If you enjoy the gossip of Lady Whistledown in Netflix’s series Bridgerton, you may also enjoy reading the private love letters Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn. They make for fascinating reading, though, I can’t help feeling a tad nosey whenever I read them.
I became exceptionally curious reading a specific line in one letter stating, “…seeing that I cannot be personally present with you, I now send you the nearest thing I can to that, namely, my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole of the device, which you already know, wishing myself in their place, if it should please you.” (1) What device? I was immediately intrigued.
A quick Google search of ‘16th century devices’ led me immediately to armillary spheres which gave me all sorts of “I’m on the right track” feelings. These devices, as I understand it, measure the placement of the sun according to both the day and location on earth. The wording earlier in the letter includes romantic astronomical prose as Henry compares the long days and distance of the sun to his own distant, yet unwavering, love. I find this use of astronomical reference amply timed if the bracelet in question did in fact include an armillary sphere.
Astronomical jewelry? Yes, it’s a thing.
Pursuing this trail further to include ‘bracelet’ I came across some wonderful examples of armillary sphere jewelry. The image on the left shows a diagram of an astronomical ring design published in 1537, which could be used as a simplified armillary sphere, but also tell time in a similar manner of a sundial. (2) Though published later then Henry’s love letters, there are other designs in existence and the astronomical technology was used in the ancient world. I see no reason why Henry, with the might of his titles, could not have had the resources to have something similar created for his beloved.
The British Museum has several armillary sphere finger rings which are as fascinating as they are intricate. The bands appear more or less as basic bands, but the rings swivel to reveal a miniature armillary sphere.
Armillary spheres: Like mother like daughter
It’s also notable that Henry writes, “…with the whole of the device, which you already know…” (3) Anne doodled a little armillary sphere in one of her book of hours. It is next to her often quoted line, “le temps viendra / Je anne boleyn” which translated from French to English means “The time will come. I anne boleyn.”(4) It is often debated what Anne meant by writing these words. Was she waiting to be Queen or perhaps the words had a more religious note such as the Second Coming and Resurrection. Regardless, it is interesting her words about time are next to a doodle of an armillary sphere – a device then, that she would have already known.
The renowned Anne Boleyn biographer, Professor Eric Ives states that the armillary sphere represented constancy. (5) This interpretation makes sense with Henry’s letter as he is comparing his love to the sun. His love is constant and on course, despite their distance. Ives also states the armillary sphere was a badge used by Anne before she adopted the falcon. (6)
Elizabeth has multiple associations with the armillary sphere. In one example, the Ditchley painting (c.1592), Elizabeth I is shown wearing an armillary sphere earring. This is said to symbolize her divine power and reference her annual Ascension Day Tilts.(7) Could the single earring be an armillary sphere charm her mother owned?
Regardless, I think it’s wonderful that the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is shown having a jeweled form of this 16th century device and it increases the possibility that Henry gave Anne a similar bracelet. Though the use of an armillary sphere is by no means limited to Anne and Elizabeth, it does give me a ‘good vibe feeling’ knowing that Elizabeth embraced this imagery once used by her mother.
Tick tock, it’s a clock
The beautiful clock, said to have been gifted to Anne Boleyn from Henry VIII on the morning of their marriage, comes to mind. (8) Did it represent that the time had come that they could finally be together? If so, perhaps the armillary sphere may have also been a similar gift Henry gave to Anne to indicate that while they had to wait to be together, his love was as constant as the sun, and perhaps, as steady as the universe itself.
Armillary sphere portrait
Could the device Ives states as being, “a secret not revealed to us,” (9) in fact have been a miniature armillary sphere? Could Henry’s portrait have been framed with the bands swiveling outward to transform into an armillary sphere? There is a 1569 miniature portrait, Man in an Armillary Sphere, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard which literally depicts a man within an armillary sphere.(10) While the lines are painted on, it does indicate that during the 16th century, this theme did exist. Henry VIII may have commissioned a working version of this theme in a bracelet charm for his beloved Anne Boleyn.
What device did Henry give Anne?
Even if Henry’s portrait was not within an armillary sphere, it could still have been attached on the bracelet as a charm. Or perhaps the entire bracelet transformed in a similar manner to the armillary sphere rings. As Henry says his picture is set in the bracelet with the whole of the device, it does sound that the whole bracelet may convert. If this is the case, the jewelry would have been an absolute treasure.
Henry VIII was love struck with Anne Boleyn and in his letters he often pronounces his fervent love while demanding to know her feelings. If the device was an armillary sphere, it could provide evidence of a more thoughtful side of Henry and a more scientific side of Anne. If he knew Anne had positive ties to armillary spheres, in an attempt to woo her, he may have had an intricate and thoughtful piece of jewelry commissioned. Pandora charms had, after all, not yet been invented.
What do you think? We may not ever know, but do you think a miniature armillary sphere might be a logical explanation or is my armillary sphere of its axis?
- King of England Henry VIII, The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn: With Notes, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015, pg. 3.
- Astronomical Rings, Wikipedia. Accessed July 2022. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomical_rings
- Henry VIII, pg. 3.
- Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pg. 240
- Eric Ives, pg. 244
- Eric Ives, pg. 240
- “The Queen’s Likeness: Portraits of Elizabeth I” The National Portrait Gallery website. Accessed June 2022. https://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/case-studies/the-queens-likeness-portraits-of-elizabeth-i#ditchleyportrait
- “Clock presented by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn” The Royal Collection Trust website. Accessed June 2022. https://www.rct.uk/collection/2507436/clock-presented-by-king-henry-viii-to-anne-boleyn
- Eric Ives, pg. 88
- Alexander Marr, “An Early Impresa Miniature: Man in an Armillary Sphere (1569)”, British Art Studies, Issue 17, https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/An-Early-Impresa-Miniature%3A-Man-in-an-Armillary-Marr/f66c38eaa5047ee16040e462ff52ab2e85e5492c
Sources and Further Learning
These videos are excellent overviews of an armillary sphere explained:
History of Science Museum. “Animate It – Armillary Sphere” YouTube video. January 8, 2016. 3:40. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaWuJHQL-bQ&list=PLMOMiQ79Qj6Ibsv2SbD1Dltmw5CHR9joo&index=3
Towero Mirth. “How to Use an Armillary Sphere” YouTube video. October 13, 2020. 10:27. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQjWQJ1yjS8&t=336s
Henry VIII. The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn: With Notes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2015.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
“Clock presented by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn” The Royal Collection Trust website. Accessed June 2022. https://www.rct.uk/collection/2507436/clock-presented-by-king-henry-viii-to-anne-boleyn
View the 1569 miniature portrait here:
Marr, Alexander. “An Early Impresa Miniature: Man in an Armillary Sphere (1569)”, British Art Studies, Issue 17, https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/An-Early-Impresa-Miniature%3A-Man-in-an-Armillary-Marr/f66c38eaa5047ee16040e462ff52ab2e85e5492c
You can read Henry VIII’s love letters online here:
Ridgway, Claire. “Henry VIII Love Letters to Anne Boleyn.” The Anne Boleyn Files website. Accessed June 2022. https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/resources/anne-boleyn-words/henry-viiis-love-letters-to-anne-boleyn/
“The Queen’s Likeness: Portraits of Elizabeth I” The National Portrait Gallery website. Accessed June 2022. https://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/case-studies/the-queens-likeness-portraits-of-elizabeth-i
See an example of an armillary sphere ring at The British Museum here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_AF-1760
Published on July 6, 2022