The Ellesmere manuscript was most likely created in 1410 in London. While Books of Hours were the most popular type of manuscript/book created during this time period, there was a noticeable growth in secular manuscripts that dealt with everyday life and everyday people. During this period there was a shift from manuscripts written solely in French and Latin (as most biblical texts were) to English, making English a new and viable way to read, study and learn. In terms of manuscript development, the El serves as an example of the “portrayal of individual or specific forms” popular during the 14th century (Robb, 1973).
The Ellesmere Chaucer is so named for Sir Thomas Egerton who became Baron Ellesmere under the rule of James I. Prior to Egerton, however, the manuscript enjoyed quite the journey. It’s uncertain who commissioned the creation of the manuscript, but many believe it was created soon after Chaucer’s death in 1400 and is a testament to his popularity while he was living. The first known owner is Thomas de Vere, twelfth Earl of Oxford. A poem honoring the de Vere family can be found in the four fly-leaves of the manuscript. The poem, written by Rotheley is referred to as the Ballade on the House of Vere. Below is the incipit and explicit of the ballad.
Incipit: Halfe in a dede sclepe not fully revyued/ Rudely my sylfe as I lay alone
Explicit: Thy makere standyng in dyssete and greuaunce/ Which cawsed hym the so symply to avaunce, et cetera.
The manuscript then passed to Robert Drury (executor of de Vere’s will). Notes of ownership for Drury and his family can be found in the first four folio pages of the Ellesmere. Ownership of the manuscript then passes through several different people for the next 150+ years. Drury bequeathed to Thomas Calthorpp (great-nephew of Sir Robert Drury Senior). Calthorpp gave it to Henry Drury Miles (son of William Drury [son of Sir Robert Drury]). Henry Payne came into the manuscript by will having bought lands from the Drury family. It was returned to the Drury family via Sir Giles Alington (grand-son of Ursula, daughter of Sir Robert) in 1568 where it finally passed to Roger, Lord North. When North died in 1600, the manuscript passed to Thomas Egerton. In 1802 the manuscript was rebound while housed at Egerton’s London home, Bridgewater House. The first Earl of Ellesmere, Francis Granville Egerton, made the manuscript available to academics in 1846. Henry Huntington purchased the entirety of the Bridewater library in 1917, the Ellesmere Chaucer among the collection. Recognized for its exemplary illustrations and size, the Ellemere Chaucer is now available for viewing at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
While the person who commissioned the manuscript is not definitely known, many scholars speculate that Chaucer’s son Thomas (the elder) was responsible for the creation of the manuscript. Furthermore, the Rotheley ballad on the first folio pages strongly posits the de Vere family as the original recipients of the Ellesmere.
While the El is widely considered the most grand of the over 80 Canterbury Tales manuscripts in existence, it is not regarded as the textual authority of the Tales. Since Chaucer died before the Tales were completed, and lacking an authorial copy of the Tales, much of what we have today is fragmentary. Chaucer did not create the individual tales in any order, and he specified no specific order for those he finished. As such, there is no authorial arrangement of the 22 tales, instead, the order of the 22 tales has been pieced together by close analysis of the El (approx. 1410) as well as the Hengwrt MS (prior to 1410). While both manuscripts were scribed by Adam Pinkhurst, it is safe to say that Hengwrt was created prior to the El due to the more sophisticated style of the El. With that in mind, the authorial “version” of the tales lays with the Hengwrt MS.