The legends of Troy and Thebes were favoured reading among the European nobility from the twelfth century onwards. Troy held a significant place in the royal imagination because it showcased the exploits of Trojan heroes, many of whom were believed to be the ancestors of the ruling families of Europe. The romances of Thebes, on the other hand, recounted the downfalls of tyrants and flawed kings, models to be avoided.
During the early 15th century, John Lydgate (b. c. 1370, d. c. 1451), a poet and monk of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds, contributed his own English renditions of these stories. His Troy Book, a 30,000 line translation of Guido delle Colonne’s Trojan history, was commissioned by King Henry V (r. 1413–1422) in 1412 and took 8 years to complete. Then, between 1420 and 1422, he wrote The Siege of Thebes, a translation of a 12th-century French romance known as Le Roman de Thèbes (The Romance of Thebes). Both texts gained a significant popularity during the later medieval period, and survive in over 50 manuscripts.
The two poems appear together in this manuscript, made in England between 1457 and 1460. It was most likely intended as a gift for King Henry VI (r. 1422–1461, 1470–1) from Sir William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke (b. c. 1423, d. 1469). He and his wife Anne Devereux (b. c. 1430, d. after 1486) appear in an illustration at the beginning of the book (Image No. 1), kneeling before an enthroned king, perhaps a representation of Henry himself. However, the king’s deposition in 1461 meant that the book never reached its intended recipient. Instead, it passed into the Percy family with the marriage of William Herbert’s daughter Maud to Henry Percy (d. 1489), 4th Earl of Northumberland.