Books and their Owners III: The Prayer Book of Elizabeth I

Christian Prayers and Meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine. London: John Day, 1569

At Lambeth Palace Library we hold the only surviving complete copy of Christian Prayers and Meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke and Latine (London: John Day, 1569). As with the books that we have looked at previously in this series of blog posts, this volume has inscriptions showing its provenance. Notes on the flyleaves outline how it passed from hand-to-hand from the time it was removed from the Wardrobe at Whitehall in the 1640s by a Mr Jolliffe, one of the Keepers, until it was given by Sir Charles Cottrell to Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury (1694 to 1715).  Tenison, in his turn, presented the book to Lambeth Palace Library. However, the evidence for this volume’s first owner, Queen Elizabeth I, is less direct but no less convincing.


Christian Prayers and Meditations is beautifully illustrated and has been called ‘a Protestant Book of Hours’.  It is clearly meant to be associated with the monarch; it contains woodcuts of the Royal arms as well as a fine woodcut portrait of Elizabeth with the attributes of Kingship around her (see below). The title page shows the tree of Jesse (above), while the borders in the first part of the book depict the life of Christ and associated Old Testament scenes and those in the second part of the volume show a Dance of Death. Throughout the book the woodcuts have been carefully hand-coloured. The distinctive palette used to colour the illustrations indicate that the work was done by artists employed by Archbishop Matthew Parker at Lambeth Palace. This copy was clearly meant for someone important.


Day took much of the text of this collection of prayers from Henry Bull’s Christian Prayers and Holie Meditations, which had been published the previous year. Some of the prayers included in the volume were original compositions, however. Several of the prayers refer to the Queen in the first person. One such prayer, A Prayer for wisdom to governe the Realme, is somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth’s famous Tilbury speech in its wording, with phrases such as “I thy handmaide, being by kinde aweake woman… ” Other prayers that refer to the Queen in the first person include four prayers for use in time of sickness. It has been suggested that the Queen composed these prayers as well as the prayers in Greek, Latin, Spanish and Italian that appear at the end of the book herself. Indeed, they have been published as part of her collected works. S. W May, however, takes the contrary view and argues that, while the publication of the book was approved by the Queen, the prayers in it were not written by her.

Whatever the truth about the authorship of the prayers the Lambeth Palace Library copy has a unique textual variation which gives a clue to the original owner of this copy of Christian Prayers and Meditations.  Unlike other copies of this book, references to the Queen in the Litany are in the first person, providing clear evidence, as Robert Harding has pointed out, that this copy was meant for the Queen’s personal use. Taken together with the evidence that the book came from the palace at Whitehall and that it was coloured in Parker’s workshop here at Lambeth, it is safe to conclude that this was a presentation copy for Elizabeth. Whether she ever used it is a very different matter!

Further reading

Robert Harding, “The Prayer Book of Elizabeth I” in Richard Palmer and Michelle P.  Brown, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Scala, 2010

Elizabeth Evenden. Patents, Pictures and Patronage: John Day and the Tudor Book Trade. London: Ashgate, 2008

Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, Mary Beth Rose (eds.),  Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000

R. S. Luborsky and E. M. Ingram,  A Guide to English Illustrated Books 1536-1603. Tempe: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies,1998

S.W. May, ‘Queen Elizabeth Prays for the Living and the Dead’, in P. Beal and G. Ioppolo (eds.), Elizabeth I and the Culture of Writing. London: British Library, 2007

S. W. May (ed.) Queen Elizabeth I: Selected Works. Washington Square Press: New York, 2005