Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sternhold, Thomas

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STERNHOLD, THOMAS (d. 1549), joint versifier of the Psalms with John Hopkins (d. 1570) [q. v.], was, according to Holinshed, born at Southampton. Bale (Scriptt. Illust. 1557) styles him ‘Suthamptonensis,’ which may only mean that he was, as Fuller and Anthony à Wood designate him, ‘a Hampshire man.’ In conflict with these authorities, Atkyns (Hist. of Gloucestershire) says that he was born at Awre on the Severn, and that his posterity, turning papists, left the place. An inhabitant of the name of Sternhold lived at Lydney, not far from Awre (Visitation of Gloucestershire, 1623, s.v. ‘Bond’). An entry in a later hand and printed characters on a blank page after the baptisms of 1572 in the parish register at Awre asserts that he lived on an estate called the Hayfield in that parish with his colleague, John Hopkins, as a neighbour, and that ‘from Awre first sounded out the Psalms of David by Thomas Ste[r]nhold and John Hopkins.’ The fact that Hopkins was concerned in the posthumous edition of Sternhold's Psalms, and apparently responsible for adding three others of Sternhold's translations to the version in 1561, makes the story in the register probable. The property in his will, however, lies entirely in Hampshire and Cornwall.

Wood says that Sternhold entered Christ Church, Oxford, but did not take a degree. The first ascertained date in his life is 1538, when the name of Thomas Sternhold appears in Cromwell's accounts (Letters and Papers Henry VIII, ed. Gairdner, vol. xiii. pt. ii.) in a list of ‘gentlemen most mete to be daily waiters on my said lorde’ (the king). He had probably been known to Cromwell previously. He became one of the grooms of the robes to Henry, and was evidently a favourite, since a legacy of a hundred marks was bequeathed him by the king's will. He is probably the Thomas Sternell or Sternoll who was elected for Plymouth to the parliament that met on 30 Jan. 1544–5, and was dissolved by Henry VIII's death in January 1546–7 (Official Return, App. p. xxx). His earliest metrical versions of the Psalms may have been composed in Henry's reign (Coverdale had published his ‘Goostly Psalmes,’ a translation of Luther's psalm versions, as early as 1539. In 1540 the earliest Psalms by Marot, valet de chambre to Francis I, were the rage at the French court, and soon afterwards passed into protestant worship at Geneva). In the opinion of learned men of the time metrical versions more nearly represented the structure of the Hebrew psalms than prose, and for singing metre was a necessity. Sternhold, Marot, and Coverdale alike wished to substitute the Psalms of David for the ‘obscene’ ballads of the court and people. The close parallel in position at their masters' courts naturally suggests comparison between the work of Marot and Sternhold; but there is no similarity discernible. In contrast with the French poet's lyrical variety Sternhold (with the exception of Ps. cxx) used only one metre, and this the simplest of all ballad measures, the metre of ‘Chevy Chace.’ This choice of metre was really of infinitely wider consequence than the psalms he set to it; for either in this form, which has two rhymes, or that of Hopkins, which has four, it became the predominant metre (C. M.) not only of the old and new versions of England and Scotland, but of countless metrical psalters and English hymns in general. The rapid spread of psalm-singing in Elizabeth's reign was made possible by the easiness of tune and metre, and in the decay of music under the puritans the simplicity of the metre alone kept psalm-singing alive. Sternhold is said to have sung his psalms to his organ for his own ‘godly solace’ (Strype). They won the ear of Edward VI. The only edition which Sternhold lived to publish he dedicated to the young king. In this dedication he thanks God for giving them a king ‘that forbiddeth not laymen to gather and lease [i.e. glean] in the lordes harvest,’ and trusts as his ‘grace taketh pleasure to hear them song sometimes, so he wyll also delighte to see and read them and command them to be song by others.’ He expresses a hope also of ‘travayling further,’ and ‘performing the residue’ of the Psalter. This, however, was not to be, as his total contribution to the old version consists of only forty psalms.

Sternhold died on 23 Aug. 1549 (Inquisitiones post mortem, 3 Edward VI, Nos. 12, 146). His will, dated August 1549, was proved on 12 Sept. following. Among the witnesses to his will was Edward Whitchurch [q. v.], probably his publisher. He left his property to his wife Agnes and his two daughters, Judith and Philippa, aged respectively three years and one. His property consisted of land in Hampshire and at Bodmin in Cornwall. Part of the Hampshire property might have been inherited. Slackstead, however, had been purchased recently, as it had been granted, as part of the possessions of Hyde Abbey, to Sir Ralph Sadler [q. v.] in 1547. The Bodmin property also he had purchased from the crown in 1543, as part of the possessions of the dissolved priory of St. Petrock there. The total was of the annual value of 10l. 13s. 1½d.

Sternhold is solely remembered as the originator of the first metrical version of the Psalms which obtained general currency alike in England and Scotland. The ‘Versification of Certain Chapters of the Proverbs of Solomon’ has only been attributed to him by error (cf. Cotton's Editions of the Bible). Sternhold and Hopkins's version has had a larger circulation than any work in the language, except the authorised version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (for an account of its evolution, authors, and merits see art. Hopkins, John, (d. 1570)). Sternhold's work forms its base. His first edition undated, but, as being dedicated to Edward VI, not earlier than 1547, contains nineteen psalms (i–v, xx, xxv, xxviii, xxix, xxxii, xxxiv, xli, xlix, lxxiii, lxxviii, ciii, cxx, cxxiii, cxxviii). It was printed by Edward Whitchurch, and is entitled ‘Certayne Psalmes chosē out of the Psalter of Dauid and drawē into Englishē Metre by Thomas Sternhold, grome of ye Kynges Maiesties Roobes’ (Brit. Museum). The second edition, printed after his death—apparently by John Hopkins, who adds seven psalms of his own in order to fill in a blank space, deprecating comparison with Sternhold's ‘most exquisite doynges’—added to those of the former edition eighteen new psalms (vi–xvii, xix, xxi, xliii, xliv, lxiii, lxviii). It is entitled ‘Al such Psalmes of Dauid as Thomas Sternhold, late grome of the Kinges maiesties robes, did in his lyfetime drawe into English Metre,’ and is printed by Edward Whitchurche in 1549 (Cambridge University Library). Three more psalms (xviii, xxii, xxiii) are added to these in a very rare edition of the growing Psalter printed by John Daye in 1561, and the complete number (40) appears in the full editions of 1562, 1563, and all subsequent ones. The only one of his psalms which remains current is the simple rendering of Psalm xxiii (‘My Shepherd is the Living Lord’). The text of his psalms, as found in all editions subsequent to 1556, follows the Genevan revision of that year.

[Julian's Dict. of Hymnology. See also authorities under Hopkins, John, and The Scottish Psalter, by Neil Livingstone.]

H. L. B.