Friday 8 December 2023

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours by Judith Allnatt

 On 19th May this year I visited Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn's childhood home. It was on this day in 1536 that Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London following charges of adultery, incest and plotting to kill her husband, Henry VIII. Modern historians regard these charges as fabricated: the couple had failed to produce a male heir; several miscarriages had followed the birth of their daughter Elizabeth and Henry had begun to court Jane Seymour. In memory of Anne, on the 19th of May 2023, her precious Book of Hours was brought out from the archive and put on display at Hever, along with fascinating historical details that could be deduced from it.

A Book of Hours is basically a Christian prayer book designed to guide the spiritual life of a secular person. It often contains psalms, hymns, extracts from the gospels and prayers to be read at the canonical hours of the day from Matins to Compline. Affluent owners often had their books lavishly illuminated and sometimes they were wedding gifts given by a husband to a wife.  The books were  sometimes personalised through having the owners  themselves featured in the paintings or through featuring local saints; some have notes written in the margins, some were so much a part of daily life that they were hung from a woman's girdle, like her keys. In the case of Anne Boleyn's Book, the prayers in English show more wear, from kissing or rubbing the pages, than the Latin prayers. It is tempting to see in this the enthusiasm Anne had for promoting an English Bible for all to be able to read, as shown by her protection of those working on English translations. However, the Hever exhibition points out that after Anne's death the Book was owned by various Kentish women who may not have known Latin and whose use of the book would have left its mark. 

The English School

Anne was originally a maid of honour to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon, but by 1527, the year of the book's printing, Henry was hotly pursuing Anne and was considering the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Assistant creator Kate McCaffrey explains in the Hever exhibition that books from this printing were commissioned for the English court, including both Catherine and Anne, but that their copies are of different quality.  

The vivid colours used in illumination were made from sources such as charred wood (black)  lapis lazuli( blue) gold, cuttlefish ink (sepia), crushed insects ( crimson)  or limonite (ochre). Anne's Book of Hours is decorated with gold borders, red and blue corner patterns and oval borders with inscriptions, whereas Catherine's is plainer. Whether this was perhaps due to Anne, full of confidence as she moved towards becoming Queen, commissioning the books herself, or whether the books were gifts from the King  that reveal his  coldness to  Catherine and his passionate interest in Anne is a matter for speculation.

The rivalry between Anne and Catherine is further shown in a tiny illumination in Anne's music book in which her emblem, the falcon, is shown pecking rather viciously  at Catherine's emblem, the pomegranate.   

Leaving aside the machinations of Court, I was also intrigued to see an inscription in Anne's own hand at the foot of one of the pages of her Book of Hours.

In June 1528, when Henry was still married to Catherine and pursuing Anne, a 'sweating sickness' occurred in London that sent the court, in action all too reminiscent of the last few years,  scattering to the countryside to quarantine. Anne and her father at Hever became dangerously ill and Anne's brother-in-law died of the virus. Kate McCaffrey's research suggests that the inscription was written at around this time, possibly while Anne battled with the death-dealing illness. 

It reads:

 Remember me when you do pray

that hope doth lead from day to day

 - Anne Boleyn 

It  made me shiver to think about what lay ahead of her only eight years later. I reflected on the relief she must have felt on her recovery, the determination to seize the day and her opportunity to become Queen and how fragile human hopes can be. 



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