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Bedford Hours

The Bedford Book of Hours is an outstanding work of late medieval manuscript art. It was produced for the wedding of John, Duke of Bedford, to Anne of Burgundy on 13 May 1423. Portraits of the bride and groom, dressed in their elegant court clothes, appear in its pages. The couple's royal status and their taste for luxury are reflected in the superb quality of the manuscript, which is lavishly decorated with many miniature paintings. No expense was spared.

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Bedford Hours

Bedford Hours, the Bedford Master and his studio. The Duke of Bedford prays before St George. Paris, c. 1423
British Library Add. MS 18850, f.256v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Book of Hours?

A Book of Hours is a collection of Christian prayers for recitation at different times, 'hours', of the day. Intended for individual use at home, they were simplified versions of the eight periods of daily prayer observed by monks and nuns, from matins in the morning to compline at night. They were written in Latin, the language of the medieval Church.

From the numbers that survive, it's clear the Book of Hours was the most popular type of religious book in medieval Europe. It seems to have held particular appeal for women, perhaps by reason of its emphasis on prayers to the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, who was held as the model of virtue for all of her sex.

Books of Hours vary to a degree in content and order, as well as their decoration. Each was tailored to the particular requirements of its patron, and this customisation can often be very revealing to the historian.

Who were the Duke of Bedford and his new wife?

John, Duke of Bedford was the brother of King Henry V, who had regained territories in France for the English by his historic victory in the Battle of Agincourt. Henry V died in 1422, leaving the crown to his son, who was not yet nine months old.

The Duke of Bedford, being the elder of the infant king's living uncles, assumed the duties of governing France in his name. As Regent of France, Bedford used all military and diplomatic means necessary to defend the English claim to the French throne against that of the French heir, known by custom as the Dauphin.

Anne was the 18-year-old sister of Philip, Duke of Burgundy. She had little love for the Dauphin. In 1419, he had been complicit in the assassination of their father during negotiations supposedly held under truce – an act of treachery that drove the Burgundians into alliance with England against France. Anne's marriage to John cemented the Treaty of Amiens, signed the previous month by the Dukes of Bedford, Burgundy and Brittany, pledging their support for English rule in France.

Who made the manuscript?

Religious books were originally made by monks in monasteries and abbeys. But well before the 15th century, demand grew enough to support secular manuscript-making businesses in several European cities.

As Regent of France, the Duke of Bedford had ready access to one of the finest: Paris. Jean Pucelle had established a famous workshop in Paris almost a century earlier. He was succeeded by the Limbourg brothers from the Netherlands, who raised the city's reputation higher still with work such as the 'Très Riches Heures' made for the Duke of Berry.

Unfortunately, the name of the chief artist of the Paris workshop that produced the 'Bedford Hours' is not known. Art historians refer to him (it would certainly have been a him) simply as 'the Bedford Master'. He was the head of a flourishing studio that produced a substantial number of fine manuscripts. The Duke of Bedford commissioned at least three from him.

Some minor elements left unfinished by the manuscript's makers suggest they were hard pressed to meet the wedding deadline. A few years later, three new pages were added by another artist from the same workshop.

How did this come to the British Library?

Seven years after her wedding, Anne gave the manuscript away to mark another special occasion. On Christmas Eve 1430, with her husband's approval, she presented it as a gift to their nephew, King Henry VI, who was now nine years old. Henry was staying with the Bedfords in Rouen prior to his coronation in France, which had been delayed by the military successes of Joan of Arc.

The manuscript subsequently came into the keeping of Henry II of France, who had his heraldic arms painted on top of those of the original owners. By the early 18th century it belonged to Sir Robert Worsley of Appuldurcombe in the Isle of Wight. His widow sold it to Edward, Lord Harley, who added the manuscript to the collection begun by his father. However, the 'Bedford Hours' was not among the Harley manuscripts bought for the nation in 1753 to form one of the foundation collections of the British Museum Library. It was kept by Harley's daughter, Margaret, and only acquired after her death in 1786.

What does this page show?

The Duke of Bedford kneels in profile before an open prayer book. His coat of arms appears in the windows of the chapel, and his motto on the rich hangings around him. St George stands before the duke, wearing armour beneath his ermine robe. An attendant stands behind him, holding the saint's banner, helmet and sword.

Heavenly light shines from upper window of the chapel. A portion of one of the border scenes depicting George's martyrdom is visible in the upper right hand corner.

The extraordinary detail and vibrant colour is typical of the illustration work throughout the volume.