Hidden Inscriptions Discovered in Anne Boleyn’s Execution Prayer Book

New research suggests a circle of Tudor women saved the “Book of Hours” for the queen’s daughter, Elizabeth I

Anne Boleyn's richly illustrated "Book of Hours"
Kate McCaffrey, a former steward at Anne's childhood home, used ultraviolet light and photo editing software to reveal hidden writing in the Tudor queen's Book of Hours. Hever Castle and Gardens

As Anne Boleyn walked to her execution on May 19, 1536, legend has it she carried a prayer book, which she handed to a lady-in-waiting just before a sword struck off her head.

Most historians today believe that Anne’s husband, Tudor king Henry VIII, ordered her death on trumped-up charges of adultery, incest, witchcraft and high treason. The English queen’s real crimes were failing to produce a male heir and not reining in her fiery personality.

Following Anne’s beheading, her devotional Book of Hours, which included several inscriptions in her own hand, disappeared for centuries. As Craig Simpson reports for the Telegraph, the illustrated manuscript only reemerged in the early 20th century, when wealthy businessman William Waldorf Astor purchased Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle.

Now, a former steward at the castle thinks she knows what happened to the text for at least part of the time that it was missing. Per a statement, historian Kate McCaffrey, who studied the Book of Hours for nearly a year, found markings bearing the names of women who may have passed it along—at great personal risk—so it could be preserved for Anne’s daughter, the future Elizabeth I.

“It really comes full circle,” McCaffrey tells the Telegraph. “What makes the book so dangerous to preserve, its association with Anne, actually becomes the main reason for preserving it when Elizabeth I comes to the throne [in 1558] and wants her mother to be remembered.”

Following Anne’s execution, Henry ordered all traces of his second wife destroyed. Being caught with the disgraced queen’s book could have been seen as a treasonous act, writes McCaffrey for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS).

“It is clear that this book was passed between a network of trusted connections, from daughter to mother, from sister to niece,” the historian says in the statement. “If the book had fallen into other hands, questions almost certainly would have been raised over the remaining presence of Anne’s signature.”

McCaffrey began to suspect that the prayer book held more than meets the eye when she noticed barely perceptible markings on one of its pages. Using ultraviolet light and photo editing software, she discovered three family names: Gage, West and Shirley. The surnames were inscribed around a fourth: Guildford.

According to David Sanderson of the London Times, most of these names are connected to the Boleyn family through kinship with Elizabeth Hill, one of Anne’s childhood companions. McCaffrey believes that a circle of Tudor women kept the book safe to protect the memory of a female friend who had been unjustly persecuted in a male-dominated society.

“In a world with very limited opportunities for women to engage with religion and literature, the simple act of marking this Hours and keeping the secret of its most famous user, was one small way to generate a sense of community and expression,” she says in the statement.

Hidden Inscriptions Discovered in Anne Boleyn's Execution Prayer Book
Anne Boleyn was the only Tudor figure beheaded with a sword instead of an ax. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Hill family is linked directly to Elizabeth, who was only 2 years old when her mother died. Elizabeth Hill’s daughter, Mary, worked in the future queen’s household and was reportedly close friends with her.

“It is likely that Elizabeth would have been able to hold this book,” McCaffrey tells the Times.

She adds that the hidden inscriptions’ discovery offers “new insights into Anne’s afterlife in the 16th century after Henry tried to wipe her from history.”

Hever Castle announced the discovery on May 19, the 485th anniversary of Anne’s beheading. McCaffrey conducted her research as part of her graduate dissertation at the University of Kent.

In the statement, McCaffrey’s supervisor, David Rundle, paid the 24-year-old the highest compliment.

“It is every graduate student’s dream to uncover previously hidden information about a well-known historical figure,” he says. “Kate’s energy and enterprise have allowed her to do just that, even in the depths of the pandemic when libraries were out of all researchers’ reach. What she has discovered has potentially highly significant implications for our understanding of Anne Boleyn and her posthumous reputation.”

The Book of Hours is on display at Hever Castle, along with a second copy of the same title, also owned by the queen.

Both bear inscriptions by Anne: “Remember me when you do pray, that hope dothe led from day to day.”