The crowned knot of fire

“The crowned knot of fire”

Protomartyr, Royal Martyr and the politics of grace[1]


Cranmer’s collect for Saint Stephen’s Day was significantly altered by John Cosin for the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Alongside new compositions by Cosin for the Third Sunday in Advent, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, and Easter Even, it bears testimony to a certain enrichment. Cosin’s collect for the Third Sunday in Advent drew attention to Advent Embertide.[2] That for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany drew on his understanding of “Epiphany time,”[3] while his collect for Easter Even remains a powerful proclamation of the Paschal Mystery and our participation therein. Similarly, the much-revised collect for Saint Stephen’s Day solemnly celebrated the witness of the Protomartyr, the only explicit commemoration of martyrdom (apart from the Holy Innocents) in the Cranmerian calendar.

There is a rather significant contrast between Cranmer’s collect for the feast and Cosin’s revision. Cranmer’s collect is short and almost sparse:

Grant us, O Lord, to learn to love our enemies, by the example of thy martyr saint Stephen, who prayed to thee for his persecutors; which livest and reignest, etc…

Cosin expanded the collect, giving increased solemnity to the celebration of the Protomartyr:

Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate.

Liturgical commentary often focuses on Cosin changing the collect to explicitly address Our Lord Jesus Christ, a rare feature in collects. This, however, may not be the most significant change. Note how Cosin alters Cranmer’s “love our enemies” to “love and bless our persecutors.” Alongside this, Cranmer’s reference to Saint Stephen praying for “his persecutors” was changed by Cosin to a starker phrase: “who prayed for his murderers to thee.”

What might have influenced Cosin’s revisions at this point? It is difficult not to envisage Cosin, as he revised the collect, being influenced by the experience of what the Preface to the 1662 revision termed “the late unhappy confusions.” A “fearful Tempest arose”[4] in the early 1640s and at the hands of Parliamentarian authorities Cosin experienced deprivation of office, impeachment before the House of Commons, and exile in France until 1660. Jeremy Taylor, another similarly deprived and harrassed Royalist and Laudian cleric, was to say of these years:

[A] time when the Church of England was persecuted, when she was marked with the Characterism of our Lord, the marks of the Cross of Jesus, that is, when she suffered for a holy cause and a holy conscience, when the Church of England was more glorious than at any time before; Even when she could shew more Martyrs and Confessors than any Church this day in Christendom … and thousands of Priests, learned and pious Men suffered the spoiling of their goods rather than they would forsake one Article of so excellent a Religion.[5]

When revising the collect for Saint Stephen, such experiences undoubtedly loomed large with Cosin. The petition to “love and bless our persecutors” thus becomes no abstract aspiration, but a prayer rooted in the experience of a tumultuous time. As one early 20th century account of Cosin’s life stated regarding his revisions to the collect:

[W]e feel that we have here the heartfelt utterance of one to whom the harbouring of bitter feelings towards his persecutors had been a very real temptation.[6]

This alone provides a significant challenge to our contemporary culture, reminding us that amidst culture wars and bitter partisanship, forgiveness cannot be merely “a private response to personal wrongs”[7] but, rather, must be inherent to the Christian witness in the public realm.

It does not, however, exhaust the meaning of Cosin’s revision. The language he uses in reference to Saint Stephen’s prayer, “who prayed for his murderers to thee,” would have had significant resonance for those who heard the collect in years following “the late unhappy confusions.” The devotion that had sprung up around the Royal Martyr, a devotion which became part of the official liturgy of the Restoration Church, carefully attended to how Charles at his execution had displayed grace towards his enemies. At his execution, Charles had specifically referenced the witness of Saint Stephen:

I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causes of my death. Who they are, God knows, I do not desire to know, God forgive them. But this is not all, my charity must go further. I wish that they may repent, for indeed they have committed a great sin in that particular. I pray God, with St. Stephen, that this be not laid to their charge. Nay, not only so, but that they may take the right way to the peace of the kingdom, for my charity commands me not only to forgive particular men, but my charity commands me to endeavour to the last gasp the Peace of the Kingdom.[8]

Echoes of Saint Stephen were also to be found in Eikon Basilike, the incredibly popular Royalist portrayal of Charles’ devotional life. Its account of his meditations as death approached could equally be regarded as a meditation upon the words of the Protomartyr’s prayer, which itself, of course, was an imitation of the Lord’s forgiveness during His Passion:

My next comfort is, that he gives Me not onely the honour to imitate his example in suffering for righteousness sake, (though obscured by the foulest charges of Tyranny and Injustice) but also, that charity, which is the noblest revenge upon, and victory over My Destroyers: By which, I thank God, I can both forgive them, and pray for them, that God would not impute My blood to them further then to convince them, what need they have of Christs blood to wash their soules from the guilt of shedding Mine …

Thou madest thy Sonne a Saviour to many, that Crucified Him, while at once he suffered violently by them, and yet willingly for them. O let the voice of his blood be heard for My Murderers, louder than the cry of mine against them … O deal not with them as blood-thirsty and deceitful men; but overcome their cruelty with thy compassion and my charity. And when thou makest inquisition for My blood, O sprinkle their polluted, yet penitent Soules with the blood of thy Sonne, that thy destroying Angel may pass over them.[9]

The Royal Martyr’s Stephen-like imitation of the Crucified Lord was to become a central feature of the form of prayer authorized for the 30th January commemoration:

We magnify thy name for the abundant grace bestowed upon our martyred Sovereign; by which he was enabled so cheerfully to follow the steps of his blessed Master and Saviour, in a constant meek suffering of all barbarous indignities, and at last resisting unto blood; and even then, according to the same pattern, praying for his murderers.[10]

As a devoted Royalist who ministered to the exiled court of Charles II, Cosin would have been very much aware of the parallels drawn between Royal Martyr and Protomartyr in imitating the Lord’s words of forgiveness during His Passion. Calvin Lane notes that Cosin as “dean of Charles II’s chapel royal on the continent, marked every Tuesday (the day of execution) with special prayers.”[11] These prayers particularly recollected the Royal Martyr’s “humble and patient suffering.”[12] It is, therefore, highly improbable indeed that Cosin did not have in mind the example of the Royal Martyr when revising the collect for Saint Stephen’s Day. Restoration era sermons for 30th January testify to how this was recognized as a significant aspect of the commemoration. Take, for example, the opening words of one such sermon published in 1676:

It is the Prayer of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr for his Persecutors and Murderers: and it was the Prayer of our late Royal Martyr for his Persecutors and Murderers too.[13]

This sermon went on to quote the “Collect for our St. Stephen’s day” on the Protomartyr’s prayer for his “murderers” before also pointing to how “our Church in one of her Collects for this day” said the same of the Royal Martyr:

[A]nd we know who follow’d it this day, even our late Martyr’d Soveraign, who pray’d for his Persecutors, as the Proto-Martyr did.

The phrase “prayed for his murderers” in the Saint Stephen’s Day collect was echoed, only weeks later in the liturgical calendar, in the “praying for his murderers” of the collect for 30th January. This ensured that the liturgical image of the Royal Martyr was caught up with that of the Protomartyr. This has something of an enduring significance for Anglicans. While the commemoration of 30th January obviously had no place in the Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, and ceased to be observed by the United Church of England and Ireland in 1859, the collect for Saint Stephen’s Day maintained a ‘hidden’ reverence for the Royal Martyr. For those with ears to hear, the Protomartyr’s collect continues to point to this powerful example of Christ-like forgiveness in a time of bloody division and turmoil.

It also challenges those who would reduce reverence for the Royal Martyr to a reactionary cult. The ‘hidden’ reverence contained in the collect for Saint Stephen’s Day reminds us that Charles is to be commemorated for his death, not his reign. The conclusion of Leanda de Lisle in White King, that Charles was “a flawed prince … a better exemplar of a chivalric knight than he ever was a king,”[14] echoes a consistent theme in 18th century High Church sermons for the 30th January and related anniversaries. Daniel Waterland’s 1723 sermon for Restoration Day, for example, noted how the reign of Charles was marked by “some unusual stretches of prerogative … which gave great offence, and first paved the way to our future troubles.” This being so, “Faults there were, many and great, on all sides; and all in their turns suffered for them.”[15] Jonathan Swift in 1725 described the attempt to rule “without consent of parliament” as “the greatest oversight of [Charles’] reign, so it proved the principal foundation of all his misfortune.” He warned against embracing “either extreme” regarding obedience to the magistrate, first critiquing those who supported an exalted view of monarchical power associated with the Stuarts:

As kings are called gods upon earth, so some would allow them an equal power with God over all laws and ordinances and that the liberty, and property, and life, and religion of the subject, depended wholly upon the breath of the prince.[16]

Thomas Secker’s 1734 30th January sermon similarly admitted, “We all know the tragedy began with the too just occasion, unhappily given on each side, for complaints and fears.”[17] A concern to refute exalted Stuart notions was seen as late as Samuel Horsley’s 1793 sermon for the 30th January, in which he declared that the obedience due to the magistrate was not to be confused with “that sort which it were high treason to claim for the sovereigns of this country”:

…nor do they at all involve that exploded notion, that all or any of the present sovereigns of the earth hold their sovereignty by virtue of such immediate or implied nomination on the part of God … It is quite a distinct thing from the pretended divine right to the inheritance of the crown.[18]

Horsley did not invoke Charles as an exemplar of Christian monarchy but, rather, as a tragic warning against the undoing of the “goodly fabric” of the constitutional order which resulted from his death: “the madness and confusion which followed the shedding of that blood.”

It was the Personal Rule which led 18th century High Churchmen to exercise caution regarding the memory of Charles. In this they could invoke England’s ‘ancient constitution,’ of which parliament was an integral part, and the support for a mixed constitution seen in, for example, Thomas Aquinas[19] and Richard Hooker.[20] We might describe such a constitutional order itself as an expression of a politics of grace, with its recognition of the need to heed the other, to forsake the desire to dominate, to exercise moderation, and for checks on power because of human fallenness.[21]

The shadow cast by the Personal Rule explains why Charles II took care in the Declaration of Breda to state his commitment to the rights and liberties of his subjects through “a free parliament.” Particularly after the Revolution of 1688, governing without parliament became an unthinkable assault on English liberties. While, as Kevin Sharpe has noted, “[n]o more in practice than in theory can Charles be described as endeavouring to lay the foundations of an absolutism, let alone a tyranny,”[22] the Personal Rule was understood to have been dependent upon (in the later words of Bishop Butler) “prerogatives unknown to the constitution.”[23] The Personal Rule also significantly undermined the ecclesial vision of Charles and Laud by associating it with ‘arbitrary’ measures[24] (when the essentially Laudian settlement of 1662 was established, it was through the consent of parliament). With good reason, then, the Charles commemorated on 30th January, was the Royal Martyr, not the monarch of the Personal Rule.

We cannot revive old factions

We cannot restore old policies

Or follow an antique drum.[25]

This being so, there was some wisdom in ceasing the liturgical observance of 30th January and transferring prayer for and teaching on the “goodly fabric” of the constitutional order to the commemoration of Accession Day in the United Kingdom[26] (with Independence Day in the United States and Dominion Day in Canada).[27] Such ‘state days’ in the liturgical calendar function (or should function) in a manner not dissimilar to 30th January, setting before us the good of constitutional order as a means of securing the peace and well-being of the commonwealth, and offering an opportunity to warn against those theologies which threaten the “quiet and peaceable life”[28] which it is the purpose of the constitutional order to protect. What is more, alongside this, Anglicans retain that ‘hidden’ reverence for the Royal Martyr in the Saint Stephen’s Day collect. This is the most resonant aspect of the witness of Charles, in which he embodies what is perhaps the most difficult and demanding of duties to which Christians are called by Our Lord:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.[29]

In an age of heightened partisanship in many polities, animated by the politics of anger and grievance, and when social media amplifies and encourages a harsh and unforgiving discourse, we need the Royal Martyr’s witness to the politics of grace, a sign and an anticipation of the reconciliation which will, in the end, be brought to pass in the “crowned knot of fire.” In the words of Oliver O’Donovan:

Forgiveness will always have a measure of public reference … The first martyr prayed, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!’[30] 


  1. The phrase “the crowned knot of fire” is taken from the conclusion of ‘Little Gidding’ and can be understood to refer to the eschatological reconciliation enfolding “the rose”, a sign of the monarchy, including that “broken king” who passed through Little Gidding after the defeat at Naseby.
  2. Cosin’s collect for the Third Sunday in Advent reflects the significance he attached to Advent Embertide, as seen in his prayer ‘In the Time of Advent’ in ‘The Prayers proper to the four several Ember Weeks’, in his A Collection of Private Devotions (1843), p.343.
  3. See Cosin’s thoughts on “Epiphany time” in his 1624 sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, The Works of John Cosin, Volume the First (1843), Sermon III.
  4. Words taken from George Rust’s Funeral Sermon for Jeremy Taylor, describing the early 1640s:
  5. Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Warning Voice to Persons Under Temptation to Fall Away to the Romish Church (1843), p.2.
  6. Percy H. Osmond A Life of John Cosin, Bishop of Durham (1913), p.218f.
  7. Oliver O’Donovan The Ways of Judgment (2005), p.92.
  8. The Royal Martyr’s speech upon the scaffold:
  9. From the closing section of Eikon Basilike, Or, The King’s Book, ‘Meditations upon Death’.
  10. From the second collect at Morning Prayer in ‘A Form of Prayer with Fasting, to be used yearly upon the Thirtieth Day of January, being the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King Charles the First’.
  11. Calvin Lane The Laudians and the Elizabethan Church: History, Conformity and Religious Identity in Post-Reformation England (2013), p.123.
  12. ‘A Form of Prayer used in King Charles lI’s Chapel at the Hague, upon Tuesdays throughout the year: being the day of the week on which King Charles I. was barbarously murdered, Jan. 30, 1648’ can be found in The Correspondence of John Cosin, Part I (1869), p.302.
  13. James Duport Three sermons preached in St. Maries Church in Cambridg, upon the three anniversaries of the martyrdom of Charles I, Jan. 30, birth and return of Charles II, May 29, gun-powder treason, Novemb. 5 (1676), ‘A Sermon Preached upon the Anniversary of the Martyrdom of King Charles the First’.
  14. Leanda de Lisle White King: The Tragedy of Charles I (2018), p.294.
  15. The Works of the Rev. Daniel Waterland, Volume V (1843), ‘A Thanksgiving Sermon on May 29, 1723’.
  16. The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Volume X (1766), ‘A Sermon upon the Martyrdom of King Charles I’.
  17. The Works of Thomas Secker, Volume III (1792), ‘On Reverence in Divine Providence in Governing All the Affairs of Men’, Sermon CXXVII.
  18. Sermons by Samuel Horsley, Volume 3 (1816), Sermon XLIV, 30th January 1793.
  19. See Summa Theologiae I/II.105.1 on mixed constitutions: “this is the best form of polity”.
  20. In The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I.10.8, Hooker states with reference to “parliaments, councils, and the like assemblies”, that “laws they are not therefore which public approbation hath not made so”. See also Charles Miller Richard Hooker and the Vision of God: Exploring the Origins of Anglicanism (2013), p.256: “it seems likely that Hooker was first in his formulation of consent as the historical and legal basis of civil power in England”.
  21. This description is influenced by Christopher K. Insole, The Politics of Human Frailty: A Theological Defence of Political Liberalism (2004).
  22. Kevin Sharpe The Personal Rule of Charles I (1992), p.930.
  23. Bishop Joseph Butler ‘Preached before the House of Lords in the Abbey Church of Westminster, on Friday, January 30, 1741. Being the day appointed to be observed as the day of the Martyrdom of King Charles I’.
  24. As recognised in, for example, Secker’s 1734 30th January sermon: “There was, it must be owned, in the friends and governors of the church, an over warm zeal, and very blameable stiffness and severity”.
  25. From Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’.
  26. The Anniversary Days Observance Act 1859 repealed the parliamentary mandate for the commemorations of 30th January, 29th May and 5th November, resulting in their removal from the Book of Common Prayer of the United Church of England and Ireland. In a debate on the matter in the House of Lords on 28th June 1858, the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Bird Sumner) stated, “the State services are already practically obsolete, and their exclusion from our Prayer-book will be very generally sanctioned by public opinion … I hold it to be impossible, even if it were desirable, that we at a distance of two or three centuries should entertain the feelings or sympathize with the expressions which are found in those services”.
  27. A rich political theology can be detected in the relevant collects. The collect for Accession Day petitions “that under her this nation may be wisely governed, and thy Church may serve thee in all godly quietness”; the Indepence Day collect in the PECUSA BCP 1928 “that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace”; the Dominion Day collect in the Canadian BCP 1962 “that thy people may dwell in peace and safety, and thy Church serve thee in all godly quietness”.
  28. I Timothy 2:2.
  29. Matthew 5:44.
  30. O’Donovan The Ways of Judgment, p.92.


Laudable Practice

Laudable Practice is a "poor priest" (c.f. Herbert's 'Aaron') in the Church of Ireland, living in Jeremy Taylor country, and enjoying the poetry of Wendell Berry. 'High and Dry', blogging on the riches of the 'Old' (Luke 5:39) High Church tradition, he is a historian by background, and particularly delights in leading Sunday Prayer Book Mattins in the parish. He blogs at

'The crowned knot of fire' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican