In The Dial magazine for Michaelmas Term 1947, the following story appeared:
A paragraph of interest to Queens’ men appeared in the Spectator of October 24th, 1947. The writer, thanks to the help of his readers, had succeeded in identifying the author of the prayer used regularly at the beginning of each day’s proceedings in the Lords and Commons as Mr. Speaker Yelverton, who held office in 1597-8. When dining in Queens’ a short time later he was asked by the President if Yelverton was a Cambridge man. Dr. Venn’s Alumni Cantabrigiensis was consulted, and revealed that not only was he a Cambridge man but, coincidentally, a member of this College. As the writer says: “Association with a prayer that was in daily use in Parliament before the Authorised Version of the Bible was produced should be a matter of some satisfaction to Queens’.”
[The Dial No. 96, 1947 Michaelmas, p. 6]
A nice little story, if only it were true! This issue can be tracked through several weeks of A Spectator’s Notebook as follows:
“Most readers of this column are more learned than I am, and some of them may possibly be able to throw some light on an unsolved historical problem. At prayers in the House of Lords and the House of Commons a singularly impressive prayer is used. It begins:
“Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign and Princes decree justice, and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom and understanding,”
and continues with the petition
“that, we having Thy fear always before our eyes, that laying aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections, the result of our counsels may be to the glory of Thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the King, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the realm …”
Now regarding the origin of the prayer nothing can be discovered. Neither the chaplain nor the late chaplain of the House of Commons can throw light on it. Nor, I believe, can any official of the House of Lords. The prayer is known to have been used since the assembly of the Restoration Parliament in 1660, but how much further back it goes, and who was its author, no one appears to know — for the story that a committee was once appointed to draft a prayer for Parliament and the chairman of it dreamed this prayer must be dismissed as legendary. Can anyone help?”
[A Spectator’s Notebook, by ‘Janus’, in The Spectator, 1947 October 10, p. 452.]
The next week:
Application for information is rarely made here in vain. I asked last week if anyone could do what no one connected with Westminster seems able to do — throw light on the prayer which has, according to tradition, been used daily in both Houses of Parliament since the Restoration Parliament of 1660. Tradition, it appears, considerably under-states the antiquity of the prayer. It was composed, not by any eminent divine, but by Sir Christopher Yelverton, who was returned to Parliament for Brackley in 1562 and subsequently for Northampton, and became Speaker in 1597, succeeding no less illustrious a personage than Sir Edward Coke. The Parliament of that year sat for two months (in the course of which the Queen showed her vigour by vetoing 48 different Bills), but that was sufficient to give the Speaker’s prayer a permanent place among the few read daily by the Clerk (for the House did not acquire a Chaplain till a good deal later). Sir Christopher Yelverton, after his brief Speakership, was made a Justice of the King’s Bench and died in 1612 at a few years short of eighty. Others beside myself will be grateful to the readers who have given the clue to these details.
[A Spectator’s Notebook, by ‘Janus’, in The Spectator, 1947 October 17, p. 484.]
The third week:
Thanks to the help of readers I was able last week to identify the author of the prayer used regularly at the beginning of each day’s proceedings in the Lords and Commons as Mr. Speaker Yelverton, who held office in 1597–8. On the evening of the day in which the paragraph appeared I happened to be dining at Queens’ College, Cambridge. The President of the College, who had seen the reference to Yelverton asked if he was a Cambridge man. I said that I thought not; that he had probably gone direct to one of the Inns of Court. "We can soon see," said the President, who is the compiler of Alumni Cantabrigienses, a monumental work which forms a kind of Who’s Who of Cambridge graduates of any distinction from the earliest days; and reaching for the volume which would contain a Yelverton, if any, came on Sir Christopher at once. He was therefore definitely proved to be a Cambridge man, but what is more interesting, he turned out to be a member of the very college, Queens’, in whose Combination Room we were talking — the college, incidentally, of Bishop Fisher and Erasmus. Association with a prayer that is in daily use in Parliament before the Authorised Version of the Bible was produced should be a matter of some satisfaction to Queens’.
[A Spectator’s Notebook, by ‘Janus’, in The Spectator, 1947 October 24, p. 517.]
The fourth week:
There is, after all, still some mystery about Mr. Speaker Yelverton and his prayer. Foss’s Judges of England (1857) says of Sir Christopher Yelverton: “the prayer which according to the custom of those times he composed and read to the House every morning has much devotional beauty” [Judges, Foss, Vol. 6, pp. 204–5]; and Dasent’s Speakers of the House of Commons (1911) affirms still more explicitly: “Speaker Yelverton composed the prayer still in use in the Commons.” [Speakers, Dasent, p. 159] So far so good. But Sir Simon D’Ewes in his Journal (1682) quotes in full the prayer Yelverton was said to have composed, and it bears no resemblance to the one at present in use. The questions therefore arise: Did Yelverton compose two prayers? Or is the one now in use not by him after all? Further progress (if any) will be reported.
[A Spectator’s Notebook, by ‘Janus’, in The Spectator, 1947 October 31, p. 549.]
No follow-up has been discovered in later editions of The Spectator. The prayer said to have been composed by Speaker Yelverton, as reported by Sir Simonds D’Ewes, was as follows:
O Eternal God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the great and mighty Councellor, We thy poor Servants Assembled before thee in this Honourable Senate, humbly acknowledge our great and manifold sins and imperfections, and thereby our unworthiness to receive any grace and assistance from thee; Yet most merciful Father since by thy providence we are called from all parts of the Land to this famous Council of Parliament to advise of those things which concern thy Glory, the good of the Church, the Prosperity of our Prince, and the Weal of her people, we most intirely beseech thee, that pardoning all our sins in the Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, it would please thee by the brightness of thy Spirit to expel darkness and vanity from our minds, and partiality from our Speeches; and grant unto us such wisdom and integrity of heart as becometh the Servants of Jesus Christ, the Subjects of a gracious Prince, and Members of this Honourable House. Let not us, O Lord, who are met together for the publick good of the whole Land, be more careless and remiss than we use to be in our own private Causes. Give Grace (we beseech thee) that every one of us may labour to shew a good Conscience to thy Majesty, a good Zeal to thy word, and a loyal heart to our Prince, and a Christian Love to our Country and Common-Wealth. O Lord, so unite and conjoin the hearts of her Excellent Majesty and this whole Assembly, as they may be a threefold Cord not easily broken, giving strength to such godly Laws as be already Enacted, that they may be the better Executed, and Enacting such as are further requisite for the bridling of the wicked and the encouragement unto the Godly and well affected Subjects: That so thy great blessing may be continued towards us, and thy grievous Judgements turned from us. And that only for Christ Jesus sake, our most glorious and only Mediator and Advocate, to whom with thy blessed Majesty and the Holy Ghost be given all Honour and Praise, Power and Dominion from this time forth for evermore. Amen.
[A compleat journal of the … House of Lords and House of Commons throughout the whole reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Simonds D’Ewes, 1682, p. 551]
The prayer for parliament actually used today is as follows:
Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants, here gathered together in thy Name, do most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations; and grant that, we having thy fear always before our eyes, and laying aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, the result of all our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed Name, the maintenance of true Religion and Justice, the safety, honour, and happiness of the Queen, the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same, in true Christian Love and Charity one towards another, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
[Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, Appendix K]
Yelverton’s authorship of the present prayer has been denied:
But the prayer adopted for parliamentary use is certainly not the work of Speaker Yelverton as has sometimes been asserted.
[The Daily Prayers of the House of Commons, by Donald Clifford Gray, in The Record of the Church Service Society, Vol. 30, 1996 Advent, pp. 15–22]
explicitly referring to Dasent’s 1911 book Speakers of the House of Commons.
The least unlikely conclusion that one can draw from all this is: (a) that Dasent, in his book, was incorrect in asserting that Yelverton wrote the prayer still used daily in parliament; and (b) that readers of The Spectator were incorrect in advising the author of A Spectator’s Notebook that the author was Yelverton.
It follows that Queens’ cannot claim any association with the prayer currently used in parliament.
The pseudonymous author ‘Janus’ of A Spectator’s Notebook was in fact the editor of The Spectator himself: Wilson Harris. From 1945 he was also one of the two MPs representing the University of Cambridge in the House of Commons, until 1950, when the university MPs were abolished.