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The Great Parchment Book of Waterford.

​Continuing with our favourite artefacts from the Medieval Museum, today we look at the ‘The 1566 page in the Great Parchment Book of Waterford: an illustrated statement of Faith’. Don’t forget to come and visit when we re-open on Monday 29th June.

Throughout the medieval period the fortunes of the city of Waterford were inextricably linked to the fortunes of the English monarchs. Always loyal to the reigning monarch on the throne of England, by the 1530s Waterford was literally on the crest of a wave. The city was held in high esteem by King Henry VIII, one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. It was in 1536 that William Wyse, the boyhood friend of the king returned to Waterford with the gifts of the bearing sword and Cap of Maintenance for the mayor.

However this was the calm before the storm for the forces of religious and political reform would unleash a tidal wave of destruction.

Henry VIII had succeeded to the throne in 1509. He was a devout Catholic, determined to resist the tide of Reformation that was sweeping across northern Europe. However when Henry VIII failed to secure an annulment of his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon from the Church, he broke with Rome and declared himself Head of the Church in England and Ireland and married Anne Boleyn.

As head of the Church, Henry VIII also decided to close the monasteries and confiscate their vast estates. One of the first of the monasteries to be closed in Ireland was the Benedictine Priory of St John the Evangelist in Waterford. In 1536 William Wyse, Henry’s boyhood friend was one of the chief tenants of the Benedictine Priory and on hearing that monasteries were being dissolved he sent a gift of falcons for the king’s chief minister and advisor on the dissolution of the monasteries, Thomas Cromwell. Wyse promised to ‘expel from the Benedictine Priory the prior and monks who for a long time had misgoverned it’. He was granted the priory and its lands, becoming William Wyse of the Manor of St John.

Apart from making himself Head of the Church and dissolving the monasteries Henry VIII introduced very few changes in Church teachings or practice and his reforms were accepted by the citizens of Waterford without protest. In fact some of the chief families of the city benefited from the dissolution of the monasteries. The Sherlock family secured the dissolved Augustinian monastery of St Catherine, the Dominican Priory was granted to the White family while the Walsh family was granted the Franciscan Friary.

However all this changed when Henry’s daughter Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, becoming Queen of England and of Ireland in 1558. She was a committed reformer and established the Anglican religion in England and Ireland. In Waterford ownership of the city churches passed to the state-sponsored Anglican Church.

However while the citizens of Waterford remained loyal to Elizabeth as their queen they refused to accept her new religion. The vast majority remained staunch Catholics and hoped for tolerance from the queen in matters of faith. This was not acceptable to Queen Elizabeth who expected total loyalty from her subjects in all matters, including religion.

Just eight years after Elizabeth succeeded to the throne Waterford City Council produced one of the most remarkable pieces of imagery in 16th century Europe – the 1566 page in The Great Parchment Book of Waterford.

The Great Parchment Book, which is on display in the Medieval Museum, is a manuscript book containing records of the city from 1356 to 1649. While some of the earliest entries are in Latin and Norman French, it is mainly written in English. The earlier part of the book 1356-1470s is the product of the reordering of the city’s ancient records by the mayor of Waterford, James Rice. He was Waterford’s most famous medieval mayor, holding that position an astonishing eleven times.

The remarkable series of illustrations on the 1566 page is unprecedented in an Irish manuscript. The images are a statement of the deeply-held religious beliefs of the loyal citizens of Waterford during the reign of Queen Elizabeth when it found its loyalties divided between the pope in Rome and the queen as head of the Church in England and Ireland.

The royal arms are above the walled port city which is named Port Láirge (Waterford), the only words in the Irish language in the book. The royal arms symbolise the city’s loyalty to the English monarchs.

On the top right of the page is a representation of the Last Judgement showing Christ holding a sword and surrounded by the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. He is seen to be judging the souls in Purgatory on the last day. Banners in Latin proclaim the words judge wisely and remember death. This reference to Purgatory echoes the decrees of the Council of Trent which ended in 1663 confirming the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Standing below and also awaiting judgement like any other mere mortal is Queen Elizabeth, who is uncrowned with perhaps the city of London in the background.

Below again is an image of the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Jesus, a reference to the citizen’s loyalty to Catholicism and their devotion to the Virgin Mary as well as their rejection of the cult of the Protestant Virgin Queen. It is only one of two manuscript depictions of the Virgin to survive in Ireland the other being preserved in the Book of Kells.

The out-dated symbol of the Green Man decorates the foot of the page. The Green Man is a pagan symbol evoking nature and the forests and the tentacles coming from his mouth also show Tudor roses – the symbol of Queen Elizabeth. This is perhaps a message from the loyal people of Waterford that the queen should return to the old religion and not bring paganism as they see it to England and Ireland.

This decorated page in The Great Parchment Book of Waterford is unique, setting out in graphic detail the divided loyalties of the citizens of Waterford.

Although Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated by the pope in April 1570 and her subjects instructed not to obey her, the Catholic city of Waterford remained steadfastly loyal to her as queen. Indeed the city was granted a new charter by Elizabeth in 1574, just four years after her excommunication by the pope. For centuries, the citizens of the city of Waterford had been used to more than favourable treatment by the English monarchs because of their loyalty to the throne and hoped that this favourable treatment would continue during Elizabeth’s reign. However, this was not to be. Queen Elizabeth I was determined to ensure conformity to her religious decrees across the two kingdoms.

The confrontation between the Catholic city council of Waterford and the English monarchs which began during her reign would culminate in the dissolution of Waterford City Council by Elizabeth’s successor King James I.

You can see it in person from this Monday 29th June in the award winning Medieval Museum from 09:15, we hope to see you there!

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