Henry VIII is often remembered for his cruelty: a harsh and irritable monarch with a foul temperament. And yet, a more vulnerable figure emerges from the notes in his personal prayer books according to an Artnet article by Richard Whiddington.

After a jousting mishap in 1536, the last ten years of Henry’s rule were marred by significant discomfort, which he interpreted as divine retribution for his transgressions. This interpretation is proposed by Micheline White, an associate professor at Carlton College, who recently published her study of the king’s prayer book from the Wormsley Library in the Renaissance Quarterly.

Henry’s Surprising Manicules and Trefoils

The king’s notes in the prayer book primarily consist of manicules, a hand symbol with an extended index finger, and trefoils, a set of three dots, which he used to highlight relevant passages. White noticed that Henry had underscored pleas for God to cease his punishment, to forgive him, and to bestow upon him divine wisdom. These annotations suggest that Henry also had moments of worry and doubt about the state of his soul and his role as God’s chosen leader.

In one striking case, a manicule is drawn next to a verse that says, “Take away thy plagues from me, for thy punishment hath made me both feeble and faint.” In another, a trefoil is marked next to the phrase, “O Lord God forsake me not, although I have done no good in thy sight.”

Henry VIII notes | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Manicule in the margins of Henry’s prayer book. Photo: courtesy The Trustees of The Wormsley Fund. Source: Artnet

Parr the Kingmaker

What might be even more significant, according to White, is the origin of the prayer book. It was a gift from his last wife, Katherine Parr, who translated and created the book as a form of military propaganda for the king. Henry didn’t make the annotations in private, but rather in the presence of his close advisors, which suggests that the king was publicly acknowledging Parr’s intellectual and political contributions.

This recognition elevates Parr from a peripheral figure to a central one, a shift confirmed by Henry’s decision to name her Regent when he went to war with France in 1544. Parr’s political clout persisted after Henry’s death in 1547, as she continued to be a prominent writer and queen dowager under King Edward.