The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

19th-century faces in a 16th-century manuscript

A mother and her two daughters unexpectedly greet you when you open the binding of Folger MS V.a.174.

Albumen print of a mother and two daughters affixed to the front pastedown of Folger MS V.a.174, a 1576 manuscript of the Book of Common Prayer.
albumen print of a mother and two daughters affixed to the front pastedown of Folger MS V.a.174, a 1576 manuscript of the Book of Common Prayer

Turn to the back of the volume and there they are again.

This time with the youngest daughter in the middle.
this time with the youngest daughter in the middle

Who are these late-nineteenth-century women, and why is their image affixed in perpetuity to the Elizabethan binding of a 1576 manuscript version of the Book of Common Prayer? 

The binding for V.a.174. The binding has been removed from the textblock for conservation reasons, and is now stored with the manuscript in a phasebox.
The binding for V.a.174, with the Elizabethan royal coat of arms and the initials R.P. The binding was removed from the textblock in 2000 for conservation reasons and is now stored with the rebound manuscript.

For over a decade, their faces have been lodged in my mind as an unusual and haunting addition to a beautifully written 1576 manuscript version of the Book of Common Prayer. The manuscript was made by Robert Heasse (or Heaz, or Hayse, or Hayes), the curate of St. Botolph’s Aldgate from 1564 to 1594, who signs many of the pages with his monogram. We know a lot about Heasse because of the extraordinary parish register, daybooks, and churchwarden accounts which he compiled with his parish clerk, Thomas Harridance, now managed by the London Metropolitan Archives (GL MS 9234 (1-7), MS 9235 (1-2), 9221). Heasse was also the translator (from the French) for the 1566 A chrystian exhortation verye profitable gathered out of the holye scriptures, vnto the great comfort, and vtilitye, of euery faythfull soule, being in agony of death (STC 13017), which now exists in a single imperfect copy at the Bodleian Library. There’s more to say about Heasse, and he will be the subject of another Collation post.

Between the late sixteenth century and the early twentieth century, the provenance of the book is unknown. Mr. and Mrs. Folger purchased the volume at the sale of the stock of the late bookseller Mr. W. J. Leighton (Sotheby’s, lot 623, November 14, 1918). I’m not quite sure how to identify them—any ideas on how to find out who they were, or theories about why they were glued into this manuscript? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.


    • Yes, it does look like text is coming through from the other side, and it is perhaps printed text. Good catch! I bet you could read it, if you flipped it around and reversed the image.

  • This is indeed haunting, Heather. The photos (and sitters) are beautiful, in a ghostly sort of way. I wonder, though, about the very process of writing out the Book of Common Prayer, which seems curious in itself. Since such books were readily available, there could obviously be no practical purpose in the exercise. It must have been purely an act of devotion. but this was for Heasse in 1576. Why, though, would later owners have valued such an curiosity? Perhaps there was a family connection, with the book being passed down as a valued heirloom? Or was there even in later centuries a sense that there was something special about a manuscript BCP over print, a lingering aura of the initial devotional labor perhaps?

  • Yes, the fact that it is a beautiful scribal copy of a readily-available printed source is somewhat unusual, and I’m sure that it was partly an act of devotion. It truly is a calligraphic masterpiece, and regardless of the content, it does not surprise me that it would have been treasured in later centuries by descendants, book collectors, or calligraphy fans.

    In the parish register, which I’m itching to see on a future trip to London, Robert Heasse records the death of his grandson Peter, who was the first child of Robert’s son John, described as “letter founder to the printers.” I haven’t chased down further offspring at this point, mainly because the last name has so many variant spellings.

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