The Talbot Shrewsbury book is a remarkable manuscript collection of 15 works in French, comprising romances, chivalric treatises, instructional texts, chronicles and statutes. These texts were compiled as a gift to Margaret of Anjou, on her betrothal to King Henry VI of England, from John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, who escorted her from France to England for her marriage and coronation in 1445. The book was illuminated by the Talbot Master (so named for this manuscript and a Book of Hours also commissioned by Shrewsbury) and his workshop in Rouen, Normandy.

Shown here is a beautiful two-column miniature in colour and gold, full borders, and verses of text dedicating the book to Margaret. The miniature (also shown in detail) depicts the presentation of the book to Margaret, who is hand in hand with Henry and bearing the crown and sceptre of a Queen of England.

Margaret of Anjou and her portrayal by Shakespeare

Margaret was a key figure in what are now known as the Wars of the Roses: the civil wars of the 15th century between the rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster and York. Henry VI had several periods of serious mental illness during his reign, and at those times, Margaret took charge of the Lancastrian cause. She was even present on the battlefield at the Lancastrian victory at St Albans in 1461, ruthlessly ordering the execution of Yorkist prisoners of war, and led her own troops into battle at Tewkesbury in 1471, where the Lancastrians were defeated and her 17 year old son was killed.

Margaret died in Anjou in 1482, having lived there for seven years, but Shakespeare rewrites history in Richard III, portraying her alive and in England during Richard’s reign (1483–85). Margaret is the only character to appear in all four of the plays now known as the first tetralogy (the four plays Henry VI, Parts 1–3, and Richard III). She has a major role in Part 2 and Part 3 of Henry VI, where she is a violent and destructive force. Richard, Duke of York describes her as a ‘tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide’ after he learns she has killed his young son (3 Henry VI, 1.1.137). Margaret acts as the main theatrical (although not political) challenge to Richard in Richard III, holding firm in her hate and raining down curses on him.

The Talbot Shrewsbury book has been digitised in full and can be viewed via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page.