Church HistoryInternational

From the vault: The Bible in the hands of the sovereign

The Royal Law

By the Rev. Canon M. L. Loane, M.A., Vice-Principal of Moore College.
May 28, 1953

At the Coronation of the Boy-King, Edward VI, in 1547, three swords were placed in his hands, one each to represent his right to the realms of England, Ireland, and France. But to the great surprise of the prelates and statesmen in the Abbey, Edward declared that there was another sword which had been overlooked; and in answer to their astonished inquiries, he said that this was the Word of God. He then “commanded the Bible with the greatest reverence to be brought and carried before him”. And this impromptu incident at the Coronation of Edward VI in 1547 was to become enshrined as a permanent element in the Service for the crowning of an English Sovereign from the time when William and Mary of Orange came to the Throne after the Revolution of 1688.

Edward VI’s reign was only to last six years, but they were years of enormous importance in the spiritual story of England. Those were the years which saw the birth of the Book of Common Prayer, and the Articles and the Homilies, and which turned the eyes of England towards the dawn of the Reformation. It was a reign in which the Royal Law of Holy Scripture was the central authority to which Edward turned with unfailing confidence as he looked out on the affairs of Church and State. This was why he was so often compared with Josiah, the King of Judah.

Elizabeth Tudor.

The half sister of Mary Tudor was the Princess Elizabeth and she was kept for a time in partial captivity. It was the day of mediaeval re-action, and the future of the Princess was full of uncertainty. She was the child of Anne Boleyn, and she was known as the friend of Reform. There was even some doubt whether her life would be spared as the storm against the friends of the Reformation burst in its full fury. It was while she was still a captive that she wrote on the flyleaf of her New Testament the following meditation: “I walk many times into the pleasant fields of Holy Scripture where I pluck up goodly sentences by pruning, eat them by reading, chew them by musing, and lay them up at length in the high seat of memory, that having tasted their sweetness, I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.”

On her accession in 1558, her suspense was over. As the Royal Procession moved through the streets of London, it came to a halt in Cheapside where a maiden, clad in white, gave the Queen a copy of the Bible as the gift of the City of London. It was indicative of the common hope that the Bible might once more become central in the life of England. The Queen received the Book, kissed it, laid it on her heart, and promised to read it. Within a year she had ordered a complete copy of the Bible in large type to be set up in every parish church so that the common people might read the same with great humility and reverence. And it was during her reign that in the well-known words of John Richard Green, England became a nation of one Book, and that Book the Bible.

James I.

The Stuart Kings were hardly renowned for their love of Scripture. Nevertheless it was in the reign of James I that an official translation of the Bible was carried out. This new English Bible was at length placed in the hands of the King, and was published as the Authorised Version of the Scriptures for use both in public and in private. James I himself prepared a metrical translation of the Psalms; this was designed for use much in the way in which hymns are now so widely employed. In 1634, Charles I authorised the publication of his father’s psalter, but it failed to win a holdin the hearts of the common people, who preferred the psalms of Francis Rous, or Sternhold and Hopkins. In 1649 Charles I laid his head on the block on the morning after a last pathetic conversation with his two

younger children, the Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Gloucester. The Princess was a delicate child of thirteen, and never recovered from the shock of that last interview with her

father. The news of his execution plunged her into such sorrow that all her other ailments were gravely aggravated. Parliament placed her with her younger brother as a ward in the care of Lord and Lady Leicester, and twelve months were spent in their beautiful country house at Penshurst. She was renowned for her devotion to the Protestant faith, and she whiled away the hours by learning Greek and Hebrew. But her fortunes suffered a disastrous change after the landing of her brother Charles II in Scotland in 1651. She was horror-stricken to find herself transferred to the gloomy castle of Carisbrooke in the Isle of Wight where her father had spent his last days of imprisonment. Within a week, she had caught a chill while playing bowls with her brother. It quickly developed into high fever and she was dead before skilled help could be obtained. A wave of grief swept through England for the Virgin Princess who had fallen into her last sleep in comfortless captivity with her wasted cheek lying on a Bible open at the text: “Come unto Me all ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

Oliver Cromwell.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell became Lord High Protector of England. At his installation in this office, he presented a copy of the Bible to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and said, “It is the Book of Books, and doth contain both precepts and principles for good government”. The Book of Books ever since has held its place on the Speaker’s table in the House of Commons, and it always played a decisive role in Cromwell’s life. It was a text of scripture which called him from his Huntingdon farm to public affairs, and the Psalms are

interwoven with all the great events of his career. It was his love for the Bible that helped him to give England peace at home, and a name that was feared abroad.

George III was a diligent reader of the Bible. A copy of the Bible was always kept on the table of his private room. He once said: “It is my wish that every poor child in my dominions should be taught to read the Bible.” That wish has been inscribed on a slab of stone which is built into the wall of St. Mary’s School at Weymouth. One of his sons, the Duke of Kent, became a Patron of the British and Foreign Bible Society in its early years when it still had to fight for recognition. The Duke of Kent’s daughter was the Princess Victoria who as Queen was to make the Royal Law the pattern for her reign. She is said to have replied to the inquiry of an African Chieftain on one occasion in the memorable words: “The Bible is the secret of England’s greatness.”

George V.

It is well known that King George V as a boy promised his mother that he would read a chapter of the Bible every day, and it is believed that he kept this promise until his life moved peacefully to its close at Sandringham in 1935. Thus his words to a deputation at Buckingham Palace were no mere formality, but a statement drawn from his own experience – “In a secular aspect, the English Bible is the first of National treasures, and in its spiritual significance, the most valuable thing that this world affords.”

On the eleventh birthday of the Princess Elizabeth in 1937, the personal gift of the Queen to her daughter was a beautiful Morocco bound copy of the Bible. This is illustrative of all that lies behind the noble pledge of self-dedication which the Princess made in public even before she had come to the throne: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service, and the service of our great Imperial family, to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone, unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.” The Queen’s solemn invitation to the peoples of her Empire to share in her vow of dedication and to enter into the heart of the Abbey Service will be in the minds of all who honour the name of Christ. We know that the Archbishop of Canterbury will be required with the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, to place a copy of the Bible in the hands of the Queen as part of that ceremony and that he will then say: “Our gracious Queen, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing this world affords. Here is Wisdom: this is the Royal Law; these are the lively oracles of God.” How much it would mean if only the whole nation could once again become the nation of one Book, and that Book the Bible.

So let us pray along with Anglicans everywhere, for our new king, Charles III:

A prayer for the new King

Almighty God, the fountain of all goodness, we humbly pray you to bless our sovereign lord, King Charles, and all who hold public office in this land: that all things may be ordered in wisdom, righteousness, and peace, to the honour of your holy name, and the good of your Church and people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Adapted from An Australian Prayer Book (1978)