John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 2
  • Dates of Creation
      Mid 15th century
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      Middle English
  • Physical Description
      1 volume. ii + 185 + ii folios, foliated 1-185 (modern foliation). Dimensions: 415 x 295 mm. Collation: 1-108, 118 lacking 6 after f. 85, 12-228, 2310. Signatures of the usual late medieval kind, but only 't 1' remains intact (f. 144: 191). Medium: vellum. Binding: dark blue morocco, elaborate gilt roll borders, spine compartments richly gilt, 19th century.

Scope and Content

A luxury mid fifteenth-century manuscript of John Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Although there are no illustrations the manuscript has heavily decorated borders throughout. There is some evidence that this manuscript was used as copy for Richard Pynson's printed edition of 1494. Numbers added in the margins throughout books 7 and 8 correspond to pages of the Pynson edition, the first, 'xiiii' (f. 140), covering only four stanzas, because only these four are on A7v in the edition. The series then runs xv, xvi, b i-xvi, c i-xvi, d i-xvi, e i-xvi, f i-xvi, g i-xvi, h i-v at intervals of 11, 12, or 13 stanzas, according to the number of stanzas on any one page of the printed edition, A8r to H3r (103 pages), and finally h vi opposite the line 'Explicit Iohn Bochas' (f. 184) which is on H3v in the Pynson edition. For this and other evidence that Pynson used this manuscript, see M.M. Morgan (in Bibliography below).

Contents: John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. H. Bergen, Lydgate's Fall of princes, 4 vols (1924-7): see Bibliography below. This copy is collated by Bergen as J and is described in vol. 4, pp. 21-3, where he notes the close relationship to Richard Pynson's edition (1494: STC 3175). Book 4 lines 98-288 are missing after f. 85. The 28 lines on f. 184, 'Greenacres a lenuoye vpon Iohn Bochas. Blake be thy bondes...' (Index of Middle English verse, no. 524/2: ed. Bergen, vol. 3, p. 23), occur only here and in Pynson's printed edition.

Script: A 'rather ugly and unstable bastard secretary' (Ker), with a change of ink, but perhaps not of hand, at f. 151v, column a, line 27, after the word 'Poncius' (book 8, line 372). Written space: 285 x 200 mm. 2 columns, 43-51 lines: the number changes often and is 49 (seven stanzas to a column) only on the first two quires.

Secundo folio: For. lordis.

Decoration: There is a continuous border on f. 1, and [ or I borders at the beginning of books 2, 3 and 5-8 (the leaf at the beginning of book 4 is not present): ff. 38r, 60v, 105r, 121r, 140r and 150v; these comprise foliate bar borders in burnished gold, blue and pink, sprouting acanthus leaves, with extensions terminating in acanthus leaves, ivy leaves, flowers and bezants. There is one 8-line initial on f. 1r, in pink and blue with white penwork and floral infill on a burnished gold ground; there are six 3- or 4-line initials in the same style, at the beginning of the other books; and numerous 2- and 3-line initials in burnished gold on pink and blue grounds with white penwork and foliate extensions.

Other features: On f. 185, a late 16th-century owner has written 'a note of all my Bookes' (but not including this one), printed by Bergen, vol. 4, p. 22. The forty-three titles, all English, include (28) The vysyon of pers plowman, (31) Raynold the Foxe, (32) The golden asse, and (40) Wytegyftes admonysyon (i.e. An answere to a certen libel intituled, An admonition to the parliament (STC 25427-9), which was printed in 1572 and 1573).

Description derived from N.R. Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 400. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Lydgate (1370?-1451?), poet, was born at Lydgate, near Newmarket, Suffolk. A monk of the Benedictine monastery at Bury St Edmunds, he was well educated and had literary ambitions. He was an admirer of Geoffrey Chaucer and a friend to his son Thomas. A prolific writer of poems, allegories, fables and romances, Lydgate was regarded as the unofficial court poet in the reigns of Henry V and the early part of Henry VI. His most famous works are The Troy Book (composed 1412-1420), The Siege of Thebes (1420?-1422) and The Fall of Princes (c.1431-1438/9).

The Fall of Princes is John Lydgate's longest single work, totalling over 36,000 lines of mostly rhyme-royal verse. It was originally commissioned by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1431, being completed sometime around 1438 or 1439.

Ostensibly the work was a translation of Giovanni Boccaccio's De casibus vivorum illustrium, a collection of moralized tragedies, extending from Adam to King John of France, that were designed to illustrate Fortune's fickle nature and the downfalls brought on by sinful living and unjust government. In reality, Lydgate used a French translation written by Laurent de Premierfait, a professional translator at the court of King Charles V of France. Laurent greatly expanded the text in historical and mythological detail for his second edition of 1409 and it is this edition that Lydgate appears to have used, editing and expanding it even further as he translated. Additions came from a variety of sources including the Bible, Ovid and other works by Boccaccio, or 'Bochas' as Lydgate called him, whilst excisions came from personally or politically offensive sections like Laurent's censure of clerics and Boccaccio's scorn for magnates. The result was a universalistic encyclopedia of biographical history and mythology, somewhat eclectic in scope and exhaustively fleshed out with moral teaching.

Popular amongst the English aristocracy of the 15th and 16th centuries, this work was selected for printing as early as 1494 by Richard Pynson and underwent a reprint by Pynson in 1527 and again in 1554 by both Richard Tottel and John Wayland. Its influence on later literature can be seen in the number and variety of moral biographies that followed it into the later 15th and 16th centuries, the most notable being the popular late 16th-century work, A Mirror for Magistrates.

Source: Douglas Gray, 'Lydgate, John (c.1370-1449/50?)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press:

Access Information

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Rylands in 1901 from James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford, and later transferred to the John Rylands Library.

Custodial History

(1) Brian Fairfax. The manuscript was probably part of a collection brought together by Brian Fairfax the younger (1676-1749), commissioner of customs and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had a specific interest in early English literature. According to a note in the Bodleian copy of the Jersey sale catalogue (see below) this manuscript was 'Fairfax 2343', that is to say, lot 2343 in the Brian Fairfax sale, 26 April 1756.

(2) Sir Francis Child. The Fairfax collection was purchased en bloc by Sir Francis Child (1735-1763), of Osterley Park, Middlesex.

(3) Earls of Jersey. Sir Francis's grand niece and eventual heir, Lady Sarah Sophia Fane, married the fifth Earl of Jersey and through her the Osterley Park estate, including the collection, descended to the Earls of Jersey. The manuscript carries the heraldic bookplate of the Earls of Jersey from Osterley Park. It remained a part of the Bibliotheca Osterleiensis until the 7th Earl of Jersey, Victor Albert George Child-Villiers (1845-1915), sold the library at Sotheby's on 6 May 1885.

(4) Bernard Quaritch. The manuscript was purchased at the Osterley Park sale by Quaritch for £234, lot 238.

(5) Lord Crawford. Bought from Quaritch by James Ludovic Lindsay, 26th Earl of Crawford, for 5 per cent above the auction price: see Barker, p. 284.

Related Material

The JRUL also holds English MS 1, a manuscript copy of John Lydgate's Seige of Troy (GB 133 Eng MS 1).


Nicolas Barker, Bibliotheca Lindesiana: the lives and collections of Alexander William, 25th Earl of Crawford and 8th Earl of Balcarres and James Ludovic, 26th Earl of Crawford and 9th Earl of Balcarres (London: Quaritch for the Roxburghe Club, 1977), p. 284, for information on Lord Crawford's acquisition of the manuscript.

Henry Bergen (ed.), Lydgate's Fall of princes, Early English Text Society Extra Series, vols cxxi-cxxiv (London: Early English Text Society, 1924-7); the present manuscript is described in vol. 4, pp. 21-3.

Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The index of Middle English verse (New York: printed for the Index Society by Columbia University Press, 1943); the present manuscript is no. 1168/19.

Douglas Gray, 'Lydgate, John (c.1370-1449/50?)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004):

Andrew J. Hopper, 'Fairfax, Brian (1633-1711)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004):

N.R. (Neil Ripley) Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 400.

Margery M. Morgan, 'A specimen of early printer's copy: Ryland English MS 2', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 33 (1950), pp. 194-6.

Derek Pearsall, John Lydgate (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), for information on John Lydgate and his Fall of Princes.