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Contributors to the metrical psalter of 1562


Contributors to the metrical psalter of 1562
 (act. c.1549–1562)
 can hardly, in a conventional sense, be described as forming a group at all. By the time of publication Thomas Sternhold, whose work provided a yardstick for psalms in English, had been dead for nearly fifteen years, while the presiding genius of English protestant printing, Edward Whitchurch, from whose press Sternhold's first efforts had issued, died shortly after the appearance of the 1562 volume. But the contributors were none the less united by their religious persuasion, and by the fact of their common involvement in a work whose impact on the English-speaking world has been second only to that of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.

The metrical psalter proved to be one of the defining monuments to the Elizabethan religious settlement, but to an extraordinary degree it derived from the experiences and practices of English protestants who had gone into exile during the reign of Mary—their versions of the English metrical psalter, printed in Geneva, constituted the principal source for the London edition of 1562. The latter was thus not the first complete versified psalter to appear in English: as well as Genevan editions in 1557 and 1559, earlier versions had appeared in the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bibleof 1560, and in individual psalters by George Joye in 1530 and Miles Coverdale in 1540, while complete paraphrastic versions had been offered by Joye in 1534 and Coverdale in 1535. Nor was it the first complete psalter to be pointed or set to music: such versions had been published in 1548 and 1549 by Coverdale, by Robert Crowley in 1549, and in a Genevan edition of 1556. Moreover numerous smaller collections of psalms in English had been appearing at intervals since the reign of Henry VIII, by such poets as Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, and by court musicians like Thomas Sternhold and churchmen like Thomas Becon and John Knox. But the appearance of the metrical psalter of 1562 consolidated, defined, and dominated the genre at least until the end of the seventeenth century.

Most of the contributors to the psalter were linked directly to the household of Edward Seymour in the later 1540s, or to his court after 1547, when he became duke of Somerset and lord protector of the realm. Like him they were evangelicals, and most of them shared in the protestant exile that followed Mary's accession in 1553. As early as 1549 Thomas Sternhold had published nineteen metrical psalms in ballad metre, which he himself probably sang at court to the young Edward VI. He held royal appointments under both Henry VIII and his son, and was enough of a protestant sympathizer to be briefly imprisoned in 1543 under the Act of Six Articles. Enlarged collections set to popular ‘fourteener’ metre appeared as public tastes responded to the lead set by the royal household, and these became the core of the metrical psalter that English protestants took with them into exile. Although Sternhold's contribution (forty-four psalms) is not the largest, his initiative was clearly the most influential. The most substantial contribution (sixty-one) to the psalter of 1562 was that of John Hopkins, a Londoner associated with Sternhold's publisher Edward Whitchurch. There is no evidence that he knew Sternhold, but Hopkins contributed to the enlarged edition of Sternhold's collection that was published after the latter's death in 1549.

After Hopkins the largest contribution to the psalter was made by Thomas Norton (twenty-four psalms), a lawyer, dramatist, and Edward Seymour's amanuensis, who married the daughter of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (in 1556 Edward Whitchurch married Cranmer's widow, Margaret, and so became effectively Norton's father-in-law). In Seymour's service by 1550, Norton, like Hopkins, avoided exile, but his protestant sympathies were evident from his close association with Thomas Becon (Seymour's chaplain) and Robert Wisdom, both of whom resided in Seymour's court following their return from their first exile during the last years of Henry VIII. Another contributor, William Whittingham (eight psalms), seems while he was in exile in Geneva to have presided over the preparation of the precursors to the 1562 psalter that were made there. William Kethe (eight psalms) was also a Genevan exile, acting as Whittingham's chaplain and sharing his more puritan bent, before aligning himself with Ambrose Dudley in the 1560s. Lesser contributions were made by John Marckant (four psalms and various prayers), John Pulleyne (yet another exile at Geneva), who added one, and Robert Wisdom, who withdrew not to Switzerland but to Germany, and who supplied one psalm and a prayer.

The metrical psalter of 1562 was published by John Day; its anonymous editor was probably William Whittingham, drawing on his experience at Geneva. The English churches in exile, adopting the practice of their host communities based on decades of communal singing, served as the midwife to the 1562 Sternhold and Hopkins psalter once their members returned home. But although the practice of psalm-singing had developed further among the exiles, in both the moderate Frankfurt community and the Calvinist Genevan church, the psalms that had been versified in the heady days of Edwardian protestantism were given added, and divisive, significance by the experience of Mary's reign, as the 1562 psalter itself showed. A number of contributions to the Genevan psalter were replaced when the Elizabethan edition appeared: Kethe's original twenty-five psalms were cut to eight, and Whittingham's eleven were also reduced to eight, with many of their efforts being replaced by versions from Hopkins. The latter's less strident psalms replace most of Kethe's more radical offerings and some of Whittingham's, and the overall effect of the psalter reverts to Sternhold's original intention of providing spiritual delight rather than ‘moral antidotes’ to popular ballads (Zim, 113).

Even after such alterations the psalter of 1562 is still heavily charged with the lamentation of a persecuted church, a church fallen into ‘the latter dayes’ of ‘these most perilous times’ (Booke of Psalmes, 397, 408), and thus bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Anglo-Genevan community in exile. Wisps of polemic cling to various songs, treatises, and prayers. An appendix to the ‘Athanasian’ table, listing various psalms for specific uses, details psalms against papists and the ungodly (ibid., sig. A.iii), and a closing song asks for deliverance from ‘turk and pope’ (ibid., 395). Given the fact that Whittingham's preface to the Genevan edition of 1556 was directed as much to the home church smarting under Mary's persecutions as it was to the community in exile, it is not surprising that there should be prayerful supplications for relief from ‘the burning heat of persecution’, in times when ‘our brethren in other countries [are] daily persecuted and cast into prison and daily condemned for the testimony of thy truth’ (ibid., 408).

The metrical psalter of 1562 was not only a public statement of evangelical belief, it was clearly intended to be an alternative to the still popular and widely available books of hours, which contained a number of psalms. Shorn of all embellishment, images, calendars, saints' days, and illustrations, it opens with a short treatise on how ‘without ayde or helpe of any other teacher’ (Booke of Psalmes, sig. +ii) it is possible to learn both to sing psalms and to lead others in singing them. This is followed by a series of hymns translated from Latin into English, including the Veni creator Spiritus, ‘Song of the Three Children’, the BenedictusMagnificat, and Nunc dimittis (possibly by Sternhold), the Athanasian creed (perhaps by Norton), the ‘Lamentation of a Sinner’ and the ‘Suit of a Sinner’ (Marckant), the Lord's prayer, and the ten commandments (Norton). Following the psalms, paraphrastic versions of the ten commandments (Whittingham) and the Lord's prayer (attributed to D. Coxe, almost certainly in error for Richard Cox) reappear, along with a metrical version of the creed and a series of prayers and songs appointed for both domestic and public worship.

The unprecedented success of the psalter owed as much to its music as to the traditional reverence for the psalms. Although the Genevan community had assigned a separate melody to each psalm (a practice abandoned by the London edition of 1562, which uses only sixty-five tunes), they had adopted a monodic arrangement in common or ballad metre without printed harmonies, which proved highly suitable for congregational use. The psalms were to be sung strophically, in unison, and without accompaniment. Shorn of the intricacies of Catholic liturgical music, which had effectively excluded all but the most highly trained voices from participation, the metrical psalter became ‘the secret weapon of the Reformation’ (MacCulloch, 298). While later commentators found this musically uninteresting, it was undoubtedly exceedingly popular. In 1563 a companion volume keyed to the 1562 edition provided four-part settings, largely by Thomas Causton, for congregations wanting greater musical sophistication.

Simple and easily memorable, the largely end-stopped rhymes of the psalter of 1562, set primarily to common fourteener metre and eschewing curious or subtle diction, served the English church for centuries. Regularly appended to editions of the Book of Common Prayer, in 1696 it was officially replaced by the New Version of the Psalms of David of Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, but nevertheless continued to appear in print regularly for over a century more.

Seymour Baker House


T. Sternhold and others, eds., The whole booke of psalmes: collected into Englysh metre (1562) · R. Zim, English metrical psalms: poetry as praise and prayer, 1535–1601 (1987) · D. MacCulloch,The Reformation (2004) · J. N. King, English Reformation literature: the Tudor origins of the protestant tradition (1982) · C. H. Garrett, The Marian exiles: a study in the origins of Elizabethan puritanism (1938); repr. (1966) · New Grove · D. Wulstan, Tudor music (1986)

Reformed Doctrine | Common Prayer