Tudor Books from Henry VII to Elizabeth I

Credit: Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon / Jean-Luc Bouchier

Book of Hours of Mary of England, Queen of France, 1500–1505. Vellum (95 leaves), 38 miniatures. In the collection of Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon.

Last week the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened a splashy new exhibition, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England. Spanning King Henry VII’s seizure of the throne in 1485 to the death of his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the Tudor era was certainly dramatic, if not treacherous—and it was also a time when the arts thrived. In this exhibition, more than 100 objects bring all of that to the fore through vibrant portraits, tapestries, sculpture, armor, and, of course, Tudor books and manuscripts.

Books and manuscripts on view include:

The Book of Hours of Mary of England, Queen of France (pictured above), tempera on vellum ca. 1495-1500 with miniature attributed to the Master of Claude de France, ca. 1514. This book was gifted by King Louis XII to his bride, Mary, sister to Henry VIII. She later presented it to Henry.

Two editions of Astronomicum Caesareum, an astrological text used by royalty to map the stars to make critical decisions, printed in 1540 by Georg and Petrus Apianus with hand-colored woodcuts by Michael Ostendorfer. According to the Met, “Henry VIII, who owned the finest contemporary books on the market, likely kept his copy alongside other astronomical books in the Secret Jewel House at the Tower of London.” Watch this book “in motion” here.

“Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse,” a stunning Flemish manuscript on vellum, ca. 1519–27, with a miniature attributed to Lucas Horenbout (Flemish, Ghent 1490/95–London 1544) or Susanna Horenbout (active ca. 1520–1550). The illustrations show the Tudor dragon and greyhound, Tudor roses, and the Beaufort portcullis of Henry VIII’s grandmother.

© British Library Board, 2.A.XVI

Jean Mallard (French, active 1534/1553) The Psalter of Henry VIII, 1540, tempera on parchment. In the collection of the British Library.

The Psalter of Henry VIII (1540, pictured at left). This tempera on parchment prayerbook, with miniatures by the French artist Jean Mallard, was used by the king himself—it even features his handwritten annotations.

Two Bibles are highlighted: The Coverdale Bible, printed in 1535, with title page designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, and The Great Bible of 1540, printed on vellum, with title page attributed to Lucas Horenbout; the hand-tinted and parchment-printed edition on view was owned by Henry VIII.

Instruction of a Christen Woman by Juan Luis Vives was printed in London in 1557. Was this one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites? According to the Met, it was originally written in Latin for the young princess Mary.

Tabula Cebetis, and De Mortis Effectibus,” a 1507 scholarly manuscript transcribed by an Italian friar, was meant to be a gift for Henry VII.

Octonaries Upon the Vanitie and Inconstancie of the World,” ca. 1600, is an ink and watercolor manuscript made by a woman, Esther Inglis (French or British), who transcribed and painted devotional texts.

The First and Chief Groundes of Architecture Used in All the Auncient and Famous Monymentes (1563) by John Shute is the first architectural treatise printed in English. Shute wrote it at the request of King Edward VI, but it was published during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of The Met

Installation view of The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, on view through January 8, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

“English Renaissance literature of this time, particularly the plays of William Shakespeare, continues to be world famous today,” said exhibition co-curator Adam Eaker, associate curator in the department of European paintings. “This exhibition gives us the opportunity to introduce The Met’s audiences to the stunning visual arts of the period and the ways that both artists and patrons used imagery to navigate the treacherous waters of court life. Rather than an illustrated history of the Tudor monarchy, it offers a fresh look at the incredible figurative and decorative arts made or acquired for the court.”

The exhibition will remain on view through January 8, 2023.