The Psalter of Henry VIII is among the last of the exquisitely decorated manuscript books of Europe. Made in 1540 by Jean Mallart (or Mallard), a court orator whose other works include Royal MS 7 D XIII and Royal MS 20 B XII, it became the personal Psalter of King Henry as evidenced by the many marginal notes in the king's own hand. Eight miniatures, half of which feature portraits of the king himself, decorate major Psalms and an elaborate royal coat of arms introduces the dedicatory letter at the beginning.
Its 176 parchment folios are filled with a handsome Humanistic block hand in seventeen long lines to the page lending the book an airy, modern style. Major initials for each Psalm are decorated with insects and flowers while verse initials are gilded on brightly colored grounds. This elegant Psalter abounds with illustrative and personal details throughout. Its accessible Renaissance style and its intimate connection to an important historical figure make it a worthy manuscript of personal devotion and contemplation.
A Manuscript from the Age of Printing
This Psalter was created for Henry VIII in 1540, a century after the advent of printing in Europe. By this date, books were increasingly more likely to be printed on paper rather than be manuscripts on parchment, however, the capacity for elaborately detailed illustrations and lavish colors was still restricted to hand-painted works.
This Psalter is among the last made in the manuscript tradition, a tradition now restricted to only the very wealthy, here demonstrated by its bright colors, gilded decoration, and exquisite details.
The King's Own Notes
The Psalms are written in seventeen long lines per page in upright Humanistic lettering penned by Jean Malliart. The script is open and precise with common abbreviations and ligatures. The initials for each Psalm are ornamented with enlarged letters inhabited by insects, birds, and flowers.
Verse initials are gold on colored ground, and bright line fillers are added throughout. In the ample outer margins, Latin annotations were added by King Henry VIII himself throughout providing an insight into the king's interaction with the psalter.
King Henry as King David
King David, the customary author of the Psalms and as head of his state and religion, had been associated with ideal medieval kingship since the Carolingian period. This connection is invoked directly by the dedication to Henry VIII by Jean Mallart describing the virtues of David and his kingship.
Additionally, the first Psalm, traditionally decorated with a depiction of an author-portrait of David, is illuminated with a miniature of Henry reading in his bedroom, further conflating the two kings. He is also pictured as David kneeling in the ruins on fol. 79r.
The Psalter, once given to Henry VIII, remained with the British Crown as part of the Old Royal Library and was donated as part of it to the British Museum by George II in 1757.
The original sixteenth-century binding is in remarkably good condition. The red velvet is worn and one clasp is missing, but it retains its silver-gilt corner bosses. The inside cover is tooled and gilded with royal crowns and laurels in each corner. The spine was replaced in the nineteenth century in brown leather by the British Museum and gilded with the title "Psalterium" and shelfmarks.
- Images courtesy of the British Library