Nov 15, 1999

"More than the liberty of a translator"

Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 8: November 1999

"More than the liberty of a translator"

Thomas Cranmer was the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry VIII, who declared independence from the Catholic Church in 1534.

During the reign of Henry’s young son, Edward VI, Cranmer greatly advanced the Protestant Reformation, in part, by translating and revising the Latin liturgical texts into English. Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer, an acknowledged stylistic masterpiece, remained largely unchanged for 430 years until 1976 when a contemporary English version supplanted it.

When Mary Tudor (Henry’s daughter by the divorced Katherine of Aragon) ascended the throne in 1553, she restored Catholicism. Cranmer at first recanted his heresies, but later repented of this, and was ultimately burned at the stake in Oxford in 1556.

Cranmer’s letter to Henry VIII concerning his "principles of liturgical translation" appeared in Source Readings in Music History, compiled and edited by Oliver Strunk. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, Inc. 1950, pp. 350-351). The footnotes are from this text.

Letter from Thomas Cranmer to King Henry VIII1, 1544 (1)

It may please Your Majesty to be advertised that, according to Your Highness’ commandment, sent unto me by Your Grace’s secretary, Mr. Pagett, I have translated into the English tongue, so well as I could in so short time, certain processions to be used upon festival days if after due correction and amendment of the same Your Highness shall think it so convenient. In which translation, forasmuch as many of the processions in the Latin were but barren, as meseemed, and little fruitful, I was constrained to use more than the liberty of a translator: for in some processions I have altered divers words; in some I have added part; in some taken part away; some I have left out whole, either for because the matter appeared to me to be little to purpose, or because the days be not with us festival days; and some processions I have added whole because I thought I had a better matter for the purpose than was the procession in Latin.

The judgment whereof I refer wholly unto Your Majesty, and after Your Highness hath corrected it, if Your Grace command some devout and solemn note to be made thereunto (as it is to the procession which Your Majesty hath already set forth in English)(2 )I trust it will much excitate and stir the hearts of all men unto devotion and godliness.

But in my opinion, the song that should be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note, so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly as be in the matins and evensong Venite, the hymns, Te Deum, Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and all the psalms and versicles; and in the mass Gloria in excelsis, Gloria Patri, the Creed, the Preface, the Pater Noster, and some of the Sanctus and Agnus. As concerning the Salve festa dies, the Latin note, as I think, is sober and distinct enough, wherefore I have travailed to make the verses in English and have put the Latin note unto the same.

Nevertheless, they that be cunning in singing can make a much more solemn note thereto. I made them only for a proof, to see how English would do in song.(3) But because mine English verses lack the grace and facility that I wish they had, Your Majesty may cause some other to make them again that can do the same in more pleasant English and phrase. As for the sentence, I suppose it will serve well enough.

Thus Almighty God preserve Your Majesty in long and prosperous health and felicity!

From Bekisbourne, the 7th of October
Your Grace’s most bounden chaplain and beadsman,
T. Cantuarien
To the King’s most excellent Majesty



1 Text: Miscellaneous Writings and Letters (Cambridge, 1846), p. 412.

2 An Exhortation unto Prayer (London, Richard Grafton, June 16, 1544). The full title continues: "Thought meet by the King’s Majesty and his clergy to be read to the people in every church afore processions. Also a litany with suffrages to be said or sung in the time of the said processions."

3 Cranmer’s translation seems not to have been published or preserved.



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