Sunday, 2 March 2014

Books of Art and of Prayer

"R. Gloucester" before king.
“Lord Jesus Christ, deign to free my, your servant King Richard, from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed…hear me, in the name of all your goodness, for which I give thanks, and for all the gifts granted to me, because you made me from nothing and redeemed me out of your bounteous love and pity from eternal damnation to promising eternal life.” ~ From Richard III personal Book of Hours
Coat of Arms with boars of Richard III
A book can be a window to one’s soul. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of prayer books during the Middle Ages.  Prayer was always supposed to being you closer to God, especially in the Medieval Christian faith. During the 1400’s manuscripts started to become more available to the general public, not just the nobility.  Because of this, we have more historical evidence of what was read and circulated during this time, than we do from previous reigns.

These prayer books of the Middle Ages were also known as “Book of Hours.” Their use as a devotional item is this main reason for their prevalence and preservation today. There are many famous prayer books that have survived for example: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, the Visconti Hours, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, and even the personal prayer book of King Richard III, which has a story of its own. What were these books for? And why where they so important to the medieval owner?
A page from Richard III's Book of Hours
To understand the importance of these books of prayer, it is important to understand the impact of religion on society at this time. Life during the 15th century was nowhere near as secular as it is today.  Daily life revolved for both the nobility and common folk around the church; the Catholic Church. Prayer was said daily, and many frequented church at least once a day, at times more especially during Lent.  Before a day of battle during war; mass was said before engaging the enemies, on the battlefield.  Because of this, many would being the books with them to battle or with them on their campaigns to make sure their souls were cleansed or prepped incase they ended up in Gods hands.

These books were known as “primers.” They provided the readers or owners a range of personal prayer to recite as apart of their own daily meditation. Important prayers included passages from psalms, and collections of the Old Testament. These texts were grouped together in the books, which we know as the “Hours.” Examples of some of these included “Office of the Virgin” and “Office of the Dead” (Source: notes: “Book of Hours” Lecture from England in the Time of Richard III, Future Learn class)

The structure of the books yet even though many commissioned for the individual, personally did have a similar structure or layout.

A Calendar of Church feasts
An excerpt from each of the four gospels
The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The fifteen Psalms of Degrees
The seven Penitential Psalms
A Litany of Saints
An Office for the Dead
The Hours of the Cross
Various other prayers

These books because of the period they were produced have paintings inside them, which are very useful in understanding 15th and 16th century life.  It is this reason why they are very popular with scholars when studying the period. They also are very important in understanding medieval Christianity. The books were tailored to their owners such as a man, or lady, and at times their names incorporated into some of the text and prayers to make it more personal. Also heralds or coat of arms were incorporated into the book to identify its original owner.
The rosary held by Anne, was also an important religious item.
Today hundreds survive in England alone.  Mainly because there were a large portion made, and they were produced in large numbers. Being that they were personal possessions of many, this aided their survival during the Reformation, yet still a fraction where subject to being discarded and destroyed with the destruction of the monasteries.  They were originally created as original manuscripts, but later were manufactured in commercial workshops with the personal details or inserts put in to give personalization for the owner.  With the introduction of printing, the books were printed via woodcut on vellum or parchment and parts were left not detailed for later imagery and colorization and personalization for the new owner.  Almost majority were composed in Latin yet some in French and Latin.

“At day-break on the Monday following there were no chaplains present to perform Divine service on behalf of king Richard, nor any breakfast prepared to refresh the flagging spirits of the king; besides which, as it generally stated, in the morning he declared that during the night he had seen dreadful visions, and had imagined himself surrounded by a multitude of dæmons. He consequently presented a countenance which, always attenuated, was on this occasion more livid and ghastly than usual…” Croyland Chronicle (

It is interesting to note one of the prayer books that has survived today; was one of King Richard III.  It is believed that 11-13 books survived today that were form his personal collection.  It is not surprising to find that he owned one, being a devote Catholic it was a common item to have, and to accompanied him on his travels and battles.  His book as noted above, has an interesting story.  The book is actually a second hand book, which is to have believed to been made around 1415 in London.  A close examination of the prayers included n the book; tell us that it was made for a priest.  Sometime after Richard acquired it, the long prayer at the end was added.  This prayer added holds an important significance. Not only does it ask for protection and relief from grief and sickness, but it also asks for protection from the hatred and the plots of his enemies and for reconciliation or forgiveness from them.  This prayer he added is actually a variant of a standard prayer that was included in similar versions of Book of Hours.  The prayer was widely circulated and even used by some of Richard’s contemporaries such as Alexander, Prince of Poland.  It later became important in the post-Tridentine Roman-primer that was printed and became standard staple in the Counter-Reformation of lay piety. 
One last prayer (Richard III portrayed by Aneurin Barnard)
When examining Richard as a person and his connection to his religion; catholcisum, this prayer it demonstrates an individual who is devoted, pious, but also isolated in his individualism.  This shows the importance of prayer in lay people of the later Middle Ages.  It also shows us how his individual enemies, and their intent and actions affected him as a person.  His concience in turmoil is directly shown through his need for personal prayer symbolizing his closeness to his religion and reasons behind his own personal for forgiveness.  This book of Richards’ and its meaning, offers both insight to the hostility and turmoil of medieval life during the War of the Roses and the impact of faith on the individual.  The prayers against harm from thyne enemies and need for protection show how unstable English society was at this time. 

After his untimely death at Bosworth, it was said that Henry Tudor found Richard’s prayer book in his tent, and gave it to his mother, Margaret Beaufort. She apparently altered it and wrote her name in it.  The prayer he wrote “praying for deliverance from various forms of affliction, sickness and danger” was left intact.  Unfortunately, the prayer’s intent and his closeness to his faith that he hoped would keep him out of harms way, didn’t quite work out that way.  It is noted though his faith and hope in God, did give him the courage to fight until his death.

Duffy, Eamon. Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570 Published by Library of Congress/Eamon Duffy c. 2006 pp. 100-102 (google ebooks)
Personal notes from “England in the Time of Richard III” course by Future Learn Nov. 2013.

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