Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Alphonso Psalter

Page from the Alphonso Psalter (BL 24686)
depicting King David playing his harp; at the
bottom are David (left)  preparing to sling a
stone at Goliath (right)
King Edward I had 16 children by Eleanor of Castile (and three by Margaret of France after that). His ninth child was Alphonso, made the Earl of Chester. Alphonso was named for his godfather and uncle on his mother's side, King Alfonso X of Castile. Despite being the third son, Alphonso was named as his father's heir because of the early death of his older brothers.

Alphonso, who was born 24 November 1273, was engaged to marry Margaret of Holland, daughter of Count Floris V. In preparation for the wedding, a beautiful psalter (an illuminated copy of the Book of Psalms) was being prepared as a wedding gift. Unfortunately, Alphonso died on 19 August 1284,* and the psalter was left unfinished, only to be completed 10 years later for the wedding of his sister Elizabeth to Margaret's brother, Count John I of Holland.

The Alphonso Psalter is 9.5 inches tall and 6.5 inches wide, and it sits in the British Library today (designated 24686). It is considered the first major work of the "East Anglian style" of gothic illumination. The East Anglian style is what we often picture today when we think of illuminated gothic manuscripts: filled with border illustrations that are entertaining and distracting rather than directly enhancing the text.

Besides the psalms, it includes obituary information for many members of King Edward's family, the Athanasian Creed, and the litany of the saints (a prayer that invokes all the saints).


*730 years ago today. Alphonso's younger brother, Edward, was the only surviving son of Edward, and became Edward II.

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