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  • The Devonshire Manuscript


    This hand-written volume, known as the Devonshire Manuscript, is an anthology of courtly love poems made by members of Henry VIII’s (1491–1547) court and Anne Boleyn’s (c. 1500–1536) inner circle. The poems were primarily written in the 1530s, but there are contributions which date from the 1540s, 1550s and possibly the 1560s.

    The production of the manuscript was influenced by the court culture created by Anne Boleyn while she was Queen (1533–1536). Anne Boleyn surrounded herself with young, intelligent and exuberant courtiers. Scholarship, gossip and witty flirtation were encouraged and even expected: it was in this dazzling intellectual environment that the Devonshire Manuscript was written. Anne Boleyn’s scandalous downfall in the spring of 1536 also shaped the themes and tone of the poetry in the volume after this date.

    The manuscript has been principally recognised as the source for over a third of the poems attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt, father of the English sonnet. However, present scholarship is focussed on the ways in which the manuscript came to be written and the social and literary implications therein.

    Who created the Devonshire Manuscript?

    The Devonshire Manuscript, which started life as a blank notebook, was owned by Mary Fitzroy née Howard (c. 1519–1555?), wife of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond (1519–1536), and cousin of Anne Boleyn. As was customary in the period, Mary Fitzroy encouraged her friends to compose poems, copy out recommended or famous verses and even make notes and corrections beside each other’s work within the book. The process of writing and sharing poetry in manuscript was seen as an enjoyable social pastime.

    Mary Fitzroy’s close companions Lady Margaret Douglas (1515–1578), daughter of Margaret Tudor and niece of Henry VIII, and Mary Shelton (1510/15–1570/71), another cousin of Anne Boleyn, were actively involved in the manuscript’s making. Male courtiers, including Lord Thomas Howard (c. 1512–1537), contributed to it too.

    This volume has been described as ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’.[1] It also provides a unique insight into the precarious position of Renaissance women in, or close to, power.

    Poems annotated by Mary Shelton

    • ff. 6v7r (digitised pp. 1–2) 

    The poem is an acrostic spelling SHELTUN with the first letter of each stanza, and was therefore visibly intended as a love token for Mary Shelton. The marginalia, identified as Margaret Douglas’s and Mary Shelton’s handwriting, discusses the poem’s quality: Douglas was unimpressed and recommended that Shelton ‘forget this’, but Shelton replied that ‘it is worthy’. However, Shelton’s note at the bottom of the page demonstrates that she did not return her admirer’s feelings: ‘undesired service / require no hire’ (because the author’s attentions were unwanted she refused to respond or reciprocate).

    • ff. 68r–68v (pp. 21-22)

    This poem, which was transcribed by Mary Shelton, appears in printed anthologies of the period. However this version is unusual because the female subject of the poem has been changed, by altering the pronouns, to a gender-neutral subject.

    A poem on female virtue?

    • f. 18v (p. 5)

    This poem can be read in two ways: if it is read by line it appears to extoll female virtue. However, if the reader uses the punctuation the poem’s meaning becomes misogynistic.

    Poems composed by Sir Thomas Wyatt

    • ff. 14v15r, f. 19r, f. 24r and ff. 69v70r (pp. 3–4, 6, 7, 2324)

    These are famous poems composed by Sir Thomas Wyatt, which were copied into this volume by various unknown hands. These four poems can also be found, with slight differences in language, as well as unique annotations and doodles, in The Book of Sir Thomas Wyatt.

    The first poem, ‘My lute awake’, is a song in the courtly love style. There is a note in the margin by Margaret Douglas which reads ‘and this’, which probably served as a reminder to reread the song or commit it to memory.

    The third poem ‘Hey Robin, Jolly Robin’ is an adaptation of a popular song, which was later used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (4.2.173–80).

    Poems associated with Lord Thomas Howard and Lady Margaret Douglas, and their imprisonment

    • ff. 26r–30r (pp. 8–16)

    These are a series of poems that passed between Lord Thomas Howard and Lady Margaret Douglas during their imprisonment in the Tower of London. They were secretly engaged in 1536, but because of Douglas’s proximity to the throne King Henry regarded the union as treasonous, and punished them severely. This tragic turn of events, which ended with Howard’s death, were precipitated by the downfall and execution of Anne Boleyn earlier that year. Douglas’s disastrous love affair in turn foreshadowed her granddaughter Arbella Stuart’s experiences almost 75 years later.

    The final poem in this section is taken (except for the first two lines) from Geoffrey Chaucer’s 'Troilus and Criseyde'. f. 59v (p. 20) contains another of the poems entered by Thomas Howard, and similarly borrows from Chaucer’s poem.

    • f. 88r (p. 25)

    This is an original composition by Margaret Douglas, and it is unique not only because it was written by a woman but also because of its unusual form and style. It is an imagined will and testament, in which Douglas laments the death of Thomas Howard in the Tower and expresses her desire to die rather than continue living without him.

    • ff. 89v–92r (pp. 26–31)

    These are all poems written out by Thomas Howard, probably during his time in the Tower. They are all medieval poems taken from Thynne’s 1532 edition of Chaucer’s Workes, and include pieces by Chaucer, Thomas Hoccleve and Sir Richard Roos. Each of the poems were written or adapted to be in praise of women.

    A single poem in Mary Fitzroy’s hand

    • ff. 55r–55v (pp. 17–18)

    This poem, ‘O happy dames’, is the only example of Mary Fitzroy’s handwriting in the volume. It was composed by her brother, the renowned poet and soldier Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516/17–1547).

    Poem by Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

    • f. 57r (p. 19)

    This is a poem written by Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545/46–1567), son of Margaret Douglas. It was probably written by Darnley during the 1560s, and may have been intended for Mary Queen of Scots, who married Darnley in 1565.


    [1] Colin Burrow, ‘How to Twist a Knife’, London Review of Books, 30 April 2009, pp. 3–5.

    Full title:
    POEMS of Sir Thomas Wyatt, with a few of Lord Surrey, Anthony Lee, Richard Hatfield, and E. K. [Edmund Knyvet? ]; and with others in autograph by Thomas Lord Howard (written in the Tower), his wife Lady Margaret [afterwards Countess of Lennox], her son "Harry Stuart" [Lord Darnley] and Mary Shelton [the mistress of Sir John Clere ?] Paper, earlier half of XVIth cent.
    16th century
    Manuscript / Quarto
    Mary Fitzroy, Margaret Douglas, Mary Shelton
    Usage terms

    Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

    Held by
    British Library
    Add MS 17492

    Full catalogue details

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