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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Book of Common Prayer and Psalter

Object 69 - This post from our 100 objects series looks at this beautiful Book of Common Prayer and Psalter, published in 1596, from the Library collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Peter Hewitt

Hello everyone, today’s post from the 100 objects series looks at this beautiful Book of Common Prayer and Psalter, published in 1596, from the Library collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It has been written by Peter Hewitt, a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at The University of Birmingham.

'I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness: but,/ I think, thy horse will sooner con an oration than/ thou learn a prayer without book.'

Troilus and Cressida, Act II Scene 1

SBT_SR-98_290001_Book-of-Common-Prayer-1594_1.jpg
A Book of Common Prayer and Psalter, Printed in 1596, from the Library collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

This small volume, only three inches wide by four inches long, is a Book of Common Prayer together with a Psalter, or book of Psalms, printed in 1596.  The cover is made of paper-pulp boards and it is bound in leather.  Some of this remains, but the spine has disappeared completely, revealing the sewed binding where the leaves have been gathered together.  Its size meant that it could be carried around, or kept in a small bag tied at the waist.

It is in fact two books, comprising the third version of The Booke of Common Prayer of 1559 together with The whole booke of psalms, which first appeared as a separate volume in 1594.  Archbishop Thomas Cranmer issued the first version of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, but this copy also includes the 39 Articles, which set out the beliefs of the Anglican Church.  This copy was printed in 1596 by Christopher Barker, official printer to Queen Elizabeth I and is remarkable for two signatures: on the final page of the ‘Confession of Fayth’ can be seen an inked inscription, ‘W Shakespear’; and opposite the first page of the Psalter there is a (perhaps deliberately) smudged signature: ‘William Shakespear’.

Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare's signature
The Book of Common Prayer and Psalter opened to reveal the supposed signature of William Shakespeare

These signatures are almost certainly forgeries.  We know that William Henry Ireland (1775-1835), the infamous forger of Shakespearean artefacts and texts, honed his skills on sixteenth-century books and experimented with mixtures of ink that simulated earlier varieties.  Although Ireland did not admit to forging these particular signatures, they are dubious at best.

Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare's signature
The second supposed signature of William Shakespeare

This sort of annotation of religious books was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s time however, and evidence of material engagement with similar texts can tell us a great deal about individual lives.  Like family bibles, psalters and prayer books were also repositories for all kinds of personal information: on the flyleaf of his prayer book printed in 1619, Giles Hungerford recorded the marriages to his first and second wives, and logged the birthdates and names of his children.  John Carter wrote recipes for various ailments in his Psalter, including one containing ‘a dram of sulphur’ and some ‘sirrup of violets’ (this may have been for fainting fits).  Early modern people also liked to paint the borders of the pages and highlight key passages of the text, usually by underlining in red; embroidered covers, using metallic thread and velvet, were also popular with the wealthy.*

This prayer book, aside from the signatures, has none of this embellishment, and it may have been used in Church or in the home.  The heavy wear of certain pages – particularly the metrical Psalms (which would have been communally sung) – certainly points to active sustained use.  We may imagine it being passed from hand to hand, or locked away in chests after services. The Whole Booke of Psalmes was designated as a book for public worship, and was one of those ‘Set forth and allowed to be song [sung] in all Churches’, and kept in the church itself.

Prayer books were issued and kept in continual supply as an attempt to disseminate and propagate uniformity in religious practice.  In the quote from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare alludes to learning by rote a prayer in the Anglican faith, whilst underlining the importance of printed books like this in the process.  To many, learning a prayer, or learning specific ways of praying, was informed by the printed word.  But the evidence of surviving copies of prayer books also suggests that these texts were embraced by users; annotations and illustrations reveal the tangible connection Shakespeare’s contemporaries made between significant moments or concerns in their personal lives and the wider spiritual apparatus provided by the English church.

*See William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, Philadelphia: 2008, pp. 87-94.