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The Sherborne Missal

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Image from the Sherborne Missal
'The Sherborne Missal': Opening page of the feast of Trinity Sunday
British Library Add. MS 74236, p.276

Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email

'This early 15th-century manuscript is probably the largest and most lavishly decorated English medieval service book to survive from the Middle Ages. Such books were mostly destroyed or defaced during the Reformation in the 16th century, or else discarded as useless in subsequent centuries, but this one has somehow survived 500 years in wonderfully fresh condition.

What is a missal?

A missal is a book containing the text - and sometimes, as in this case, the music - needed to celebrate Mass. It includes texts that are used in the same form throughout the year, and others that change from day to day (such as different saints' feast days), or from season to season (such as Advent or Lent) during the Church year. Every priest needed a missal in order to perform the Mass, but few possessed one as magnificent as this.

Why is it called the 'Sherborne’ Missal?

The contents of the manuscript show that it was made for (but not necessarily at) St Mary's Abbey at Sherborne in Dorset (South-West England). From about the middle of the 13th century, most churches in southern England followed roughly the same set of liturgical practices (known as the 'Use of Sarum'), but the 'West Country' had some exceptions: Herefordshire had the 'Use of Hereford', and there were other variations especially in the area of Glastonbury and Wells; this manuscript demonstrates that Sherborne followed practices very similar to those of Wells.

What is so special about the Sherborne Missal?

The standard modern textbook on 15th-century English illuminated manuscripts includes this summary of its importance, starting with an arrestingly blunt statement:

“The Sherborne Missal is the unrivalled masterpiece of English Book production in the 15th century. No other native manuscript approaches this book in conception and realisation. It is innovative, at times recklessly daring in its design and placement of pictorial subjects. It encompasses more unique pictorial themes, more unusual methods of integrating subjects, and more decorative modes than occur anywhere else in England.”

One particular feature of the manuscript is worthy of mention: a series of 48 highly naturalistic depictions of birds, most of them identified by name in Middle English (rather than Latin). Some of the Middle English names are easily understandable and familiar to modern readers: 'Ganett', 'More hen', 'Stork', 'Cormerant' and so on, while others are much harder to identify: 'Waysteter' (wagtail), 'Wodewale' (woodpecker), and 'Roddoke' (robin), among others.

Who made the manuscript?

Image of Robert Bruyning with Richard Mitford   Image of John Whas with John Siferwas
Robert Bruyning and Richard Mitford
British Library Add. MS 74236, p.276
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email
  John Whas and John Siferwas
British Library Add. MS 74236, p.276
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email

Most medieval art is anonymous, but this Missal is very unusual because it contains numerous 'portraits' of the patron, main scribe, and main artist; and inscriptions naming the scribe and artist. The patron was apparently the abbot of Sherborne, Robert Bruyning, whose portrait occurs dozens of times in the manuscript. On eight occasions he is shown with his religious superior, the bishop of Salisbury, Richard Mitford.

The name of the main scribe who wrote the script and musical notation is given in a colophon (a note that may be at the end of a manuscript, recording something about they who? when? where? why? of the book's production). Translated from Latin, it reads, "John Whas, the monk, laboured on the writing of this book, and his body was much debilitated by early rising". John Whas is known to have been a monk at Sherborne Abbey; he is depicted seven times. The chief illuminator was John Siferwas, assisted by a team of at least four other artists. He provides six portraits of himself in the habit of a Dominican friar. He also illuminated the 'Lovell Lectionary', another prestigious manuscript commissioned by John, Lord Lovell for Salisbury Cathedral.

What is happening on this page?

Within the text area is one large and two smaller initials: a 'D' with the face of Christ; a 'B' with God above four figures and the lamb of God on an open book, surrounded by angels; and an 'O' with an angel holding a shield with the arms of the Trinity. The borders include the Four Evangelists at the corners; and the nine orders of angels (cherubim, seraphim, etc.). The left-hand border includes (from top to bottom) the Dove of the Holy Spirit; Christ enthroned displaying his wounds, flanked by Saint Mark and Saint Matthew; a kneeling bishop and abbot (doubtless John Mitford and Robert Bruyning), flanked by Saint Luke and Saint John; a kneeling monk and friar, identified on the scroll below their feet as John Whas and John Siferwas; and a naturalistically-depicted peacock and pheasant.

When was the manuscript made?

Among the 70 or so examples of heraldic arms painted in the Missal are clues to the dates between which the manuscript must have been written and illuminated, a process that may have taken several years. Most of the work must presumably have been during Robert Bruyning's abbacy, which lasted from 1385 until his death in 1415. Narrower dates can be established by the arms and many portraits of Richard Mitford, who was bishop of Salisbury from 1396 until his death in 1407. These dates can be refined even more: the inclusion of the royal arms of Henry, Prince of Wales - later to become Henry V - suggests the Missal was not completed (and perhaps was not started) before 1399, the year of his father's coronation, after which he assumed the title of Prince of Wales. So work on the manuscript was certainly taking place after 1399 and before 1407, and the entire manuscript may have been created during this period.

How did the Sherborne Missal come to the British Library?

The history of the Missal can be traced in unusual detail from the day it was made down to the present. It probably remained at Sherborne until the abbey was dissolved in 1536; the abbey and its lands were then bought by Sir John Horsey, but by 1703 the Missal had found its way to France, when the Bishop of Lisieux presented it to the renowned book-collector Nicolas Foucault, who had the binding stamped with his heraldic arms. The Missal later had at least two subsequent French owners before returning to England sometime after 1785; in 1797, it was purchased by George Mills, who had homes in Gloucestershire and St Kitts in the West Indies . His extravagant life style led to debt. Three years later his library was sold up and the missal bought by the 2nd Duke of Northumberland for £215. At that time it became known as the 'Alnwick Missal' after the duke's home, Alnwick Castle. It remained there until 1983, when the family deposited it on loan to the British Library, where it was displayed alongside the 'Lindisfarne Gospels'. In 1998, the 12th Duke decided to sell the manuscript, and the Library was able to acquire it with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Where can I find out more about the Sherborne Missal?

For general introductions with lots of colour reproductions, see:

For the most detailed scholarly description of the manuscript, with an extensive bibliography, see:

Kathleen L. Scott, Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, 6, 2 vols (London, 1996), no. 9.


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