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Department of History

British State Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings, 1540s to 1940

For nearly 500 years, from the 1530s to the 2000s, the governments and established churches of the British Isles summoned the nation to special acts of public worship, whether in times of anxiety or crisis (e.g. wars, conspiracies, epidemics, bad weather) or celebration (e.g. military victories, royal occasions), or for annual commemoration and remembrance. Most of these events are unstudied, and their long history - a remarkable continuity between early-modern and recent times - remains obscure. This project will for the first time bring together information and texts for these special observances, define their nature and purposes, and demonstrate their wider religious, political and cultural significance.

Special prayers and special days of worship were national events, reaching into every parish in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Ireland. These were significant occasions, rich in meaning, purpose and consequence. They were central in shaping ideas of national identity in terms of Protestantism, godliness and divine providence, and helped consolidate the idea of a British state. They had considerable political and social significance, and illuminate church-state relations. They commanded considerable popular reverence but they could also be a focus for expressions of religious and political dissent.

Few of these special acts of national worship have been studied, and their full history has never been investigated. This project is the first extended study of special worship in the British Isles. It will be a major contribution to historical understanding, addressing broad religious and political issues and connecting with other areas of recent research interest.

The project is producing an edition containing a complete list of special prayers and fast, thanksgiving and prayer ‘days’, with the edited texts of the orders appointing these occasions and the prayers, services and addresses read in all parish churches. A co-authored monograph will analyse these texts, the conditions which produced them and the responses they evoked, revealing much about religious and political doctrine, state ideological ‘projection', and popular religiosity.

Two volumes of essays, arising from an international conference in 2010, will explore the wider significance of these occasions for understandings of religion, government and culture in the British Isles, and place then in an international context with studies on the British Empire, North America, and continental Europe.