“Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer Book”. With a Fine Dance of Death Sequence

DANCE OF DEATH. Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533-1603); Day, Richard (b. 1552)

A Booke of Christian prayers, collected out of the ancient writers, and best learned in our time, worthy to be read with an earnest mind of all Christians, in these dangerous and troublesome daies, that God for Christes sake will yet still be mercifull vnto vs.

London: Printed by Richard Yardley, and Peter Short, for the assignes of Richard Day, 1590


Quarto: 18 x 13 cm. [8], 138, [2] leaves. Collation: [par]4, A-Y4, Aa-Oo4

THIRD EDITION (1st 1578) of this lavishly illustrated book.

A fine copy in 17th c. morocco, richly tooled in gold, discreetly rebacked. Early ownership inscription at head of title. Lower border slightly shaved on final two leaves. An excellent copy of a beautiful book.

This remarkable book is illustrated throughout with fine woodcut illustrations set within decorative woodcut borders, derived from French books of hours, incorporating scenes from the Life of Christ, the Dance of Death, the Signs of Judgment, the Works of Mercy, the Five Senses, and the Procession of the Virtues & Vices. The title page features a woodcut border of the Tree of Jesse. The recto bears a full-paged portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

The “Booke of Christian prayer” incorporates a number of elements of John Day’s 1569 “Christian Prayers and Meditations”, such as the full-paged portrait of Queen Elizabeth in prayer, but the two works are so different in composition and content as to be considered separate works. And yet, in discussions of the iconography, the two works are often discussed as two different editions of the same book. Queen Elizabeth’s own copy of the 1569 “Christian Prayers” is preserved at Lambeth palace. Scholars still debate the question of whether or not Elizabeth herself is the author of certain prayers.

For a detailed discussion of the woodcuts used in this work, see Samuel C. Chew, The Iconography of "A Book of Christian Prayers" (1578) Illustrated, in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol 8, No. 3 (May 1945), pp. 293-305

The Dance of Death sequence:

“On the outer lateral margin of each page [of the 1569 “Christian Prayers and Meditations”] are two episodes of the Dance. Below is a supine skeleton or emaciated body or shrouded corpse or an effigy upon a tomb… Following the familiar formula, Death holds before his victim an hourglass, or tolls a passing bell, or brandishes a sword or scythe, or carries a spade upon his shoulder (or a broom, which is unusual). Occasionally he is garbed in a shroud. Sometimes he gesticulates mockingly; sometimes he seizes the doomed one with violence; sometimes he leads the victim away. Thirty-six types of men are represented, ranging downward in social rank from Emperor to King to Beggar, Fool, and Infant. This sequence is repeated and then follows a female Dance of Death, with twenty-six types. In many of the episodes, male and female alike, the effort has been made to adapt the scheme to English society.

“[In the 1578 and 1580 “Booke of Christian prayers”], The Church is represented by an Archbishop, Bishop, Doctor, and Preacher. A Herald, Sergeant-at-Arms, Trumpeter, and Pursuivant appear. A Printer appears twice, once seated at his type and again working at his press. Music is likewise represented twice, but in a manner differing from all the rest of the series. Instead of appearing to an individual, Death here comes to two men and two women who are seated at a table and then to two men and a woman who are playing upon musical instruments… The female Dance is enlarged by the representation at the end of a second Infant and the She-Fool… [There is also a] Triumph of Death, showing at the top Death striding over a heap of victims and at the bottom Death in a chariot drawn by stags… Furthermore, Daye enhanced the lugubrious impressiveness of the series by substituting for the formal decorations of the top and inner borders of 1569 a great variety of erect and prostrate skeletons, emaciated bodies, and heaps of skulls and bones. The whole concludes with the Last Judgment.”(Chew)

“John Day and [his son] Richard Day collaborated in the production of what are, in effect, Protestant books of hours that pay tribute throughout to Elizabeth as a Reformation queen. In an outstanding example of iconoclasm, Elizabeth receives the place of honor in collections of prayers comparable to the Horae, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary once reigned supreme as Mother of God and Queen of Heaven” (King, Tudor Royal Iconography, 114).

“These were what one scholar has called ‘the only examples of Elizabethan prayer-books de luxe to appear in Elizabethan England.’ The woodcut illustration of Elizabeth at her devotions in both editions, and the provision of prayers for the Queen herself to say (in the 1569 version), helped secure it for a while the nick-name ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer Book.’ The book was heavily decorated with borders and figures and included a medieval ‘dance of death,’ which was complemented by the couplets that were copied out in [the] booklet. Richard Day was the son of the master printer John Day, who produced Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The second edition of 1578 replaced continental prayers with material by Knox, Foxe, and Calvin, and included prayers for Elizabeth” (Priaulx Library)

STC (2nd ed.), 6431