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Henry VIII's Psalter

King David playing his harp is a common illustration seen in Jewish manuscripts. Here, though, there is another dimension to the regal musician: it is also a sumptuous portrait of Henry VIII of England, the owner of this (Christian) Psalter.

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Henry VIII's Psalter

The Psalter of Henry VIII, London?, England, between 1530 and 1547. Psalm 53 (52)
BL Royal MS 2 A XVI, f. 63v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is a Psalter?

The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. They were composed, according to tradition, by King David. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms.

The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, preceded by a calendar of the Church's feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers. Such a volume is known as a Psalter.

Who made this portrait and how do we know it's Henry?

Jean Mallard, Henry VIII's 'orator in the French tongue', wrote and illuminated this Psalter for the king in the French style. As indicated by the many marginal notes added in Henry's own hand, the volume became the king's personal copy of the Psalms.

As in the Hebrew Leipnik Haggadah, the Psalmist David is pictured as a king with a harp. However, the sumptuous 16th-century interior also betrays the fact that this is not an ordinary image of David - it is also a portrait of Henry himself. His jester, or court fool, William Somer (or Sommers, d. 1559) is also included in the scene.

What does the text say?

The inclusion of the royal fool in the picture is appropriate to the text immediately to the right of it - Psalm 53 (in modern numbering). The illuminated D by the fool's head is the first letter of the psalm in Latin: 'Dixit inspiens in corde suo: non est Deus' - 'The fool says in his heart, "There is no God"'. That psalm was dedicated by its author to "the director of music".

The text before it is from Psalm 52: "...but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness. But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God: I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. I will praise thee for ever, because thou hast done it: and I will wait on thy name; for it is good before thy saints."

What is King Henry VIII most known for?

The most celebrated king in British history, Henry VIII (1491-1547, r. 1509-1547) is famous for having been married six times, and for breaking away from Rome to form the Anglican Church, installing himself as head. He brought about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the union of England and Wales.

To portray himself as a musician was no empty conceit - in addition to being a fine sportsman, author, poet, and accomplished linguist, he was a skilled composer and instrumentalist; commercial CDs have been released of his works.

Part of the manuscript of a song composed by Henry VIII: 'Pastime with good company'