An ancient scroll conceived during a prolonged fight for the crown of England in the 15th century may yet have secrets to tell.
Called the Canterbury Roll, the nearly 600-year-old piece of parchment details a kind of royal family tree of the kings of England, from the mythical to the tyrannical. Spanning some 16 feet, it's a fascinating deep dive into the early genealogy of the British royal family. Perhaps most surprising is that the scroll is not held in London, but within the archives of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Consequently, this makes it one of the most important and priceless ancient artifacts in the Southern Hemisphere.
"For 100 years, UC has been the guardian of this unique 600-year-old treasure, which tells the history of England from its mythical origins to the late Middle Ages," Dr. Chris Jones, a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, said in an interview with news.com.au. "No-one has anything like this in New Zealand or Australia. And it’s utterly bonkers that no-one really knows we have it, because it’s magnificent!"
While its ultimate origins remain shrouded from historians, we know with some degree of certainty that the scroll's first words were recorded between 1429 and 1433. Around this time, England was embroiled in a dynastic civil war known as the "War of the Roses" between rival families Lancastrian and the Yorkists. The battles and political intrigue that later consumed the country over a period of three decades served as the historical inspiration behind author George R.R. Martin's celebrated "Game of Thrones" series.
"I did consider at a very early stage – going all the way back to 1991 – whether to include overt fantasy elements, and at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel," Martin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what's going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren't going to escape. I wanted to make it more unexpected, bring in some more twists and turns."
Interestingly, as the War of the Roses progressed and the crown exchanged hands, the Canterbury Roll went from a pro-Lancastrian document to a heavily-modified piece of Yorkist propaganda. Inserted into the margins of the original text detailing the rule of Lancastrian King Henry IV was this late missive denouncing his claim to the throne.
"This Henry of Darby, son of John of Gaunt, imprisoned Richard the true king of England and true heir of France, violently deposed him, and made himself to be accepted and named King Henry IV, and thus he and his heirs usurped the aforementioned crowns and occupied them, and became possessors in bad faith of the same," the pro-Yorkist scribe declared.
Because the Roll has been heavily modified over the centuries to reflect the allegiances of its owner, it's possible that hidden writings and other markings invisible to the human eye still remain. To that end, British scientists will soon undertake a trip to New Zealand to subject the scroll to a series of tests.
"The science itself is new: it’s groundbreaking work that has never before been applied to this type of manuscript," added Jones.
Those interested in scanning the Canterbury Roll in great detail for themselves can view the first phase of an advanced digitization effort of the artifact here. A photo of the scroll in nearly its entirety is below.
The almost 600-year-old Canterbury Roll spans some 16 feet. (Photo: University of Canterbury)