Historical texts

Explore the documents that mark crucial events in the world's political and social history.

From Chinese oracle bones recording the names of Shang-dynasty rulers more than 3000 years ago, to Magna Carta in 1215 and the ultimatum letter which signalled the beginning of World War Two, the British Library’s collection contains a wealth of documents, letters and charters, that mark some of the most iconic and important events in the world’s political, legal and social history. Included are the handwritten musings of Henry VIII; letters from the reformer Florence Nightingale; the pre-battle plans of Horatio Nelson before his crushing victory at Trafalgar; and the final words of the explorer Captain Scott. The selection below offers a taste of the breadth and wealth of the British Library’s historic collection.

Chinese oracle bone

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are the oldest items held in the British Library.

View images from this item  (1)

Genealogical chronicle of the English Kings

Ancestry of King John

View images from this item  (6)

Yongle Dadian 永樂大典

Great Canon of the Yongle Reign

The Yongle Dadian covers all aspects of traditional Chinese knowledge and contains the most important texts of that time.

View images from this item  (3)

Bede's ecclesiastical history

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

View images from this item  (2)

Lady Jane Grey's Prayer book

Page from Lady Jane's Prayer book, f.74v

View images from this item  (1)

Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech

Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Speech,f.87

View images from this item  (1)

Admiral Lord Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar Memorandum

Admiral Nelson's Trafalgar Memorandum,f1

View images from this item  (1)

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sidney Herbert

Florence Nightingale's letter to Sir Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State for War,f.164

View images from this item  (5)

James Gillray's satirical prints

Carlo Khan's Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street James Sayers (1783)

View images from this item  (3)

Christabel Pankhurst in Daily Graphic

The Daily Graphic showing Christabel Pankhurst on her way to court

View images from this item  (1)

The Communist Party manifesto

The Communist Party Manifesto, front cover

View images from this item  (3)

World War ll ultimatum letter

Draft of Britain's World War Two Ultimatum Letter to Germany f.161

View images from this item  (1)

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.