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A prayer for the Queen’s Majesty

11 December 2015

Jessica Martin on a Tudor prayer shaped by two queens

NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

Royal liturgist: Catherine Parr, by an unknown artist

Royal liturgist: Catherine Parr, by an unknown artist

O Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Book of Common Prayer

 

TWO or three times a week, in the village churches of Duxford and Hinxton, with a retired priest colleague I pray the daily Office according to the Book of Common Prayer.

There is a particular discipline of character to the unvarying repetition of the BCP, at all seasons the same. The words stamp the memory as old-fashioned movable type impresses its paper — until, paradoxically, the prayer is freed entirely from the tyranny of the page, and begins to inhabit the heart that has learnt to remember it.

At some point, the prayers “after the Third Collect” joined the rest of the Office. With them comes this prayer for the monarch, which I cannot recall ever having heard another priest utter in public worship at any point in childhood or adulthood. It stands in the service order like the “vast and trunkless legs of stone” in Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, a ruined monument to a vanished power.

Or does it? The nature of what we are doing, kneeling in a cold church praying for a whole community (most of whom will neither know nor care about it), seems rather like the faithfully representative duty of a constitutional monarch. The identification of a single servant of God — the Queen — as a kind of living synecdoche (or a part referring to the whole) for a nation’s desire for well-doing in collective service has its own quiet authority.

As I repeat “King of kings, lord of lords”, I notice that these are Jesus’s titles: Jesus the homeless, the wanderer, the condemned criminal. I notice the Christological obedience assumed through the petition that the monarch should “walk in thy way”.

The makers of this prayer understand the wielding of civic power as subject to the spiritual discipline of serving the good — whether or not those monarchs actually managed it. For a moment, praying for the nation seems to have found a single, attentive voice: a means to speak authoritatively apart from the short-term, makeshift struggles for fleeting political advantage which must belong to an adversarial parliamentary system.

But monstrous Ozymandias has a place in this prayer’s history. Or, if not Ozymandias himself, then at any rate Henry VIII — whose own vast legs, in 1544, were having acute circulatory problems, resulting in crippling ulcers, and were barely supporting his equally vast trunk.

He was proposing to lead his army in an attempt to retake Boulogne from the French, and it looked dicey. His advisers wondered whether he would survive the attempt; divine assistance, publicly invoked, seemed a necessary recourse. This prayer, entitled “Prayer for the King”, appeared first in Latin, and then in English, in the course of that year.

Recently, the Canadian scholar Micheline White made the startling discovery, which caused a stir in some circles, that the “Prayer for the King” had been shaped by a royal — and female — hand. Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, was an important element in his intercessory social-media machine: what Professor White has called “one of his chief strategists and his spin doctor”.

Parr’s name is associated with this prayer from publication onwards, and, as Professor White has argued (TLS, 3 April 2015), it seems extremely likely not only that Parr translated it into English, but that she adapted its Latin form from an original by the moderate reformer Georg Witzel, who wrote it for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1525.

This was itself a canny political move of Parr’s, a rhetorical strengthening of an ever more fragile Anglo-Imperial alliance.

In Parr’s rendition the prayer, addressed to Christ, subtly emphasised the direct relationship between Christ and the monarch (“the only ruler of princes”), which, as Professor White remarks, is a blow on behalf of the royal supremacy. At the same time, the bellicose elements it draws from Psalms 2 and 21 aim to bolster our (and Henry’s) confidence in his battle campaign. (He won.)

Yet it did not end there. Another royal, female hand is likely to have been the instrument by which our “Prayer for the Monarch” made it into the Book of Common Prayer, which was until now understood to be entirely the work of a committee of masculine divines.

Professor White makes a convincing case that the prayer’s inclusion in the Litany of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was the doing of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had had a close, loving, intellectually intimate relationship with her last stepmother, and is likely to have known the prayer well. From the liturgy she instituted at the Chapel Royal in the first months of her reign, the prayer, adapted further, found its way into the nation’s authorised prayers permanently.

Did Elizabeth (a subtle thinker and theologian) see the paradoxical virtues of this prayer — virtues that align the earthly kingdom with the heavenly rather than the other way about? Like so much Tudor rhetoric, it faces both ways.

Its Christological emphasis puts every royal decision under the just rule of the Prince of Peace. In its later adaptation, obedience and duty become paramount, and military might secondary: “so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will and walk in thy way.” Here, the arbitrary desire of the monarch is subsumed to the upside-down will of the God who exalts the humble and scatters the proud.

It is the ultimate Establishment prayer, because it provides a formal route by which truth may legitimately speak to power, endlessly undercutting the human authority it exalts on the one hand with its own Kingdom critique on the other. It speaks, through the monarch, to the foundations of our politic­­­­­al demeanour. I wonder whether we are listening.

 

The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is Priest-in-Charge of Hinxton, Ickleton, Duxford, and Whittlesford, in the diocese of Ely.

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