The first king of the English, Æthelstan (reigned 924–939), was a generous patron to churches, granting them relics, land and manuscripts. An inscription in this gospel-book records how he, as ‘emperor of the English and sovereign of the whole of Britain’, presented the book to Christ Church, Canterbury.
Æthelstan’s presentation of the gospel-book was apparently an example of the common medieval practice of re-gifting. The manuscript itself was made in Francia and was probably given to Æthelstan by his brother-in-law Otto I, king of Germany from 936.
This origin is suggested by two inscriptions, probably added in England, at the bottom of one of the pages: + odda rex (‘King Otto’) and + mihthild mater regis (‘Mathilda, mother of the king’ [Otto], died 968).
The quality of the script and decoration in these Gospels is certainly consistent with a royal gift. According to a note added to this book at Christ Church, Æthelstan enhanced this decoration still further with a jewelled treasure binding, which sadly does not survive.
Today this book is sometimes called the Coronation Gospels. A later owner, Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631), brought it to the coronation of Charles I, hoping that it would form part of that ceremony. Charles refused, and had the royal barge rowed past its mooring point in order to spurn Cotton.