Medieval and early modern British historical manuscripts

images of four English kings holding buildings that represent their religious foundations. The images are in grid formation. 2x2. Each king in seated on a throne. From left to right, top to bottom:  Henry II with Waltham Abbey; Richard I the Lionheart with the church of St Thomas of Canterbury; John with the Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu; Henry III with Westminster Abbey
Portraits of English kings from Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum (Royal MS 14 C. vii, f. 9r).

You can read the manuscripts that tell the story of medieval and early modern Britain.

About the collection

The British Library’s manuscripts include chronicles, cartularies, rolls, charters and seals, genealogical and heraldic manuscripts, and state papers.

Collection highlights

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Probably begun at the command of King Alfred of Wessex (871–99), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the first history of England in the English language. Several versions survive, each maintained at a different monastery.

The Seal of Duncan II

The earliest surviving seal of a king of Scotland, dating from 1093–4, depicts Duncan II on horseback.

Chronicle of Melrose Abbey

This 12th-century work is the oldest Scottish chronicle (preserved in Cotton MS Julius B XIII and Cotton MS Faustina B IX).

Magna Carta

The British Library holds two of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta issued by King John of England in 1215.

Matthew Paris

Both a historian and illustrator, Matthew’s manuscripts are among the most lively depictions of English life in the 13th century. The Library holds his abbreviated chronicle and Book of Additions.

The Dering Roll

This is the oldest surviving English roll of arms. It contains 324 coats of arms, one quarter of the entire English baronage during the reign of King Edward I (1272–1307).

Paston Letters

This famous collection of English private correspondence offers a unique glimpse into the personal lives of three generations of the Paston family from Norfolk and a colourful picture of life in 15th-century East Anglia.

Tudor State Papers

The Cotton, Harley, Lansdowne and Yelverton collections contain a wealth of government papers from the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. The Cotton collection also contains important documents relating to Henry VIII’s ecclesiastical reforms.

What is available online?

The Explore Manuscripts and Archives catalogue contains catalogue entries for many historical manuscripts. Some manuscripts have been digitised in full on Digitised Manuscripts. Selective coverage of items containing illuminations can be found on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The vast majority of British literary manuscripts are available to order and view in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Some items may require a letter of introduction.

Highlights from our collections are displayed on rotation for anyone to see in the free Treasures Gallery.

Descriptions of manuscripts not currently included in the Explore Manuscripts and Archives catalogue can often be found in reference works found in the Manuscripts Reading Room, such as the calendars of charters and rolls, and the handwritten catalogues of the Sloane collection. The Catalogue of Seals (London, 1887–1900) is a key resource for the British Library’s collection of medieval British seals.

What is available in other organisations?

The National Archives at Kew holds the collections of the Public Record Office and other key documents produced by British governments during the medieval and early modern period; it also continues the work of the Historical Manuscripts Commission to locate documents of value to understanding the past. Many key manuscripts from this period are held by the Bodleian Libraries and the Cambridge University Library; others can be found at cathedrals, colleges, and public record offices throughout the United Kingdom, and in universities and private collections around the world.