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A Time to Pray

A Time to Pray

A booke of Christian prayers, collected out of the ancient writers, … 

At London :  Printed by Richard Yardley and Peter Short, for the assignes of Richard Day,  1590.

Canterbury Cathedral Library H/L-4-12

This month’s image is found at the beginning of a Book of Christian Prayers published in 1590 by Richard Day. It shows Queen Elizabeth I kneeling in prayer in her private closet, with her crown placed on the prie-dieu in front of her above an open prayer book, and the sword of justice lying on the floor beside her.  An edition of the book was first published in 1569 by Richard’s father, the famous printer John Day, and it is thought that this original edition was designed for Elizabeth’s own private use. It has also been suggested that Elizabeth herself was the author of some of the prayers. Whatever the truth, the richly coloured presentation edition owned by Elizabeth and held in Lambeth Palace Library has her royal coat of arms inside both covers demonstrating that even if her authorship cannot be proved, the book was certainly authorised by her. Richard Day’s adaptation of this edition uses the same title page, frontispiece and woodcut pictures in the page borders, but in black and white. The book could be regarded as a Protestant version of a Book of Hours, a type of devotional volume which was very popular in England during the middle ages (see Heralding the Beginning).

This image of Elizabeth is a representation of the queen as a Protestant and as a woman at a time when Protestantism had been re-introduced but was not fully embraced everywhere, and a time when some contemporaries believed the idea of government by a woman was contrary to the very laws of nature.  In the early years following Elizabeth’s accession one of the problems facing the regime was how a queen, who not only reigned but also ruled, might be represented.  Medieval queens had not ruled by right of succession, and symbols associated with them often focused on their roles as mothers and wives or as mediators between the king and his people. The influence that they wielded was indirect. Now a different kind of symbolism was required, one which would defend the queen’s authority to rule.  It was especially important for Elizabeth during this time to counteract the view that a woman was not fit to rule, an attitude which the reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary, had done little to dispel.  In 1558, with spectacularly bad timing, John Knox had published his First Blast of the Trumpet in which he criticised the whole idea of female authority. Whilst the book was intended as a criticism of Mary’s rule, unfortunately for Knox, the sentiment also applied to Elizabeth.  Knox described female rule as ‘repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will…. the subversion of good order, of all equitie and justice’. The young Elizabeth, coming to the throne in November 1558, therefore, could not afford to appear weak or submissive. She needed to project an image which would convince people not only that she was able to rule independently but also able to rule with authority and power. By the time this edition of the book was published in 1590 Elizabeth had been on the throne for over thirty years, yet the question of female rule remained pertinent.  Interestingly, by 1590, while some changes had been made to other images for this edition of the book, the youthful image of the queen remained, despite the fact that by this time she was nearing sixty years old.

The image of Elizabeth at prayer emphasises both the secular and the religious power of the queen.  She is presented as a woman who is fit and able to wield authority. The words which are written in Latin at the bottom of the page are taken from the book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 6:14):

‘O Lorde God of Israel, there is no god like thee in heauen and earth, which kepest couenaunt & shewest mercie vnto thy seruauntes that walke before thee with al their heartes.’ (Translation from the Bishops’ Bible published 1568)

These words were spoken by Solomon at the dedication of the new temple when he knelt down before the people of Israel and prayed to God as both their king and their priest.  In the same way, Elizabeth can be seen kneeling in prayer following the re-establishment of the Lord’s temple in England as she presides over the re-introduction and consolidation of the Protestant religion in England after the years spent in the Catholic wilderness. By linking her with Solomon, the caption shows her not only to be appropriating the quality of wisdom for which Solomon is so famous, but in the same way that he was priest and king, so too is she able to combine leadership of both the church and the state. There is also an implicit criticism of the Papacy here: just as the kings of the Old Testament were able to intercede directly with God on behalf of the people of Israel, so too will Elizabeth mediate between God and her people without the need for any other intermediary, Pope or priest.

Elizabeth’s dual role as head over both church and the state is underlined by the presence of the sword and the open book as she prays.  These images are reminiscent of Holbein’s iconic depiction of her father, Henry VIII, on the title page of the Coverdale Bible published in 1535. [second image – of Henry VIII here with the caption ‘A hand-painted facsimile from H/N-8-6’ ] Here, Henry’s power is emphasised by his holding the sword, and here too the central importance of the word of God within England’s reformed Christianity is high-lighted as he is seen handing the Bible down to his bishops.

H.N-8-6 001 crop

By contrast with her father, in the image of Elizabeth the sword and the book are not equal. She is depicted kneeling in front of the open book whose prominence emphasises the central place that liturgical devotion will continue to play in Protestant iconography. On the other hand, the sword has been laid aside as she kneels down to pray; it has even been cut short by the lower edge of the picture.  This suggests the importance of her role as peacemaker. She has military and judicial power should she need to use it, but she is being presented as a monarch who would prefer to use the word of God than to wield a sword in the maintenance of peace within her kingdom.

In addition to Elizabeth’s fitness to rule, the image also emphasises her right to rule, even though a woman, through the use of familiar dynastic symbols. The Tudor coat of arms is clearly displayed in the corner, which, together with the crown and sceptre, all indicates Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Tudor roses cover both her dress and the sumptuous furnishings, and there are also fleur de lys illustrating her claim to the throne of France.

It is sometimes assumed that Protestant dislike of religious images led to an attempt to abolish them entirely from within English culture.  Certainly the existence of images in churches came to be seen as a form of idolatry, and church walls were whitewashed, and statues and stained glass were removed as a consequence.  However, it is not true that all religious images were abolished.  The key was to distinguish between the old false Catholic images, which were tainted by idolatry and which should therefore be destroyed, and the new Protestant images which were true and therefore had a place in the post-Reformation world. In this image the virgin princess Elizabeth is receiving the place of honour in a Protestant book of prayers, as the Virgin Mary had traditionally been given the place of honour in medieval Books of Hours; not to be worshipped, which would be idolatry, rather to be reverenced.

While at first glance, therefore, this is a simple picture of a young woman at private prayer, closer examination reveals significant religious and political statements which exemplify both Elizabeth’s attitude towards her role as queen and also her position as Supreme Governor of the church in England.

Anne Le Baigue: MEMS, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett


Further Reading

Helen Hackett, Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen (Basingstoke, 1995)

Robert Harding, “The Prayer Book of Elizabeth I” in Richard Palmer and Michelle P.  Brown, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishop of Canterbury (2010)

John King, Tudor Royal Iconography (Princeton, 1989)

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