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Who's Who of Medieval England

A manuscript described as a 'Who's Who of Medieval England' has revealed the faces of royalty, wine-loving soldiers and a landowner known as 'Aethelwine the Black' who all donated to the Church to ensure they went to heaven.

The St Albans Benefactors' Book includes the names and descriptions of around 600 people who gave gifts to the Church from 1380 until approximately 1540. 

It also contains more than 200 colourful portraits of those who journeyed to St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire, including a princess who donated gold and a soldier who 'gave wine liberally.'

The illuminated manuscript, which has now been digitised by the British Library, was made to take pride of place on the Abbey's high alter.

It now provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those who made pilgrimages from London and beyond to give gifts to the Church, with all levels of society who could afford to donate organised by rank.

A portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent and mother of Richard II, seen inside the St Albans Benefactors' Book after she donated a gold necklace and 100 shillings

Eleanor Jackson, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, said in a blog post: 'Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. 

'It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.'   

Royalty were found at the start of the manuscript, followed by clergymen, aristocracy, merchants, fishmongers and millers who are pictured alongside the gifts they had presented.   

The 'Golden Book of St Albans' was established in around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity by abbot Thomas de la Mare.

Robert Chamberleyn, an esquire to Henry V, was said to have given 'wine liberally' upon his arrival at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire 

In another portrait, a man known as 'Aethelwine the Black', who gave land to the Abbey during the reign of Edward the Confessor alongside his wife Wynflaed, is depicted with dark skin

Entries to the Benefactors' Book did not only include contemporaries, but stretched back to King Offa of Mercia, who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793

Its preface said anyone who made a donation to the Church could be admitted, earning them an induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in the prestigious book. 

Ms Jackson told the Times many would have donated to join the confraternity as it was 'a good way of making sure that you got a place in heaven.' 

Among those featured in lively portraits was Joan, Countess of Kent, Princess of Wales and Aquitaine, who donated a gold necklace and 100 shillings.

The royal, who was the mother of Richard II and was known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent, was depicted in a red and gold dress as she clutches the necklace she donated to the Church. 

Robert Chamberleyn, an esquire to Henry V, was said to have given wine 'liberally' to the Abbey in 1417, and was pictured on his knees in full armour.  

Other portraits depicted Nigel the Miller, who gave a yearly sum of four shillings, and abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford, who is seen with a blemished face 'reflecting the fact he was said to have suffered from leprosy.'    

They were drawn by lay artist Alan Strayler, who waived the cost of the pigments for a place among the Abbey's benefactors. He included a self-portrait in the book, in which he is seen with pointed shoes and a bulbous nose

Aethelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave land, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion to the Church

Another image shows John Berkamsted, an abbot of St Albans, who according to the Latin manuscript 'did nothing memorable in his life'

Entries to the Benefactors' Book did not only include contemporaries, but stretched back to King Offa of Mercia, who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793.

They were drawn by lay artist Alan Strayler, who waived the cost of the pigments for a place among the Abbey's benefactors. He included a self-portrait in the book, in which he is seen with pointed shoes and a bulbous nose.

Ms Jackson added: 'Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. 

'They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. 

Other portraits depicted Nigel the Miller, who gave a yearly sum of four shillings. He is seen above clutching a cloth purse containing the money

Petronilla de Benstede gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver, seen above in the St Albans Benefactors' Book

Abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford is seen with a blemished face 'reflecting the fact he was said to have suffered from leprosy'

'Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.' 

In one portrait, a man known as 'Aethelwine the Black', who gave land to the Abbey during the reign of Edward the Confessor alongside his wife Wynflaed, is depicted with dark skin.

Another image shows John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans, who according to the Latin manuscript 'did nothing memorable in his life'. A second clergyman, Ealdred, was said to have filled in the cave of a dragon.

Ms Jackson told the Times: 'Depictions of ordinary people are rare, as are insights into their lives. Looking through the pages of the benefactors' book you see all these individual people with different personalities, backgrounds and social aspirations. 

'Each portrait is like a tiny window on a life once lived. It's incredibly rich and evocative. There are no other surviving confraternity books on the scale of the St Albans Benefactors' Book, either in terms of the number of members or the extensive artwork.'   

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