Latin & Illumination


In its choice of language and relative lack of decoration, the Canterbury Roll differs from rolls that were clearly intended for display and that could have been used to disseminate ideas amongst the semi-literate and illiterate by being posted on  walls and gates. The use of Latin in a period when composition in English was becoming more acceptable is a particular point of interest.

Among the literate, the use of the vernacular had increased from the 12th century. By the 15th century, that vernacular was English rather than Anglo-Norman French. English even had royal patronage: the second Lancastrian king, Henry V, encouraged its use for patriotic purposes in his wars against the French. However, Latin continued to be the language of education and prestige. It appealed to a smaller but specific readership: the educated classes, the clergy and nobility, men and women whose support the monarchy needed.

Latin possessed an authoritative quality. A belief that Latin prose was the language of "authority" – as opposed to entertainment – may be why it was chosen for the Roll. That authority may have been bolstered by the fact that, as with pre-Reformation Christianity, the use of Latin meant that for the majority of the population a degree of mediation was required. In other words the Roll, as an object, was imbued with its own specific authority precisely because its language made it inaccessible to most people.

The Roll includes only one line in English, a reference to Battle Abbey – "ye Abbay of ye Batayll" (CRC110). The institution was founded by William the Conqueror as an act of penance following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Unremarked upon to date, this is the Roll's only nod to the vernacular. It may be the result of a simple slip on the part of a scribe who thought in English while writing in Latin.

For discussion of the editorial decisions made when editing the text of the Roll, please see the Introduction to the Digital Edition.



Compared to many contemporary rolls, the Canterbury manuscript is sparsely illuminated. Nevertheless, the Roll contains a number of interesting features, not least of which is its vivid – and in some instances highly politicized – use of colour.

Noah's Ark & the Red Rose

The Roll originally began with a depiction of Noah's Ark within a floral decorated border. Today, only the faintest traces of green timbers remain. Arnold Wall's description in 1919 suggests that it was once much clearer.

At an unknown date, an otherwise unknown illuminator superimposed a red rose over the Ark. By the late 1450s, as Ralph Griffiths has noted, the red rose had become associated with the Beaufort family. As the Beauforts feature prominently among the noble families on the Roll, it is possible that this may indicate the Roll became connected with the family.


  Noah's Ark set in floral decoration with a superimposed red rose


The Roll's most striking illuminations are in the form of two crowns, the first accorded to Brutus, the legendary Trojan founder of Britain, the second to Egbert, portrayed on the Roll as the king who unified the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.

It is possible that in its original form the Roll terminated with an illuminated letter "H", which would have represented Henry VI. According to Alison Allan, evidence exists that such "H"s were planned in at least two other manuscripts of the "Noah" group (London, British Library, Add MD 18002; London, British Library, Sloane MS 2732A). Today, a conspicuous blank space appears at the end of the Roll with some indications of an erasure. Henry VI appears, as a result of Yorkist modifications, to one side of the central axis accompanied by a number of disparaging remarks.

King Egbert
Henry VI & the "missing" H?

Brutus is unique in that he is the only ruler to appear on the central axis whose name is written in blue–grey. The Lancastrian Scribe used red ink to label Egbert, as he did in other cases where he attributed particular significance to a ruler.

While Brutus' crown is open and resembles the "traditional" form associated with English rulers, Egbert's is much more striking. The closed form strongly resembles the type of crown worn by contemporary rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. A trend towards associating English kingship with imperial iconography began under the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV. It may have been given added impetus by a visit to England by the contemporary claimant to the imperial throne, the Roman and Hungarian king Sigismund. That visit took place in 1416, and was therefore relatively recent at the time of the Roll's original drafting.

It is possible that the sparse use of illumination was the result of an intentional decision: when the Roll is viewed fully unrolled, the two crowns – and potentially the missing "H" – act as "marker points" that tell a cyclical story of foundation, disunity, and re-unification. In particular, the Lancastrian Scribe may have intended viewers draw a parallel between the reunification of England under Egbert and the reign of the third Lancastrian king. If so, it was a profoundly optimistic vision, albeit one quickly dashed by the reality of Henry VI's reign.

Floral Decoration

Less striking than the crowns of Brutus and Egbert, yet equally notable, is the floral decoration that accompanies key figures. The mythical first Christian king of the British Isles, Lucius, like Saint Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, receives this treatment in addition to rubrication of his name.

  King Lucius
Saint Edward the Confessor
William the Conqueror

The Yorkist Scribe who modified the Roll in the 1460s took this floral decoration one step further. He incorporated an elaborate white rose (the Yorkist symbol) to denote the succession of Edward IV.

  King Edward IV

Colour, Lines, & Roundels

In its original Lancastrian form, the Roll made extensive – and sometimes bewildering – use of a wide range of colours to illustrate the connections between roundels. In one case the colours chosen clearly have a political significance. The central axis is, for the most part, depicted in red. This is the same colour (gules) as the English coat of arms. As is discussed in French Connections, the fact that the central axis begins to alternate between red and blue from Edward III's succession suggests that the choice of colour was not coincidental. The use of blue (azure) is certainly intended to invoke the French coat of arms, thereby indicating the English claim to the French kingdom at a time when Henry VI had recently succeeded to both.

  The red/blue axis: King Edward III (CRN499) & his children

The importance of the Roll's wider use of colour awaits further investigation. Much of the symbolism – if indeed there is any – remains unclear. What can be said with certainty, however, is that by the time the Yorkist Scribe came to revise the Roll, much less interest was being taken in the palette used. The Yorkist Scribe resolutely employs red. This was the result of both the focus on claims to the English throne that lay at the heart of a bitter civil war and, perhaps, a subconscious recognition of the fact that the English had suffered a significant reversal of fortunes in the Anglo-French war in the decades since the Roll was first created, losing most of their continental possessions.

While the Lancastrian Scribe's roundels were carefully drawn "double-circles", the Yorkist Scribe's approach was simply to sketch his additional roundels "free hand". As a consequence, the latter are considerably less neat. If the Lancastrian roundels can sometimes appear "cluttered" today it is often because of the addition of Roman numerals by a later hand. That is not to say that the original version of the Roll was always executed with careful attention to detail. On at least one occasion (CRN248) the Lancastrian Scribe appears to have miscalculated the number of roundels required and was forced to place two rulers in the same roundel. Towards the end of the Roll a number of roundels are also left blank.


(left) Colour Connections on the Roll
(Beginning CRN214; ending CRN225)

(below left) An example of the Yorkist Scribe's roundels
(Clockwise: CRN594, CRN596, CRN598, CRN597, CRN595)

(below right) The Lancastrian Scribe places two rulers in the same roundel as the result of an apparent miscalculation




Origin | Wars of the Roses | Latin & Illumination | Roman Numerals Scribe | Noble Origins? | Yorkist Revision