The Black Paternoster


I was looking at children’s prayers for bedtime, and came across something very interesting.  One of the common prayers that has made it into compendiums of nursery rhymes and children’s prayers is the “Four Corners” prayer.  A common form of this prayer goes something like this:

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.

The rhyme dates back to at least the 1600s in Britain, and is likely much older.  A German version dates to medieval times.  The first English text is found in a treatise on witchcraft, where the verse is mentioned in a negative context.


There were several “paternosters” (derived from Latin for “our father”), which were associated with colors, perhaps initially associated with colored prayer beads.  These poems are thought to be corruptions of prayers that became used as magic charms.  The “white Paternoster” (a version of which is found in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale of 1387) was used for morning.  The “black paternoster” was used at bedtime.  A “green paternoster” was earlier condemned as blasphemous by the Bishop of Lincolon, Robert Grosseteste, 1175–1253.

Somehow, the “black paternoster” escaped the anti-witchcraft and anti-catholic sentiments of the 17th century to become a favorite children’s rhyme in England, esp in the 20th century.  Perhaps this may be credited to Anglican priest, scholar and hymn-writer, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834-1924.


He published it as part of a collection of folksongs called Songs of the West, first published in 1891 (This book is now freely available in the public domain:

The poem has been set to music by the composer Gustav Holst, 1874-1934 (of “the Planets” fame).  Here is a snippet of a recording by the Holst Singers, under Stephen Layton.

The full version is available for sale, by Hyperion records,

Sources: Images are from Wikipedia.  The lovely painting is “Four corners to my bed” by Isobel Lilian Gloag (1868-1917))


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