Sussex professor curates Lambeth Palace exhibition on royal devotion and the people’s prayer book

A Common interest: Professor Brian Cummings discusses an exhibit with HRH the Prince of Wales and the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams

The Book of Common Prayer is the subject of a new exhibition that celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the revised version’s 350th anniversary, co-curated by University of Sussex Professor of English Brian Cummings at Lambeth Palace in London.

The exhibition takes place in the magnificent surroundings of the 17th-century Great Hall of the Palace, traditionally the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was opened on Tuesday 1 May by HRH the Prince of Wales, who has taken a personal interest in the exhibition.

After the opening, Professor Cummings said: "The Prince showed great fascination and great knowledge and he was already familiar with and knew what he was looking at in advance.

"He was obviously touched by some of the items with royal associations."

He added that The Prince had been "very amused" by one exhibit which included handwritten instructions on how much pressure to apply when placing the crown on the monarch's head.

The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, regarded as the most listened to book in English history (as a book of public worship it was written to replace the Catholic Latin mass and other services and to be read out loud) and contains phrases – “for richer, for poorer”, “in sickness and in health”; “ashes to ashes” – that remain part and parcel of English language and Anglican ritual around the world to this day.

But the book’s entire history – its introduction, banning, burning and numerous revisions – is also bound up in the sometimes controversial and violent politics of English religion and royalty over the past five centuries.

A collection of cabinets contain books and other items that illustrate the full story of the Book of Common Prayer: Catholic devotional life and prayer books before the Tudor reformation; Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s introduction of the first English-language prayer book in 1549; the book’s turbulent history as allegiance changed from Catholic to Protestant to Puritan during the reigns of Mary, Elizabeth I and Cromwell’s Commonwealth; and its reinstallation, following that of the monarchy, under Charles II in 1662.

The story then moves on to modern monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer’s role in that world, from the marriage of Queen Victoria to the Coronation of Elizabeth II and the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

The exhibition, co-curated by Professor Cummings and Lambeth Palace Deputy Librarian Hugh Cahill, incorporates some fascinating exhibits, some never seen before, including: 

  • The Latin prayer book of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother to the first Tudor, Henry VII;
  • a Book of Hours (prayers for different times of the day) owned by the doomed Richard III, which was with him at the Battle of Bosworth and which bears his handwritten entry of his own birthday;
  •  Henry VIII’s angry crossings out and margin notes in a Latin book presenting Catherine of Aragon’s case against their divorce;
  • Elizabeth I’s personal prayer book and her authorisation of the execution of her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots;
  • the gauntlet gloves worn by the “martyr” King Charles I on the scaffold, complete with golden sequins (a revised version of the prayer book would later include a service for the executed monarch);
  • A copy of the 1662 revised Book of Common Prayer (the anniversary of which is celebrated this year) and versions that include services devoted specifically to the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Fire of London and the healing service of the Royal touch, in which the monarch cured the sick of scrofula (tubercular swelling of lymph nodes);
  • The service sheet used by Archbishop Fisher at the coronation of Elizabeth II, with handwritten instructions on how to place the crown on the Queen’s head.

The exhibition follows on from ten years of research into the work conducted by Professor Cummings for his recently published The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559 and 1662 – named by the present Archbishop of Canterbury as a Book of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement.

Professor Cummings says: “The Book of Common Prayer is a work that has had an enormous impact – it’s more like a character in history than an object.  Loved and reviled in equal measure it evoked passion and violence, and serves today as a repository of English language and religious observance during dangerous times. We’ve tried to give voice not only to the champions of the book here, but also to the dissenting voices of Catholics and Puritans. This exhibition is as much their story as it is that of the Establishment and the monarchy.”

Professor Cummings was assisted in his work on the exhibition by University of Sussex doctoral student Katharine Fletcher, who helped to prepare the exhibit cabinets and display captions.

Katharine, who has previously curated exhibitions at Hereford Cathedral, jumped at the chance to help when asked to get involved by her supervisor Professor Cummings. She says: "I have gained and learned so much. It's also incredibly exciting both to be working with such important historical objects and to be contributing to making these objects and their histories accessible to a large public audience."

Notes for Editors

Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer runs from Tuesday 1 May to Saturday 14 July in The Great Hall, Lambeth Palace Library. Exhibition tickets cost £6 and are timed. Visit the Ticketmaster exhibition website or call 0844 847 1698 for full details.

Professor Cummings, Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellow 2009-2012, will deliver one of the lectures accompanying the exhibition – ‘The Genesis of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’ – on 6 June at 6pm in the Guard Room, Lambeth Palace. Tickets, £12, must be pre-booked. Visit the Ticketmaster exhibition website or call 0844 847 1698 for full details.


The exhibition is supported by the Centre for Early Modern Studies and the School of English, University of Sussex.


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Last updated: Thursday, 3 May 2012