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Book review: The Printing and the Printers of The Book of Common Prayer, 1549-1561 by Peter W. M. Blayney

28 June 2024

Fergus Butler-Gallie enjoys a chronicle of royal interest in liturgy

ONE of the many things I like about the Prayer Book is how well it tells stories. Not just the story of our salvation through Christ or the story of England’s religion, both of which I believe it tells better than any other liturgical text, but also the stories of individuals. Of lives lived and prayers prayed. Whether it is a crossed out “George, Our King” or a well-thumbed Psalm 23, each individual copy tells a tale.

Peter Blayney’s excellent new book serves, if you like, as the prequel to all those stories. It tells the tale of the men who printed the Prayer Book, as well as the woman who, for the most part, commanded them. While Henry, Mary, and, to a greater extent, Edward have bit parts in this narrative, the Tudor who looms largest is undoubtedly the first great Elizabeth. The extent to which she interested herself in the printing process is brought to life as never before. She wrote of “unseemly tables with foul clothes” in a letter haranguing Bishop Grindal of London; she intervenes over specific rubrics. The minutiae with which the Queen managed to involve herself is astonishing.

Blayney faithfully chronicles each twist and turn. There are times when, even for the Prayer Book enthusiast, the detail is overwhelmingly specific. I confess to not being equal to the mathematics required to follow some of the formulae which explain printing differences in various versions. All of that, however, is indicative of the immense care with which he treats clearly copious amounts of primary-source material, and it is not presented without humour. I had never thought of the inherent amusement in radical Protestants’ “mass producing” liturgical books until Blayney playfully pointed it out.

Lambeth Palace LibraryThe third edition of Jugge’s cancel calendar, 1562, from the book

As is always the case with the Book of Common Prayer, it is the little insights into the human that are the most compelling parts of this tome. Individuals pop out in tantalising glimpses in the narrative — from “Robin Papist” the Marian informer and the omnipresent business instincts of Richard Jugge to poor, misplaced St Nicomedes who finds himself erroneously commemorated on 3 June.

We also learn much about our antecedents more generally, not least that people have been taking liberties with aspects of the liturgy for some time. Different printers chose to take wildly different directions on the layout of tables and calendars, but one suspects that they were still more user-friendly than Common Worship. That said, the regular recycling of old pages from previous copies of banned or out-of-date Prayer Books would at least have made Elizabethan printers in line with the fifth mark of mission.

This is a remarkable feat of scholarship, worth buying for its demolition of much extant thinking around the Black Rubric alone. Above all else, it is a reminder of how many stories bubble out from and are inherent to our ancient liturgy. Whether one can say the same for that which has, in most places, replaced it, is indeed debatable.

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, in the diocese of Oxford.

The Printing and the Printers of The Book of Common Prayer, 1549–1561
Peter W. M. Blayney
Cambridge University Press £34.99
Church Times Bookshop £31.49

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