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The Bute Hours Illuminates Sotheby’s Auction

You will have probably never heard of a book titled The Bute Hours, but it’s one of the most valuable English Medieval Manuscripts in existence. Estimated at a value between £1.5 and 2.5 million, it may reach a much higher sum tomorrow, 6th December, in the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Sale at Sotheby’s, London.

You will have probably never heard of a book titled The Bute Hours, but it’s one of the most valuable English Medieval Manuscripts in existence. Estimated at a value between £1.5 and 2.5 million, it may reach a much higher sum tomorrow, 6th December, in the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Sale at Sotheby’s, London.

English Books of Hours are very rare in the market, even if they are the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. They are Christian devotional books made for wealthy patrons, and were popular in the Middle Ages. The Bute Hours is a beautifully illustrated book with more than 50 large miniatures reflecting the significant social status of its patron, probably a noble man of the royal household, who is depicted with his wife and children throughout the book. The richness of illustration is this Book of Hours is unparalleled in English illuminated manuscripts of the time, which makes it so unique and valuable.

This valuable manuscript belongs to the Berger Collection Educational Trust, an American philanthropic foundation focused on British art, culture and history who bought it in 1983 in a Sotheby’s auction from the eldest son of John Crichton-Stuart, 5th Marquess of Bute (whose ancestral family home, on the Isle of Bute, off the Scottish west coast, can be traced back to the 12th century and is descended from kings of both Scotland and England).

Dr Mara Hoffman, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Western Manuscripts, takes a look at some of the most exciting miniatures in The Bute Hours:


Henry VI as Saint
This miniature shows King Henry VI of England as a Saint, adored by the man for whom the book was made. King Henry VI (reig. 1422-1461 and 1470-71) died in the Tower of London in 1471, possibly killed on the orders of Edward IV (reig. 1461-70 and 1471-83). 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 (reig. 1485-1509) promoted the royal cult especially during the proceedings for his canonisation from 1495. Henry VIII (reig. 1509-47) 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.


St Thomas Becket
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 Patron, his family and dogs
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 Plague
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 feast 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 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.

The Bute Hours will be auctioned at London Sotheby’s at 10:30am, tomorrow 6th December, during the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts auction.

34-35 New Bond Street


Image © Sotheby's

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