A Sonnet for a Former Princess

Between 1538 and 1543, the Tudor literary courtier Henry Parker, Lord Morley (about 1486-1556), presented the future queen Mary I with a New Year’s gift that included ‘an Italion ryme called soneto’ in English.[i] Appended to Morley’s prose translation of part of Cardinal Juan de Torquemada’s psalm commentary, this proto-Shakespearean sonnet celebrates King David as the composer of the psalms, as well as such verses’ superiority to other forms of poetry. This type of gift was would have been displayed among those officially received by Mary and would have been somewhat public among her household and the larger court. Importantly, this sonnet also appears to be the earliest surviving Insular example so identified in its original source, which pre-dates Tottel’s Miscellany by almost two decades.

British Library, MS Royal 18 A xv, f. 9r, showing ascription of Latin original to Mapheus Vegius.

This was a notably personal gift, reflective of the mutual love of the Vulgate Psalter shared by the fatherly peer and the Lady Mary, who had been deprived of her title of princess by the 1534 Act of Succession. A number of Morley’s gifts to her of English and Latin texts are directly related to the psalms, and the dedicatory epistle of one noted ‘that daly ye exarcyse your selfe in the Salmes, in saynge with your chaplen the service of the daye’.[ii] The survival of at least four deluxe illuminated psalters from Mary’s personal book collection further illustrates the centrality of this devotional text in her prayers, apparently to the exclusion of the more conventional Book of Hours. It is clear from Morley’s dedications that he knew such details of the royal lady’s household and her private religious observance, and had spoken with her directly on such matters. As a conservative yet pragmatic courtier, he was willing to be aligned implicitly with the politically and religiously suspect Mary, but also hedged his bets by including her father and even Thomas Cromwell among those receiving his personalized manuscript texts. And because Henry VIII shared his oldest surviving child’s attachment to the Latin psalms, gifts such as Morley’s psalm-presents would have not have seemed unduly intimate or reactionary.

While Morley credited the Latin original from which his sonnet is translated to the much-lauded fifteenth-century humanist Maffeo Veggio (Maphaeus Vegius; 1407-1458), new research shows this eight-verse carmen (‘Orpheu sileto’) to be a truncated rendering of Latin verses by the Italian jurist and linguist Giacomo Furnario (Iacobus Furnius) published in the famous 1516 Psalterium Octaplum of Bishop Agostino Giustiniani.[iii] Furnius’ poem is itself a translation of a Byzantine Psalter epigram, ‘Verses to the divine David’ (Στίχοι έις  τον θεΐον  Δαβίδ), sometimes attributed to the poet Ioannes Geometres (fl. 10th century) and also printed in Giustiniani’s groundbreaking volume. Tracing the precise source of the shortened Latin version which Morley used may never be entirely conclusive; however, evidence points persuasively to a small circle of contemporaneous books he could have known. This eight-verse version and its erroneous attribution to Veggio were included in several psalm-centric works published in the early 1530s in the shop of Hagenau (Lower Alsace) printer Johann Setzer.[iv] As the early publisher of Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Setzer had access to numerous Latin texts written and commented on by German Protestant literary figures. Further, the wide dissemination of the Octaplum among scholars in the Renaissance (especially Biblical linguists) make it the presumed source for ‘Orpheu sileto’ in Germany, even if the reason for the excision of several lines is unclear. Since Morley was a known devotee to the Psalter and had traveled in Germany, it is entirely possible that he would have collected or known directly such works on the psalms, even continental Protestant ones.

British Library, MS Royal 18 A xv, f. 9v, showing Lord Morley’s sonnet below the original Latin text.

Consideration of our sonnet in its immediate English context reveals its multivalent connections to several consequential discourses at the Henrician court in the 1530s. We see most obviously the ongoing vogue for things Italian in Renaissance England, as well as the assumption that Lady Mary— generally thought to be distinctly outmoded in her tastes—would appreciate a novel genre such as the sonnet. Although he left almost no works not translated from Latin or Italian, Morley (who also Englished fashionable works by the fourteenth-century poet Petrarch) was clearly au courant with the cultural influences and poetic styles of his younger and more famous fellow ‘courtly makers’ Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. We also find ‘Harry’ Morley probably in possession of recent continental literary and religious publications reflecting his own devotional predilections and bookish pursuits. Finally, we find in such a semi-public gift the unexpected circulation of a stylish literary genre in a notably conservative corner of the Tudor royal household.

Below: Latin and English versions of Morley’s sonnet.

Orpheu sileto abijcite Mercurij lyram.

Et tu Tripus obliterate Delphice.

Nam Dauid ad nos spiritus pulsans lyram

Mysteriorum operta patefecit dei.

Miraculorum signat veterum copiam.

Creata sit creantis in laudem sui.

Preseruat omnes imitans misterijs.

Inter futura aperit iudicium iudicijs


Orpheus with thy musyke and all thy pryde.

And thou Mercurius do thy harpe away

And thow three fotede Apollo .I. do say

Sett your Armony quyte and clene aside.

Ffor dauid that the spryte of trueth tryde.

Playnge on hys harpe the swete holy lay.

The mysterys of god dothe manifestly play.

In shewynge vs christe that on the crosse dyede

And all creatures exhorteth to commende

Tbe hyge god and celestiall kynge.

And made with hys worde eury thynge.

As the Judge of vs all at the latter ende.

                Then let vs pretende

Hys name to glorify hys mercy to reherse.

Whiche Dauid harppes on in many a swete verse.


By Daniel Bennett Page, independent scholar.

Daniel is an interdisciplinary scholar and musician specializing in Renaissance music, Tudor court and cultural history, sources studies, and Gregorian chant. He holds an MFA and a PhD from Brandeis University (Massachusetts) and was a Fulbright Scholar at the British Library. His most recent academic positions as academic dean of first- and second-year students and affiliate associate professor at the University of Baltimore included creating numerous innovative courses in the arts and a notable new general education program. Currently in-press are book chapters and an article on topics related to mid-sixteenth-century English musicians and the coronation of Mary I.

[i] British Library, MS Royal 18 A xv (see appended images).

[ii] ‘The Prolog of the Translator’, in Morley’s translation of a version by Angelus Politianus (Agnolo ‘Poliziano’ Ambrogini) of Athanasius’ ‘Introduction to the Psalms’, British Library MS Royal 17 C xii, f. 1v.

[iii] Psalterium Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, & Chaldaeum, cum tribus Latinis interpretationibus & glossis (Genoa: Pietro Paolo Porro, 1516) USTC 800234.

[iv] Psalmi omium selectissimi adflictis conscientiis (Hagenau: heirs of Johann Setzer, 1532) USCT 688121; Philipp Melanchthon, In Psalmos Aliquot Davidicos, Enarrationes … quibus additi sunt Psalmi carminibus redditi ab eodem autore et alijs quibusdam bonisac doctis viris quorum Catalogues infra subiectus est. (Hagenau: Peter Braubach, 1535) USTC 666386.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (May 10, 2023). A Sonnet for a Former Princess. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6up

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