Week 99: Wolf Hall at Exeter – Katherine of Aragon’s prayer book

The current television dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s novel ‘Wolf Hall’ has prompted the choice of this week’s book, a 14th century psalter, or book of psalms, which belonged to Katherine of Aragon before her divorce from Henry VIII in 1531.

Katherine wrote her name on the flyleaf.

'This boke ys myn Katherina the qwene'

‘This boke ys myn Katherina the qwene’

Before Katherine of Aragon, the book had belonged to her mother in law, Elizabeth the wife of Henry VII and her name can be seen faintly inscribed above that of Katherine. Thrillingly, on the first page of the psalter, half way down the right hand side, someone (perhaps Elizabeth) has written Nativitas Arthuri primogeneti Regis Henrici septimi, this being the only extant record of the date of birth of Prince Arthur, the elder brother of Henry VIII and the first husband of Katherine of Aragon.

The psalter, known as the Bohun Psalter, is one of the greatest treasures owned by Exeter College. It was initially made for Humphrey de Bohun (1342-73), the grandson of Edward I, by monks on the Bohun lands at Pleshey in Essex and it is one of the finest examples of English illuminated manuscripts of the 14th century.

Library 021Bohun Psalter Illuminated Manuscript

Still in its original binding of gold damask, the psalter has 125 parchment leaves decorated with calendar scenes and rich illuminations telling the Bible story.

Noah and the Ark

Noah and the Ark

The manuscript was given to Exeter College by Sir William Petre (1505/6-1572) its great Tudor benefactor. The date of the gift is unrecorded but Petre probably presented it in 1567 when he gave a quantity of printed books to the college.

Portrait of Sir William Petre (1505/6-72); unknown artist 1567

Portrait of Sir William Petre (1505/6-72); unknown artist 1567

At the treacherous and dangerous Tudor court Petre was a survivor. Administrator to Thomas Cromwell and, after Cromwell’s fall, public servant and administrator to Henry VIII, Petre became Secretary of State under the boy king Edward VI. He was later appointed to the same office by Mary Tudor, Edward’s successor, despite his having sworn allegiance to Lady Jane Grey three days after Edward’s death. Petre even helped to negotiate Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

After Mary’s death, Elizabeth I retained Petre as a councillor, and it was perhaps from Elizabeth that Petre acquired the Bohun Psalter.



Week 100: William Blake

BLAKE Stedman

Narrative of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted negroes of Surinam by John Stedman

The current exhibition at the Ashmolean, William Blake apprentice and master, has inspired this week’s choice from Exeter’s rare books’ storeroom: a book with illustrations by William Blake.

John Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, published in 1796, is an account of the author’s experiences in the Dutch colony of Surinam twenty years’ earlier. Its detailed and horrific recounting of the treatment of the colony’s slaves meant that it became an important tool in the early abolitionist cause.

The book was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson and features engravings by several artists, among them Francesco Bartolozzi and William Blake. Blake delivered his sixteen images  in the winters of 1792 and 1793.

Skinning a giant snake

Skinning a giant snake

Although Blake’s illustrations include many of the plants and creatures of Surinam, the most notable are those of the awful atrocities against the slaves. Blake’s engravings are said to be more forceful than other illustrations in the book, and to echo the fluidity and quality of his original work. However it is impossible to compare Blake’s engravings with Stedman’s original drawings because the latter have not survived.

Blake and Stedman became close friends and visited one another often. Blake later included some images from Stedman’s Narrative in his poem ‘Visions of the daughters of Albion’. Blake STedman europe

New Blog for Exeter College Library

The special collections of Exeter College Oxford are currently being prepared for their move to new accommodation in College’s Cohen Quad, and we are discovering all kinds of interesting things in the process. This blog will tell the story of the move over the next 100 weeks and of some of the unique and exciting books and documents in Exeter’s extraordinary collection.