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Inside the Red Book of Hergest

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Although Henry VIII had his own large and comprehensive library, he may also have known about the Red Book of Hergest. The book’s name is derived from its red leather cover and its association with Hergest Court (Plas Hergest), where it was kept from about 1465 until the beginning of the 17th century.

Hergest Court is near the Herefordshire town of Kington, on the Welsh border. The original manor house was built over 700 years ago but the area is best known today for its beautiful gardens and a nearby golf course — the highest in England.

The Llyfr Coch Hergest or Red Book of Hergest is a collection of Welsh mythologies, histories, learned texts and poems. It draws on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, folktales and early medieval traditions. Some details may even go back to Iron Age legends. Within the red cover are works on farming, proverbs, language, astrology, medicine and history.

The manuscript is thought to have been written between about 1382 and 1410 and is said to represent everything that a noble-born person in Welsh society should know. The book is now kept in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

Within the Red Book, Henry VIII could have noted the collection of herbal remedies associated with Rhiwallon Feddyg, who lived in the village of Myddfai, just outside Llandovery, in the 13th century. Rhiwallon, so legend tells us, inherited his knowledge of the area’s medicinal plants from his mother, who told him to go and heal the sick (Footler, PJ, 26 January 2008, p88). He did as he was told and founded the medical dynasty known as the “the physicians of Myydfai”,  which lasted more than 500 years.

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