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Henry’s VIII’s Psalter

In this illumination from Henry’s VIII’s Psalter, the young David prepares to confront Goliath.

15 April 2009

12:00 AM

15 April 2009

12:00 AM

In this illumination from Henry’s VIII’s Psalter, the young David prepares to confront Goliath.

In this illumination from Henry’s VIII’s Psalter, the young David prepares to confront Goliath. Dressed in Tudor costume, he wears a soft black hat with a white feather brim, similar to that worn by Henry in the famous Holbein portrait in Whitehall. Goliath is modelled on Pope Paul III, who excommunicated the ‘heretic’ King in 1538. David’s victory over Goliath is thus directly analagous to Henry’s ‘liberation’ of England from servitude to Rome.

From Charlemagne onwards, European monarchs identified themselves with King David. But Henry had a better claim than most to do so. David was ‘ruddy, of a fair countenance’ (1 Samuel 17: 42) and skilled at the harp — attributes that Henry shared (though David’s lust for Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah provided less salubrious parallels, as Sir Thomas Wyatt, for one, intimated).


This is one of seven principal miniatures in the Psalter, now housed in the British Library. Written and illuminated by the French emigré Jean Mallard, who presented it to Henry in 1540, it is a lavish production, using gold leaf and precious pigments. It includes many exquisite details of flora and fauna (melons, cucumbers, ladybirds), musical instruments (the dulcimer, pipe and trumpet) and, in the above image, the vivid striped tents so emblematic of the period. More heavily annotated by Henry than any other book in his library, it was one of his most cherished possessions.

Henry prided himself on his role as theologian, and through his marginalia we are able to glimpse his preoccupation with how a monarch, as well as his subjects, should behave. Confident that he is numbered among the blessed — ‘Nota quis sit beatus’, he complacently asserts — he is equally certain that his enemies will be punished.

To commemorate the quincentenary of Henry’s accession in 1509, the Folio Society has produced a limited facsimile edition of the Prayer Book, together with a companion volume of detailed commentary by Professor James P. Carley, author of the Libraries of Henry VIII (£1,000). The original will form one of the highlights of the British Library’s forthcoming exhibition, Henry VIII: Man and Monarch (23 April-6 September).

The Folio Society, 44 Eagle Street, London WC1R 4 FS, tel: 020 7400 4200,
www.foliosociety.com


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