A Medieval Marvel: The Bute Book of Hours

By Mara Hoffmann

The Bute Book of Hours – which dates from around 1500 – is one of the finest examples of illustrated books in existence, and will play a central role in the upcoming Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts sale on 6 December. Ahead of the sale, Sotheby's Senior Specialist in Western Manuscripts, Mara Hoffmann, identifies key pages from this important historical book, whose richly decorated miniatures tell a host of fascinating stories.

THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

This miniature shows King Henry VI of England as a Saint, adored by the man for whom the book was made. King Henry VI died in the Tower of London in 1471, possibly killed on the orders of Edward IV. Miracles were attributed to Henry VI after his death, and he was informally regarded as a saint and martyr. In 1484 the bodily remains of Henry VI were relocated to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where the tomb of Henry VI became the object of veneration and attracted many pilgrims. Henry VII, who reigned from 1485–1509, promoted the royal cult especially during the proceedings for his canonisation from 1495. Henry VIII venerated his great-uncle until the day he died, but diplomatic problems with Rome blocked the canonisation. Although depicted as a Saint, Henry VI was never officially a Saint.

THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

The manuscript was made for the man who appears here with his wife, their children and their dogs. The man is wearing a double chain of office, and the book has a strong royalist bias. Most remarkable is the office and miniature for King Henry VI, who is shown as a saint with the owner of the manuscript kneeling next to him in the margin. The implication is that the present book may have been for a nobleman of the royal household. The family portrait, the royal connection and the exceptionally rich and lavish decoration of the manuscript lead to belief in the 19th century that the manuscript was made for the young prince Henry (1491–1547), afterwards Henry VIII, who would have been depicted with his parents Henry VII (1457–1509) and Elizabeth of York (1466–1503), and his three siblings who survived infancy, his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486–1502), and his sisters Margaret (1489–1541) and Mary (1496–1533).

THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

In medieval England devotion to St Thomas Becket was widespread, and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral was visited by countless pilgrims from all across Europe. Books of Hours made for the English market almost always include references to St Thomas of Canterbury. Following the suppression of the saint’s cult by King Henry VIII in 1538, the destruction of Becket imagery was widespread. Erasure, removal, or striking out references to St Thomas of Canterbury in English medieval manuscripts is fairly common, and indeed the manuscript lacks the miniature for the office of Thomas Becket. A second miniature with the image of Thomas Becket, included within a highly personalised selection of saints towards the end of the volume, escaped, however, the censor’s attention and survives unscathed.

 THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

Several entries in this manuscript hint at a time of plague. St Roche, patron saint against the plague, appears right at the beginning, second only to the Trinity, the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. St Armel, the Welsh saint whose fest was adopted into the Sarum Calendar only in 1498, is invoked so that the user "shal be relesyd of all maner of sikenesse & soris". 

THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

The Plague broke out in London twice at the end of the Middle Ages, in 1499–1500 and again in 1537–9; the latter is too late for this Book of Hours but the earlier date seems possible. The sickness was so rampant that Henry VII retired to Calais with members of the court, and there is a possibility that the present book was made then as a votive offering by a member of the royal retinue. 


MAIN IMAGE: THE BUTE BOOK OF HOURS, C.1500–20. ESTIMATE: £1,500,000–2,500,000. 

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