The Charter of Edward I confirming the privileges of Cambridge University was issued on February 6, 1292. The document is written in small, concise, and consistent text across the length of the page, in a text with prominent ascenders and descenders, and maybe capital letters as well. The charter itself is not in the best condition, due to numerous losses at the top and bottom of the page. However, the seal and tassel attached to the document are still in tact. The metal seal appears to have a seated man in robes, but pieces are missing and there is corrosion so it is difficult to tell. What is unique about this particular charter is that it contains one of the earliest known examples of illumination produced in Cambridge. The decorative initial E appears to be the first letter in Edward. It depicts the monarch presenting the charter to a doctor of civil law, a doctor of canon law, and two kneeling doctors of theology, all dressed in their respective academic robes.
Why is this small bit of illumination causing such a fuss? There are a ton of illuminated manuscripts that came before the charter, and after as well? The answer is complicated and really awesome. Universities such as those in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Bologna were founded in the late 12th century, and with the emergence of so many institutions, the demand for academic books increased. These universities became important hubs for manuscript production (as opposed to scriptoriums or monasteries). As you can imagine, on a student budget, illuminated manuscripts were expensive and unnecessary and sort of impractical. However, for the students and scholars that could afford illuminated manuscripts, the texts that were commissioned would most likely have been copies of legal and theological texts and popular encyclopedias. So yes, there were illuminated manuscripts produced at the time, but then the Reformation happened.
Fast-forward three hundred years. The Reformation occurred in the 16th century during the Tudor reign. King Henry VIII decided to get rid of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she failed to produce a male heir. Luckily for Anne Boleyn, she was Catherine’s successor, but unlike Catherine, the king did not divorce her when he decided to marry Jane Seymour. She lost her head, but such is the fate of King Henry’s other 67 wives. I digress. The Roman Catholic Church did not recognize divorce; the only way for one to remarry was if their previous spouse was dead. Henry did not want to be excommunicated by the Pope, or have his soul go to Hell. In short, the Pope did not allow Henry to get divorced, even though Henry requested Papal Dispensation. This made Henry angry, so he made the Archbishop of Canterbury grant him one, he subsequently went off the deep end broke away from the Church completely. Henry VIII established himself as the new head of church in Protestant England. There were also numerous injustices that the Catholic Church committed against the people of England, so perhaps this wasn’t completely selfish on Henry VIII part.
Returning to the charter, a majority of the students at Cambridge during the 13th century focused on divinity, canon and civil law, and medicine. The Reformation caused many of the texts from this time to become obsolete. Fortunately, foundation charters and official documents of the university remain, and provide insightful evidence on the practice of illumination in Cambridge from this period. The charters and documents also provide insight into how academics were treated by successive monarchs.