Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
"Matthew, Mark, Luke and John"
Roud #1704
Written by Traditional
Published 1656
Written England
Language English
Form Nursery rhyme

"Matthew, Mark, Luke and John", also known as the "Black Paternoster", is an English language prayer and nursery rhyme traditionally said by children as they go to bed. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 1704. It is related to another prayer the "White Paternoster", with which it is often confused.



The most common modern version of the verse is:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.

Four corners to my bed,

Four angels round my head;

One to watch and one to pray

And two to bear my soul away.[1]


The rhyme may be one of few to have ancient origins. The Babylonian prayer "Shamash before me, behind me Sin, Nergal at my right, Ninib at my left", is echoed by the medieval Jewish prayer: "In the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; Uriel before me; Raphael behind me and the Shekhinah of God be above my head" which is used as a prayer before sleep.[2] A Christian version has been found for Germany at the end of the medieval period.[1] However, the first record of the lyrics in English is from Thomas Ady's witchcraft treatise A Candle in the Dark, or, a treatise concerning the nature of witches and witchcraft (1656), which tells of a woman in Essex who claimed to have lived in the reign of Mary I (r. 1553-8) and who was alive in his time and blessed herself every night with the "popish charm":

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, The Bed be blest that I lye on.[1]

George Sinclair, writing of Scotland in his Satan's Invisible World Discovered in 1685, repeated Ady's story and told of a witch who used a "Black Paternoster", at night, which seems very similar to Ady's rhyme:

Four newks[3] in this house, for haly Angels,

A post in the midst, that's Christ Jesus,

Lucas, Marcus, Matthew, Joannes,

God be into this house, and all that belangs us.[1]

A year later it was quoted again by John Aubrey, but in the form:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,

Bless the bed that I lye on.

And blessed Guardian-Angel keep

Me safe from danger whilst I sleep.[1]

A version similar to that quoted at the beginning of this article, was first recorded by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1891 and it survived as a popular children's prayer in England into the twentieth century.[1][4]

"White Paternoster"

Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253), Bishop of Lincoln, condemned the use of a "Green Paternoster" by old women in a treatise on blasphemy, which contained reference to "Green Pater Noster, Peter's dear sister".[5] In Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" (c. 1387) he refers to a prayer known as the "White Paternoster", elements of which, particularly the blessing of four parts of a house, can be seen in the later "Black Paternoster":[1]

Therwith the nyght-spel seyde he anon-rightes[6]

On four halves of the hous aboute

And on the thresshfold[7] of the dore withoute:

'Jesus Crist and Seint Benedight,

Bless this hous from every wickked wight,[8]

For the nyghts nerye the white pater-noster!

Where wentestow,[9] Seinte Petres suster?'[10]

It has been suggested that the differing colours associated with these verses may have been determined by the colour of prayer beads, with different coloured beads used to prompt the recitation of aves and paternosters.[5]

After the Reformation this "White Paternoster" was among a number of prayers and devotions that were converted into magical rhymes,[11] becoming widely known charms.[4] Lancashire minister John White (1570–1615) in his The Way to the True Church (1608) recorded among many "superstitions" of the inhabitants of Lancashire, a "White Paternoster":

White Pater-noster, St Peter’s brother,

What hast i’ th' t’one hand? White booke leaves.

What hast i’ th' t’other hand? heaven yate keys.

Open heaven Yates, and steike[12] shut hells Yates[13]:

And let every chrisome child creep to its own mother.

White Pater-noster, Amen.[14]

Sinclair in 1685 contrasted the "Black Paternoster" to be used at night, with a "White Paternoster" to be used in the day, which pioneering and controversial anthropologist Margaret Murray suggested explained the names of the two companion verses and interpreted as "a confused version of a Christian prayer or hymn":[15]

White paternoster,

God was my Foster.

He fostered me Under the Book of Palm-Tree,

St Michael was my Dame,

He was born at Bethelem.

He was made of flesh and blood.

God send me my right food;

My right food, and dyne two,

That I may to yon Kirk go

To read upon yon sweet Book,

Which the mighty God of heaven shoop.[16]

Open, open Heaven's Yaits,

Steik, Steik, Hell's Yaits.

All the saints be better,

That hear the white prayer Pater Noster.[17]

Literary references

The "White Paternoster" was used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82) as a mockery of the mass by Lucifer, described as the "Black Paternoster" in his narrative poem The Golden Legend (1851).[18] It was also the title of a short story by Theodore Francis Powys (1875–1953) published in 1930.[19] A four-part choir setting of the Black Paternoster text was produced by Gustav Holst in early 20th-Century Britain,[20] while contemporary countryman Henry Walford Davies composed an equivalent setting of the White Paternoster.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), ISBN 0198600887, pp. 303-4.
  2. ^ J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: a Study in Folk Tradition (Forgotten Books, 1961), ISBN 1605067598, p. 158.
  3. ^ "Corners"
  4. ^ a b "Some [charms] were well known to everyone, like the so-called White Paternoster, of which a version survives in the children's prayer: 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on'; others were closely guarded secrets", in K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), ISBN 0195213602, p. 181.
  5. ^ a b R. M. Karras, Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), ISBN 0812240804, pp. 22-3.
  6. ^ "Straight away".
  7. ^ "Threshold"
  8. ^ "Spirit".
  9. ^ "Did you go".
  10. ^ D. A. Pearsall, Chaucer to Spenser: an Anthology of Writings in English, 1375-1575 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), ISBN 0631198393, p. 108.
  11. ^ "Here, what were once prayers and devotions, sacred signs, are converted into magical rhymes, a process of conversion which at least party depends on destroying their lucidity as the utterances of doctrine in order to make manifest their strength as words of power. This is in part a version of the notorious 'white paternoster', which was regarded as a papist charm by staunch Protestants", in D. Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-century Representations (London: Routledge, 1996), ISBN 0415087619, p. 158.
  12. ^ "Shut".
  13. ^ "Gates".
  14. ^ W. White, ed., Notes and Queries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, July -December, 1853), p. 614.
  15. ^ "The companion-charm is the Black Paternoster, which has the distinction of surviving to the present day in various forms as a charm to be said before going to sleep", in M. A. Murray, The God of the Witches (NuVision Publications, LLC, 1931, rpt., 2005), ISBN 1595479813, p. 111.
  16. ^ "Shaped".
  17. ^ G. Sinclair, Satan's Invisible World Discovered (1685, facsimile, 1871), p. 23.
  18. ^ J. Gilbert, ed., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), p. 352.
  19. ^ T. F. Powys, The White Paternoster, and Other Stories (Ayer Publishing, 1931), ISBN 0836940563.
  20. ^ Anon, The Paternoster Church History, Volume 1 (Paternoster Press, 1958), p. 237.

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