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