The Royal Alexander is a manuscript of courtly romance, a tale of quasi-history and adventure, probably created in Paris around 1420-1425. Most of its paintings are attributed to the Master of the Royal Alexander, named for his work in this manuscript. The eighty-six framed miniatures are rich in detail and illustrate the events told in the manuscript's text, a French prose biography of Alexander the Great. Seventy of the manuscript's miniatures span two columns of text, and sixteen occupy the width of a single column.
This exquisite manuscript tells the story of the life and deeds of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), King of Macedonia, from his childhood to his conquests in Asia and Africa. Its dazzling illuminations would have made it a prized possession.
Alexander the Great, Romantic Hero
The Royal Alexander is one of eleven illuminated copies of the prose French version of the hero's life dating from the late thirteenth into the fifteenth century. Its cycle of images is especially close to those of the Berlin Alexander Romance and the Brussels Alexander Romance.
The miniatures are richly colored in a broad palette with gold and (now tarnished) silver details. Although the romance is about an ancient Macedonian king, the people and places are depicted as contemporary to the fifteenth century. The fine detail of the paintings provides a window into aspects of fifteenth-century life, from architectural interiors and furniture to fashion and feasting. The text tells a story of ancient Greece, but the pictures tell the story of medieval France.
A Patron's Interest Revealed?
Although the circumstances of the manuscript's patronage are unknown, details of the miniatures may offer a glimpse into the interests of the person for whom it was made: astrology, divination, and prophecy enjoy unusual prominence in the paintings, perhaps a response to the patron's wishes.
A French Script for a French Text
The text was written by a single scribe in two columns in French Bâtarde, a script favored at the time for the French-language texts and in vogue for the writing of both French and Latin in France and French-speaking parts of the Netherlands. Each of the text's chapters is introduced by a four-line painted initial on a gold ground with ivy leaf vines extending into the page's margins.
A Sumptuous Book Kept by Kings
The exquisite illustrations and lavish decoration of the Royal Alexander indicate that it was made for a wealthy—probably noble—patron. A subtly shaded drawing of Alexander with the body of King Porus was added in the late fifteenth century (fol. 53v), suggesting its availability to a talented court artist.
Henry VIII (1491-1547), King of England, owned the Royal Alexander by 1542, likely acquired through inheritance. As a part of the old royal library of England, it was donated by George II (1683-1760), King of Great Britain, to the collection of the British Museum upon its establishment in 1757. The binding of full brown leather with a gold-tooled central cartouche of the British royal arms dates from the year the manuscript entered the British Museum. Most of the collection of the library of the British Museum was transferred to the British Library when it was established in 1973.