King Henry VIII was unarguably England’s most famous (and infamous) king in history, and his second queen, Anne Boleyn, the most famous of his six wives.
Anne Boleyn came to the king’s attention in 1522 when she was a very young woman and he was tiring of his older and infertile queen. By 1527 the king hadbecome obsessed and vowed to make Anne his queen regardless of consequence, and he succeeded in 1533 shortly before she bore their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. But by 1536 she would be executed on trumped up charges of treason and witchcraft, on the orders of her husband. The fascination with Anne Boleyn as a queen and as a woman continues unabated to this day.
There still exist today a few items that belonged to Anne Boleyn, including prayer books and trinkets, and some pieces that were gifts from the volatile king during the passionately loving period of their relationship. One of these is a remarkable example of a sixteen century woman’s handbag, reputed to have been given to Anne by the king himself.
The purse is crafted from red velvet (somewhat faded to pink now) and is in the shape of a flask. The centre of the purse is stiffened with horsehair. Opening with a drawstring cord and adorned on its edges with silver braiding, its exact purpose is unknown, but it may well have been a coin purse.
During the sixteenth century, it was customary for a queen to support charitable causes by the giving of alms, and Anne Boleyn is known to have given alms not only as a philanthropic exercise but also to express her strong Protestant faith. She gave frequently and generously to the poor, often in the form of coins handed out by herself.
The purse was donated to the British Museum in the late 1800’s by Lt. General Augustus WH Meyrick, after it was displayed in a collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Meyrick was the custodian of a collection of historical pieces that had been compiled by his cousin, famous English collector Samuel Rush Meyrick. It was labeled at that time as having been given “by Henry VIII to Anne Bullyne”. We will never know for certain if this provenance is legitimate, but there is no reason not to accept that it may well be so. Either way, it is a remarkable and authentic example of a wealthy woman’s purse of the early 1500’s – and to imagine it in its new state of lavish luxury is quite exciting!