King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

An Elizabethan prayer book

Opening from A booke of Christian prayers with woodcut border illustrations depicting the Dance of DeathOpening from A booke of Christian prayers with woodcut border illustrations depicting the Dance of DeathA booke of Christian prayers, otherwise known as Queen Elizabeth’s prayer book, was first issued in 1569 by the London printer John Day (1521/2-84). It earned its royal soubriquet from a woodcut of the newly crowned queen on the verso of the title page that portrayed Elizabeth not only as temporal monarch but also as Queen of Heaven, an aggressively anti-Catholic statement in tune with the re-establishment of state Protestantism.

Prayer books such as this were popular domestic items that, as well as serving propaganda purposes, reflected a continuity of religious belief and observance, as much as a rupture with the past.

The edition reproduced here, from 1590, was issued under the assign of Richard, son of John Day, a sometime printer and preacher who fell out with his father over the lucrative legal rights to print sacred texts such as the metrical Psalms and the Little Catechism. It is in effect a reprint of the first edition, and features the fine woodcut borders which surpassed anything in English printing of the time, a relatively undeveloped craft compared with the Continental trade.

One of the largest sections of border illustration depicts the Dance of Death, the medieval allegory concerning the implacability of mortality to every station in society, from beggar to king. The page displayed shows Death coming for the printer at his typesetting case and at the press, with the grim mottoes ‘Leave setting thy page | spent is thine age’ and ‘let printing stay | and come away’. For London tradesmen such as the Days, death was an ever-present possibility: between 1563 and 1603 there were five serious outbreaks of the plague alone, the most severe killing around 30,000 inhabitants.

In this exhibition

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