A tiny, gold-bound book traditionally believed to have hung from the hips of Anne Boleyn was misattributed by a Regency bookseller and probably belonged to a wealthy Tudor lawyer’s wife, research reveals.
Ahead of the ongoing Gold exhibition, British Library curators investigated the back story of the book, which was said to have been handed by the second wife of King Henry VIII to one of her ladies-in-waiting before her execution in 1536.
Though disproving the romantic tale, they said the manuscript’s real life was just as interesting and drew attention to non-royals who shared the queen’s interests.
The 40 x 30mm book, designed for suspension from a lady’s girdle, has an intricate metalwork binding and contains a selection of psalms translated into English. This certainly fits Boleyn’s interest in translations of Biblical texts into the vernacular. It also features a miniature portrait of a smiling Henry, as if the king commissioned it as a love token.
The curators’ research indicates that the Boleyn connection was first put forward by Robert Triphook, a London bookseller and publisher. Triphook briefly owned the book and described it in the notes to his edition of George Wyatt’s 1817 biography of Boleyn, and also in his bookseller’s catalogue (1818).
The “royal” provenance evidently excited interest and the book was bought around 1818 by Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, for the Stowe Library, which later entered the British Library.
Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, said that Triphook appeared to have taken the Boleyn story from an account by the engraver and antiquary George Vertue, which he cited in his notes to Wyatt’s biography. She was able to check Vertue’s original notes, held at the library. Sure enough, in 1745 Vertue described seeing in the possession of one Mr Wyatt a “little prayer book … set in gold” which was given by Boleyn to a member of the Wyatt Family.
“it was a genuine mistake — plus a bit of wishful thinking”Eleanor Jackson
However, Jackson realised that Vertue was describing a different manuscript. Another 16th-century gold girdle book said to have belonged to Boleyn was recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries, owned by the descendants of the Wyatt family whose relative Sir Thomas Wyatt was an admirer of Boleyn’s.
The first known description of the Wyatt girdle book, in the Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries in 1725, is accompanied by a drawing that proves it was not the Stowe manuscript. For example, the Wyatt book’s binding had two clasps, whereas the Stowe one has one central clasp.
Jackson said that, as a bookseller, Triphook clearly had a financial incentive to transfer the Boleyn story to the Stowe manuscript. Nevertheless, she gives him the benefit of the doubt. “I think Triphook wouldn’t have had access to the information to be able to make a definite judgement about it. So I think it was a genuine mistake — plus a bit of wishful thinking.”
As for the portrait of Henry, she said that the earliest accounts of the manuscript by Triphook in 1817-18, and the Stowe librarian Charles O’Conor in 1819, do not mention the portrait. She suspects that it may have been added during the mid-19th century to “validate” the Boleyn tale.
If Boleyn didn’t own the Stowe girdle book, there are clues to who may have done. The translations in it survive in only one other version, in a manuscript also held at the British Library. This other manuscript has an inscription naming the translator as John Croke, a clerk in chancery to Henry VIII.
It also includes a Latin dedication from Croke to his evidently devout wife Prudence (née Cave), stating that she had asked him to translate the penitential psalms. He said he wasn’t wearied by the task due to his “love of virtue”.
In a blog post on the findings, Jackson wrote: “Since both manuscripts appear to be written in Croke’s own hand, perhaps the most likely recipient of both volumes was Prudence Croke.” She believes the girdle book dates to about 1540, several years after Boleyn’s death.
Little is known about Prudence Croke. Her father, Richard Cave, of Stanford, was a friend of the statesman Thomas Cromwell. Prudence’s brothers were well-connected at court and her husband John Croke was a successful legal official — one of the six clerks in chancery and later a master in chancery.
Jackson told History First that disproving the Boleyn provenance did not lessen the book’s interest. “It is nice to move the conversation away from Tudor royalty, because so much of the attention that gets focused on 16th-century English history is all about Henry VIII and his six wives — to the exclusion of many other people of the period, the Prudence Crokes who no one ever hears about. It’s good to recover those stories as well.”
She added that the research was a lesson in the importance of investigating the provenance of historic books and manuscripts in original records.
The book still has associations with Boleyn, for whose hand in marriage Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and who was beheaded only three years later, on dubious evidence of treason, adultery and incest.
Jackson said: “Extremely small girdle books in metalwork covers that are like precious tooled ornaments, and almost like jewellery, are a phenomenon of the 16th century. They originally became popular in France, and from there, they become fashionable in England too.” Boleyn was bought up partly in France and popularised French fashions in the English court.
According to Jackson, the Crokes’ interest in translation of scripture into English signalled an openness to religious reform that was shared by Boleyn, who owned a copy of William Tyndale’s English Bible.
As for the Wyatt girdle book, which may really have been commissioned by Boleyn, its whereabouts are unknown but she believes it may well be held in a private collection and could one day surface.
The Stowe girdle book (Stowe MS 956) can be seen in the British Library’s Gold exhibition until October 2. The exhibition features 50 manuscripts and books from different cultures, languages and time periods, all illuminated or bound in the precious metal.
Jackson said: “When I’ve been taking people for tours of the exhibition, there are lots of beautiful things, but everyone seems to think that the girdle book has a magnetic quality. It’s very powerful.”