A page from the Hours of the Virgin in the Rushall Psalter

November 8, 2023, by uazcmh

A Blessing and A Curse

The Rushall Psalter is a remarkable manuscript in many ways: it is an undoubtedly beautiful volume which has lived a long and unusual life – not to mention the fact that it is the subject of a 600 year old curse…

As suggested by its name, the volume’s content is largely religious in nature, consisting not only of a lavishly illuminated Psalter (a collection of the Psalms), but also a Calendar, a liturgical devotion to the Virgin Mary and a prayer which invokes in the intersession of the saints. However, the original owner, John Harpur of Staffordshire, also added a number of pages featuring works in English, including poems by Chaucer and Lydgate, as well as a prose history of the Rushall estate and its family from the time of the Conquest. It is fitting that family history seems to have been of such central importance to the creator, as it has remained key to the story of Psalter ever since: the fact that the provenance of the volume can be traced through one family, Mellish of Hodsock Priory, for hundreds of years, providing a rich layer of context for researchers.

A page from 'Truth’ by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Rushall Psalter

‘Truth’ by Geoffrey Chaucer, Me LM 1 f63r f.2v

The Mellish family came to possess the Psalter through the marriage of the Reverend Edward Mellish (1767-1830) to Elizabeth Leigh, as the volume had been in the hands of the Leigh family since the 16th century, following the marriage in 1540 of William Leigh to Elizabeth Harpur. Elizabeth was herself the great grand-daughter of the original owner, John Harpur of Rushall in Staffordshire.


Harpur endowed a chapel at Rushall, consecrated in 1440, and gave the Psalter to be used there – recording the event in an extraordinary poem proudly displayed in four colours, facing the grand opening page that bears his shield. There it remained, until it was (presumably) retrieved from the chapel at the time of the Reformation and kept within the family for safekeeping.

Page featuring Harpur’s shield from the Rushall Psalter

Page featuring Harpur’s shield, Me LM 1 f21r

But the preoccupation with security began a lot earlier: when kept in the chapel, the Psalter was a chained book, and the original iron chain still survives, as shown here. Indeed, in the same poem Harpur remarks that the precious volume is to remain in chained in place ‘from heir to heir’, and pronounces a curse on anyone who attempts to remove it… so if anything bad happens here at Manuscripts and Special Collections, I think we know why!


The Rushall Psalter and its chain

The Rushall Psalter and its chain


However, in the same poem, he also states that anyone who repairs it will receive the blessing of Christ. Fortunately, we had the manuscript conserved in 1993 re-using and re-covering the seventeenth century boards, and re-attaching the chain, thus fulfilling the wish of the original owner. We can only hope that the blessing and the curse will cancel each other out…


Are you willing to take the risk? A digital version of the manuscript is available for consultation in our Reading Room – to find out more, or to book an appointment today, please contact us at mss-library@nottingham.ac.uk.

Posted in ConservationFrom the collections