The Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer is one of the major works of English literature. Since its introduction in the mid-1500's it has exerted enormous influence on the religious and literary lives of all who speak the English language. The Book of Common Prayer has gone through a number of editions, not only in England where it originated, but in all the places where the various Churches of the Anglican communion are now active. Here we look at the development of printed liturgies and prayer books in the 16th century.

Exhortation and Litany

The first liturgy in English, 1544

An Exhortation
unto prayer, thoughte mete by the kinges majestie, and his clergy,
to be read to the people in every church afore processyons.

Also a Letanie
with suffrages to be said or song in the tyme of the said processyons.

This is the first officially sanctioned liturgy in English, and the only one published under the reign of Henry VIII. It was, as is stated in the title page above, an exhortation and litany to be said during processions.
These processions were common at the time, and were typically used to pray for God's favour during times of troubles, such as bad weather, war, pestilence, etc. The King noticed, however, that people were not responding to these processions as he thought they should, and attributed this at least partially to the fact that the people "understode no parte of suche prayers or suffrages as were used to be songe and sayde". Accordingly, he decreed in June, 1544, that there were to be "set forthe certayne godly prayers and suffrages in our natyve Englyshe tongue".

This work was done by Archbishop Cranmer (pictured at left), and is partly his own composition, and partly drawn from the Sarum (i.e., Salisbury) processional, from Luther's Litany, and from the Greek Orthodox Litany. It was good enough to endure, substantially unchanged, throughout the entire history of the Book of Common Prayer, down to modern times.

For more historical information on the Litany click here

The Order of the Communion

The first Communion service in English, 1548
The death of Henry VIII and the accession to the throne of his young son Edward in 1547 made possible a number of liturgical changes in the Church of England, of which this was one of the first. It was made necessary by the passing in both Parliament and Convocation a requirement that communion be administered under both kinds - wine in addition to the traditional bread. This meant changes in the liturgy would be required, and this Order was the result. As with the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549, it is not known who the author or authors were, but it is widely assumed to be largely the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

For more historical information on the Communion Service click here

The Book of Common Prayer

The First Book of Common Prayer, 1549
Although a formal break with the Papacy came about during the time of Henry VIII, the Church of England continued to use liturgies in Latin throughout his reign, just as it always had. However, once the young Edward VI attained the throne, the stage was set for some very significant changes in the religious life of the country. And so a consultation of bishops met and produced the first Book of Common Prayer. It is generally assumed that this book is largely the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, but, as no records of the development of the prayer book exist, this cannot be definitively determined.

This Book of Common Prayer was not created in a vacuum, but derives from several sources. First and foremost was the Sarum Rite, or the Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the thirteenth century, and widely used in England. Two other influences were a reformed Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quiñones, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne.

This prayer book was in use only for three years, until the extensive revision of 1552. However, much of its tradition and language remains in the prayer books of today, as may be seen by even a cursory examination of the text.

The text used here is from a reprint, The First and Second Prayer-Books of Edward VI, published in 1910 as part of Everyman's Library. That text, in turn, appears to be taken from an edition published in 1549 by Edward Whitchurche (or Whytchurche) of London, or from a 19th century reprint thereof. The reprint uses completely the original language and spelling, which are largely retained here.

For more historical information on the 1549 edition and sample pages click here

The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI, 1552
The first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 did not satisfy the more extreme of the Protestant reformers in England, who demanded changes in that book. These, led by such as Martin Bucher and Peter Martyr, objected to not only the services themselves, but also to what they believed to be overly-elaborate altars and vestments for the clergy. Archbishop Cranmer eventually allied himself with the reformers, and the result was the revision of 1552.

The changes made in this prayer book were extensive, and included, among others:

The book was introduced at the very end of 1552, and only preceded the death of the young and sickly King Edward by six months. Edward was succeeded by Queen Mary, who quickly outlawed the Book of Common Prayer and restored the Latin rites of the Roman Catholic Church. So this prayer book never even came into general usage in England. Nevertheless, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer has had lasting impact, as the next revision (1559, on the accession of Elizabeth I) was based very closely on it.

For more historical information on the 1549 edition and sample pages click here

The Elizabethan Prayer Book, 1559
The Prayer Book of 1559 was the third revision for the Anglican Church, and was brought about by the accession to the throne of Elizabeth I and the restoration of the Anglican Church after the six-year rule of the Catholic Queen Mary. It was in use much longer than either of its predecessors - nearly 100 years, until the Long Parliament of 1645 outlawed it as part of the Puritan Revolution. It served not only the England of Elizabeth I, but her Stuart successors as well. This was the first Prayer Book used in America, brought here by the Jamestown settlers and others in the early 1600's.

This Book was a conservative revision of the 1552 edition, with the effect of making it somewhat less "Protestant". Some of the few changes made included:

Some minor changes were made in 1604 on the accession of James I. The most important of these was to lengthen the Catechism by adding sections on the Sacraments. Also, a number of Saints' days and festivals were added to the Kalendar in 1561; these are also noted.

The translation used for the Biblical texts of this prayer book was that of the Great Bible of 1539; this was also the source for the Psalter for this and for all Books down through the US 1928 BCP.

For more historical information on the 1559 edition and sample pages click here

The Book of Common Prayer Noted, 1550

The Book of Common Prayer put to music
When the first Book of Common Prayer was published, in 1549, a need was felt for service music similar to that which had been used for the old Latin rites. So Archbishop Cranmer engaged one John Merbecke to provide such a collection of service music "containing so much of the Order of Common Prayer as is to be sung in Churches". Cranmer desired a simpler form of service music than was then current, urging Merbecke to have "for every syllable a note."

The Book of Common Prayer Noted (by now you should understand that "Noted" means "with musical notes" and not "annotated") was published in 1550, and so only saw use for two years until the Second Book of Edward VI, in 1552. This, and the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary which quickly followed, meant the end of its practical life. And, when Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, bringing back the English liturgy, Protestant sympathies were prominent enough that service music began to fall into disfavor. Thus, Merbecke's book had no successor, and was essentially forgotten until the Oxford Movement rediscovered it in the mid-1800's. In fact, hardly more than a dozen copies currently exist.

Today, many of Merbecke's settings are instantly familiar to those who have grown up in the Anglican Communion, and still appear in current hymnals

The Book of Common Prayer Noted, because it contained musical notation, was printed in two passes: one for the staves (the rules on which the notes lie, and which was in red), and another for the notes and text (in black). One shouldn't be surprised to find that the alignment of these two passes was not always identical. This means that different copies may seem to call for different notes, because the registration of the notes with the staves is not quite the same. This is illustrated in the comparison below, showing identical pages from two different copies.

BCP noted, British Museum

BCP noted, Marsh's Library

Page from a copy at the British Museum

Page from a copy at Marsh's Library, Dublin

For more historical information on the 1559 edition and sample pages click here

The information provided here has been taken with permission from the Anglican Resource Collection