It is common now to associate old and antiquarian books with leather bindings – the cherished patinas and leathery smells, embellished perhaps with armorial motifs or previous owners’ library markings giving a sense of permanence and authenticity. But it wasn’t until around the time of the Restoration in the latter part of the 17th century that English bookbinders took up the French fashion of working almost exclusively in leather. Until then “English bookbinders had never been content to regard leather as the sole material in they could work”. Books bound in cloth (binders most commonly used canvas but velvet and satin were also used) and decoratively embellished with embroidery have a long history: there is a embroidered Psalter, now in the British Library collection, which was stitched by one Anne Felbrigge towards the end of the 14th century. Embroidery as means of binding books was especially popular, among those who could afford such luxuries, in the Tudor age. Silver and gold threats were often used, with the base material perhaps studded with pearls or other jewels, to create an unrivaled decorative effect.
The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul exemplifies the fashion for embroidered bindings at Henry VIII’s court and truly counts as a beautiful book, beside its historical significance. At the age of 11 the young Princess Elizabeth (later to become Elizabeth I, England’s Virgin Queen) wrote out the manuscript in her own handwriting. In it she says it is a translation from “frenche ryme into english prose” and that she has joined “the sentences together as well as the capacitie of my symple witte and small lerning coulde extende themselves”. The french rhyme to which Elizabeth refers was the Miroir de Lame Pecheresse, a devotional piece by Marguerite of Naverre about the soul’s love of God and Christ – an appropriate gift for a Queen known during her reign for learning, a love of modern languages and devotional piety. And as James P Carley notes in his The Books of King Henry VIII and his Wives, “a fit tribute from the daughter of Anne Boleyn” (British Library, 2004, p. 140).
It is said that the embroidered binding around her manuscript is also the work of Princess Elizabeth. This is hard to prove but quite likely. Princess Elizabeth dedicated and presented the book to her stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr, in 1544. Queen Katherine’s initials appear in the centre of the binding, suggesting that the book was made for her specifically. There is a touching dedication in the book from Princess Elizabeth to Queen Katherine: “From Assherige, the last daye of the yeare of our Lord God 1544 … To our most noble and vertuous Quene Katherin, Elizabeth her humble daughter wisheth perpetuall felicitie and everlasting joye”.
This image perhaps gives a better idea of both the condition and original colours.
The Countess of Wilton in her book on the art of needlework says that “Elizabeth was an accomplished needlewoman” and that her “embroidery was much thought of”. The Rev. W. Dunn Macray in his Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Claredon Press, 1868, p.52] considers this binding to be one of the princess’s “bibliopegic achievements”.
The design is similar on both sides, although the back is now sadly very worn. The base of the embroidery is worked in pale blue silk stitched all over the canvas. Surrounding Katherine’s initials is a geometric motif worked in scroll-work in gold and silver braiding and in each corner a heartease appears, worked in purple and yellow silks interwoven with fine gold thread. The volume comprises 63 small quarto parchment leaves and measures around 7 by 5 inches. It is now in the collection of the Bodleian Library.
For more English Embroidered Bookbindings see my curated board on PinInterest.