Friday 4 June 2010

Henry VIII's conservative religious beliefs

by Kathryn Hadley,

A rare medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII goes on display, today, in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Gallery as part of its ‘Treasures of the British Library’ collection. Whilst there still exist numerous medieval obituary rolls, very few prayer rolls survived the Reformation. The prayer roll also features an inscription written by Prince Henry, which is one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession to the throne on April 21st, 1509.

The roll was not discovered until 1858 and many questions about its origin, place of production and illumination remain unanswered. The British Library recently purchased the prayer roll from Sotheby’s for £485,000.

It is believed to have been produced in England in the late 15th century and consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end, measuring four metres when it is fully unrolled. It is illustrated with thirteen illuminations depicting Christ and various saints and their martyrdoms and also contains a two-column text with rubrics in English and prayers in Latin to the Five Holy Wounds of Christ and other related devotions.

The inscription at the top of the second membrane under the central image of Christ’s Passion, believed to have been written by Prince Henry some time prior to 1509 when he presented the roll to William Thomas a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, reads: ‘Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry’.

Henry’s royal badges consisting of the two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather as well as Katherine of Aragon’s emblem of a sheaf of arrows at the head of the roll are evidence that the roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry. The prayer roll provides fascinating and surprising insights into Henry’s traditional and conservative early religious practices that he would later destroy when he broke with Rome and established himself as head of the Church of England.

Images (British Library):
- Christ crucified, Angels bearing Christ's side wound
Christ is depicted hanging on a Tau-shaped cross and flanked by two angels each holding a small scroll. The vernacular instructions on the left-hand scroll promise general protection, material prosperity and safe childbirth to those who wear the roll on their bodies: “This cros, 15 times moten is the length of our Lord Jhesu Criste, and that day that ye bere it upon you ther shal no evyl spirit have power of yow on londe ne on water, ne with thonder ne litenyng be hurt, ne dye in dedely synne withowte confession, ne fyre be brent, ne water be drowned; and it shal breke your enemys power and encres your worldly goodes, and if a woman be in travell off childe, ley this on her body and she shal be delyverd withowte parel, the childe chrystendom, and the moder purificacyon.”

- The Archangel Michael and the Devil
The first of a series of images of saints, St Michael is depicted here conquering the devil, personified by a dragon-like monster with six heads and a tail ending in another head. The archangel is clothed in a red, feathered garment, relieved with gold. Beneath is a hymn to the saint: “Gaude princeps pietatis. Miles mire probatis ...”

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