Thomas Rymer after Unknown artistline engraving, published 1819NPG D5867© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Digitization of Rymer’s Foedera: a British Library grant by Elizabeth A.R. Brown and Ralph S. Brown, Jr.

2022

In 2022, longtime British Library and ATBL supporters Elizabeth A.R. Brown and Ralph S. Brown, Jr., provided a grant to the British Library to support the digitization of a seminal manuscript in the understanding of British and European Medieval history: Rymer’s Foedera. This digitization project will ensure that readers and scholars all around the globe will now have access to a high-quality digital facsimile of this essential compendium of primary sources from the period.

“The Importance of Rymer’s Foedera”

Written by Nicholas Vincent

Professor of Medieval History, University of East Anglia, Fellow of the British Academy

The name of Thomas Rymer (1642-1713) is known to all scholars working on the history of Great Britain before 1500 or so, and in particular to anyone who has dealt with English medieval diplomacy.  Based upon researches in the royal archives stored in the Tower of London and elsewhere, Rymer’s intention had been to publish ‘all the leagues, treaties, alliances, capitulations, and confederacies, which have at any time been made between the Crown of England and any other kingdoms, princes and states’.  Absurdly over-ambitious and from the start supplemented with a wide variety of documents angled more towards the history of English kingship and politics than international relations, this scheme resulted from a royal warrant granted to Rymer in 1693, intended to rival what was already being done for the diplomatic evidences of France and other continental powers.  Between 1704 and 1735 it produced 20 folio volumes of the so-called Foedera (from ‘foedus’, a Latin word for ‘treaty’ or ‘pact’).  The first 18 of these volumes were prepared by Rymer himself, supplying what were in many instances the first full editions of a vast number of documents, in Latin, French and English, here furnished with dates and ranged in chronological order, but with only minimal commentary.  This feast of archival titbits extended from the early twelfth century to what were then modern times, supplying a conspectus of primary sources still essential to our understanding of English, British and European history.  A second edition, printed at The Hague, between 1739 and 1745, was intended to correct various errors in the first, and to supplement Rymer’s materials with further documentary discoveries.   

Few scholars today consult either the first or the second edition of this collection, since after 1800 the whole was comprehensively revised and expanded under the auspices of George III’s Record Commission, established amongst other purposes ‘to inquire into the state of the Public Records of this kingdom’.  With the records themselves scattered in disarray or worse, and with England locked in rivalry with Napoleonic France, it was considered expedient to update what Rymer had done, and once again to broadcast the power and majesty of the English realm through a documentary collection displaying the kingdom’s antiquity, continuity, and regular engagement with international affairs.  The commissioners, whose work resulted in seven fat folios, published between 1816 and 1869, did their work well, albeit that their revision reached no further than 1383, less than half way to what Rymer had considered his finishing point in the reign of Queen Anne.  Where, for example, even the second edition of the 1730s had published only 8 documents earlier than the year 1154, 34 for the reign of Henry II (1154-89), and 45 for that of Richard I (1189-99), the Record Commission almost doubled these totals, to 64, 87, and 81 respectively.  From the reign of King John onwards, their tally mounted higher still.  Not only this, but their team of mostly anonymous editors and transcribers, working under the guidance of John Caley and Frederick Holbrooke, returned to first principles, tracing and identifying the source of much that Rymer himself had left only vaguely attributed, and searching out a great range of new materials, mostly but not exclusively from the Tower and the British Museum.   

It is this Record Commission edition, still an essential tool of scholarship, that the British Library now makes electronically available.  Where previously, readers have had been obliged to search across several websites, and a variety of confusingly numbered editions, the classic text is now here neatly disposed.  Rymer was a man of contradictions, son of a Yorkshire squire in 1663 executed for plotting against Charles II, himself after 1688 determined to curry favour with the regime of England’s new Dutch King, William III.  His Foedera, for all its gaps and peculiarities, remains a massive trove of treasures, still in regular use, still offering primary materials for discovery and reinterpretation more than four centuries after its first conception.

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