Collecting pieces of the puzzle: Searching for a lost Welsh manuscript

Collections - Posted 14-12-2021

Archival collections and the preservation of historical documents play a vital role in helping us to understand the past. But perhaps just as importantly, these collections can also provide links to those things that may have otherwise been irretrievably lost.

The medieval manor of Hergest Court sits near the village of Kington, Hereford, facing the vast common of Hergest Ridge and the Offa’s Dyke Path on the English/Welsh border. Built around 1267, Hergest Court was occupied for centuries by the Vaughan family, and is synonymous with one of the most well-known medieval Welsh manuscripts, the late 14th     /early 15th-century Red Book of Hergest. Containing copies of, among other texts, the Welsh prose tales of the Mabinogi and the poetry of the Gogynfeirdd, the Red Book has a deserved reputation as one of the most important (and the largest) surviving medieval Welsh manuscripts.

But the Red Book was not the only great medieval Welsh tome associated with Hergest. It was also home to another volume, its geographical cousin, the White Book of Hergest. Commissioned by Watcyn Fychan of Hergest Court, and probably written sometime between c.1469 and c.1483, the White Book was destroyed in a bookbinders’ fire in London c.1810, and its original contents lost. Fortunately, however, numerous copies of its texts were made between the 16th and 19th centuries, enabling aspects of both its provenance and its contents to be recovered.

Peniarth 49 f.49 recto

NLW Peniarth MS 49, Barddoniaeth Dafydd ap Gwilym [16th cent., second ½ – 17th cent., first ½], including a note referencing transcriptions from the White Book of Hergest (f. 49r)


By surveying collections of manuscripts at NLW associated with some of the great historic Welsh estates, including those of Hengwrt, Wynnstay, Panton, and Llanstephan, a collection of transcriptions from the White Book could be gathered and compared. In total, thirteen manuscripts were surveyed, dating from the 1550s to the early 19th century. Altogether the transcriptions surveyed yielded a total of forty-six known texts apparently included in the White Book, consisting of text from the Laws of Hywel Dda, and the Statute of Rhuddlan; a large number of religious tracts (some 48% of the total transcriptions); prognostications and prophecies; genealogies and pedigrees; heraldry; several historical accounts, including that of Ifor Bach and the seizure of Cardiff Castle; as well as a significant amount of poetry by the medieval Welsh bards Lewys Glyn Cothi and Dafydd ap Gwilym. Notably, of the forty-six texts identified in transcriptions from the White Book, only three had been copied in English only, confirming that Welsh was the manuscript’s primary original language.

NLW Peniarth MS 225, Bucheddau’r Saint ([1594×1610]), which contains a transcription from the White Book of Hergest, pp. 107-118

Each transcribed text was indexed in detail based on manuscript, language, folio/page numbers, and titles (where possible). By indexing the transcriptions, a picture could be built of the original size and layout of the manuscript despite its loss. The survey indicated that the White Book in places contained more than one text on a single leaf, suggesting its size may have been similar to that of the Red Book. With the white leather covers after which it took its name, it would have been a large and impressive volume.

By studying the surviving transcriptions, elements of the White Book’s history could also be brought to light. We know that it may (at least in part) have been the work of Lewys Glyn Cothi, as three of the transcriptions surveyed repeated a note apparently inserted into the original manuscript by Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt identifying it as Lewys’ work. The transcripts from the White Book also had one text in common with the Red Book – ‘Cymydau a chantrefoedd Cymru’ (‘The commotes and hundreds of Wales’), and copies of the Welsh Laws, which apparently also featured in the White Book, had been copied decades earlier by scribes of the Red Book including Hywel Fychan. The Vaughans of Hergest came into possession of the Red Book after they received the forfeited library of Hopcyn ap Rhys, grandson of Hywel’s patron Hopcyn ap Tomas, following his uprising against Edward IV in 1465. Therefore conceivably several of the White Book’s exemplars could have come from Hopcyn’s library.

Above all, the transcribed contents of the White Book gave a valuable insight into the copying of texts and manuscript production during the turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses, and demonstrated the value of archival collections in ensuring the survival of even a lost manuscript.


Lucie Hobson
Assistant Archivist

*This blog is based on Lucie Hobson, ‘Recovering the White Book of Hergest: A Survey of Manuscripts in Estate Collections at the National Library of Wales’ (MA Thesis, Aberystwyth University, 2020).

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

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