The following article by Christopher Muttukumaru CB appears in the Jesus College Newsletter (issue 27, Trinity Term 2017).
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, Margaret of Anjou was described by the Duke of York as the “she wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France”. Margaret, who married King Henry VI and who, in 1448, was the founder of Queens’ College, Cambridge, was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Her marriage had been a pivotal factor in the ending of the Hundred Years’ War. She became Queen Consort in 1445. With Henry VI in fragile health and incapable of wise decision-making, she became a figurehead in her own right and de facto the leader of the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses.
Yet the prayer roll of Margaret of Anjou, which belongs to Jesus College (Bodleian Library, Jesus MS 124), depicts a pious Margaret at prayer, kneeling at her prie-dieu.
What is the prayer roll?
Psalters, such as the sumptuous Copenhagen Psalter (which is attributed to English illuminators), had been in use in England from the early Middle Ages. They were primarily a collection of the psalms for use by the clergy. But by the fifteenth century, psalters were increasingly superseded by books of hours. Books of hours, while incorporating some psalms, also focused on other readings, prayers and, typically, a calendar. Like books of hours, prayer rolls were pre-eminently a personal aid to devotion.
Margaret’s prayer roll is a precious object of exceptional beauty. It is so rare that it was one of the objects displayed at the British Library’s Royal Manuscripts exhibition in 2011–12. It dates from between 1445 and 1453.
The roll, when unfurled to its full length, is about 158 cm long. It comprises two pieces of overlapping parchment. It is likely that it was a royal commission, not a work done by monks. Its creation is attributed to William Abell, a professional illuminator who served an elite clientele in the 15th century. According to the Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bodleian, the script is exceptionally fine. The colours of the images in the prayer roll are startling in their intensity. The text is written in a vivid brown ink. The prayer roll was typically rolled over a wooden pipe in order to be more portable.
Why is it so rare?
First, the Jesus prayer roll is one of comparatively few which have survived — there are no more than 25 in existence. This is a consequence partly of their fragility and partly of the excesses of the Reformation.
Secondly, while the majority of prayer rolls are dedicated to prayers focused on the wounds of Christ, the Jesus prayer roll is centred on the Virgin Mary. Thus she and Jesus are depicted within the ring at the top of the prayer roll, above the kneeling Margaret. In this connection, the visual imagery in the text and the historical context are worth exploring.
Motherhood was, in Maurer’s view (see Select bibliography), the defining moment for a Queen Consort in a system based on lineal inheritance. Therefore, after an unstable period following the sudden death of Henry V, the birth of a successor to the throne became an immediate concern after Margaret’s arrival from France. Against that background, Margaret (who also visited the shrine at Walsingham four times, known to be a place where women sought God’s help in attaining motherhood) is depicted looking upwards and praying to the Virgin Mary. The son whom she and Henry VI wanted duly arrived in 1453.
Moreover, in establishing herself in England, Margaret was expected to intercede with God on behalf of her people — in short, to exercise “good ladyship”. As to this role as intercessor, the keen reader will note the detail in the wheel outside the central ring in which the Virgin Mary is shown. The spokes of the wheel show the classes in society who might be expected to pray to the Virgin, seeking Margaret’s intercession for the purpose. The identified classes include: the poor, the laity, the clergy and religious women.
Thirdly, the prayer roll, in depicting the Queen herself, is, in the view of an expert (Drimmer), very unusual in a late mediaeval manuscript. There are two other such depictions of Margaret. First, she appears in the Talbot Shrewsbury book (1444–5), a book of poems and romances presented by the Earl of Shrewsbury (Talbot) to Margaret upon her betrothal to Henry VI. Talbot had escorted her to England from France. Secondly, she appears in widow’s clothing in the Skinners’ Company Book of the Confraternity of the Assumption of Our Lady.
Drimmer concludes: “Together, these images are exceptional in their portrayal of a mediaeval queen in three guises: devotee, recipient and widow.” Curiously, the contemporaneous Talbot family’s Book of Hours (Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 40-1950) uses a long, thin format akin to a prayer roll. Talbot and his second wife are themselves pictured penitentially in illuminations in the manuscript.
How did the prayer roll come into the possession of Jesus College?
The college was founded in 1571. The prayer roll dates from 1445–53. Whence came the prayer roll?
Visitors to the Weston Building of the Bodleian will have noted the giant 16th century tapestry maps of parts of England — the Sheldon Tapestries. They were commissioned for Ralph Sheldon (1537–1613). His great grandson was also a Ralph Sheldon (1623–1684). From the time of his wife’s death in 1663, the younger Sheldon spared no expense in enriching the collection in his library at Weston in Warwickshire. Between 1674 and 1681, Sheldon engaged Anthony Wood to catalogue the collection. Wood’s two catalogues provide the clue to the migration of the Sheldon collection.
According to an article in 1939 in the Bodleian Library Record, Sheldon bequeathed most of the collection to the College of Arms. But the article records that Wood had been an “unworthy trustee, for several Vincent-Sheldon MSS, now in the Bodleian, were retained by him for his own use, and were later sold by him to the Bodleian or came to that library with Wood’s own collection”. It later transpired that “over twenty manuscripts destined for the College of Arms, found their way, through Wood, to Jesus College Library, for Wood’s disgust at the lack of a princely fee for his work at Weston …” Jesus College Library contains, besides the eight printed books which belonged to Wood, some forty manuscripts which bear his signature, ABosco, or his initials.
On the back of the prayer roll, Wood has inscribed the following: “the picture within drawne was made for Margaret of Anjou, wife of Hen 6 of England, as it appears by the arms joyning to it//1681 ABosco”.
As for the history of the prayer roll between Margaret’s return to France in 1476 and 1681, there is no reliable evidence. But it is known that many such objects were gifted by one female to another and so it is possible that the book was left to a confidante before 1476.
The prayer roll is, quite simply, an object to be treasured. As Keats wrote:
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.”
Christopher Muttukumaru CB (1970, Law)
Helen Castor, She-wolves: the women who ruled England before Elizabeth (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pages 314–402
Sonja Drimmer, ‘Beyond private matter: a prayer roll for Queen Margaret of Anjou‘, Gesta 53(1) (March 2014), pages 95–120
Eamon Duffy, Marking the hours: English people and their prayers, 1240–1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), chapters 1, 2, and 4
Helen E. Maurer, Margaret of Anjou: queenship and power in late medieval England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003)
Scot McKendrick, John Lowden, and Kathleen Doyle, Royal manuscripts: the genius of illumination (London: British Library, 2011), pages 160–161, 400–403
Erik Petersen, ‘Suscipere digneris: et fund og nogle hypoteser om Københavnerpsalteret Thott 143 2° og dets historie [a find and some hypotheses on the Copenhagen Psalter Thott 143 2° and its history]’, Fund og forskning i det Kongelige Biblioteks samlinger 50 (2011), pages 21–63
I.G. Philip, ‘Sheldon’s manuscripts in Jesus College Library’, Bodleian Library Record 1 (1939), pages 119–123