The manuscript is of parchment, and is of 119 folios in length, 248x175 mm in size. The text is written in a single column, in a very formal hand, with decorated initials, rubrics, and blue headings; a full page of text contains three 7-line stanzas, but most pages contain less text than this to make room for illustrations. Of the 120 miniatures, two are full-page pictures. Nicholas Rogers indicates that the two artists who decorated Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 3-1979, a Book of Hours from Bury, were two of the possibly four artists who worked on the decoration of Harley 2278 (235).
Beside having been the property of Henry VI, this manuscript is also said (as recorded in the Harley catalogue) to have been in the possession of King James the Second of Scotland (d. 1460), but the basis for this claim, if any, is not now known. The manuscript is in the possession of the king of England in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII gave it to Thomas Audley; on fol. 119v is the name "Audelay baro[n]"--this is Thomas Audley, created Baron Audley of Walden in 1538, who was for a time Lord Chancellor, and died 1544.
C. E. Wright, in his Fontes Harleiana, summarizes what is known of the history of the manuscript prior to its acquisition for the Harley collection: a) Henry VI, King of England: then, presumably, his successors to Henry VIII; b) Audley (Thomas, Baron Audley), given the MS by Henry VIII, presumably after he became Baron Audley in 1538, since that is how he styles himself when he signed the last folio of the manuscript--though, admittedly, the "baro[n]" is an indication of the date of the signature, not of the giving of the gift itself; "[h]is dau. and heiress, Margaret, was 2nd wife of Thomas Howard, 4th D. of Norfolk, their son being Lord William Howard of Naworth," and the manuscript presumably passed along this line of inheritance; c) D-- (Mrs L--) (nothing is known of this person: these initials were written on a flyleaf; as noted below, Seymour takes this notation as reading "'Mss LD' (perhaps denoting 'Lydgate manuscript')" rather than the initials of a person); d) [William] Colston (the sale by him of Harley 2278 to Robert Harley is recorded in The Diary of Humfrey Wanley 1: 64--entry for 16 Aug. 1720); e) Robert Harley and (after Robert's death in 1724) his son Edward: Edward's wife sold the collection in 1753, and it was purchased by the nation; f) British Museum (subsequently, British Library).
It is quite probable that the manuscript was produced under Lydgate's direction; he may well have been involved in choosing the subjects and methods of the illustrations. Variations upon this set of miniatures are also found in other MSS of the poem; thus a "program" of illustration was established for the poem from the start, again almost certainly under authorial supervision (see Scott). This gives the illustrations added significance.
Further, if MS Harley 2278 is the presentation copy, and was prepared under Lydgate's personal direction, then its value for scholarship increases, for it would provide some of the best evidence available for the study of Lydgate's idiolect and style. Since MS Harley 2255 has been discounted as a Lydgate supervised collection (in a not-yet-published article by Pamela Farvolden and myself), Harley 2278 becomes that much more valuable as one of the very few (though not the only, but certainly the most significant) Lydgate manuscripts produced in Lydgate's lifetime.
The manuscript is traditionally dated 1433, at the beginning of Henry's Christmas visit to the abbey, but Henry had given Abbot Curteys only eight weeks' notice of his intentions, which seems to be too little time for the translation and this copy of it to have been produced in time for the king's arrival. It is more likely that the manuscript was completed soon after Henry's visit as a commemoration of it: i.e., ca. 1434. Since the Harley version of the poem does not include verses which appear in later manuscripts and which are almost certainly signs of an authorial revision--verses recounting miracles ascribed to Edmund in London in 1441 and in Bury in 1444; thus, at the very latest, the Harley manuscript must have been produced before 1444. Rogers argues for a presentation date of 1439 on what he admits is circumstantial evidence: in that year Lydgate was awarded a royal pension, and in that year Abbot Whethamstede of St. Albans commissioned a similar double saints' life for the patron saint of his abbey, Lydgate's Lives of Ss. Alban and Amphibal (236).
Comparing the decoration of Harley 2278 with the Lydgate presentation portrait inserted in Harley 4826 led Margaret Rickert in 1954 to speak of a "tinted outline style" which may have originated in Bury St. Edmunds. Since then various others scholars have compared manuscripts, especially of Lydgate's works, and identified many as being of East Anglian, probably Bury St. Edmunds, provenance. A. I. Doyle, in his Lyell Lectures of 1967, considered a number of the products of this "Lydgate factory," which was turning out illustrated Lydgate manuscripts in the 1460s and 1470s; these Lectures have not yet been published, but some of their conclusions may also be found in Doyle's essay on "Book Production by the Monastic Orders" (1990). Kathleen Scott also writes of the Bury manuscripts in an article identifying the Arundel Castle copy of Lydgate's "Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund" as being a close sister to MS Yates Thompson 47, and these are two of nine manuscripts copied by "the Edmund-Fremund scribe" working in or near Bury. Both manuscripts were also decorated in the same shop, and their program of decoration of the story of Edmund shows that the illustrations of Harley 2278 were "remembered" at this shop.
Rogers, as noted above, compares Fitzwilliam 3-1979 with Harley 2278 (and also San Marino, Huntington Library, MS HM 268, part of a deluxe copy of Lydgate's Fall of Princes) to demonstrate the "origins" of the "Bury style" in these early fifteenth-century manuscripts. "The style of Fitzwilliam 3-1979 is a distinctive one. Figures are beady-eyed, often somewhat stocky, and display a variety of lively poses. Heads are frequently tilted at an angle, and arms thrust out in eloquent gestures. A common motif is the back-turned figure, with whom the viewer can empathise. . . . Two miniaturists can be recognised" (234).
Both these artists can be identified in Harley 2278, as the principal two of the three or possibly four miniaturists who worked on the 120 miniatures and two historiated initials of that ambitious project. The first artist of Fitzwilliam 3-1979 is clearly the head of the group, responsible for about a fifth of the miniatures, mostly towards the beginning of the book, including the so-called Presentation scene on f. 6. . . . To him can also be attributed the design of certain of the miniatures executed by his associates. His work in Harley 2278 displays further characteristic traits: a prediliction for white-clad figures, sometimes creating a semi-grisaille effect; a liking for detailed landscape settings; and a related delight in spatial experimentation. . . . He shows great skill in depicting the dramatic interrelationships of figures. The second artist is again more prolific, being responsible for about two-thirds of the miniatures in the Lives of SS. Edmund and Fremund. Again the range in quality of his work suggests the intervention of an assistant on occasion. His palette is broad, even garish, and his figures sometimes doll-like. Noticeable in Harley 2278 is a liking for bold textile backgrounds, which even overwhelm the subject-matter on occasion. . . . He usually paints grass as short vertical strokes, but in the latter part of the manuscript, under the influence of the first artist, he attempts more elaborate forms of herbage. (235)And, again:
The border decoration in these manuscripts is no less distinctive than the figure style. Much of the repertoire of foliage motifs is of widespread occurrence, although there are some unusual forms, such as the 'bindweed' and striped 'kidney' leaves in Fitzwilliam 3-1979 . . . or the pea-pods on f. 6 of Harley 2278. . . . Similarly, the rectilinear borders with clumps of acanthus decoration at the corners, which form the principal divisions in Fitzwilliam 3-1979, . . . are not dissimilar to those in contemporary London manuscripts, but the marginal infill is both more loosely constructed and more evenly distributed than in metropolitan work, the emphasis being much more on the individual leaf forms, rather than on the connecting pen tendrils, which in the Fitzwilliam manuscript are mostly lightly rendered in red. Above all, it is the soft modelling of the border decoration, with little of the outlining of forms noticeable in London books, that sets this group of manuscripts apart. (236-237)
I quote Seymour's description in full (pp. 13-14):
BRITISH LIBRARY MS. HARLEY 2278 Ff. ii + 122 + i. Parchment. 250 X 175 mm. Frame contains three spaced stanzas. Harleian binding in red leather.
COLLATION: 1(8) (wants 8), 2-15(8), 16(4) (wants 4). Catchwords, some signatures.
CONTENTS (MS. foliation iii + 119 + ii):
SCRIBE: 1434. Cursiva formata: headed a, ascenders of b, h, l, k hooked and generally having a downstroke which completes a loop, delta-shaped d, open e, open-tailed g with elongated flourished descender, short r, final s six-shaped. With MS. Arundel 119 (Siege of Thebes, written c. 1425 for William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk), this manuscript offers the best opportunity of recovering Lydgate's spelling system since both are, it seems, first copies of the author's holograph.
HISTORY: presented, it appears, in 1434 by abbot William Curteys to Henry VI after the royal visit to Bury. Subsequently acquired by the Audley family, a signature of whom 'Audley baron' occurs on f. 119v. This is probably the hand of John Audley (d. 1559), and the book was possibly presented to him in 1512 by Henry VIII when his honours were restored, cf. MS. Royal 18 D.vi (Troy Book) which contains verses by John Audley and MS. Bodley 546 (Master of Game) which contains the Audley arms and a 16th-c. inscription.
On the second fly-leaf is a late 17th- or early 18th-c. mark 'Mss LD' (perhaps denoting 'Lydgate manuscript'). On f. 1 is 'No. 467' in a 17th-c. hand. Sold 16 August 1720 by William Colston (of Magdalen College in 1671 and later, perhaps, of Goring) to Robert Harley, whose press-marks 99.B.17/2278 and 8/VI A occur. The sale is recorded by Wanley in his diary (ed. Wright i. 64).
PRINTED NOTICES: Lord Francis Hervey, Corolla Sancti Edmundi, London, 1907, with facsimiles of ff. 10v, 13v. C. Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden. Neue Folge, 1881. C. E. Wright, English Vernacular Hands, Oxford, 1960, p. 18 with facsimile of f. 66v. Scott, plate 8 (f. 61).
[A fuller list of printed notices of Harley 2278 and of photographic reproductions from the manuscript is available here. SR]