What better way to greet the New Year than with a ceremony of gift giving among friends and acquaintances? It was certainly a popular way to celebrate at the courts of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. Gifts came from courtiers and household members of all degrees, beginning with earls and their ladies down to the queen’s apothecary and musicians, as well as poets and others from outside the court seeking favor.
Prince Henry Frederick, eldest son of James I, was thirteen when he received his first New Year’s gift in 1607 from renowned calligrapher, Esther Inglis. It was a small handwritten and illuminated copy of French religious poems, each decorated with pictures of “trophies of arms” or “flowers or fruits,” and now is held in the library at Windsor Castle. It appears that the prince appreciated his gift, as Esther Inglis presented him with three other volumes: the Psalms in Latin for New Year 1608 (Folger MS V.a.94); a Book of Armes for New Year 1609 (held in a private collection); and the Psalms in French, in September 1612 (at the Royal Library, Stockholm), not long before his tragic death at the age of eighteen. Inglis received payments from the prince’s Privy Purse in 1609 (£5 for the Book of Armes) and in 1612 (£22), a very large sum which may represent a terminal gift of patronage, after the prince’s death.
In her dedication to her last gift of the Psalms in French, Inglis notes “that this was the second copy of the Psalms she had presented to the Prince.”1 The major bibliographers of Inglis’s works, A.H. Scott-Elliot and Espeth Yeo, posit that she was referring to the Latin Psalms given to him in 1608. It is quite possible, however, that she is referring to another copy given to him in 1612: a hitherto unknown and newly-discovered volume—the Psalms in English—that she gave to the prince earlier that year, possibly at New Year’s, as was her custom. This little volume (now Folger MS V.a.665) was acquired by the Folger in November 2016 from a private collector. This makes a total of five manuscripts by Esther Inglis owned by the Folger, now the top repository for Inglis manuscripts in the US, along with the Houghton Library at Harvard, which also holds five.2
The Psalmes of David is a tiny manuscript of about 3 inches by 2 inches with 16 pages of preliminary material followed by 310 pages of the Psalms. Although the Psalms themselves are not decorated, Inglis included one of her signature self portraits in black hat and dress against a blue background, heading “A Sonnet Vpon Esther Inglis Hir Anagramme Resisting Hel,” by one “M.G.D.”
She also included a colored image of King David at prayer, surrounded with quotations from the Psalms.
The manuscript is bound in a worn but beautiful embroidered binding of silver thread tracing out images of stump-work leaves and knot-work flowers in a vase on the front and back, with a balderon (scroll) over the vase that once had an inscription in red thread. The faded velvet may once have been pink or yellow, and there are remnants of yellow ribbon ties.
In her dedication of the volume to Prince Henry, Inglis tries to persuade him that he should be guided by religious texts, rather than solely by secular, classical literature—though she draws on a knowledge of the latter to make her point!
She was clearly not unaware that the classics were a central part of the prince’s education. She refers to the Psalms as a heavenly ladder, like those which Jacob in Genesis and Paul in Thessalonians mention as the steps to heaven:
“This heauenlye ladder, vpō the which I haue bestowed a simpel ornement the bettir to decoir [from French décorer] it, contayning the Spiritualle songs of the sweit singer of Israell is coneunient to be takin in your Princlye hand and from ye hand to be layd vp in your heart. Thoug Homer, Hesiode, and Pindarus, be not innecessarie: yet Sir this is the good part which Mary did choose, and is the neadful thīg Luc. 10.”
Inglis refers here to the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha busied herself with serving food to Jesus, but Mary sat at his feet to hear what He had to say. Jesus said, “Marie hathe chosen the good parte, which shal not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42; Geneva, 1560)
Inglis’s gift was thus a very personal one; an object which the prince could carry around in his pocket and pull out to read easily in his hand, thereby keeping the Psalms near him. The particular English translation of the Psalms used by Inglis is probably taken from prose versions in the Boke of Psalmes (Geneva, 1559; STC 2384) or The Bible and Holy Scriptures (Geneva, 1560; STC 2093). The Psalms were central to Protestant devotion, and as I have described elsewhere, most of Inglis’s manuscript books were given to members of the Jacobean court who supported the Protestant cause in England and on the Continent.3
While to us Inglis may seem “pushy” in prescribing how the prince should focus his attention, as John Buchtel has shown, “Prince Henry’s very youth factored strongly in the nature of the books dedicated to him, lending itself to attempts by writers to influence him in matters ranging from morals to statecraft.”4 Buchtel has identified 49 printed books that were dedicated to Prince Henry, but there were manuscripts as well, by donors other than Inglis. Even at a young age, Henry was already a great collector of books, manuscripts, paintings, coins, etc., including the library of John Lord Lumley, which the prince in 1609 acquired upon the death of its owner.5
We may never know if Prince Henry ever slipped the tiny manuscript by Inglis into his pocket in the New Year of 1612—or if he ever received it, especially as Inglis gave him another one later in the year. But its almost miraculous survival will allow new readers to better understand the system of Stuart court patronage, the importance of the Psalms in the life of the period, and the detailed handiwork that reinscribed printed text back into manuscript form.
- A.H. Scott-Elliot and Elspeth Yeo, “Calligraphic Manuscripts of Esther Inglis (1571-1624): A Catalogue,” PBSA 84:1 (1990) 69.
- CELM (Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700) lists 62 known manuscripts by Inglis including a letter. The new Folger MS brings the number to 63.
- Georgianna Ziegler, “‘More than Feminine Boldness’: the Gift Books of Esther Inglis,” in Women Writing and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, ed. Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth, et al (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 19-37.
- John Buchtel, “‘To the Most High and Excellent Prince’: Dedicating Books to Henry, Prince of Wales,” in Prince Henry Revived, ed. Timothy Wilks (London: Paul Holberton, 2007): 104-33.
- On Henry’s collecting, see Catharine MacLeod, et al, The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2012).