A unique medieval manuscript dating back to the bloody War of the Roses and acquired by a New Zealand university a century ago, is being examined for hidden secrets of its origins.
The extraordinary 600-year-old English illuminated genealogical scroll, known as the Canterbury Roll, was acquired by the University of Canterbury in 1918 and is the only genealogical roll in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was once owned by pioneering Christchurch nurse Sibylla Emily Maude, and medieval historian senior lecturer Dr Chris Jones says it is the most significant and substantial medieval artefact in New Zealand.
For the past century, Canterbury University has been guardian of the rare 15th-century artefact, which tells the history of England from its mythical origins to the late Middle Ages.
"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," said Jones.
"It's visually striking. The Wars of the Roses are what Game of Thrones is based on, and this is the Wars of the Roses laid out across a 5m visually spectacular document."
A team of British scientists arrive in Christchurch next week to conduct in-depth testing of the scroll with specialised equipment to look for "hidden" writing and any other information about its origins.
It will involve ground-breaking work never before been applied to this type of manuscript, Jones said.
To mark the centenary of its acquisition, university staff and students are working on The Canterbury Roll Project to translate and digitise the document to make it more accessible to the world. The digitised version will be available to the public later this year.
The Canterbury Roll is a unique example of a medieval manuscript in New Zealand and Australia, Jones said.
"It is not the only manuscript roll from this period to exist in the world, but uniquely, it features contributions from both the key players in the Wars of the Roses – it was originally drawn up by the Lancastrian side in the conflict but it fell into Yorkist hands and they re-wrote part of it."
It is unclear how the Maude family acquired the document, although Jones said that in 1918, the family believed they had owned it since the Middle Ages.
Canterbury College professors bought the roll as part of an effort to help foster a sense of British identity in the closing days of World War I, Jones said.
"The roll is both an important part of European history and – after a century – an important part of the New Zealand story," he said.
"In particular, it embodies the way attitudes to colonialism have changed: it began as a celebration of New Zealand as a British colony; from the 1970s it was hidden away as an embarrassing reminder of that colonial past; today, it has been dusted off and is used in comparative teaching to explore differences and similarities between western concepts and whakapapa."