration consisted of a red dress and a cloak of silver overpainted with small blue triangles. This was the heraldic method of depicting vair, or squirrel fur. She surmised that her outfit was intended to match the colours of the arms and that the lion on the red background was originally painted in vair.
She said: “The breakthrough moment was when I realised that that coat of arms was actually in the same colours as the dress that the woman is wearing in the illustration. In this period, heraldic garments were quite common, so people would be represented wearing outfits that had their coat of arms on them — and I realised that that’s what she’s wearing.”
This was corroborated by the finding that the Everingham family of Yorkshire used these arms and that Sir Robert Percy, of Bolton Percy, married Margery Everingham around the 1260s. Robert and Margery were evidently the owners of the Psalter-Hours, which would have been purchased at York, only 12 miles from Bolton Percy. Percy served in Edward I’s invasions of Wales and Scotland and is also remembered for his ecclesiastical patronage. He is believed to have donated timber from his estates for construction of the nave of York minster, where he is commemorated in a statue on the west facade.
The pair also appear to have been closely connected with the Blackfriars’ Priory in York, where they were buried.
Jackson said the finding that the book did not belong to the Percy barons, but to their tenants and possible kinfolk, in no way lessened its interest. “In some ways it’s more interesting to discover this family who are not very well known at all but who were extremely active patrons of art and an influential family in Yorkshire, in York especially, in their day.”
She added that, in patronising regional book-production workshops and using heraldry to highlight their status and connections, the Percies of Bolton were typical of the lower aristocracy of the time. As they took on increasingly important roles in military and administrative service, they gained greater opportunities for patronage. “This was a group which was rising, becoming wealthier and more influential. They were able to provide more patronage of culture and they were also very keen to establish their identities and to promote themselves. As a result, they have been closely associated with a lot of the early laypeople’s books that appear in this period.”
“It was a period when book culture was changing a lot. Books were becoming far more widely used and owned by laypeople, as opposed to being mostly kept in monasteries and churches.
“Book production was taking off in professional workshops in cities around the country and there aren’t very many that survive from York. So this gives us a glimpse of the manuscript-making culture that existed at York at that time and it shows that it was as absolutely on a par with other cities around England at the time.”
The top photo shows the beginning of Psalm 38, from the Percy Psalter: Add MS 70000, f. 55r. Photo: British Library.