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The British Library The Knowledge Network: The British Library Annual Report and Accounts 2008/09

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The story behind the Dering Roll

'It was preserved in a biscuit tin. Now it's been saved for the nation.'

The Dering Roll

‘It was preserved in a biscuit tin. Now it’s been saved for the nation.’

One of the Library’s most important acquisitions of the year, the Dering Roll is the oldest English roll of arms still in existence. Described as a ‘Who’s Who’ of medieval knights, the 13th century parchment is a vital record for the study of knighthood in medieval England. It was acquired following a successful fundraising campaign supported by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends of the British Library and numerous individual donations.

‘The Dering Roll has really captured people’s imagination,’ says Julian Harrison, Curator for Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts. ‘Since its acquisition we have been inundated with enquiries from people wanting to find out if their ancestors are named on it.’

Measuring more than 2.6 metres long, the roll depicts 324 painted coats of arms, representing a quarter of England’s barons during the reign of King Edward I. First on the list are two of King John’s illegitimate children. Most are from South East England, followed by France, where some knights still had domains.

In good condition thanks to parchment’s durability, the roll needed no special conservation measures. It went on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library in September 2008. Although it cannot be kept on show permanently, it will be available to researchers in the Manuscripts Reading Room. High resolution digital images will give wide access to those who do not need to see the original document. An online facsimile will be made available in collaboration with Dover Castle, where the roll is thought to have been commissioned. It is named after a 17th century Lieutenant of the castle, Sir Edward Dering.

‘During the 20th century it was preserved in a biscuit tin,’ says Julian Harrison. ‘Now it’s been saved for the nation and digitised in such a way that future generations and current Readers can have access to it in ways that were impossible before.’

Greater access could shed new light on the roll’s origins. ‘Nobody actually knows precisely when and where it was made – it is all informed speculation,’ says Julian Harrison. ‘Now researchers will be able to refine and revise these ideas and maybe connect it with other documents made during the period.’

My postings

Henry VIII

Key Tudor documents

July 2009

The Manuscripts Department plays a major role in the organisation of exhibitions at the British Library, most recently for Henry VIII: Man and Monarch.

Greek manuscript

Medieval digitisation

July 2009

We are currently cataloguing and digitising 250 of our medieval Greek manuscripts, thanks to a generous grant by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Illuminated manuscript

Dip in online

July 2009

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contains images and descriptions of several thousand items in our collections, such as this twelfth-century passional from Canterbury.


Matchless manuscripts

July 2009

The unique manuscript of Beowulf is one of the British Library’s most precious treasures, and is often found on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library.