"And I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi ..."
On 4 May 1979, standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street about to enter for the first time as Prime Minister, MT surprised many by announcing she would quote a prayer.
The words she then spoke were among the most famous she ever delivered. Although it was an established tradition that incoming PMs would make some stirring remarks at this historic moment - a statement of high purpose and the call of duty - none previously fixed themselves in the national consciousness the way hers did, and despite the best efforts of her successors, none have since. Nor have any proved as controversial.
margaretthatcher.org here tells the story behind the prayer and publishes for the first time the draft, alongside MT's correspondence with the man who suggested she use it - playwright Ronnie Millar. A document released in June 2015 adds a further piece to the puzzle
origin of the prayer
For many years the prayer was attributed to St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), but modern research has established, beyond argument, that it is not his work. In fact he had been dead almost 700 years when it was first printed, anonymously, by a French clerical magazine, La Clochette, in 1912. The real author was probably the magazine's editor, Father Esther Bouquerel. The horrors of the Great War gave the prayer special power and wide appeal; by 1916 it was famous enough to merit reprinting on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, a measure of official standing.
In fact up to this point no one had attributed the prayer to St Francis. The Assisi connection seems to have arisen from a widely-circulated postcard version produced in 1920, which had a picture of the saint on the back, following which it became known as "the Peace Prayer of St. Francis". Although the connection was forged purely by association, confusion as to authorship was inevitable and perhaps not accidental. It has proved too attractive a notion entirely to disappear, even today.
The first well-known English translation dates from 1936 in the US, the work of a pacifist Protestant minister, Kirby Page. But it was taken up by the much more powerful figure of Cardinal Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, who gave it new fame during the second world war and after, at the beginning of the Cold War. Spellman was a man of the right, though not really of the Thatcherite variety: he was a central figure in Irish America (zealous McCarthyite, long-standing friend of Joe Kennedy), a close ally of Pope Pius XII, later a Nixonite. One episode in his career eerily anticipated a famous moment during the Winter of Discontent: outraged by a strike of gravediggers in Queens, he sent in young seminarians to bury the dead. Jim Callaghan proved less forceful.
ronnie millar's role
Sir Ronnie Millar
The idea that MT should use the prayer came from her chief speechwriter during the 1979 campaign, Sir Ronnie Millar. On his account four days before polling she asked him "almost shyly" whether he had thought of anything she might say on the steps of Number Ten? He replied, yes he had, but was too superstitious to tell her till the moment came. This was perhaps a shrewd way of handling her own superstitious sense that preparing such things in advance presumed too much and might be punished by the gods.
Ronnie Millar was one of MT's favourite people, then and later, a man of great charm, subtlety and humour. A playwright and screenwriter, with many West End successes and a healthy income, he read her personality well and knew how to get his way on the key points. Speechwriting sessions with MT could be exhausting, almost endless: he came as close as anyone could to making them fun. A year into her premiership he was to give her perhaps her most famous line: "The Lady's not for turning", punning obscurely on the title of a play by Christopher Fry.
The two of them were as close as they ever were to be during the last year of her term as Leader of the Opposition. Although he had a keen sense of tactical realities, and sometimes advised caution, quietly he built her confidence, encouraged her to aim high, and to be herself. He was by instinct, almost by profession, a romantic, and he drew from MT a strikingly warm response.
At the end of August 1978 Millar took her to see Evita, then beginning its long run in the West End. She wrote to him the following day: "It was a strangely wondrous evening yesterday leaving so much to think about. I still find myself rather disturbed by it. But if they [the Peronists] can do that without any ideals, then if we apply the same perfection and creativeness to our message, we should provide quite good historic material for an opera called Margaret in thirty years time!"
Eva's final redemption probably chimed with MT's sense of things:
And as for fortune, and as for fame/ I never invited them in/ Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired
They are illusions/ They are not the solutions they promised to be/ The answer was here all the time/ I love you and hope you love me
Don't cry for me Argentina
arriving at the final text
Only when the result of the election was clear was MT allowed to know what Ronnie Millar had come up with. His memoirs record that she was briefly overcome: "Her eyes swam. She blew her nose". But practicality swiftly restored emotional order, as a secretary was commissioned to type it up at 4 in the morning at Central Office, or would have been if the girl hadn't burst into tears herself. That piece of paper is now published for the first time, on this site.
MT hurriedly scribbled some changes to the draft, most of which in fact she dropped on delivery, reverting pretty much to the original. Her abandoned changes would have introduced the words "but humbling" to the phrase "great responsibilities", removed the suggestion that the election result showed that the electorate had placed trust in her (rather than her ideas) and elaborated the duty she felt to those who had not voted for her. All seem to have been intended to diminish any impression of grandeur.
One change was made after the draft. Apparently at Ronnie Millar's suggestion, she substituted 'we' for 'I' in the words of the prayer, to make it seem more modest. Later such wording would merely have attracted the charge that she was trying to sound regal, but critics hadn't yet fully developed that particular line of attack. The change was dropped on delivery in any case.
What of the prayer itself? MT knew nothing of its history at the time she delivered it and almost certainly believed the words genuinely to be those of St Francis. If Ronnie Millar knew better, he did not let on. From his point of view it probably did not much matter.
Many translations exist, often abridging the French original by omitting one or more of the famous pairings. Ronnie Millar made the same move.
The original reads:
Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix.
Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.
Là où il y a l'offense, que je mette le pardon.
Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l'union.
Là où il y a l'erreur, que je mette la vérité.
Là où il y a le doute, que je mette la foi.
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Là où il y a les ténèbres, que je mette votre lumière.
Là où il y a la tristesse, que je mette la joie.
Ô Maître, que je ne cherche pas tant à être consolé qu'à consoler, à être compris qu'à comprendre, à être aimé qu'à aimer, car c'est en donnant qu'on reçoit, c'est en s'oubliant qu'on trouve, c'est en pardonnant qu'on est pardonné, c'est en mourant qu'on ressuscite à l'éternelle vie.
Millar omitted the opening and closing lines, and the pairings of hatred/love, offense/pardon, shadow/light, sadness/joy. As a result the version he gave MT perhaps promises a rather tougher route to peace than some: the stark contrast of truth/error, at the centre of her prayer, is omitted in one of the versions now commonest, as used, for example, at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Ronnie Millar left Central Office about 5.30 for a few hours of sleep. Meeting MT there again about noon, he discovered she had begun to have doubts about the prayer. Unnamed advisers worried that the saint "set a pretty high standard", that she would be giving "a hostage to fortune".
Knowing the lady, undoubtedly Millar had prepared for this moment. He reminded her the prayer expressed aspiration, in words "that have come down to us over the centuries". Would it not be controversial? "More than possibly. What's wrong with that?" Seeing that she very much wanted to be convinced, he clinched things by summoning a helpful ghost. "Churchill spent half his life being controversial and much of what he said is remembered whether people agreed with it at the time or not".
A document released in June 2015 supplies a clue as to the precise nature of MT's doubt. Writing history is like doing a jigsaw with a lot of missing pieces, probably a lot more than half missing, and no certainty as to the picture either. It is peculiarly satisfying when a new and important piece emerges from underneath the sofa.
The new document is a version of the final text in her own hand, kept in her most personal papers, reproducing what she finally said almost word for word, save for one thing - she substituted the word 'song' for 'prayer', describing the words as "the moving & beautful song of St Francis". It could well be the penultimate version.
In other words, she hesitated about praying on the steps of Downing Street. But finally, of course, she did. After all, this was a prayer, and it sounded like one. And as far as she knew it was the work of a deeply revered saint.
delivery & reaction
MT made one one last precautionary move. It would have been disastrous, but all too easy, to have fluffed these unfamiliar lines and found herself offering error in place of discord or truth in place of harmony. Yet how could she consult a piece of paper at a moment like that - speaking in a scrimmage of photographers, journalists and police? Her solution was to find a tiny file card and jot down the headings of her remarks. When the moment finally came she held the card out of sight in the palm of her left hand and glanced down at it only once in the course of speaking, as you can see in our clip of the event (from ITN). Her delivery was word perfect.
MT's use of the prayer has irritated people ever since. Political opponents predictably seized on the idea that a prayer for peace was in any sense appropriate to her purpose. Again and again in later years, they cited it in relation to this conflict or that, as proof of hypocrisy. And many Conservatives quietly disliked the prayer. Some thought it smacked of disarmament. One prominent wet described it as 'humbug'. Charles Moore, MT's authorised biographer, has called it 'stagey' - but, of course, that is what you are likely to get when you ask a playwright for lines.
Decades on, whatever else one can say, the prayer seems emblematic and revealing. Its chief purpose, surely, was to show from the very first that the Thatcher Government set out to be different. If it jarred on contemporaries, then that is partly because it was meant to. An era of conviction politics was being inaguruated. This was a prayer that became famous in wartime, drawing its power from people's sense of extremity. It was not a prayer for cloudless skies, but for resolution of conflicts that threatened to overwhelm, for the sake of ultimate peace.
Read & watch the prayer, plus newly released papers
Read Ronnie Millar's previously unpublished files
Summary of research on the prayer by Professor Christian Renoux
Back to first page of June 2015 release
[Page revised to take account of new document, June 2015; minor revisions, May 2019]