Few of the treasures in the British Library evoke such a powerful reaction from visitors as the private prayer book of King Henry VIII. This Latin Psalter was one of Henry’s most cherished possessions, a book he pored over and annotated throughout. His marginal notes, which can be clearly read, give us an unrivalled insight into the private thoughts and spiritual concerns of the king. Now, 500 years after his accession, the Prayer Book has been reproduced in facsimile. To own it is to own a piece of history, and to have the most intimate link with this remarkable monarch.
In April 1509, when Henry acceded to the throne, he was the quintessential Renaissance prince: cultivated, courteous and highly educated, with a thorough knowledge of Latin and theology. Even in his later years, after the break from Rome,Henry retained many of the old customs, preferring to read the Bible in the Vulgate or Latin version rather than in English. Particularly important to him was a Latin Book of Psalms, presented to him in 1540 by the French artist Jean Mallard. Henry consulted it frequently and made over 100 notes in its margins. When we read these notes, in Henry’s square, confident hand, it is almost as if we are in his presence. We see what he saw, and we are privy to his innermost thoughts.‘The king trusteth in the Lord’
The Prayer Book was presented to Henry VIII in 1540, an eventful year even for Henry’s reign. On 6 January Anne of Cleves became Henry's fourth wife; on 6 July the marriage was annulled. Henry’s adviser Thomas Cromwell was beheaded at Tower Hill on 28 July, the same day that Henry married Catherine Howard in a private ceremony at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. However, the young bride with whom he was so infatuated would be condemned to death for adultery less than two years later.
With friends and advisers like Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell executed and his marriages seemingly doomed to failure,Henry was feeling increasingly isolated. His notes in the margins of his Prayer Book show him pondering the question of whom to trust. Beside Psalm 36:1 in the Vulgate numbering, ‘Fret not thyself because of evildoers,’ he notes, ‘Excellent advice.’ Henry was moved to place his trust in God rather than in those around him. He has marked Psalm 20:1, ‘The king shall joy in thy strength,’ noting the reason for such joy: ‘For the king trusteth in the Lord, and through the mercy of the most High he shall not be moved.’‘I have been young, and now am old’
As well as emphasising Henry’s faith in his God-given status, the king’s notes show how carefully he pondered the great religious questions of the day. Psalms 43:21 and 96:7, condemning idolatry, are marked, but so is Psalm 94:2, which appears to be promoting the sacrament of confession. As head of the Church of England,Henry was responsible for interpreting the Scriptures to his people. The many notes on religious matters show how seriously he took that responsibility. There is also a more personal dimension to Henry’s reading of the Psalms. Aged 49, and in failing health,Henry felt he was growing old. Beside Psalm 94:10, ‘Forty years long was I grieved with this generation,’ Henry writes, ‘Note: the time.’ Perhaps the most poignant comment occurs at Psalm 36:25, ‘I have been young, and now am old.’ In the margin Henry observes, ‘A sad saying.’An intimate link with the most famous of all English kings
King Henry’s Prayer Book was designed for use in private devotion, and indeed one of Jean Mallard’s miniatures shows Henry reading in his bedchamber. The Latin text is in an elegant humanist hand – easily read even today. The book is illuminated with seven exquisite miniatures and hundreds of gorgeously coloured capitals depicting birds, animals, flowers and plants. Henry’s marginal notes in pen, pencil and red ink are fully translated in the accompanying Commentary volume.A facsimile that bridges 500 years
King Henry VIII’s vast collection of books remained part of the royal library until 1757, when King George II presented them to the newly founded British Museum. This royal bequest forms the nucleus of the British Library’s historic collection. At its heart is King Henry’s Prayer Book.
Exceptionally, the original binding of the Prayer Book has survived, along with most of its clasps. This has allowed us to reproduce it exactly, from the red silk velvet on wooden boards to the intricate design of the brass clasps. Inside, every detail of the original is visible, from the beauty of the glorious illuminations to the faintest of pencil marks and water marks on the vellum. Even the irregular effect of the original page edges has been achieved, by gilding them before they are sewn. The result is a facsimile that reflects both the opulence and intimate nature of this extraordinary royal treasure.
Limited to 980 copies which will be hand-bound, with numbers allocated in response to orders.
The facsimile is accompanied by a specially commissioned Commentary volume by Professor James P. Carley, the foremost expert on the library of Henry VIII.
Copy number 1 of this facsimile has been graciously accepted by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
King Henry as King David in the illuminations of Jean Mallard
King Henry’s Prayer Book is illuminated by the French artist Jean Mallard. Through their iconography, several of the illuminations link King Henry with King David and, more subtly, with Christ himself as heir to the House of David. They fuse the sacred past with a present reality and draw implicit analogies.
A royal forebear and a sacred example
The Psalms are believed by many to be the work of King David himself. Since many of them address the nature of kingship, they were regarded as, in the words of Henry’s tutor John Skelton, ‘a mirror for princes’. David was valiant in battle, a musician and a poet: all qualities to which Henry aspired. Like David, Henry saw himself as both king and high priest, responsible for interpreting the Scriptures to his people. Mallard’s illuminations depicting Henry as David are a reminder of his sacred duty as well as his royal status.
David was also a fallible figure, who sinned by seducing Bathsheba and whose rebellious son Absalom was killed in battle. Many of the Psalms express a sense of grief and loneliness. Through reading his Psalter, Henry could draw consolation from the fact that David, too, had transgressed and understood the trials and tribulations of a king.
From Charlemagne onwards, European monarchs identified themselves with King David, founder of the Hebrew royal dynasty and the greatest Biblical king. However,Henry had more claim to do so than most. A younger son,David was ‘ruddy, and of a fair countenance’ (I Samuel 17:42) and skilled at the harp – all qualities Henry possessed. Here, in the miniature prefacing Psalm 26, Henry is shown as David battling a modern-day Goliath in the form of Pope Paul III, who has recently excommunicated him.
Here Henry is shown as King David repenting, with an angel ordering him a choice of punishments. David’s most famous sin was committing adultery with Bathsheba and causing the death of her husband Uriah on the battlefield. David’s first wife Micah was barren, and he took seven wives after her, including Bathsheba. In this image of penitence, Henry’s own misdeeds are implicitly justified, as both he and David were God’s anointed kings.
This year, in partnership with the British Library, The Folio Society will publish three new limited edition facsimiles of treasures from King Henry VIII’s library.
King Henry’s Prayer Book
The king’s personal copy of the Psalms with annotations in his own hand, bound in silk velvet and containing exquisite illuminations. Limited to 980 copies.
Music for King Henry
A manuscript collection of Flemish motets designed to appeal to the young king’s musical tastes, presented to him around 1516. Limited to 500 copies, with a CD of the specially commissioned, first ever recording.
King Henry’s Map of the
Produced for the king by the scholar, cleric and map-maker Maurice Griffith, this remarkable map conveys a vivid sense of Henry’s clear-sighted ambitions and sovereign power. Limited to 2,750 copies.
A series of events is taking place throughout 2009 to mark the quincentenary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. The British Library’s exhibition ‘Henry VIII: Man and Monarch’ (23 April to 6 September 2009) will display the rich legacy of Henry’s library, which forms the foundation of its historic collection. Among the treasures exhibited will be King Henry’s Prayer Book. A copy of the Folio Society’s facsimile will be on display at the British Library and at other locations throughout 2009. Events will also be taking place in the Royal Palaces, including Hampton Court, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
Review by AliceF10 on 7th Jun 2013
"This is, so far, the most expensive Folio Society production I have purchased to date. Was it worth it? Indeed it was. Other than the corners and clasp being replaced with gold, it could not be improv..." [read more]