Harley manuscripts

The Garden of Pleasure, in Roman de la Rose
Detail of a miniature of the 'Garden of Pleasure', from the Roman de la Rose, S. Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490-c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v.

The manuscripts assembled by Robert Harley and his son Edward Harley, earls of Oxford, is one of the most outstanding collections in the British Library.

About the collection

The collection contains over 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. Most are in European languages, including a sizeable number in Greek, with Hebrew and various Oriental languages represented.

The collection contains:

  • biblical manuscripts
  • some of the finest-surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts
  • books associated with secular patrons
  • medieval romances and works of Classical literature
  • a significant series of medieval rolls and charters
  • books of private devotion
  • medical and alchemical treatises
  • important historical documents
Highlights of the collection include the Ramsey Psalter, the Harley Golden Gospels, the Arnstein Bible, one of the finest illuminated copies of the Roman de la Rose, the Guthlac Roll, the Splendor Solis, the prayer book of Lady Jane Grey, and a copy of Queen Elizabeth I’s famous Tilbury speech.

The Harley library was founded in October 1704, when Robert Harley (1661-1724) purchased more than 600 manuscripts from the collection of the antiquary Sir Simonds d’Ewes. In 1711, Harley was elevated to the peerage as 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, from which date his son, Edward Harley (1689-1741), was most active in augmenting the collection. In 1753, the 2nd Earl’s widow and daughter sold the manuscripts to the nation for £10,000 (a fraction of their contemporary value) under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.

There are three groups of material:

  • Harley Ms 1 to 7661
  • Harley Charters 43 A 1 to 58 I 53, 75 A 1 to 86 I 63, and 111 A 1 to 112 I 62
  • Harley Rolls A 1 to Z 28 and AA 1 to DD5

What is available online?

list of many of the Harley manuscripts can be browsed and many are described in detail in the online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

For the complete contents of the collection see: A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: The British Museum, 1808-12).

Some images of manuscripts containing illumination can be found on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

A number of Harley manuscripts have been digitised in full on Digitised Manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Most of the Harleian Collection can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Items in Hebrew and in other Oriental languages can be consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

Some items may require a letter of introduction.

How to guides

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them