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Saturday, 17 March 2012

‘Biblical Poetry, Please!’

A series named The Art of the Monarchy is among the BBC’s contribution’s to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

During  the Radio 4 show illustrated above, Will Gompertz examined a ‘psalter’ – a collection of psalms in book form -  which belonged to the present Queen’s namesake and predecessor, Elizabeth I. The book, known as a Psaultier de David, even features her handwriting and signature.

Furthermore, to coincide with the Art of Monarchy, the Radio 4 blog is running a series of posts by curators of the Royal Collection examining different aspects of the collection. In this post Elizabeth Clark considers an inscription by Queen Elizabeth I.

French Psalter with inscription from Elizabeth I

(Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012)

“However ordinary a book may appear, it can, on opening, turn out to be extraordinary. One such in the Royal Library is a plain little brown Psalter (book of Psalms). On the penultimate page it has a poem, written in the hand of Elizabeth I:

No crooked legge no bleared

eye no part deformed out

of kinde nor yet so uglye

halfe can be as is the inward

suspicious minde

Your lovinge



“Facing the neat letters is a drawing of an armillary sphere - a model of the heavens and one of Elizabeth's emblems - balancing on an open book, which a gifted amateur artist added to embellish the words.

“Given to The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, as a wedding present in 1947, this enigmatic book has no title page and no colophon (the publication details at the end of a text), so where and when was it published? Many more questions arise on reading the poem: why did Elizabeth write it and when? Why in this book? To whom was she referring?

“This is the only known version of the poem, so it is likely that Elizabeth composed it herself. It is also likely that she did so before 1558, which is when she became queen, as thereafter she wrote 'R' for 'Regina' after her name. However, with no information about whose was the 'crooked legge' or 'inward suspicious minde', we can only guess who it was written for.

“When was this book published? Probably before 1538, when we estimate it came to England, because Thomas Becket's name has been crossed out of the calendar of saints' days in the front as commanded by Henry VIII's Royal Proclamation of that year. The date of publication can be further refined by studying the preface, which advocates speaking to God in the vernacular (in this case French rather than in the approved Latin). These are the words of Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, who published his translation of the Psalms from Latin into French in Paris in 1525. While this is not the 1525 edition - and there is no other edition listed in any major European library catalogue - we can be almost certain that the Psalter dates from 1525-30.

“Why did she write in this particular book? It had been thought to be her own volume, but it seems more likely to be an autograph in somebody else's, perhaps as a mark of favour. There are a number of examples of such inscriptions in books of this period, including some by Elizabeth's stepmother, Katherine Parr, who was influential in the Princess's upbringing. But we still do not know why this book was selected for Elizabeth's inscription.

“Sometimes it is impossible to find the truth in history. Though we may have many sources for an event - eyewitness accounts, images, official documents - everybody embellishes and everybody misunderstands. Objects such as books can reflect the many possibilities behind people's actions: despite our conclusions; it could be that this book was just a source of scrap paper for Elizabeth. Sometimes not knowing the answers in history is what is most exciting about studying it.”

  • The Psalter is on display at Windsor Castle with other objects from The Art of Monarchy series.

  • Elizabeth Clark is the Collections Information Assistant, Books and Manuscripts at The Royal Collection.


I conclude by thanking the BBC for this charming story by re-publishing one of my own best-beloved psalms in Hebrew and English. I wonder if anyone has  had the chutzpa to ask the present Queen – a famously devout Christian – if she has a favourite!




Psalms Chapter 92 תְּהִלִּים

א  מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר, לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת.
1 A Psalm, a Song. For the Sabbath day.

ב  טוֹב, לְהֹדוֹת לַיהוָה;    וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן.
2 It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High;

ג  לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ;    וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת.
3 To declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night seasons,

ד  עֲלֵי-עָשׂוֹר, וַעֲלֵי-נָבֶל;    עֲלֵי הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר.
4 With an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; with a solemn sound upon the harp.

ה  כִּי שִׂמַּחְתַּנִי יְהוָה בְּפָעֳלֶךָ;    בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ אֲרַנֵּן.
5 For Thou, LORD, hast made me glad through Thy work; I will exult in the works of Thy hands.

ו  מַה-גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה;    מְאֹד, עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ.
6 How great are Thy works, O LORD! Thy thoughts are very deep.

ז  אִישׁ-בַּעַר, לֹא יֵדָע;    וּכְסִיל, לֹא-יָבִין אֶת-זֹאת.
7 A brutish man knoweth not, neither doth a fool understand this.

ח  בִּפְרֹחַ רְשָׁעִים, כְּמוֹ עֵשֶׂב, וַיָּצִיצוּ, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן:    לְהִשָּׁמְדָם עֲדֵי-עַד.
8 When the wicked spring up as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they may be destroyed for ever.

ט  וְאַתָּה מָרוֹם--    לְעֹלָם יְהוָה.
9 But Thou, O LORD, art on high for evermore.

י  כִּי הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ, יְהוָה--    כִּי-הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ:
יִתְפָּרְדוּ,    כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן.
10 For, lo, Thine enemies, O LORD, for, lo, Thine enemies shall perish:
all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.

יא  וַתָּרֶם כִּרְאֵים קַרְנִי;    בַּלֹּתִי, בְּשֶׁמֶן רַעֲנָן.
11 But my horn hast Thou exalted like the horn of the wild-ox; I am anointed with rich oil.

יב  וַתַּבֵּט עֵינִי,    בְּשׁוּרָי:
בַּקָּמִים עָלַי מְרֵעִים--    תִּשְׁמַעְנָה אָזְנָי.
12 Mine eye also hath gazed on them that lie in wait for me,
mine ears have heard my desire of the evil-doers that rise up against me.

יג  צַדִּיק, כַּתָּמָר יִפְרָח;    כְּאֶרֶז בַּלְּבָנוֹן יִשְׂגֶּה.
13 The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

יד  שְׁתוּלִים, בְּבֵית יְהוָה;    בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ.
14 Planted in the house of the LORD, they shall flourish in the courts of our God.

טו  עוֹד, יְנוּבוּן בְּשֵׂיבָה;    דְּשֵׁנִים וְרַעֲנַנִּים יִהְיוּ.
15 They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness;

טז  לְהַגִּיד, כִּי-יָשָׁר יְהוָה;    צוּרִי, וְלֹא-עלתה (עַוְלָתָה) בּוֹ.
16 To declare that the LORD is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness.


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