Medieval manuscripts blog

14 June 2022

Fact-checking ‘Anne Boleyn’s’ girdle book

Sometimes the smallest manuscripts are the most precious. One object that is turning heads in our Gold exhibition is a miniature prayer book bound in gold covers (Stowe MS 956). In the 16th century, it was fashionable for aristocratic ladies to wear tiny books like this hanging from their belts, or ‘girdles’. This girdle book attracts attention because of a story associating it with a particularly important owner. It is rumoured to have it belonged to Anne Boleyn. The ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII of England is said to have handed it to one of her ladies-in-waiting before her execution in 1536. But is the story true? We decided to do some investigating.

Girdle book with ornate gold covers, shown closed and standing upright with its spine towards us
Girdle book in gold filigree covers, measuring 40 x 30 mm: Stowe MS 956

Did it really belong to Anne Boleyn?

On the face of it, the story sounds compelling. The rich gold binding certainly appears fit for a queen. Inside, the book contains selected Psalms translated into English verse. This fits with Anne Boleyn’s known interest in vernacular bible translations, for example the British Library holds her copy of William Tyndale's illegal translation of the New Testament into English (C.23.a.8).

The volume also opens with a miniature portrait of Henry, showing him with a benevolent expression, his cherry lips upturned in a smile and his blue eyes sparkling. It makes quite a contrast with the king’s formidable glower in many of his larger portraits. It looks like the face that Henry might turn upon a love interest, like Anne during their lengthy courtship.

The girdle book, held open by someone's finger, on the page with Henry VIII's portrait
The girdle book, held open to the miniature portrait of Henry VIII: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

A manuscript mix-up

Sadly, a closer look at the evidence reveals some major problems with this story. The most significant one concerns its source. If we look back through the records, we find that the story about Anne Boleyn was first applied to this manuscript by a London bookseller and publisher named Robert Triphook (1782-1863). Triphook briefly owned the manuscript, and he described it in the notes to his edition of George Wyatt’s biography of Anne Boleyn (1817), and in his bookseller’s catalogue (1818). The manuscript was then bought in 1818/19 by the Duke of Buckingham for the Stowe Library, which eventually entered the British Library (see our Collection Guide to the Stowe Manuscripts).

It seems that Triphook got the Anne Boleyn story from an account by the engraver and antiquary George Vertue, which Triphook cites in his notes to Wyatt’s biography. Vertue’s original notes are now preserved in the British Library. In 1745 Vertue described seeing in the possession of one Mr Wyatt a ‘little prayer book … set in gold’ which was given by Anne Boleyn to one of the Wyatt Family.

Vertue's handwritten notes
Description of a miniature prayer book bound in gold, from George Vertue’s notebook: Add MS 23073, f. 29r

But Vertue was actually describing a different manuscript. Another 16th-century gold girdle book said to have belonged to Anne Boleyn was circulating in the 18th and 19th centuries, owned by the descendants of the Wyatt family. The Wyatt manuscript first appears in the Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries on 24 March 1725. The description is accompanied by a drawing which shows a manuscript with two clasps on the fore-edge and two raised bands on the spine, unlike the Stowe manuscript which has one central clasp and five raised bands.

Handwritten minutes of the Society of Antiquaries with a drawing of a manuscript
Description and drawing of the Wyatt manuscript, Minutes of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 24 March 1725: SAL/02/001 - Minute book, volume 1 (1718-1732), p. 151 © The Society of Antiquaries of London (Source: Society of Antiquaries)

A description and engraving of the Wyatt manuscript were also published by the scholar Robert Marsham in an article in the journal Archaeologia in 1873. He said that Robert Marsham, second lord of Romney, inherited it from his cousin Richard Wyatt.

Engraving of an ornate book cover with clasps and suspension loops
Engraving of the gold covers of the Wyatt manuscript, published by Robert Marsham in 1872 (Source: Google Books)

As Marsham noted, the binding of the Wyatt manuscript was near-identical to a design by Hans Holbein in his ‘Jewellery Book’, now held in the British Museum. The only difference is that Holbein’s design incorporated the letters ‘T’, ‘W’ and ‘I’, possibly referring to Thomas and Jane Wyatt, who married in 1537.

A drawing of an ornate book cover by Holbein
Hans Holbein, Design for a metalwork book-cover, from the 'Jewellery Book' © The Trustees of the British Museum (Source: The British Museum)

The Stowe manuscript is clearly not the Wyatt manuscript, the present-day whereabouts of which are unknown. It seems that Triphook transferred the Anne Boleyn story to the Stowe manuscript through a case of mistaken manuscript identity. 

The covers of the Stowe girdle book opened, showing the front and back cover and spine
The gold openwork covers of Stowe MS 956

The problem with the portrait of Henry VIII

If the Stowe manuscript did not belong to Anne Boleyn, how do we explain the portrait of a smiling Henry at the beginning? Unfortunately, the answer may be that the portrait is not original. 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. References to the manuscript from 1849 and 1881 state that the portrait was believed to be a modern addition. Was it was added to the manuscript between 1819 and 1849 to help validate the Anne Boleyn story?

Portrait of Henry VIII from the Stowe girdle book
Miniature portrait of Henry VIII from the girdle book: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

We would need to do scientific testing to be sure, but there are reasons to be suspicious. Henry’s uncharacteristic smile has already been noted. The miniature also depicts him with larger eyes and a rosier complexion than are usual in 16th century portraiture. Compared to other Tudor portrait miniatures such as those of Henry below, the portrait also stands out for its loose brushwork and rectangular rather than circular frame.

Portrait of Henry VIII from the Psalter of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII as King David, from the Psalter of Henry VIII (c 1540-1541): Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 3r


Portrait miniature of Henry VIII
Portrait miniature of Henry VIII on vellum, c.1540-70: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022 (Source: The Royal Collection Trust)


An illuminated treaty with a portrait miniature of Henry VIII inside the initial 'H'
Portrait miniature of Henry VIII on the Ratification of the Treaty of Ardres, 1546: Paris, Archives nationales AE/III/33, detail (Source: Musée des Archives nationales)

The original owner

We will probably never know for sure who originally owned the Stowe girdle book, but there is one clue. The verse psalm translations in this manuscript survive in just one other copy, in a manuscript also held at the British Library (Add MS 30981). This other manuscript contains an inscription stating that the translation was done by John Croke (1489-1554), a clerk in chancery to Henry VIII. It also includes a Latin dedication from Croke to his wife Prudence (m. 1528/9):

‘Hos mea me coniunx psalmos Prudentia fecit/ Vertere, nec tedet suasum virtutis amore’.

(These psalms, my wife Prudence made me translate: nor, being persuaded, am I wearied by the task, due to love of virtue).

Translation from Clare Costley King'oo, Miserere Mei (Notre Dame, 2012), p. 111.

Since both manuscripts appear to be written in Croke’s own hand, perhaps the most likely recipient of both volumes was Prudence Croke.

Manuscript of Croke’s psalms in English verse
The beginning of John Croke’s psalms in English verse translation: Add MS 30981, f. 3r

You can also find out more about girdle books in our previous blogpost on miniature books, and check out this Book of Hours that really did belong to Anne Boleyn. Our Gold exhibition is open until Sunday 2 October 2022 and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Eleanor Jackson

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.