Henry as David kneeling in prayer among ruins, from Henry VIII Psalter by Jean Mallard [attrib.]

Jean Mallard [attrib.]

Henry as David kneeling in prayer among ruins, from Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, Illumination on parchment, 205 x 140 mm, The British Library, London, Royal MS 2 A XVI, fol. 79r, Photo: © The British Library Board

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A Davidic King

Commentary by

The illustrations that Henry VIII commissioned in a Psalter for his own use in around 1540 demonstrate that he saw himself as a Davidic king. Henry also annotated the Psalter liberally with marginal notes, commenting on the text. By this date a manuscript Psalter in Latin rather than the more popular Book of Hours was an unusual choice. Perhaps the opportunity presented for a direct alignment with David accounts, in part, for the commissioning of such a personalized copy of this text. The King’s connection with David is made directly in several Psalms, where he appears in the guise of David, wearing a distinctive feathered Tudor hat.

Henry commissioned the Psalter from Jean Mallard, who wrote out the Psalms in a beautifully clear Humanistic script and signed his name in the dedicatory preface as the King’s poet (orator regius). It has never been entirely clear whether Mallard painted the miniatures in the manuscript as well, although it is known that he did illuminate other books, including one for Henry. If Mallard did illustrate some or all of the painting in the Psalter, this may account for the somewhat awkward handling of the perspective and hesitancy in the details in execution of some of the images, as he was primarily a scribe rather than an artist.

In the illustration before Psalm 69 (Psalm 68 in the Vulgate), the King kneels in his armour before an angel of the Lord. The angel holds a scourge in his right hand and brandishes a sword in his left, while cradling a skull against his body. These attributes refer to the choices of punishment offered to David after he had numbered the people of Israel: seven years of famine, fleeing for three months before his enemies, or three days of pestilence (2 Samuel 24:12–14).

No reader of Psalm 69—Henry included—could doubt that to be a Davidic king might mean suffering and trials. But for Henry to kneel and be ‘humbled’ as David was (v.10) was also to hope for the blessing that was David’s:

For God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall dwell there and possess it. (v.35)

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