Skip to main content

An unexpected gem: unveiling the earliest copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Who would have thought that one of the greatest treasures of English literature resides at Aberystwyth?

Over 600 years ago, renowned English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died without having completed his great masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. It is believed that the earliest manuscript containing his work now resides at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, penned by Adam Pinkhurst, Chaucer’s very own scribe. The Library has now published the entire work online for the very first time.

The so called ‘Hengwrt Chaucer’ is a substantial manuscript volume produced in London at the very end of the fourteenth century. Along with the more elaborately illustrated Ellesmere Chaucer, which was purchased by the Huntington Library and exported to California in 1917, the Hengwrt manuscript represents an early and close association with the poet himself, and reflects the earliest attempts to circulate his Tales in London. The revelation of the scribe’s identity following painstaking research by scholar Linne Mooney in 2006 has elevated the importance of the Aberystwyth manuscript, and added considerably to its value.

According to Dr Aled Gruffydd Jones, Librarian and Chief Executive of The National Library of Wales:
‘It is a continuous source of astonishment and pride to me that one of the treasures of English literature is housed here in Wales, and at the National Library. The presence of this masterpiece underlines the status of this institution as a centre of international importance for research and knowledge. It is with delight that we share these new digital images with our global users.’

The publication of the Hengwrt Chaucer images coincides with a season of celebrations of Chaucer’s work at the National Library. Visitors to Aberystwyth will be able to view the original Hengwrt manuscript of the Tales in a special exhibition, alongside other rare Chaucerian items, including another manuscript penned by Adam Pinkhurst.

A conference on 14-16 April, organised by the School of English at Bangor University, will attract an international body of scholars and students to the National Library at Aberystwyth to re-examine the significance of Chaucer’s work, and the role of Chaucerian manuscripts across time.

Dr Sue Niebrzydowski of Bangor University’s School of English said:
‘It has been an absolute pleasure to have been involved in a project that has made such digital images of this important copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales freely available to all. Chaucer’s tales, told by an interesting assortment of tellers, hold something for everyone. The stories range from tales about mechanical brass horses, to chickens who act as if they were knights and ladies, and, very appropriately for Aberystwyth this year, making coastal rocks disappear in extremely high tides!’

Images of the Hengwrt Chaucer

The exhibition, ‘To tell a story: Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales’, is open 29 March – 14 June 2014.

Further information

Elin-Hâf, 01970 632534 or