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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 5. Evolution of the prayer-book

The changes were, at first, gradual. The wish for uniformity of service throughout the realm—felt elsewhere, but a necessity of the position of Henry VIII—was marked (1541) by a re-issue of the Sarum breviary, ordered by convocation (1542) to be used by the clergy throughout the province of Canterbury. There had been many struggles as to liturgical use in medieval days, and these were thus ended before the great struggle began. A chapter of the Bible was ordered to be read in English upon Sundays and holy days and (11 June, 1544) the Litany was put forth in English. When, under Edward VI, the administration of the chalice to the people was adopted, again in sympathy with a demand widely made abroad, further change followed; the old Latin was retained but an English communion service for the people was added (Easter, 1548).

Under Henry, and under Edward, revision had begun with the Primers. Upon the side of purely popular and personal devotion, Primers had appeared with fresh matter, some of it revolutionary, some of it hortatory. Marshall’s Primer, 1534 and 1535, was one of them; bishop Hilsey’s (of Rochester) Primer (1539) was another, and was authorised by Cromwell for the king and by Cranmer as archbishop. King Henry’s Primer (1545) was the last of a long series, and was intended to check the diversity which the printing press had intensified. The king had ordered Cranmer to turn certain prayers into English and to see that they were used in his province. This King’s Primer embodied the English Litany, which, alike in its changes and in its incomparable prose, may be certainly ascribed to Cranmer. The same literary genius was now to work upon a larger field and with greater results. But it is necessary to note the popular tendencies that had helped to form the Primers. These books lay to Cranmer’s hand, and, if much of the English prayer-book is to be ascribed to his fine workmanship, something was also due to the general literary excellence of the day. We have already seen how, in the case of Rolle and other devotional writers, the literary instinct arose from the union of popular feeling and intense personal devotion. The same process was seen at the reformation. Turns of expression in the Primers, due, sometimes, to unknown writers, rhythms in Tindale’s Bible due to him alone, the vigour and pathos to be found in Frith and Latimer and other writers or sufferers—all these lead us to ascribe much to the age itself rather than to individuals. The reformation, like the Middle Ages, shows a fitting expression of devotion and religious thought, reached, as we might expect, more through schools and tendencies than through individual minds. The English Litany and the stately Bidding prayer in its many forms, are good examples of this process of growth. And the same was the case with the English Bible itself. Nevertheless, much was also due to individual writers like Cranmer.

Together with this popular movement, shown in the Primers, a revision, by authority, of service-books had begun and slowly moved on. Under Henry, Cranmer had drafted the changes he proposed and a commission (1540) had drawn up a rationale which was more conservative than Cranmer’s own scheme. Under Edward VI, both these were brought forward, and discussion of them went on. At Rome itself, cardinal Quignon had published (1535) a new breviary which gained great popularity and reached many editions. In its insertion of lessons and its omission of versicles, it aimed, in the spirit of the time, at edification rather than, as did the ancient offices, at devotion. But, as the conservative party gained power in Rome, a new ideal was formed, and the Roman breviary (1568), reformed in accordance with the wish of the council of Trent, more closely resembled the medieval form. On the other hand, in Germany, the Consultation (1543) of Hermann of Wied, archbishop of Cologne, was an attempt to combine the ancient type with the service-books of the Lutherans. Cranmer, who was himself a capable liturgical scholar, had studied both these liturgical schemes and was influenced by them.

This is not the place to deal with the difficult problems in the preparation of the Edwardine prayer-books of 1549 and 1552, the part played by convocation and the exact share of individual minds in their composition; nor do the complicated questions of theology or worship or rubrics belong to a literary history. It is enough to say that, while the earlier book may be regarded as the outcome of the influences already described, as a product of the ancient offices, of the wish for conservative reform and more popular instruction, of the need for unity in the realm and for the use of the national tongue, the second book went further in the way of change, doctrinal and ritual. Before its composition, foreign influence had grown stronger, and many minds in England had gone through phases which Cranmer illustrates in himself.

Born in Aslackton, Nottinghamshire (2 July, 1489), he went as a boy to Jesus College, Cambridge, passed through the ordinary course of study and, when about twenty-two, turned to the study of Erasmus. Like other scholars, he came under the influence of the revived theological learning, and his library shows how deeply he received it. He gained a fellowship at Jesus College, which was soon lost by his marriage; a lectureship at Buckingham College (now Magdalene) was held during his short married life, but, on his wife’s death, he was re-elected a Fellow of his old college. The temptation of a canonry at Cardinal College, Oxford, was not strong enough to remove him, as it did other Cambridge men, to the new field of work. As a priest and as a theological lecturer, with some fame as an examiner, he worked on in his old sphere, until the advice he gave to Henry VIII in the matter of his divorce brought him into royal favour and a larger world. He wrote a book embodying his views; a sojourn with the earl of Wiltshire, Anne Boleyn’s father, was followed by a visit to Rome at the beginning of 1530, as one of his suite; he became archdeacon of Taunton (probably 1531); early in 1532 he was in Germany as ambassador to Charles V; and he was recalled from Germany to succeed Warham as archbishop of Canterbury (30 March, 1533). In Germany, he had married a niece of Osiander; a connection which made his intercourse with German theologians easier, but which was awkward in view of his promotion. The step he had then taken marked a distinct breach with the ecclesiastical system of the day, although, in England, under Henry VIII, this was not, of necessity, a disqualification for office.