Inks & illuminations

The written word has been an essential means of communication for many centuries. The Romans used an ink made of soot mixed with water, while the Egyptians made ink by mixing water, plant fluids and lampblack. These inks were simple to produce and use, but they faded over time or flaked and fell off the parchment.

In medieval times, scribes started to use iron gall ink, which soaked into the parchment. There were a number of ways of producing this type of ink, but they all involved mixing the four main ingredients of tannic acid, ferrous sulphate, gum and water.

Hover over the image above to magnify.

The recipe for ink shown here suggests the following ingredients: gall (the result of a gall wasp laying eggs into the oak), copperas or vitriol (copper or other type of ferrous sulphate) and gum. Gall ink was so successful that it continued to be used until Victorian times, until it was replaced by modern synthetic inks.

This document (C 47/34/1/3) is written in an archaic form of English and dates from around 20 years before Henry VIII’s reign, when his father, Henry VII, was on the throne.

Henry’s documents also feature some captivating and colourful illuminations. They were used to decorate manuscripts, and usually highlighted the first letter of a page or featured an illustration along the border. Some of the most beautiful examples from Henry’s time are in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry’s survey of monastic wealth.

Hover over the image above to magnify.

Book of Statutes Edw III-Hen VI with Alphabetical table of statutes (rubricated and illuminated).

The National Archives Newsletter Icon

Send me The National Archives’ newsletter

A monthly round-up of news, blogs, offers and events.