Anne Boleyn’s Books of Hours

Books of Hours were personal prayer books that were popular in the Middle Ages. Most contained a collection of texts, prayers and psalms designed to be read at different hours of the day.

They varied from books with minimal decoration to some extremely lavish, heavily illuminated and containing full-page miniatures.

Eric Ives describes some illuminated manuscripts as being “more akin to jewels than to books” (Pg. 239).

In Tudor times they were used by people at court as part of their private devotions in their own chambers.

Three of Anne Boleyn’s Books of Hours still survive today. The oldest of the three is on display at Hever Castle and was made in Bruges in c. 1450. It bears the poignant inscription:

“Le tiemps viendra” (The time will come) and Anne’s signature, “Je anne boleyn.”

Anne chose to write the inscription below a miniature of the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Dead. In between the je and anne, she inserted a small picture. Ives states that on close examination the picture is that of an armillary sphere, a device that Anne adopted before switching to the falcon on the roses (Pg. 240).

Eric Ives describes the manuscript in, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. He states that it is:

“Lavishly decorated with thirty three large illuminations plus twenty-two small and one historiated initial, within fine foliage borders enriched with flowers, fruits and grotesques.” (Pg. 239)

Ives believes Anne owned it before 1529, although the details behind how she obtained it and when precisely are unclear.

The second of Anne’s Book of Hours is also on display at Hever Castle and was made in Paris c. 1528. Ives states that “it qualifies as illuminated only by courtesy” because it was in fact part of an initiative to make devotional books cheaper and therefore more accessible to the emerging middle class by “supplying a printed text and woodcut illustrations which could then be coloured by hand” (Pg. 240).

Although affordable, Anne’s copy was a little more upmarket as it was printed on vellum instead of paper. Once again it is unclear as to how and when she obtained it but Ives suggests that she may have acquired it in France as a teenager (Pg.240).

Like the older of the Books on display at Hever Castle this one also contains an inscription by Anne. Instead of French, on this occasion she chose English and wrote:

“Remember me when you do pray,

That hope doth lead from day to day.

Anne Boleyn” (Ives, Pg. 240)

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, Hever Castle

She wrote this inscription opposite a depiction of the coronation of the Virgin. One can imagine that this was a reference to her desire to be Queen.

The third of Anne’s Book of Hours is on display at the British Library. It was made around the turn of the 15th and 16th century possibly in Bruges. Unlike the printed version, this is a very high quality item and contains nearly 50 illustrations. It is a very unique book because it contains a dialogue between Henry and Anne written during the time that Henry was trying to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Henry wrote in French:

“If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever.”

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, British Library

Henry chose to write his inscription under the image of the flayed Christ. This gives us a glimpse into Henry and Anne’s relationship prior to their marriage. Henry portrays himself as a love sick man suffering because he cannot yet marry the woman he loves.

Anne chooses to respond in English and writes her inscription under the image of the Annunciation (Virgin Mary being told by the Angel Gabriel that she will have a son).  She writes:

“By daily proof you shall me find To be to you both loving and kind.”

The location of Anne’s message is of great significance because what Henry wanted more than anything was a son and heir and Anne is promising that this is something she will give him.

I was lucky enough to see the two Book of Hours on display at Hever Castle on my trip to England in 2009. It truly was amazing to be standing in Anne Boleyn’s home looking upon these beautiful manuscripts that were once warmed by the touch of Anne’s long and slender fingers. I imagined Anne holding the books, turning the pages and praying for those things she desired above all else.

The British Library has a podcast about Anne’s Book of Hours.  Listen to Rob Ainsley talk to curator Scot Mckendrick here.

References

Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.

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Comments

  1. I have stood in exactly the same spot you did last year hun – as I am sure many thousands of people have – imagining all those hundreds of years ago when Anne held these treasured books in her hands, turning the pages, reading, praying. What an honour it is that they still exist today and that we are fortunate enough to have such a vivid link to Anne’s history.

  2. Honoured is the perfect word Sarah! That’s exactly how I felt at many instances during my trip. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to see so many Tudor treasures. Buildings, portraits, artefacts – a dream come true for a Tudor Tragic like myself!

  3. Great piece, Natalie. After creating your background illustration, I loved reading more about it and the other versions of Anne’s Book of Hours. I feel so much more connected to her story after our project together. I desperately want to go back to England one day soon to visit Hever Castle and other Anne Boleyn places.

    • I am so glad that our project has left you more connected to Anne’s story. Be careful, once you’re caught in the Tudor web there’s no escaping!

  4. Thank you for writing this article Natalie.
    How lucky and blessed we are that these books remain.
    I will be going to England next year and to Hever and look forward to seeing them

  5. I loved looking at these and get so excited whenever I get a glimpse at the very personal affects of historical personages. It kind of brings them a little more into reality for me, especially as Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII have been portrayed in movies and books to the ump-teenth degree – things like her Book of Hours with her and Henry’s writing really brings them (to use an over-worked phrase) to life. Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree Elizabeth. The dialogue between them in the Book of Hours is truly unique! It offers us a glimpse into their relationship all those years ago.

  6. Patti Cowan says:

    I am so moved! I live in the USA. It is my life’s dream to go to Hever, to stand where you all have stood. Natalie, your words are so eloquent. My heart is warm in my chest, reading your article. Thank you so much! This site is a gift to me! Wish you could see my smile. Is there a site that shows photos of her ‘book of hours’? Again, I’m so blessed to have found this jewel of a site! Beautifully done!

  7. Jacki Milbank says:

    I’ve been to Hever and seen these. Amazing. Any thoughts on the Boleyn name? Some writings refer to her as Bullen and indeed that name is still very much in use today.

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