Sunday November 01, 2015

How two Queens revolutionized the Book of Common Prayer

(l-r) Katherine Parr's translation of Psalms and Prayers (1544). Katherine Parr (1512-1548) Queen of England and of Ireland, and the last wife of King Henry VIII.

(l-r) Katherine Parr's translation of Psalms and Prayers (1544). Katherine Parr (1512-1548) Queen of England and of Ireland, and the last wife of King Henry VIII. (The Wormsely Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Listen 22:37

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has long been thought to be the work of men only. But a startling discovery has upended that thinking, with news that not one, but two Queens had a hand in the Prayer to the Monarch. And a Canadian woman is the sleuth who uncovered the truth of the prayer's origin.

Catherine Parr thumbnail

(Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to read the full version of Katherine Parr's A Prayer for the King, dating back to 1544.

Carleton University professor Micheline White was researching some of the writings of Henry VIII's last wife, Katherine Parr back in 2012.  Parr was a published writer and one of the King's most trusted political advisors. White says Katherine was "one of his chief strategists and his spin doctor."

England had been mired in wars for decades. Parr was working on a book of prayers that the Royal couple hoped would help bolster the King's military ventures in the eyes of the public.  That book included a translation of a Latin prayer entitled A Prayer for the King. 

White noticed startling similarities between Katherine's A Prayer for the King and another, found in the Book of Common Prayer.

"It had been edited to about two thirds of its length, but it was Parr's prayer... and my head exploded," White recalled in an interview with Mary Hynes.

"I think I actually stood up and did a little jig.  I just couldn't believe it.  I rubbed my eyes and said 'This can't be... but it is! But how did this happen?!'"

Micheline White

Professor Micheline White made a radical discovery: Henry VIII's last wife, Katherine Parr, and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, had a hand in shaping the Book of Common Prayer. Senior male clergymen weren't the only ones influencing public prayer after all! (Carleton University)

Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry and step-daughter of Parr, included the prayer in the Book of Common Prayer in 1559, modifying it somewhat and renaming it A Prayer for the Queen's Majesty. It remains to this day a permanent part of the Anglican liturgy.

It took two years of research to nail down the precise details, but the pieces all came together in 2015, to the delight of historians and clergy alike, who long thought the prayers were the sole work of men.

"Only senior male clergymen could be involved in putting together the text that everybody uses in public worship every Sunday," explains White. "And so to find that even in 1559 under Elizabeth, that a text... produced by a woman, was included in the Book of Common Prayer is just very surprising... It means that women were not only authors of prayers for public worship, but they were also editors."