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The psalter of Simon de Montacute

Books of psalms were very common devotional texts during the middle ages, and the Library’s manuscript collection contains a number of notable examples. Manuscript D.30 is special in that the identity of the individual for whom it was made is probably known. The coat of arms of Simon de Montacute, who was Bishop of Ely from 1337 until his death in 1345, appears on folio 7r of the manuscript in a gloriously decorated border, incorporating hunting scenes, grotesques, and David fighting Goliath. Stylistically the manuscript is typical of the rather showy and emphatic style of the second quarter of the fourteenth century seen in East Anglian manuscripts. Its similarity to Cambridge University Charter Luard 33a*, dated 1343 and probably illuminated in Cambridge,  raises the possibility that this manuscript may too have been illuminated within the diocese, right here in Cambridge. 

The arms of Simon de Montacute, with David fighting Goliath.

A page from the calendar.


The calendar is that of Sarum, though some Ely feasts have been added, which fits with the likely ownership of the manuscript. Feasts in gold include Etheldreda and Edmund, king and martyr. The church calendar also includes many ‘red letter days’.

Following the calendar, the initial B which opens Psalm I, shows David in kingly mode, playing the harp. Such historiated initials are found at the main psalm divisions. Although the manuscript as a whole dates from the same short period, it appears that some initials were left incomplete. Work on the manuscript may have halted in 1345 with the death of Simon de Montacute. Remaining initials were then completed towards the end of the fourteenth century.

Unusually, the illustration which accompanies the Office of the Dead shows nuns gathered around a bier, causing some to speculate that by the time the manuscript was completed, it may have been in female hands.

Historiated initial B at the start of Psalm I, with King David playing his harp.Nuns perform the Office of the Dead. Initial from folio 154v.

Here be dragons.


While the history of the manuscript in the years following Montacute’s death remains a mystery, some later owners of the psalter are known. In the eighteenth century, it was owned by a Thomas Moyle of Wakefield, whose inscription appears on folio 1. It was bequeathed by him to the Reverend Henry Zouch, rector of Swillington, Yorkshire, thence to his nephew, William Lowther, first Earl of Lonsdale. It appears as lot 462 in the Lonsdale sale at Sotheby’s in 1937, when it was bought by Francis Edwards Ltd, from whom Hugh Wharton Gatty, Fellow and Librarian of St John’s bought it in 1945. It was left to the College in his will in 1948.




 This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 16 August 2017 by the Special Collections Librarian.