Doodles in Henry VIII’s Prayer Book Reveal Anxiety and Depression
Best known for his six marriages and a notorious clash with the Pope over annulling his union with Catherine the Aragon, Henry VIII's reign was marked by tumultuous events, both historically and personally. Etchings recently discovered in Henry VIII’s prayer book, used during his final years, have shed light on his inner struggles, potentially revealing that the monarch was plagued by depression, insecurity and a profound fear of divine retribution.
The formidable Tudor monarch, known for his larger-than-life persona, engaged in a peculiar habit of making small drawings of hands, known as manicules, in the margins of his books. These doodles recovered from Henry VIII’s prayer book are the subject of a research paper published in Renaissance Quarterly.
Researchers have recently revealed that Henry VIII’s prayer book during his final years, entitled Psalms or prayers and translated by Henry VIII’s wife Katherine Parr, included doodles created by Henry VIII himself. (© The Trustees of The Wormsley Fund and reproduced with permission from The Wormsley Estate / Rennaisance Quarterly)
Subversion of Public Image: Henry VIII Prayer Book Reveals an Anxious Monarch
“It’s not what we might expect,” said Professor Micheline White, Associate Professor of English Literature at Carleton University in Canada, who identified the marginalia as belonging to Henry VIII. “We tend to think of Henry being very confident and he exerted his authority with impunity, but in these particular annotations we see traces of a Henry who’s pretty anxious,” she told The Times.
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The find was made at the Wormsley Library near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, within a copy of Psalms or Prayers translated from Latin to English by Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr. Notably, this particular edition was created in 1544 as a form of propaganda, intended to rally support for an impending war with France .
The Wormsley copy holds the distinctive manicules, hand-drawn symbols resembling hands with a pointed finger, as well as trefoils, triangular clusters of dots with squiggly lines. These markings have been cross-referenced with other examples of Henry's notations, which he frequently made. White underwent a thorough peer review process before publishing her findings.
Remarkably, the annotations featuring the king's manicules consistently portray hands with only four fingers, positioned either pointing upward or downward, depending on the corresponding side of the page. Throughout Henry VIII’s prayer book, eight manicules and three trefoils can be found, seemingly without a specific pattern or purpose. However, each symbol is placed adjacent to a passage deemed worthy of the king's attention, reported The Daily Mail.
An example of a manicule, or small drawing of a hand, created by Henry VIII within another book entitled Dominicus Mirabellius. (© British Library Board C.45.g.9 / Rennaisance Quarterly)
Within Henry VIII’s prayer book, researchers discovered several faded manicules, or hand doodles, like the one seen here on the right, which points to a text that states “Take away thy plagues from me, for thy punishment hath made me both feeble and faint.” (© The Trustees of The Wormsley Fund and reproduced with permission from The Wormsley Estate / Rennaisance Quarterly)
War Propaganda and Henry’s Seeking of Divinity
Given the book's nature as war propaganda, it predominantly contains passages exuding an almost triumphalist tone. Prayers for the king's well-being and verses beseeching divine intervention to smite the enemy remain untouched. Instead, Henry's annotations divulge a somber psychological state. For instance, his final marking accompanies a passage that reads: “O Lord God forsake me not, although I have done no good in thy sight.”
These scribbles predominantly appear next to sections emphasizing forgiveness. Additionally, Henry highlighted prayers pleading for relief from physical suffering and marking requests for divine wisdom. Collectively, the annotations found within Henry VIII’s prayer book depict a man plagued by doubts and uncertainties. One such instance reads: “Let thy spirit teach me the things to be pleasant unto thee, that I may be led into the straight way, out of the error wherein I have wandered overlong.”
Henry VIII had valid reasons for feeling despondent. He battled constant pain caused by an ulcerated leg, his succession hinged on a young child and his tumultuous life choices might have left him questioning the Almighty's favor. It seems that, less than three years prior to his eventual demise, the six-time husband and religious dissenter sought redemption, reported CNN.
“He's doing the right thing,” explained White when discussing the doodles discovered within Henry VIII’s prayer book. “He's petitioning God to help him. It's a wonderful duality where he is both voicing his anxiety and expressing hope that God will forgive him, heal him, and turn his circumstances around.”
Katherine Parr exerted significant power during King Henry VIII’s final years. (Public domain)
Katherine Parr’s Significance Revealed in Henry VIII’s Prayer Book
This discovery sheds new light on Psalms or Prayers as a symbol of the profound bond between Henry VIII and Katherine Parr. Despite some dismissing her as a mere nursemaid, Parr, in fact, wielded significant power and commanded respect at court. During Henry's absences abroad, she served as regent and was entrusted with this particular propaganda project. Evidently, the king held the book in high regard, as special vellum copies were produced.
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In 1545, Parr contributed to a second volume titled Prayers or Meditations. In discussing the annotations encountered within Henry VIII’s copy of the prayer book, White's paper portrays Parr as a multi-faceted author and illuminates a relationship where “king and queen... read and wrote for each other.”
“Parr was very active in working with Henry in the build-up to the war,” White concluded. “They produced ‘gift copies’ to give out at court which showcased Henry’s magnificence but also showcased Parr’s literary skills, acumen and agency.”
Top image: Doodles discovered in Henry VIII’s prayer book reveal Henry VIII, seen here in a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, may have suffered from depression. Source: Public domain Inset; © The Trustees of The Wormsley Fund and reproduced with permission from The Wormsley Estate / Rennaisance Quarterly
By Sahir Pandey
Blackburn, J. 26 June 2023. “Henry VIII’s prayer book doodles reveal his self-doubt” in The Times. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/henry-viii-s-prayer-book-doodles-reveal-his-self-doubt-50fzzzb39
Chadwick, J. 26 June 2023. “Henry VIII's secret scribbles revealed: Historians claim Tudor king's etchings in margins of 16th century prayer book show fearsome monarch was riddled with anxiety in his final years” in The Daily Mail. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-12233913/Henry-VIIIs-secret-book-doodles-riddled-anxiety.html
Guy, J. 28 June 2023. “Scholar finds doodles made by Henry VIII in ancient prayer book” in CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/henry-viii-doodles-scli-intl-gbr/index.html
White, M. 2023. “Katherine Parr's Giftbooks, Henry VIII's Marginalia, and the Display of Royal Power and Piety” in Renaissance Quarterly, 3(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1017/rqx.2022.445