Metrical Psalms in English, 1631

Oxford: William Turner, 1631

In 1631 King James’ son and heir, Charles I, authorized the publication of a verse translation of the Psalms attributed to his “late dear father” and allowed the text to be sung in all churches. The translation was reprinted in London, in 1636 and 1637, but did not become popular and failed to replace the standard collection of metrical Psalms put together by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins in 1562. James was a well-educated man with a love of literature and learning and a passion for theological disputation. The extent of his contribution to the 1631 text is hard to determine, but it appears that most of the work was actually done by William Alexander (c. 1570-1640), a Scottish poet who had followed the King to London after 1603 and was made Earl of Stirling in 1614.

While Henry VIII and Elizabeth are depicted on the title pages of the English Bibles published during their reigns, there is no portrait of James I in the folio volume released in 1611 and known ever since as the King James Bible or the Authorized Version. The only seventeenth-century publication that boasts a portrait of the first Stuart King is the posthumous, pocket, edition of the Psalms described here. In its title page King James, in full regalia, faces the reader, while King David, presented as his counterpart, is holding his harp and looking upwards for divine inspiration. The image was created by the engraver William Marshall (active between 1617 and 1649), best remembered today for his representation of Charles I as a Christian martyr in a book titled Eikon Basilike (‘Royal Portrait’) that was published on February 9, 1649, ten days after Charles’ execution.

On the Psalms’ title page God himself presents the book to its readers. His presence is indicated by the four Hebrew letters of the Divine Name surrounded by the sun’s rays and by the hand that comes out of the clouds holding the closed Psalter. Two angels display a banner inscribed with the phrase “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards men.” These are the words sung by the heavenly host in Luke’s description of the Nativity (2:14) quoted from the King James Bible. James wanted to be perceived as a peace-loving monarch and chose as his motto the phrase Beati Pacifici, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” a quote from Matthew 5:9.

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