I besiche your grace hu[m]b[ly]
when ye loke on this
yo[u]r grace’s assured anne
the dowgher off cleues
There is some irony to Anne’s request that Henry remember her when he looks on this book, since Henry divorced her because he claimed that he could not bear to look at her. Indeed, while it’s uncertain whether he was truly as repulsed by her at first sight as later accounts suggested, certainly by the time the divorce was going through Thomas Cromwell (testifying in an unsuccessful attempt to keep from being beheaded for arranging the marriage) quoted the king as having said that he could never consumate his marriage to Anne because “if his grace would…go about to have a do with her, his highness verily thinks that his nature would not consent thereto.” Anne’s marriage to Henry was the shortest of his marriages, lasting only from January 1540-July 1540. This was probably a blessing in disguise, given that she avoided the fate of beheading that befell his second and fifth wives and, in fact, outlived all his wives.
It has not been established when this note from Anne to Henry was penned, but it almost certainly presents evidence of a moment in history before the king had determined to sever his ties with her. It appears on the front flyleaf of a printed book of hours with added illumination:
The cordial tone of the inscription and the use of the word “assured” may indicate that this was a gift sent to him in advance of the wedding or presented upon her arrival in England as an assurance of their engagement. The word “besich” [beseech] in this context is a stylized formality indicating the humble status of a Tudor era wife who depends upon her husband, humbly asking him to bestow upon her his recognition and his favor. Or, perhaps the word beseech suggests actual pleading and uncertainty as things began to go wrong, and she is seeking some assurance herself in reinforcing the idea that she is his “assured wife.”
This example of a former queen’s signature is one of over 350 provenance marks made by women that have been identified by Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections. The Folger is home to the largest collection of Shakespeare material in the world as well as housing an extensive collection of related books, manuscripts, ephemera and art from and about the Renaissance period. The majority of the women’s proveance marks that Ziegler has kept careful notes on over the course of several years also date to the early modern period from around the 16th to the 18th centuries, making them important records of what women owned and read in this era. Ziegler’s work in recording the marks that women left in their books serves as the basis for the first set of images from the Folger being uploaded to POP across the coming weeks.
Anne of Cleves’ inscription to Henry VIII documents the gift of an expensive book of hours from a woman negotiating the political perils of a royal marriage. In contrast, the inscriptions of Frances Wolfreston on several books at the Folger are the mark of a woman of less exalted status, though still a member of the gentry, who married a man five years younger than herself. Their shared epitaph ends in the couplet:
She happy in his meeke and gentle life
He in a provident and vertuous wife
These lines suggest both a harmonious marriage and one in which the wife may have had a slight upper hand. Wolfreston as a book collector has been been the subject of multiple blog posts by recent Folger staff member, Sarah Werner, and a 1986 article by Paul Morgan provides more information about her life and library. Wolfreston marked her books with a very distinct inscription, “Frances Wolfreston Her Bouk” often at the top of the first page of text. The books she owned include many plays and other popular works from the 17th century, making her collection a good one for getting a sense of what a member of the affluent but not noble classes may have been reading at the time. Wolfreston’s mark appears in at least seven of the Folger’s books, including this example in the play, The Phoenix in Her Flames:
Penn also has at least three of Wolfreston’s books, including this copy of Othello, on which she has additionally inscribed an editorial comment on the play’s tragic status as “a sad one”:
Other early women’s names now being uploaded to POP have not yet been identified, such as this impressively large and formal provenance mark left by a woman named Arabella Weller in 1766:
…or these scribbles left by someone named Anne Prideaux:
These marks left by women of the past help to shed light on what women were reading in a time when their unequal social status often meant that they had fewer opportunities for education and had few to none of the formal rights and privileges that would grant them formal financial or political power. In her famous 1928 essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf imagined that William Shakespeare had an “extraordinarily talented sister” and outlined the ways in which such a woman, even if she were as talented as Shakespeare, would have been prevented from sharing that talent with the world due to the restrictions society of that time placed upon women. Woolf speculated, using this example, about all the talented, thoughtful, interesting female minds that have been left unremarked on and unknown. The provenance marks of the women readers across the 16th to 18th centuries being added to POP from the Folger and elsewhere provide the names of some of Shakespeare’s “sisters”, literate women, from famous queens to anonymous people, who marked themselves in the books they fed their minds with, and whose stories are waiting to be discovered.