We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Research & business

View Research Directory

British state prayers, fasts and thanksgivings, 1540s to 1940s

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Early Modern and Modern research groups.


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 for the first time brings together information and texts for these special observances, defines their nature and purposes, and demonstrates 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. Some of these occasions were also observed across the empire, in territories as distant as North America, South Africa, India and Australasia. 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 and links across the British empire. 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.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • British State Prayers, Fasts And Thanksgivings (£330172.14 from Arts and Humanities Research Council)


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 provides a major contribution to historical understanding, addressing broad religious and political issues and connecting with other areas of recent research interest.

The project is publishing a three-volume edition which provides a complete list of special prayers and days of fasting, thanksgiving and prayer, edited texts of the orders appointing these occasions, and the prayers, services and addresses read in all parish churches. These are supported by extensive commentaries for each occasion, and by volume introductions explaining the patterns in decision-making , in the publication and distribution of the orders and materials for worship, and in popular observance.

Staff from outside Durham

Dr Alasdair Raffe, at the University of Edinburgh

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Williamson, Philip (2013). National days of prayer: the churches, the state and public worship in Britain 1899-1957. English Historical Review 128(531): 324-366.
  • Mears, N. (2012). Public Worship and political participation in Elizabethan England. Journal of British Studies 51(1): 4-25.
  • Philip Williamson (2008). State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830–1897. Past and Present 200(1): 121-174.

Newspaper/Magazine Article

  • Mears, N. (2009). Praying for Britain. BBC History Magazine 11(4): 46-51.

Chapter in book

  • Mears, Natalie (2016). State papers and related collections. In Understanding early modern primary sources. Sangha, Laura & Willis, Jonathan Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 17-34.
  • Mears, N. (2013). Special nationwide worship and the Book of Common Prayer in England, Wales and Ireland, 1533-1642. In Worship and the parish church in early modern Britain. Mears, Natalie & Ryrie, Alec Farnham: Ashgate. 31-72.
  • Mears, N. (2011). Brought to book: Purchases of special forms of prayers in English parishes, 1558-1640. In Negotiating the Jacobean Printed Book. Langman, Pete Ashgate. 29-44.
  • Mears, Natalie (2011). Brought to book: special book purchases in English parishes, 1558-1640. In Negotiating the Jacobean printed book. Peter Langman Ashgate. 29-44.
  • Stephen Taylor (2010). George III’s recovery from madness celebrated: precedent and innovation in the observance of royal celebrations and commemorations. In From the Reformation to the permissive society. A miscellany in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Lambeth Palace Library. Stephen Taylor & Melanie Barber Church of England Record Society. 18: 211-267.

Scholarly Edition

  • Mears, N, Alasdair Raffe, Williamson, P & Taylor, S (orig.) (2013). National Prayers: Special Worship since the Reformation. Volume 1: Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688 . Woodbridge, Suffolk: Church of England Record Society


From the Department of History

Related links

Further information

For further information, please contact Professor Philip Williamson.