Bess of Hardwick, who was born in 1527 and died in 1608, lived through the greatest period of religious turbulence in the history of England. One of the biggest changes to take place during the English Reformation was the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, which set forth for the first time the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English. It contained Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Litany, Holy Communion, and the orders for baptism, confirmation, marriage, “prayers to be said with the sick,” and funerals.
Much of the language of the Book of Common Prayer is so familiar that it seems that it must have existed forever:
“Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…Give us this day our daily bread…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.”
“Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?”
“With this ring I thee wed.”
Yet before the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549, none of these words had been spoken before, and for centuries, people in England had worshipped and been christened, married, and buried with services in Latin.
Writing Venus in Winter, my novel about Bess of Hardwick, made me think about how striking it must have been to hear as new the words we know so well.
Bess was married for the first time in 1543 and for the second time in 1547. It was only with her third marriage, to Sir William St. Loe, in 1559, that she would have spoken the vows that are still used today: “I take thee to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, til death us depart.”
It’s hard to imagine now that the simple and beautiful language of the prayer services could have been contentious, but on the very day that Bess was giving birth to her second child, Temperance, June 10, 1549, riots were breaking out across England, partly as the result of the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, which was such a radical break from centuries of tradition.
Not until Bess buried her third husband would she have heard, and perhaps drawn some comfort from the powerful words, “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord. He that believeth in me, yea, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” I have Bess reflect that just as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us that “In the midst of life, we be in death,” so too in the midst of death we are in life.
When Mary Tudor succeeded to the throne, she returned England to Catholicism, and services were once more in Latin. But in 1559, Queen Elizabeth brought back the Book of Common Prayer, with a few modifications. A revised version came out in 1604 under James I (who was also responsible for the King James Bible). Not until 1662 was there another major revision, and that book remains the official prayer book of the Church of England, and is still in common use throughout the English-speaking world.