Books: Pure hearts and humble voices

A boy-king and a bushy-bearded prelate left a legacy of great English prose.
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Edward VI

by Jennifer Loach

Yale University Press, pounds 25, 256pp

The Book of Common Prayer: 1662 version

Everyman's Library, pounds 12.99, 528pp

A Prayer for all Seasons: collects of the Book of Common Prayer

Lutterworth Press, pounds 9.99, 72pp

The England of King was a small and impoverished kingdom, at war (as usual) with Scotland, and keeping a shaky hold over Ireland. It was of no great account on the world stage, despite the pretensions of its late king Henry VIII. His successor Edward was a promising boy, an apprentice monarch writing elegant essays and dreaming of fighting the Pope, while courtiers scrabbled for power and stripped his Church of its wealth.

Edward's dreams were brutally brought to an end by pneumonia when he was only 15, and his successor Queen Mary was the Pope's most loyal daughter. So was his six-year reign from 1547 to 1553 a waste of space, just enough time for one of the two little Tudors between Bluff King Hal and Good Queen Bess?

Certainly, if one reads Jennifer Loach's life of this boy-king, there seems little to distinguish him from any other young monarch of his period. The handsome publication of Loach's book in Yale's English Monarchs series is a touching posthumous tribute to an Oxford don who died at the height of her powers as a teacher and writer on Tudor England. Loach writes with her customary incisiveness and attention to detail. The Edward she portrays is a little Henry VIII in the making, surrounded by a magnificent court, fascinated by military display.

Yet none of that led anywhere. What did endure from his reign was something else: a handbook of Christian worship which has become one of the most important works of English literature. It is the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in Anglican churches throughout the world. This Christmas, thousands who rarely darken the doors of a church may hear its words, first heard in 1549 and not altered since 1662. For some, the encounter may be a once-in-a-millennium experience. If so, they may not realise just how much they owe to this creation of the reign of .

To appreciate its significance, they may turn to versions of the Prayer Book which appeared this year, its 450th anniversary. The fact that we can add to a biography of Edward these books directed at present-day concerns shows that the little boy-king has a greater place in history than we might think.

The 1549 Prayer Book was put together by Edward's godfather, and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. A temperamentally tight-lipped cleric, he had spent two years growing a long beard. Some said it was in mourning for the old king; others, that he wanted to show that a clergyman was as ordinary as any layman, now that his wife and family could live openly in his palaces.

For Cranmer was a Protestant, conscious leader of a destructive religious revolution. His work is alive and well: not only is there a flourishing Prayer Book Society, and now two volumes in the Everyman series, but Lutterworth's set of Prayer Book extracts is prefaced with enthusiasm by the current Prince of Wales, the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Originally, the Prayer Book was a conscious instrument of change, though in its first version its full novelty was artfully disguised by that bearded Archbishop. Now it is a symbol of a world English-speaking culture, taken to all corners in a four-century-long imperial adventure. Underlying the unlikely triumphs of a small island language are three books: William Tyndale's Bible, William Shakespeare's plays and poetry, and Cranmer's liturgies.

There was no especial reason for King Henry's senior ecclesiastical bureaucrat to be an inspired editor of English formal prose, but so it proved. Cranmer was not a flashy writer (when I researched his biography, I accumulated a disappointingly short list of jokes). Nor could he write poetry. Yet his gift for a prose to be used again and again was just what was needed for the liturgy. Common prayer is a drama in which everyone is the cast, with no audience except in heaven. And the show has to run a good deal longer than The Mousetrap. So Cranmer's gift was to help generations to worship, as well as to worship in beautiful English.

Cranmer did his work at a crucial time for European languages. The new technology of printing tended to standardise speech-patterns, as humanist scholars were seizing on Greek and Latin words to expand the range of other languages. One of Cranmer's achievements was to exercise a fine discrimination in keeping at bay the excesses of humanism in colonising English with Latin or Greek formations. Tudor prose has attracted much praise, often as a stick with which to beat modern practice, but it was as mixed a bag as at any period. It could be pompous, broken-backed, and laden with showy Latinate jargon. But Cranmer rarely made a mistake.

We owe to him the present shape of the 84 short seasonal prayers called collects, plus a dozen or so further examples embedded elsewhere in his services. These jewelled miniatures are a chief glory of Anglicanism, a distinguished development of this genre of brief prayer. Their concise expression has not always won unqualified praise, especially from those who consider that God enjoys extended addresses, but they have proved an enduring vehicle of worship. Ian Curteis, in the Lutterworth edition, presents the collects in a sumptuous little volume Its decorative illustrations, while pleasing in their Victorian way, are problematic. They may encourage the syndrome the Prayer Book Society seeks to avoid: treating this vigorous treasury of prose as heritage.

That is the problem with the Church of England's Alternative Service Book. Its insipid heritage liturgy is as colourless in its conservationist good manners as the Gothic of Guildford Cathedral. God save us, or let us save God, from insipidity. And here is a pleasing historical untidiness: Cranmer, who despised cathedrals and their choirs, left as his legacy the glories of Anglican evensong, performed in his speech-rhythms. That is a work of devotion in which believers, agnostics and atheists may join in sonorous praise this Christmas. Without the reign of the boy Tudor, none of it would have happened.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is the Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University