Hidden signatures found Anne Boleyn’s execution prayer book

Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours has joined Isabella Stuart’s in giving up its long-held secrets. Previously unknown inscriptions have been found that identify the close network of owners who kept the book quietly safe, at no inconsiderable risk to themselves, after her execution in 1536.

The Book of Hours, part of the collection of Hever Castle, Anne’s childhood home, was made in Paris in the 1520s for Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife, and likely given to Anne when she was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting. It was printed, not handwritten, and while it is technically illuminated, it was really just colored in because the illustrations were actually woodcuts that were then painted by hand. Anne’s was a more expensive version because it was printed on vellum.

It is one of only three surviving books of Anne Boleyn’s to have signed inscriptions in her hand. The inscription written across from an image of the Coronation of the Virgin reads: “Remember me when you do pray, that hope dothe led from day to day.” Underneath it is Anne’s signature. Legend has it she carried this book to the gallows.

Medieval historian and former steward of Hever Castle Kate McCaffrey was given special permission to examine the castle’s two inscribed Anne Boleyn prayer books. In the Book of Hours, she spotted what looked like smudges. When examined under ultra-violet light, the smudges proved to be four signatures of people related to Elizabeth Hill, a childhood friend of Anne’s and part of her court. Three of the signatories were women — Hill’s mother, her aunt, her cousin — and one was a man — her uncle. They had been erased leaving only the smudges visible to the naked eye.

Using ultraviolet light and photo editing software she discovered three family names written in the book; Gage, West, and Shirley (from Sundridge, near Sevenoaks). These three names centre around a fourth, the Guildford family of Cranbrook in Kent.

Kate’s research uncovered that the book was passed from female to female, of families not only local to the Boleyn family at Hever but also connected by kin.

She explained: “It is clear that this book was passed between a network of trusted connections, from daughter to mother, from sister to niece. If the book had fallen into other hands, questions almost certainly would have been raised over the remaining presence of Anne’s signature. Instead, the book was passed carefully between a group of primarily women who were both entrusted to guard Anne’s note and encouraged to add their own.

“In a world with very limited opportunities for women to engage with religion and literature, the simple act of marking this Hours and keeping the secret of its most famous user, was one small way to generate a sense of community and expression.”


6 thoughts on “Hidden signatures found Anne Boleyn’s execution prayer book

  1. Friends,

    An important comment on this blog entry: Anne Boleyn did not go to the gallows, which implies she was hanged. She went to the scaffold, a platform on Tower Green where she was beheaded. Ann met her end kneeling before a French swordsman, rather than by the usual axeman and the block.

    In Tudor times, there were only six executions within the Tower itself, all held on Tower Green, plus one during the reign of Richard III. These were extremely important people, including ex-Queens like Anne, who were afforded the dignity of a more-or-less private end. Most executions of Tower prisoners were done outside the Tower walls on Tower Hill, and were public spectacles. Tower Hill executions were usually by hanging. If the execution was for treaston, this was often followed by drawing-and-quartering. Some noble prisoners were beheaded, and sometimes spared the other grimness. Heretics were burned at the stake in Smithfield.

    The last execution by axe was Simon Frasier, Lord Lovat, who was “topped” on Tower Hill in 1747 for his part in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite uprising. His block is/was displayed in the White Tower, but the axe shown beside it is questionable.

    During WWI and WWII, military executions by firing squad were carried out within the Tower. These were mostly captured German spies.

    Yours Aye,

    Lord Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge 🦆
    (A Tower History Geek)

  2. Executioner from France, Prayer book from France,… – CLEARLY, no expenses were spared! :skull:

    PS: To the best of my knowledge, female traitors were traditionally burned at the stake, while male ones were traditionally not “really” hanged but slightly “choked”, castrated, drawn and quartered, and finally beheaded.

    Also, it may be worth annotating that this “quartering” tradition was already abolished in 1870 (‘UK Forfeiture Act’), and after 1870, “traitors” were traditionally “transported” to Australia, and possibly other “colonies” instead:

    “..judgment required by law to be awarded against persons adjudged guilty of high treason shall include the drawing of the person on a hurdle to the place of execution, and, after execution, the severing of the head from the body, and the dividing of the body into four quarters, shall be and are hereby repealed.” (from the 1870 UK Forfeiture Act)

  3. Why is the researcher holding the book without gloves? I thought the oils and dirt would transfer. Seems to me she should wear gloves?

  4. Current practice deprecates the use of gloves. Among other problems, they can cause clumsiness, which can damage books or documents. It is better to wash and dry your hands thoroughly first.

  5. A minor point: My understanding is that public Tower Hill executions were by the axe, not the rope — and they were generally prominent offenders, if not at the level of the six executed at Tower Green.
    There’s also controversy that the spot on Tower Green marked as the execution site was actually where Anne Boelyn was beheaded. There were quite a few spectators for her “private” execution, and a case has been made that she was executed at a spot closer to the White Tower.
    The hanging, drawing and quartering was mainly done at Smithfield and later Tyburn. There were a few command performances in other areas – notably half the Gunpowder plotters at Old St Paul’s churchyard, and the other half just outside Westminster Hall.

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