The Psalter

The book of psalms we use in worship has an interesting history as can be seen from the timeline below.

1537 – 1539

In the 4th century A.D. public singing in church had degenerated into a form of light entertainment and the Council of Laodicea decided to ban singing by the congregation. Thus the singing in worship became the prerogative of the clergy or those appointed by them. This situation continued until the mid 16th century.

Myles Coverdale

Miles Coverdale, well-known translator of the Bible and prose versions of the psalms for the prayer book, attempted to produce a small number of metrical psalms in ca. 1537.  The book Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs contained 13 psalms but the book was suppressed and ordered to be destroyed.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

It was while spending some time in Strasbourg that John Calvin produced his first psalter, Aulcuns Pseaulms et Cantiques, mys en chant, in 1539.

He had gathered together a number of psalm versions that were ready to hand and added some of his own creation. Among these were versions of psalms that had been put into verse by a courtier by the name of Clémont Marot, although at this point Calvin was unaware of their origin, and in fact some of them had been modified before Calvin came across them.  The psalms in the 1539 psalter adhered to the syllabic rule with one musical note for each syllable.  Thus, they were in keeping with the principle of emphasising the words over the music and using the music as a simple vehicle of expression.

1543 – 1549

A few years after Miles Coverdale, Thomas Sternhold, a gentleman of the privy chamber of Henry VIII, became the first Englishman to succeed in producing popular metrical psalms.  He was a deeply religious person and had a desire that his fellow courtiers would have something to sing other than the crude ballads of the day.  Thus, he set himself to putting the psalms into verse using a similar style to the popular ballads but with the sacred words.

One day, as he was singing some of these at the organ, the young Prince Edward appeared and was much moved by what he heard.  Therefore, the first publication of psalm versions was dedicated to him.  In all, Thomas Sternhold produced only 37 psalms before he died.  However, the work was taken up by a clergyman and schoolmaster by the name of John Hopkins, who continued the task and in 1549 published Sternhold’s psalms with a further 7 of his own.

Clément Marot (1496 – 1544)

Marot went on to publish Trentes Pseaulmes de David, mis in francois par Clemont Marot, valet de chambre du Roy in 1542.

In 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva and immediately introduced the Strasbourg psalter to the congregation there.  Shortly afterwards, Marot was indicted for heresy as a result of his strong belief in the Reformed cause and he fled to Geneva.  It was not long until the two men met and Calvin became aware of the authorship of the psalms he had collected in Strasbourg and of the modifications that had been made. He corrected the psalms in his psalter and commissioned Marot to continue the work of versifying the psalms.

In 1543, Marot’s work culminated in the production of a psalter containing the first 50 psalms.


In 1553, the event occurred that brought together the English and Genevan work.  As a result of the persecution under Queen Mary, many Protestants fled to the continent.  One group of these, led by John Knox, formed a congregation in Geneva.  They had available to them the 44 psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins and to these added a further 7 by William Whittingham, a close companion of Knox, to make up the first edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter in 1556.

John Knox ( 1514 – 1572)

Further editions were published up to 1561 culminating in a total of 90 psalms, with the additional versions mainly by William Whittingham, and William Kethe.  They struggled trying to translate the psalms into English using the metres of the tunes in the French Genevan psalter and as a result, the versification was rather rough and little of it survived in the later English psalters.  However, some versions were of good quality and a couple of examples of those that are still in use today are Psalm 100 by William Kethe and Psalm 124 by William Whittingham.

Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter


On the return of the Reformers from Geneva after the death of Queen Mary in 1558, the psalter development continued in both England and Scotland but each followed their own path.  In England, those who returned from exile set to completing the work, and the result was the Daye Psalter published in 1562; a further edition in 1563 contained four part harmony.  The aim was to have a psalter that could be used in conjunction with the Book of Common Prayer, and the Daye psalter was bound with the Bible until the 19th century.  The psalms proved popular after the return of the exiles, with large groups meeting in public to sing them, to the extent that Protestants became known as “psalm-singers”.

All 44 of the psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins were included along with a further 20 from the Anglo-Genevan psalter.  The remainder were new versions.

There was a very definite move towards dropping the style developed in Geneva and making the psalter more English.  The metre moved back towards a predominance of the simple ballad style, thus losing much of the grandeur of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter. 

Some of the Genevan tunes were retained and some altered to fit the ballad metre.  Others were based on ballad tunes of the day.  In addition, the tunes moved away from the old modal tonality to the more modern use of major and minor keys.  The tunes retained a simple style with one note per syllable and all four parts moving together.  As on the continent, the freedom from copyright laws allowed much improvisation and the use of musical cliches or stock phrases.  In some cases, tunes evolved from other tunes as a result of extemporisation.

Meanwhile, back in Geneva, 1562 was also the completion date for the Genevan Psalter.  Marot had left Geneva and died shortly afterwards.  So, the work was finished by Theodore de Bèze, a new arrival to Geneva.


In Scotland, there was a parallel development of psalmody.  Luther’s hymns influenced the first metrical psalms of Scotland known as The Gud and Godlie Ballitis.  Three brothers called Wederburn translated Luther’s psalms into the Scottish vernacular metrical verse and set them to popular tunes.  They were not sung in worship but were met with favour by John Knox, a key leader in the Scottish Reformation as already noted.  The first complete Scottish psalter was published in 1564.  This made use of the work of those who had remained in Geneva to continue work on the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.    It contained all of the psalms from the Anglo-Genevan version, 42 of the new versions created for the English Psalter and 21 further new versions.

The music for the Genevan psalter had been written by Louis Bourgeois, the cantor at Saint Pierre in Geneva, and the Scottish Psalter retained many of his modal melodies, as well as tunes written in the more modern style.

Following the Reformation there had been a general decline in musical ability. It was the Earl of Moray who sought to mitigate the effect of this on the church by commissioning the harmonisation of the psalm tunes.

This task was assigned to David Peebles, one of the Earl’s canons.  His instruction was to maintain the simplicity of the music without ornamentation and he was not very enthusiastic about having to carry out such a mundane task.  However, he was prevailed upon and the resulting harmonies were compiled into part books by Thomas Wood, a vicar in Fife.

Within 10 years, unlike in Geneva, part singing had become part of the practice in the churches.


The psalter with perhaps the greatest musical interest is the 1635 edition.  This was produced by Edward Millar, a graduate of Edinburgh University and a teacher in Blackfriars Wynd.  His interest was in defining a common set of harmonies to be used by all.  He sought to engage the help of those better fitted to the task than himself in compiling and editing the best set of tunes. 

The tunes were sorted under three headings: Proper Tunes, Common Tunes and Tunes in Reports.  The Proper Tunes were an attempt to give each psalm its own tune as, unlike in the 1562 English Psalter, there was a variety of metres and many of the French melodies were still included.  The result was a collection of melodies from a number of sources but with harmonies that were all by Scottish musicians.

The Tunes in Reports were a departure from the simple one syllable per note form of the majority of the tunes and appear to be an allowable indulgence for those who had more than the most basic musical ability.

The Common Tunes were a set of simple tunes that could easily be grasped and learnt by heart.  Thus, all of those psalms set to be sung in Common Metre could be sung to a single tune.  In fact there were 31 tunes of this form, the first 12 of them having appeared in the 1615 edition.  As the tunes were “common”, it became necessary to give them names to identify them.  The lofty aims of the 1635 Psalter were not to be met.  Persecution led to a further loss of musical education.  In fact, as many were unable to read either words or music, the practice of lining out was introduced whereby a line was sung by the precentor and then repeated by the congregation, all in a slow tempo.  The precentor was sometimes known colloquially as the “up-taker of the psalms”.  In the Highlands, the number of tunes that could be managed was reduced to 5, while in other parts they were able to retain between 10 and 12.

1631 – 1650

The publication of the 1564 psalter finally provided churches with all 150 psalms that could be sung by the people in worship but it had a few failings.  The variety of metres and their related tunes were very difficult for congregational singing.  Also, the poetry of the 1564 version was rather rough.  Several writers worked on their own versions of the psalms but none dared to try to replace the 1564 psalter just yet, as another work of revision was underway by none other than the king.

King James had taken it upon himself to produce his own revision.  His attempts to have it accepted were ignored during his lifetime but after his death, his son Charles made it his ambition to have the King James psalter adopted.  Sir William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling, was given the commission of completing and editing the work and the version was published in 1631.  Comparison of the published version with some of the original work of the king will show that significant changes had been made for the better.

The psalter was recommended for use in worship but it met with much disapproval and was not taken up.  Therefore, in 1634 Charles ordered the mandatory use of his father’s psalter.  This was quietly ignored, despite being further revised in 1636.  Ultimately, the controversy came to a head when the imposition of the psalter, along with the English church structures and liturgy was attempted in St. Giles Church, Edinburgh.  One, Jenny Geddis, is reported to have given her response by picking up her stool and throwing it at the speaker, the Dean of Edinburgh, John Hanna.

The riot that followed and subsequent events led to the rejection of the English impositions and the signing, in 1638, of the National Covenant and the formation of the Scottish Parliament and General Assembly.

This cleared the way for an official revision but the process proved to be a torturous one. Francis Rous, provost at Eton College, took advantage of the situation and published a psalter that he had completed in 1641.  Although there was some opposition, Rous prevailed and a parliamentary instruction was made to print the psalter for general use.  However, the psalter had other hurdles to overcome.  The Assembly of Divines had been set up by both the Lords and the Commons, assisted by commissioners from the Church of Scotland with the aim of achieving uniformity of religion throughout Scotland, England and Ireland.

Wode Psalter

This body had reservations about the quality of the work and sought to review and revise the psalter.  The Scottish commissioners then insisted on a review by the Church of Scotland.  This resulted in many more revisions and, in 1645, the “Rous” psalter finally reached a stable state. 

Rous felt moved to accept that it was not the psalter he had published and he removed his claim to authorship.  However, it continued to be known by his name. 

In the meantime a psalter had been published by William Barton which met with the favour of  the House of Lords, while the House of Commons continued to favour the “Rous” psalter.  The Assembly of Divines could not accept both psalters as that would have gone against its aspiration for uniformity of religion.  Ultimately, the House of Commons decided to act unilaterally and published the psalter in 1646, ordering its exclusive use.  However, it did not meet with favour on either side of the border…

The English thought that it had become too Scottish and the Scottish General Assembly went against their commissioners’ advice and refused to accept it without further revision.

The psalter was then submitted to a further and very thorough revision.  Finally, in 1650 the Scottish Metrical Psalter was completed.

psalm 100 (tune Desert)

This version has stood the test of time and continues in use today, although in more recent years it has been recognised that the language has become antiquated and words have changed their meaning.  Accordingly, versions in modern English have been published of which our own, published in 2003 is one.

21st Century Edition Psalter