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New Digital Resources for the Summer

Collections / Digitisation - Posted 29-07-2021

Since the beginning of the year work has continued on digitising our collections and the following items and collections are now available to view from home on the Library’s website and/or the catalogue:

Archives and Manuscripts

Peniarth and Llanstephan collections

Sir John Herbert Lewis Papers

33 diaries from the Sir John Herbert Lewis Papers from the period 1888-1924 are now available:

Seals and Ystrad Marchell Charters


A selection of documents and medieval seals from the Pitchford Hall Papers and the Estate Records of Penrice and Margam, Chirk Castle, Bronwydd and Wigfair, have been made available, for example:

33 Ystrad Marchell charters have also been made available and can be accessed via the catalogue.

Printed Material

Arthurian collection


A selection of volumes relating to King Arthur were selected for digitization in 2019. The following 13 volumes are already available and the work of digitizing the remaining items will continue over the coming months:

Biographies (1809-1889)


A further 913 biographies have been made available on the catalogue, including works such as:

Other printed works


203 other printed works have also been made available, including:

Maps and Graphic Material

D C Harries photographs


102 photographs taken around 1890-1936 by D C Harries of the scenery, buildings and people of the Llandovery, Llandeilo and Carmarthen area have been added to the catalogue. The selection includes photographs such as: Staff standing outside Lipton’s shop, Caerfyrddin, Staff standing outside Star Supply Stores, Llandeilo and Men in cars outside Crown garage – T. Roberts & Sons, Llanymddyfri

Archive of Historical Posters


Over 2,630 posters from NLW’s Historical Poster Archive are now accessible to users through the Universal Viewer. This fascinating collection includes a wide variety of items including emigration posters from Aberystwyth and Liverpool to America, ballads and songs, posters advertising local markets and auctions, concerts and ‘eisteddfodau’. The collection also includes a number of posters announcing news of crimes and murders, such as: the theft of John Philip’s mare (1818), the confession of John Griffiths after murdering his wife (1811) and ‘Murder’ (1796).

Dictionary of Welsh Biography


20 new articles have been added to the website:

Don’t forget to follow the Dictionary of Welsh Biography’s Twitter account: @WelshBiography

‘The Stroke of the Sun’: Heatwaves in the Archives

Collections - Posted 19-07-2021

Summer is here and with it comes the promise of finer weather. It could be said that commenting on the weather is one of our favourite pastimes here in Wales, and especially at this time of year when we are perhaps all wondering about the probability of a heatwave.

A look through the archives shows that our preoccupation with the weather is nothing new. One of the earliest mentions of a heatwave in Wales can be found in the medieval Welsh chronicle Brut Y Tywysogion (NLW Peniarth MS 20), which records that the year 720 saw a particularly hot summer (pan vu yr haf tessawc).

Brut Y Tywysogion –  (See p.66)

Gerald of Wales may have disagreed with this description – in the 12th century his Itinerarium Kambriae described the climate of the Welsh mountains as wet, cold, and windy, and remarked on the force of the winds (violenta ventorum) that never ceased to blow, which can be seen in a 14th-century copy, NLW MS 3024C (f. 59r).

Itinerarium Kambriae,  (See f. 59r)

Despite Gerald’s observation, hot weather remained much remarked upon in the centuries that followed, and July 1729 appears to have been a particular scorcher. Mary Davies wrote to her brother Adam Ottley of Pitchford Hall of her concern about the hot summer they were experiencing, and ‘not to hurry much about in town in hot weather for fear of put[t]ing y[ou]rself in a fever’.

This does however seem to be nothing compared to the summer of 1825. In August of that year, the antiquarian Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) wrote in a letter to his son Taliesin that the weather was ‘so hot that many people have fallen dead in the fields and highways by the Coup de soleil (stroke of the Sun)’.

According to the records of the Llysdinam estate, the summer of 1875 was very different. On June 15th, 1875 came a storm so violent that that it caused Richard Lister Venables of Llysdinam to remark that ’I don’t think I ever saw in June such a tempest of wind and rain as we have had’, and noted that it left their barn ‘flat on the ground’. (Llysdinam B1459, pictured below). Just two months later, on the 16th August, Venables wrote that it was ‘the hottest day of the year, with every appearance of lasting’ (Llysdinam B1462).

A meteorological record for Aberystwyth compiled by the New Club, Cheltenham also confirms that 1875 was a warm summer, recording a temperature high of 76F (24.4C) on the 7th of July. However 1876 appears to have been even hotter, recording a maximum temperature of 91F (32.7C) on the 17th of July in Aberystwyth.

In more recent times, the threat of climate change has increasingly made the weather a hot topic of conversation (pun intended), and it seems that changeable weather patterns will continue to form part of our records and conversations for a long time to come.

Lucie Hobson
Assistant Archivist

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Collecting BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) websites

Collections - Posted 12-07-2021

Collecting websites, an occupation of the National Library of Wales for number of years by now, has provided us with an opportunity to explore collections and voices, for one reason or another, may be under-represented by our print collections. BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities across Wales being one such significant voice.

Nowadays, much electronic collecting is done via archiving websites for the UK Web Archive, a consortium of the six UK legal deposit libraries (the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Cambridge University Library, and Trinity College Dublin Library), which aims to collect all UK websites at least once a year.

This collecting of websites has enabled us to collect a plethora of information on BAME voices, communities, services and organisations across Wales. However, a further examination of the way we collected such websites provides a backdrop to the challenges we faced as National Libraries. Back in early 2000’s, when we began collecting websites, we included them within an online portal to validated websites. Crucially, despite providing access to these websites in the short term, we needed permission to archive websites to keep a permanent copy for future researchers. Websites were created quickly, changed regularly and sometimes disappeared altogether often without notice. This lack of permanence resulted in us losing this vital information. This so called ‘Digital Black Hole’ was to become our biggest challenge.

Looking back to our BAME collections in 2005, the websites often focused on, as today, on removing economic and social barriers to BAME communities across Wales. However, of the twenty or so BAME websites collected, many are no longer live, therefore regrettably lost to our collections. Even though we are aware of what existed c.2005, in most cases, we did not have permission to archive this content. The UK web Archive contains a snapshot of what we collected in the 2000s.

Thankfully, the Non-Print Legal Deposit Regulations 2013 went someway in addressing this issue and we are now entitled to copy UK-published material from the internet for archiving under Legal Deposit which is done through an automated process, known as web harvesting which collects millions of websites each year and billions of individual assets (pages, images, videos, pdfs etc.).

Returning to collecting BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) websites, we are now able to archive all websites that fall under the UK Web domain for researchers of the future. To improve access to BAME websites, the UK Web Archive have grouped them within a ‘Black and Asian Britain’ Collection, an ever-increasing growing collection which has over 750 websites listed, 138 of specific Welsh interest.

The National Library of Wales have collected a diverse collection of websites and a small number of twitter feeds covering BAME Organisations, Societies, Protest groups, Communities, Authors, Artists, Festivals, Music, Dance, Welfare, Education, to your local BAME Sports Clubs which have been archived by the UK Web Archive. This is a substantial increase from the handful of websites collected c.2005 to the hundreds that we collectively collect today along with the other UK Legal Deposit Libraries, but more importantly, have archived therefore available and accessible to researchers of the future.

There are still challenges. Access to websites archived under non-print legal deposit regulations is more restrictive than the internet in general. Even though we have archived the websites, most are only available to view on Library premises. Additionally, we contact website owners and request permission to make our archived copy publicly available through the UK Web Archive. We hope to have as many websites as possible accessible in this way.

It is good to say that this grouping of websites is one of our more valuable collections within the UK Web Archive but the wider aim is to encourage and build on our partnerships and feedback from external bodies and BAME communities to further develop and improve this collection of BAME related websites from across Wales and build on what we have so far collected. You are also most welcome to suggest any UK based website that you feel should be archived for the Black and Asian via the Save a website form to help us develop this collection of websites.

Aled Betts,
Acquisition Library and Web Archivist


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Reliving Campaigns from Two Decades Ago

Collections / New Accessions - Posted 05-07-2021

The period before an election is always a buy one for the Welsh Political Archive, we’re working to collect material from the campaign and members who are standing down, or wo lose their seats often get in touch to offer their papers.

A fascinating addition to the Ann Jones AM (Women’s Archive of Wales) papers. arrived at the Library during this busy period. Ann Jones presented her papers via the Women’s Archive of Wales as part of the Setting the Record Straight project. Which works with women who are or have been members of the Senedd to record their oral histories and arrange for their papers to go to an appropriate archive.

The first group of Ann Jones’ papers told the story of the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011 and her background as a fire officer is clear in the recent addition. In 2000 a plan was published which would have resulted in merging all the fire control rooms in Wales including the north Wales control centre in Rhyl. Three files in the papers detail Ann Jones’ cmapaign to retain the control room in Rhys through letters, press releases and other documents.

The majority of the group records Ann Jones’ role in the campaign to ensure projects to support children in Wales following teh annoucement by the Children’s Society that they would withdraw from all their operations in Wales. The correspondence with the Chief Executive and trustees of the Children’s Society, bishops, staff and partners convey they shock and anger at the annoucement. The papers related to the UK Parliament Welsh Affairs Committee investigation pose some interesting questions and the hard work done in a working group established by Wales’ new Assembly to ensure that the projects continued is clear in the working papers, annoucments and correspondence. As a result, Tros Gynnal ( was established to continue the work.

This was a big story at the time but the real story is what went on behind the scenes. Thanks to Ann Jones, the whole story can now be told.

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Thomas, Gwen and Salvador

Collections - Posted 29-06-2021

Tucked in the last but one file of the Gwasg Gregynog archive to be catalogued, a file mainly devoted to the far from straight-forward passage through the press of Gwasg Gregynog’s first, experimental, publication, R. S. Thomas’s ‘Laboratories of the spirit’ (1976), is a single stray letter from 1938, presumably preserved as a keepsake and then lost in the paperwork. It is a letter from Thomas Jones CH (1870-1955), chairman of the predecessor Gregynog Press, and until 1936 Deputy Secretary to the UK Cabinet, to Gwendoline Davies (1882-1951), one of the Davies sisters of Gregynog, owners of the Press, written in May 1938, in the midst of the period of Appeasement:

Street Acre
St. Nicholas-at-Wade
Station (3m) Birchington-on-Sea
Sunday, 22 . v . 38

My dear Gwen
Madariaga & I are not very good for each other with all this sabre-rattling in Europe. I dont know which of us is the more depressing. It is a wretched time even for the old & what must it be for the young. Not until this year have I ever felt ready to slacken my hold on life. I wish you were nearer today. . . .

M. has the power to liberate his mind in books & plays & poems. He is working on a series of sonnets which condense the message of his World Design. I have been going over them & suggesting minor changes of word or phrase here & there. His power over the language is amazing. He asked me this morning if you would care to print them at the Press in a small book to sell at no more than 10/. He is sure many of his American friends would buy copies, especially in the present mood. It would be in size something like the George Herbert but that Wardrop could advise about. He will improve some of the lines. He may call them The Dream of Adam or perhaps (as I suggest) The Home of Man – the last words of the sequence. This little book which I have read this morning is for your own room.

T. J.

Salvador de Madariaga (1886-1978) was a Spanish diplomat, writer and pacifist. He had been Spanish ambassador to the USA and France, permanent delegate to the League of Nations, and minister for education and justice. Since 1936 he had been in exile in England from the Spanish civil war. Both he and Thomas Jones had family homes in the village of St Nicholas-at-Wade, on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. The sabre-rattling is probably the partial mobilization of Czechoslovakian armed forces along the German border on 20 May, in response to intelligence reports (later proved false) of menacing German military concentrations. The Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany, had happened only two months earlier, so the Czech government was understandably on edge. Madariaga might also have been upset by the Vatican recognition of Franco’s fascist government in Spain on 5 May.

Madariaga’s ‘The world’s design‘ was newly published. The Library’s copy is stamped 21 April 1938. The Gregynog Press had previously published his ‘Don Quixote : an introductory essay in psychology’, in 1934, translated from the Spanish by the author and his wife, Constance H. M. de Madariaga. This was in a limited edition of 250 numbered copies (NLW holds copies no’s 14 and 27), before being published by the Clarendon Press for the mass market in 1935. There are a few post-1938 letters from Madariaga in the Gregynog Press and Thomas Jones CH archives (both held by NLW) which may be worth exploring, but a cursory search suggests Madariaga’s sonnets remain unpublished.

The ‘little book’ originally enclosed in Thomas Jones’s letter to Gwen Davies is J. M. Edmonds, ‘Some Greek poems of love and beauty: being a selection from the little things of Greek poetry made and translated into English’ (CUP, 1937). Edmonds (1875-1958) was an English classicist and poet, whose most lasting contribution are probably the two military epitaphs:

Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrows these gave their today.

This book and a couple of Jones’s comments in the letter seem oddly personal, but perhaps this was typical of Jones and Davies’s working relationship. The most striking part of the letter is Jones’s world-weariness at the thought of another war.

Stephen Benham

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A Rose at Midsummer: The significance of Midsummer Day in the Margam Abbey charters

Collections / Digitisation - Posted 21-06-2021

As much of medieval life was centered around religious belief, the daily services of the church (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) helped to mark the passing of time, particularly for those in holy orders. Consequently, one of the most common types of manuscript to be found in medieval homes were those that allowed the laity to observe these services – known as the ‘books of hours’.

For those who could afford them, books of hours were often richly illustrated, and could serve just as much of a decorative purpose as a religious one. But for the average lay person, life was more concerned with the farming year and the passing of the seasons. Many books of hours included illustrations of agricultural tasks which were carried out at various times of the year, such as sowing crops, harvest time, or tree felling, often associated with the various feast days across the year.

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The De Grey Hours: [mid. 15th cent.]. A task for midsummer – an illustration of scything in June, with the symbol of the zodiac denoting Cancer, the crab (f. 6r)

In a legal sense, these holy and saints’ days were also commonly used in medieval charters to record the date. Hundreds of examples of this practice can be seen in the collection of the charters of Margam Abbey, Glamorgan, part of the Penrice and Margam Estate Records at NLW.

Margam Abbey was founded in 1147 as a daughter-house of the Cistercian order at Clairvaux and was endowed with a large amount of land by Robert, earl of Gloucester (charter 1). By the late 13th century, Margam was Wales’ richest monastery, owning land and granges in both Wales and England, and Gerald of Wales wrote of Margam in his Itinerarium Cambriae (c.1191) that it was ‘by far the most renowned for alms and charity’. As a result, the Margam Abbey charters, including those of the Penrice and Mansel families, comprise one of the largest and most complete monastic collections in Britain. The majority of its records consist of sealed land grants to and from many of the ruling families of Glamorgan, ranging from the 12th to the 16th centuries. As well as being a source of local history for Glamorgan, Margam’s charters also help to place it in a wider European context – not only containing royal charters and letters patent, but also a number of 13th-century papal bulls (charters 82-84, 141, 171, 173-4, 185, 245) confirming the importance of Margam to the Cistercian order.

Typically, each charter records the day upon which it was signed or sealed, usually given as a feast day or saints’ day, and the year of the reigning monarch. Midsummer Day or Canol Haf – usually celebrated on 21st June but also known as Gŵyl Ifan due to the feast day of St John the Baptist falling on the 24th June – was a significant date in the farming year as it marked the longest day and the turning of seasons as the days shortened and harvest time was nearing. In Margam’s charters, Midsummer is used as a dating clause in several instances. A quit-claim by a William de Marle to Margam Abbey (charter 227, 1354) is dated Midsummer Day, while charters 193 (1312) and 228 (1357), also quit-claims to the Abbey, are dated at Margam ‘the Sunday after Midsummer’ and ‘the Saturday after Midsummer’ respectively. It is not only within land grants that this dating occurs. Charter 233 (1366), which detailed assizes recovering the Abbot of Margam’s salmon fishery from one Res [Rhys] and one Howel, stated that for their piscine thievery each were fined threepence in damages on ‘the Monday before Midsummer Day’.

This theme of agriculture is abundant when looking at the rent requirements in some of Margam’s charters, which stipulate what is given in exchange for each piece of land. Rents could include livestock, crops, or spices, as well as money, and could stipulate a nominal amount in order to make a legal exchange. Charter 302 (1315) asks for just ‘a rose at Midsummer’ in exchange for the rent of half an acre of land; a rose is also given in charter 329 (1383) for a burgage. Charter 306 (1315) more generously specifies a garland of roses to be given annually at Midsummer in exchange for six and three-quarter acres. Symbolically, the only time roses are stipulated to be given is at Midsummer, and they do not appear as an exchange at any other date in Margam’s charters.

Of course, these dates were not always reliable. Margam may have been the wealthiest Abbey in Wales but news in the medieval period travelled more slowly than today and could be hampered by events of the time. Charter 336, for example, issued during the Wars of the Roses, was dated at Oxwich, Gower, on 4th April, yet supplies the year (1461) as the reign of Henry VI, rather than that of Edward IV whose accession had been on the 4th of March previously. Evidently the announcement of Edward’s accession had not yet reached Gower at the time.

Margam Abbey was a prominent landmark in south Wales for nearly four centuries, but it did not survive Henry VIII’s dissolution. In 1540 the Abbey and its lands, including its church, bell-tower, fisheries, cemetery, water-mill, and a large number of its granges were sold to the Mansel family for £938, six shillings and eightpence (charter 359). Incidentally, the charter granting Margam’s dissolution was dated at Westminster on 22nd June. It appears that the Abbey saw its final day at Midsummer.

View catalogue:

Lucie Hobson
Assistant Archivist


Further reading:

  • Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin, 1978)
  • The scriptorium of Margam Abbey and the scribes of early Angevin Glamorgan: secretarial administration in a Welsh marcher barony, c.1150-c.1225, Robert B. Patterson (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002)




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Teaming up to save the bits: digital sustainability in Wales

Collections - Posted 15-06-2021

The ability to remotely connect and network with colleagues has been one of the positives that have arisen from these challenging times. From my home in Aberystwyth, which is not always the most accessible of places by non-digital highways, I am able to engage with experts, learn from their experiences and contribute to discussions on a global basis. Although we have been building digital preservation capacity in Wales for many years, these encounters have inspired us to extend the reach of the work being undertaken to promote digital sustainability. Working with the sector, developing the use of digital technologies and sharing skills are key elements of the Library’s new strategic plan which will be launched shortly.

The opportunities presented by the use of platforms such as Teams and Zoom enable a more proactive engagement than has been previously possible. Through using these communication platforms, it is possible to discuss issues relating to sustainable access to digital material. The associated technological, organisational and policy issues which arise from providing access to digital material in the long term can be tackled by working collaboratively.

A particular innovation which will commence soon is the ‘Saving the Bits’ programme, which will be open to organisations across Wales. Sessions will discuss theoretical and practical issues, making reference to existing models, tools and workflows, which can be adopted by organisations. Taking advantage of new technologies, these sessions can now be both readily accessible and interactive, using presentations, live demonstrations and breakout discussions.

These sessions would not be possible without the resources and training materials which are now freely available; but what online meetings enable is greater coordination in the use of these resources and networking over how to implement new techniques more effectively. It is hoped that these sessions will contribute to the building of the community which is committed to saving the digital heritage a bit at a time.

Sally McInnnes


Reliving Wales’ Euro 2016 Campaign through Newsbank

Collections - Posted 11-06-2021

It’s been 5 years since the Welsh football team and its fans took Euro 2016 by storm, after a 58-year absence from football’s major tournaments. With the delayed Euro 2020 tournament beginning tonight, and the team hoping they can emulate the heroic effort of 2016, here’s a quick recap of those unforgettable games via the Library’s Newsbank subscription (click on the headlines to read the reports).



Wales 2 – Slovakia 1 – “Dragons do roar!”

Excitement was understandably high amongst the Wales fans before our first tournament game in almost 60 years. Could the team carry on from their success in the qualifying rounds? We got that answer within the first 10 minutes.  Firstly, Ben Davies pulled off a fantastic goal line clearance to thwart Slovakia, and shortly afterwards Gareth Bale scored one of his trademark free kicks to put us ahead. Although Slovakia equalised in the second half, Hal Robson-Kanu sent Welsh fans wild when he scored the winner in the 81st minute to put Wales on top of their group. A dream start.

England 2 – Wales 1: “England grab last-gasp winner and break Welsh hearts.”

Topping group B, Wales were confident ahead of the game against their neighbours, and things were looking promising after Gareth Bale scored a long range free-kick on the stroke of half time. However, after equalizing early in the second half, England scored an injury time winner to knock Wales down into second in the group.

Russia 0 – Wales 3: “Bale & Co thrash Russia in magnificent display as the Welsh fairy tale gathers momentum”

If the team felt any pressure about progressing from the group stages, it wasn’t apparent as they deservedly beat Russia. Ramsey and Taylor scored in the first half to give Wales a comfortable lead, before Bale wrapped it up in the second half, becoming the tournament’s top scorer. With England only managing a draw against Slovakia, this meant that Wales were the group winners.



Wales 1 – Northern Ireland 0: “Cruel blow as own goal sends Wales into fantasy land.”

With both teams playing their first knockout game since the World Cup in 1958, this was an understandably nervy affair. Chances were few and far between, and the match was ultimately decided by an own goal after Gareth McAuley diverted Gareth Bale’s low cross into his own net. Not that any Wales fan cared, the quarter-finals beckoned!

Wales 3 – Belgium 1: “Wales unleash the Dragon to roast Belgium and seal semi”

What came next was undoubtedly the most famous night in Welsh football history. Wales arrived in Lille knowing that they could make history and go one step further than their 1958 counterparts. Standing in their way were Belgium, who Wales had already beaten during the qualifying rounds. However, Belgium were favourites for a reason. 13 minutes into the game, they took a lead through Nainggolan’s 25-yard thunderbolt. Wales stayed in the game, and the captain Ashley Williams equalized on the half hour.

We were then treated to the goal of the tournament, when on 55 minutes, Robson-Kanu bamboozled the Belgian defenders with an exquisite turn, and then calmly placed the ball into the bottom corner. Cue Welsh fans delirium. Belgium continued to push for an equalizer, but Wales sealed victory with a stunning Sam Voakes header. Wales had made it to the semi-final!

Portugal 2 – Wales 0: “Welsh fairytale ends as Cristiano Ronaldo takes Portugal to Euro 2016 final”

Spirits were at an all-time high after the Belgium game, and Welsh fans had high hopes of the team making it to the final at the Stade de France. Unfortunately, Portugal had other ideas. Led by their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, they delivered a solid performance to book their place in the final, with Ronaldo scoring their first goal and setting Nani up for their second.

The dream was over.

Although they fell at the penultimate hurdle, the team had ensured that they would be forever regarded as sporting heroes, as was evident by the thousands of people who lined the streets of Cardiff to greet them home.

“UEFA honours Welsh fans‘ inspiring passion”

It was a campaign that went beyond any of our wildest dreams, and the team ensured that none of us would ever forget those 25 wonderful days. Here’s hoping for more of the same. Pob lwc hogia!!!


Thanks to Siôn England & Deiniol Glyn for the photos.


Paul Jackson

Legal Deposit, Electronic and Acquisitions Librarian.


Tiny dragons and pretty pigs: Decoration in medieval Welsh manuscripts

Collections - Posted 07-06-2021

During lockdown, many of us have perhaps taken the opportunity to be more creative, whether that might be through art, crafts, or maybe learning a new skill such as a musical instrument. But if you were a medieval scribe, perhaps your only opportunity to channel your inner Van Gogh was by adding some colour to that manuscript you were working on. Scribes could add decoration to their work in a number of ways, so how about taking a look at some of the manuscripts that can be found in our digital collections at NLW for artistic inspiration?

Manuscripts were usually made of sheepskin or goatskin which was cleaned, stretched and dried to create parchment sheets. These sheets would be folded to create a quire (or gathering); four sheets made eight leaves (or bifolia) each with a recto and a verso side depending on the flesh or hair side of the parchment. To create a manuscript volume, several quires would be bound together. This was an expensive and time-consuming process, and the need to avoid wasting parchment coupled with natural imperfections in the material meant that manuscript pages were rarely perfectly even. So before writing on a page, the scribe would usually prick holes in the outer edges and rule each page with horizontal and vertical lines to maintain consistency. Spaces would be left for the insertion of decorations, as the scribe and the decorator were not always the same person.

Numerous different colours were used for decoration, which could be made from natural sources varying in rarity and cost. The ink used for text in medieval Wales could be oak gall-based (or gallotannic) ink, which presented a dark brown hue, but many other colours could be made from powder bases, such as red and orange from red lead (or minium), white from white lead, green from copper salts, and blue from lapis lazuli. These would all be mixed with a binding agent such as gum Arabic. Don’t try this at home though – many of these paints were poisonous! They were also expensive, so manuscript decoration was a sign of a wealthy patron.

The most common and simplest form of decoration was probably rubrication, or red lettering. This can be seen in many medieval Welsh manuscripts and was used for capital letters and headings. The Hendregadredd manuscript, containing Welsh poetry and the earliest parts of which date from the late 13th– early 14th centuries, demonstrates this, using red ink for poem titles, capital letters, and patterned space-fillers.

Rubricated letters were often alternated with another colour, which in the above instance was blue. But blue ink was expensive, so green was often substituted as a cheaper alternative. The rubricator of the 13th-century Llyfr Aneirin used green instead of blue, and additionally alternated green and red for its space-fillers.

Capital letters could also contain intricate drawings. If you like tiny dragons, you’ll love the zoomorphic letters in Peniarth 540B, a 12th-century Welsh-produced copy of Bede’s De natura rerum.

In some instances, the scribe really went for it and drew capital letter decorations along the entire page, as is the case with NLW MS 3024C, a 14th-century copy of the works of Gerald of Wales. The decorator of this manuscript even drew a bearded face – a contender for ‘Movember’ perhaps? (f. 42v).

If tiny dragons aren’t your thing, other beasts also feature. Scribes sometimes wrote the first words of the next page in the bottom right hand corner of the previous page or column as a guide. These catchwords could be decorated, with those in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen (which contains a collection of Welsh poetry), decorated with a lion (f. 4r) and a rather shocked-looking sea creature (f. 49r).

But decoration wasn’t just limited to the mythical – everyday scenes could also be represented. The 13th-century Peniarth MS 28, a Latin manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda, contains several colour illustrations depicting a number of scenes enacted from the Welsh laws. The manuscript contains colourful figures including images of snappily-dressed court officials and animals of value such as deer, horses, and oxen, but the prize for the best illustration must surely go to the pig (f. 25r), drawn complete with curly tail!

When we think of the medieval period, we perhaps think of muted colours and faded pages. But tiny dragons and law-abiding pigs aside, we can see how these medieval Welsh manuscripts are not only texts, they are a showcase for the creativity and skills of their decorators and scribes even centuries after they were made. So the next time you pick up a pen or paintbrush, why not take inspiration from our manuscripts, and unleash your inner medieval scribe!

Lucie Hobson
Assistant Archivist

Further reading:

  • Daniel Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts (Cardiff, 2000)
  • Daniel Huws, Peniarth 28: Darluniau o Lyfr Cyfraith Hywel Dda = Illustrations from a Welsh lawbook (Aberystwyth, 2008)
  • Myriah Williams, ‘The Black Book of Carmarthen: Minding the Gaps’, National Library of Wales Journal 36.4 (2017), 357-375
  • Gerald Morgan, ‘The Book of Aneirin and Welsh manuscript prickings’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 20.1 (1962), 12-17
  • J. J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work (New Haven/London, 1992)
  • Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials of Medieval Painting (London, 1936)

Robert Recorde and the Whetstone of Witte

Collections - Posted 31-05-2021

Robert Recorde, who was born in Tenby is renowned for being the first mathematician to use the “=” symbol in a published book. This was featured in the The Whetstone of Witte which the Library will be exhibiting on-line soon.

Robert Recorde was born in Tenby in 1512. His mother was from Machynlleth. It was in Tenby that his interest in mathematics was first realised and this was recognised by the London Mathematical Society in 2015 when it commissioned an exhibition in his hometown to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Society.

Recorde clearly thought it was important to provide mathematical education to the masses who were not familiar with Latin or Greek. Most scientific books of the time were written in Latin and Recorde was one of the first authors to write mathematical books in English.

The first equation which used the symbol “=” can be seen in the illustration (it is on page 236 of the Library’s digital copy) from The Whetstone of Witte. There were other symbols used by mathematicians of the time in Europe which could easily have been adopted, and it was nearly a century before the two lines were generally accepted and recognised to denote equality. The symbol was used in influential works such as Richard Norwood’s Trigonometric, and its use then spread from England to Europe and to the rest of the world. To explain his use of two parallel lines, Recorde writes that “To avoid the tedious repetition of these words – is equal to – I will set as I do often in work use, a pair of parallels or Gemowe lines of one length, thus: = because no two things are more equal (see relevant page from the book blow).”

Recorde was also among the first mathematicians to use the forms of numbers that we are familiar with today (1, 2, 3, etc.). In another of his books named The Groundes of Artes, Recorde compares these numbers with the Roman numerals that were commonly used in textbooks at the time (i, ii, iii). The form of numbers that are used today are derived from Hindu or Arabic numbers from around 600 A.D. It is quite fascinating to see that Recorde had to introduce these numbers to his lay readership. This shows that English scientific writing involving mathematics and arithmetic was in its infancy and that Recorde was a key figure in its introduction to the people of Britain.



Recorde was a Fellow in All Souls’ College, Oxford having earlier graduated in mathematics. He later studied medicine at Cambridge. He was also a Royal Physician and was appointed Head of the Royal Mint. While working at the Mint he was answerable to the Earl of Pembroke. Recorde accused the Earl of siphoning some of the profits of the Mints to himself. He was prosecuted for slander for making the accusation and was fined a thousand pounds. As he had no means to pay the fine he was imprisoned for bankruptcy. He soon fell ill in prison and died in 1558. When Elizabeth I rose to the throne a few years later the case was re-opened and his name was cleared. As compensation, land was given to the family in Tenby.

Recorde wrote his mathematics in English so that it could be understood by people. He introduced the numbers 1, 2, 3 etc. to his readers. But we remember him mainly for being the first mathematician to use two parallel lines to denote equality. Robert Recorde made an unique contribution to mathematics in the sixteenth century.


Roberts, G. (2016) Robert Recorde: Tudor Scholar and Mathematician, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Roberts, G. Ff. (2020) Cyfri’n Cewri: Hanes mawrion ein mathemateg, Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru.


Hywel Lloyd,

Assistant Librarian.

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