Henchman of Wolf Hall at the National Library of Wales
The long-awaited appearance of television’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall this January heralds an important exhibition at the National Library of Wales.
A walk-on part in Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies scarcely reflects Welshman John Prise’s role in Thomas Cromwell’s household circle: he had married into Cromwell’s family, and was frequently employed in carrying out the instructions of the King and of his Secretary. Prise wrote down statements made by heretics, collected evidence in support of Henry VIII’s first divorce, and administered the dissolution of some wealthy monasteries. In fact, he could have been one of Cromwell’s most loyal henchmen at Wolf Hall.
However, there is another side to his character. Prise was also a Welsh ‘Renaissance Man’, passionate about his nation’s history, and an enthusiastic collector of old manuscripts. He preserved the earliest extant Welsh manuscript, the Black Book of Carmarthen, in his own library, and also produced the first Welsh printed book, Yny lhyvyr hwnn, at London in 1546. He may well have obtained monastic treasures as ‘ill-gotten gains’, but he also preserved materials which may otherwise have been destroyed, and wrote his own ‘defence of British history’.
A new exhibition at the National Library of Wales, opening at the end of this month, will look anew at the life and work of John Prise. Some of his own handwritten notebooks will be on display, together with some of the precious manuscripts which he rescued (or perhaps plundered?) from former monastic libraries. In fact, some of those manuscripts are coming to Aberystwyth from Hereford in the chains which have kept them secured to Cathedral shelves for the last few hundred years.
This will be a rare opportunity to enter the world of a Welsh Tudor character whose world was multi-dimensional, although he seems never to have bothered to have his portrait painted. Visitors to the National Library are invited to create their own picture of John Prise, the faceless administrator...
Publisher and plunderer? Sir John Prise and the first Welsh books, can be seen at the National Library of Wales between 31 January – 27 June 2015.
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