Thomas More’s Prayer Book

Each summer, the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale holds a week-long seminar for several parish leadership teams. They come together around a theme to share a specific project they have undertaken and to gain new insights about worship and music from faculty and one another. It’s called The Congregations Project, and it’s now in its fourth year. We always have a stimulating week together. This year was no exception. The experience I want to share here, however, took place outside the program.

Glen Segger, the project coordinator, arranged for a group of us to visit the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to see the prayer book of St. Thomas More (1530). We would also be shown a beautifully illuminated Sarum Missal (1385), and a small scroll of Ambrosian chant such as would have been used for singing in processions.

We had just come from evening prayer in a nearby historic cemetery. (This year’s theme was embodiment, and we prayed in an awareness of our own mortality.) As we came into the cool dimness of the library from the late afternoon sun, we breathed deeply. An adventure was beginning.

I thought we would see these rare books under glass, from a distance. Not so. We were brought into a private room where they were set on a table before us. We got to hold them in our hands! What an awesome experience. To focus on just one: We were able to touch and read the very prayer book that St. Thomas kept with him in the Tower of London. The book is a printed volume, with marginal notes written in his own hand (in English).

The eldest member of our group was a Catholic priest, a spirited and much-loved pastor (now retired) of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, IL: Fr. Bob Oldershaw. As he paged through the book, looking for familiar texts, he came upon the Litany of Saints. Spontaneously, he began to sing. We all began to sing.

Libraries, like art galleries, lift their treasures into a space for study and admiration. But they don’t do this. We brought something into this glass enclosed room, something more than an interest in history or respect for the material traces of famous people. The moment, the people and the things, together with their attentive viewing, rose into song.

It was a magical moment. I’ll never forget it. Four Episcopalians, four Catholics, and a Baptist, singing the Litany of the Saints and its responses from Thomas More’s prayer book. It was, for me at least, a moment “given to us”—a time outside of time in which, despite the historical divisions of Christianity, we were one.



Thomas More 2
Hore Beate Marie ad vsum ecclesie Sarisburiensis with marginal notes written by Sir Thomas More
Thomas More 1
Litany of Saints from St. Thomas More’s prayer book


  1. Rita, great post. You’ve really captured the experience beautifully. I still get chills thinking about it.

  2. I am so glad you got to see one of the things Iove most about Yale’s Beinecke, Rita! (Never mind that the Yale catholic center, where I worship, is in walking distance to the Beinecke, and is dedicated to St. Thomas More! I only wish the Beinecke would let us have that book in our chapel. 🙂
    When I went to study Thomas More’s prayer book for the first time in the Beinecke, I literally took off my shoes, under the table, before opening the pages. I also brought a card with an image of St. Thomas More with me, that I placed underneath the prayer-book, so as to to have a contact relic — twice removed? — of Thomas More.
    BTW, for all those who cannot walk so simply into the Beinecke, there is a facsimile edition, and also a wonderful chapter about this book in Eamon Duffy’s study of margins in prayer books, titled “Marking the hours.”

  3. The Yale Congregations Project was so powerful, so rich, so full, that I am just beginning to realize what a great gift it was. We became a community, rich in our diverse gifts and one in our desire to be instruments of grace for the building up of the Body of Christ. Visiting the Beinecke and actually holding Thomas More’s prayer book while singing the Litany of the Saints was far more than a postscript. It expressed the “awe, delight, truthfulness and hope” (to use Don Saliers’ words) of a week of grace, when “the world was charged with the grandeur of God”.

  4. There is something wrong with the date reference to Thomas More’s Prayerbook: 1552. He was beheaded in 1535. Also is it a printed volume or in manuscript? From the photos only it could be either. Could someone please clarify this data?

    1. @Philip Sandstrom – comment #5:
      Thanks for catching the error in the date, Phil. That was my mistake. There is a second volume, a 1552 psalter, bound with this, but the book Thomas had in the Tower was printed in 1530. I have corrected the post.

      As I noted in the post, it is a printed volume, not in manuscript.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #6:
        Thanks for straightening out the date question and that it is a printed book. I did see from Teresa Berger’s note that there is a ‘reproduction facsimile edition’ available to purchase. I was wondering do you know anything more about this? and where I might inquire about its availability?

      2. @Rita Ferrone – comment #8:
        Rita, Thanks for your help. That certainly seems to be the ‘facsimile’ referred to. However, I think I will wait on this till January after the NAAL when it will be strong incentive to visit the Yale Library myself. At that time I expect to be in New Canaan CT at my Brother’s.

      3. @Philip Sandstrom – comment #9:
        You will have to make sure to request the book in advance, and with a credible scholarly reason. It is not available by just walking into the Beinecke; and I am awaiting the day when in fact it will not be handed out any more, even to scholars, not least because a good facsimile is available.

      4. @Rita Ferrone – comment #8:
        You have identified the facsimile edition I had in mind. I would strongly suggest consulting that facsimile in tandem with visiting the Beinecke to see the original book. The facsimile was made in the 1960s (I think) and some pages that contain Thomas More’s scribbles in the margins are much clearer to decipher in the facsimile.

  5. Perhaps some of you have had the thrill of reading some of the Book of Kells (the four gospels; some of John missing) from around 800 AD in Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. No, I’m afraid it’s not for handling; but there is a thrill in looking at the original manuscript, even under glass. More difficult to read than Thomas More’s book. I got it in 2000 on CD-ROM, but this seems not now available. However, it can be examined digitally on screen at
    There are two books (1995 and 2012) by Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts, with many of the pages reproduced (available from Amazon; or check Trinity College Library shop).
    It really is a visual celebration of the Good News.
    There are some beautiful modern Books of the Gospels for liturgical use today, but none to match this! Don’t miss it if you’re in Dublin.

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