Tuesday, 12 January 2016

JEH 67/1: Queen of all she surveys

The January 2016 Journal of Ecclesiastical History is out, with all the usual treats, including one example of the kind of review which we all occasionally have nightmares about receiving. But for me, given my own interests, there's no doubt which is the most exciting piece this time.

Cyndia Susan Clegg's article, 'The 1559 Books of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Reformation', revisits a well-worn question: just how did that 1559 Book of Common Prayer end up the way it did, that is, a version of the 1552 Prayer Book but with a couple of highly significant tweaks? If you're not a Prayer Book geek, trust me, this is a more important question than it looks: it is an important clue to the nature of Elizabeth I's government and indeed to the whole nature of subsequent Anglicanism. As such it has been vigorously contested down the years, with policy documents, parliamentary proceedings, diplomatic correspondence and even musical scores brought to bear on the question, with varying degrees of success.

Clegg's approach is that of a book historian, and as a result parts of the article can get a teensy bit technical. Stick with it, because what she has found is a genuine smoking gun. She focuses on one of the many anomalous pieces of evidence from the chaotic first half of 1559: a single edition of 1559 Prayer Book published, not by the Queen's Printer like all the rest, but by Richard Grafton, an unrepentant evangelical who had printed the 1552 Prayer Book back in Edward VI's reign. There have been several attempts to explain how this object comes to exist, but none of them very conclusive - but then it did not seem to matter very much. Until now.

Part of the argument depends on one of those too-obvious-to-mention points: there were no photocopiers in mid-Tudor England. So, if Parliament was to consider a bill authorising a substantial text such as the Book of Common Prayer, how were all its members supposed to be able to read it? It might well make sense to produce a small, bespoke print run of the book simply for Parliamentary use. And if you're to do that with a draft Prayer Book, then surely the obvious person to turn to is, not the Queen's Printer, but the bloke who produced the most recent editions of the Prayer Book and will be best placed to rush one into print.

Clegg's argument that this is what Grafton's mystery edition was turns in large part on the technical correspondences, and differences, between his 1552-3 and 1559 editions. But it also depends on, or rather is clinched by, a single copy of the Grafton edition which is signed by nine members of Elizabeth's Privy Council. A little bit of careful detective work allows Clegg to prove that, to have attracted those nine signatures, it must have been signed no later than 20 January 1559, and possibly as much as a month earlier.

For the Prayer Book geeks amongst you: yes, that is 20 January. And yes, the Grafton text is a text of the 1559 Prayer Book as it was eventually authorised by Parliament.

So whatever else happened in all the delicate negotiations and brinksmanship in Parliament in the spring of 1559, it now looks very, very clear that the Elizabethan regime came out of the process with exactly the text of the Prayer Book which it had decided on from the very beginning of the reign.

And it also looks as if Elizabeth I's early mastery of her realm was no less impressive than Clegg's mastery of this subject.

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