In 1873, Robert Marsham edited and described a manuscript owned by his brother, Charles Marsham, 3rd Earl of Romney, in “On a Manuscript Book of Prayers in a Binding of Gold Enamelled, said to have been given by Queen Anne Boleyn to a lady of the Wyatt Family: together with a Transcript of its Contents” which was published in Archaeologia, 44 (1873).
My friend, Olivia Peyton, has a copy of Marsham’s article and transcript of contents and she has shared it with me so that I can share the information here on The Anne Boleyn Files.
The Book of Prayers
Marsham describes “the remarkable little book” as having a “binding of gold, enamelled in black” and writes that it “resembles closely one of the exquisite designs for goldsmiths’ work, by Hans Holbein, now preserved in the Print-room of the British Museum… The only difference between the design and the executed work is that the former is on a larger scale, and includes the letters T.W.I., which the enameller has altogether omitted.” Marsham goes on to say that the initials could stand for Thomas Wyatt Inunior (Junior) or Thomas and Iane (Jane) Wyatt (Thomas Wyatt the Younger married Jane Hawte in 1537.
Marsham goes on to describe the little gold prayer book in detail:-
“Prefixed to the book is an illumination, now unfortunately much injured. In the upper part, resting on clouds, is a figure of the Trinity: the Father seated, supporting a Crucifix with the Holy Dove over the right shoulder; on each side, also on clouds, is a kneeling figure, apparently a Saint; the one on the right of the Trinity is an ecclesiastic holding a cross-staff, in a white dress, over which is a black garment; the other is a female in a rich dress, possibly St. Margaret, holding a cross with which she is piercing a dragon, very indistinctly represented; below is a landscape with two kneeling figures, a gentleman in a black dress and red sleeves, with a gold chain, and a lady in the dress of the period, with a gold chain from her girdle. This illumination is fastened down to one of the covers of the book, and is followed by sixty-four leaves inscribed and thirty-five plain leaves. The volume measures 2 1/8 inches in height, 1 3/8 inch in width, and 3/4 inch in thickness. The binding is entirely of gold, with portions engraved and filled in with black enamel, so as to leave an arabesque design in gold on a black ground. The back and clasps are similarly ornamented, but the latter have lost the greater part of their enamel. To the lower edge of the binding are attached two loops of gold, by which the little book was no doubt intended to be hung from a chain fastened to the girdle.”
According to Marsham, the contents were all in English and consisted of “a series of twelve prayers and thanksgivings, including the 35th and 37th psalms: none of them are in metre” and Marsham believed that they were written “at the time of the quarrels between Henry VIII and the Pope, around 1536 because of the following words:-
“The knowledge of God’s holy will and glad tidings of our salvation having been this great while kept close under Latin letters and now at length promulgate, published, and set at liberty by the grace poured into the heart of our prince.” Second Prayer
“It was neither of malice, nor presumption, nor for any desire of glory, that he would not bow down himself nor worship yonder proud presumptuous Haman, but because he would not set the honour of a man in stead of the glory of God.” Fifth Prayer
Marsham believes that the words in the second prayer refer to Henry VIII ordering that churches should have an English Bible for public use and that the words in the fifth prayer refer to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s embassy to Rome in 1526/27 .
Marsham transcribed the full contents of the book of prayers in his article and Olivia Peyton has translated his transcript into modern English spelling. You can read her translation of the prayers and psalms on our special “The Wyatt Prayer Book” page.
The legend or tradition behind this prayer book is that Anne Boleyn presented her ladies with miniature prayer books or psalters and that this particular prayer book was given, by Anne Boleyn, on the scaffold to a member of the Wyatt family, traditionally thought to have been Lady Margaret Lee, sister of Thomas Wyatt and a lady believed to have been one of Anne’s ladies. In “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, Eric Ives writes that although such books were very fashionable at the time, the story is not mentioned by George Wyatt, in his account of Anne Boleyn’s life, and “is only identifiable from the early eighteenth century, plus there are no contemporary accounts of Anne Boleyn giving out gifts on the scaffold and George Wyatt makes no mention of Lady Lee having been present at Anne’s execution.
In his article on the prayer book, Marsham notes that there is no proof to back up the tradition that the book was given by Anne Boleyn to one of her ladies and that the story was not mentioned by George Wyatt or by Richard Wiat [Wyatt] who compiled the “family memorials” in 1727. The only mention of it that Marsham found was in the MSS: of George Vertue who, in 1745, wrote in his “Notes on the Fine Arts” that he had seen in the possession of Mr Wyat, “a most curious little prayer-book MS. on vellum, set in gold, ornaments graved gold enamelled black – such were given to Queen Anne Boleyn’s maids of honour – and was thus given to one of the Wyat family, and has been preserved for seven generations to this time. The ornaments of this little book are like the designs of Hans Holbein.”
In an extra note on his article, Marsham goes on to say that he had since been told of an entry in the manuscript Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries which was accompanied by a drawing of the prayer book:-
“24 Mar 1724/5. Mr Corry brought a manuscript on vellum in a gold case enameled curiously, being forms of devotion from the Psalms &c. or Consolations in distress. This belonged to Queen Anna Bollen and now in the hands of Mrs. Wyat of Charter House, in which family it has been ever since her death. She has also an original picture of her.”
Marsham noted that this took the tradition slightly further back, although it did not confirm it, and that the portrait mentioned in the note was in the possession of his brother, the Earl of Romney. However, overall, Robert Marsham seems to doubt the story behind the Wyatt Prayer Book. He writes of how the fact that the fifth prayer’s possible reference to Thomas Wyatt’s visit to Rome makes it likely that “the manuscript was written by or for Sir Thomas himself rather than Anne Boleyn” and that it may have been a present for Wyatt’s son, Thomas Wyatt the Younger. Marsham also mentions that the editor of Miss Benger’s “Life of Anne Boleyn” stated that he had, in his possession in 1817, the little prayer book given by Anne, and that his notes on the book, describing it as having metrical contents and a blank leaf after each psalm, whereas the book Marsham was describing had never been out of the Wyatt and Marsham families since Vertue had seen it, its contents were non-metrical and its writing was continuous. They were obviously different prayer books.
Historians including Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke have rejected the idea that the Wyatt Prayer Book was given by Anne Boleyn to a member of the Wyatt family and it is true that we have no proof of it, apart from a Wyatt family legend which was not mentioned by George Wyatt during the reign of Elizabeth I. However, the book is similar to those designed by Hans Holbein, a man who was commissioned by Anne Boleyn and who enjoyed her patronage, and its content makes it likely that it was written in the 1530s, when Henry VIII was breaking with Rome and forming his own church. Hmm…, it looks like we’ll never know this little prayer book’s background. Whatever its history, whether it contains the words of Anne Boleyn or not, there is no denying that it is a wonderful book and please do read and enjoy Olivia’s translation at “The Wyatt Prayer Book”.
Notes and Sources
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p406
- “On a Manuscript Book of Prayers in a Binding of Gold Enamelled, said to have been given by Queen Anne Boleyn to a lady of the Wyatt Family: together with a Transcript of its Contents”, Robert Marsham, published in Archaeologia, 44 (1873)
- Olivia Peyton of the Facebook Anne Boleyn Group