Henry VIII’s Comb

Curio B6
Curio B6

This month’s curio is a comb which is said to have belonged to Henry VIII. It has been owned and described as such by the Library since the 1720s. It seems likely that it is indeed a Tudor comb since it is similar to a number in the V&A Museum. Typically these were made of boxwood with bone or ivory inlays and were often manufactured in France. It is generally believed that Henry had reddish brown hair. One contemporaneous description of him is by the Venetian Ambassador to the Tudor court writing home in 1515:

“His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman …” [Brewer, J. S., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 2.1, no 395. p.116]. The King is depicted on a 5.5 metre long, vellum roll owned by the Library (O.3.59) which records the procession to Parliament on 4th February 1512.

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Section from O.3.59

Trinity Library also has eight manuscripts which were once a part of the King’s Library at Westminster. B.15.19 is the manuscript Epistola ad Cardinales also known as Henricus Octavus.

B.15.19, f.1
B.15.19, f.1

This was the first official statement of the King’s position in relation to the validity of his marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (who had previously been married to his brother, Arthur) and dates from 1529. In love with Anne Boleyn, Henry had begun to question the marriage’s validity two year’s earlier in 1527 when the first inconclusive examination of the issue took place. A second trial took place before Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio between May and July 1529.

B.15.19, front cover
B.15.19, front cover

Tradition states that this manuscript lay on the table before the Cardinals. It was expensively bound with gold tooled decoration by the binder known as ‘King Henry’s Binder’.

It is probable that the King himself composed part of the manuscript and that it contains the text of the speech that Henry delivered to the court on 21st June. Henry argued that, as a young man and with Papal dispensation, he had entered into his marriage in good faith. Over time, given the failure of the marriage to produce sons to succeed him, Henry had become concerned that it contravened Divine Law. Another Trinity manuscript dating from around this time and relating to these issues is B.14.10. The arguments were long and complex and brought Henry into direct confrontation with the Papacy. The debate continued for a further four years. Henry and Anne were secretly married in January 1533 and Henry’s first marriage was annulled in May of the same year, thereby ratifying his marriage with Anne. The break with Rome with followed.

After the Act of Supremacy (1534) which recognised Henry as supreme head of the Church of England and the dissolution of the monasteries that followed, hundreds of books and manuscripts were removed from monastic libraries taken into Henry’s possession. Volumes now at Trinity are Alcuin, De dialectica and works by Jerome (both formerly at Rochester Cathedral Priory) and Alexander Nequam, De naturis rerum formerly at Barnwell Priory.

A 15th century Greek Psalter from the Royal Library was originally written, possibly in Cambridge by Emmanuel of Constantinople, for George Neville, archbishop of York. It is still in its original binding and is one of the 19 identified volumes bound by the ‘Scales Binder’ who worked, probably in London, in the mid to late 15th century. This binder’s work has the following characteristics: the front and back covers are always different; he scored or cut patterns as well as using figured tools; and the scored inscriptions or rebuses may indicate the original owner of the binding. These features can be seen on the Trinity binding which has the name ‘Bhale’ cut into the back cover. This binder is the only one so far identified in England to have used this cut leather technique.

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O.3.14, front cover
o-3-14_back-cover-2
O.3.14, back cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

For other examples of combs from the V&A click here.

Carley, J.P., The Libraries of King Henry VIII (London, 2000)

Murphy, V., ‘The Literature and Propaganda of Henry VIII’s First Divorce’, in MacCulloch, D, The Reign of Henry VIII (Basingstoke, 1995), pp. 159-181

Hobson, G. D, English Binding before 1500 (Cambridge, 1929)

 

 

 

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