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Treasures from the London Library: The Strongest Link

An insight into the London Library's remarkable collection of early English versions of the Bible, at the heart of which is a copy of the King James Bible of 1611.

The King James Bible

Hundreds of bibles, translated into dozens of languages, populate some of the shelves of the London Library. They include a remarkable collection of early English versions with a copy of the King James Bible of 1611 at its heart. The King James Bible celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. It is part of a long chain of English translations of the Scriptures, each new translation owing a debt to the previous version.

The first link in the chain was forged by William Tyndale (c.1494-1536), 80 years before James I commissioned his Authorised Version. The Oxford-educated religious reformer, who was inspired by Erasmus and Luther, was forced to flee England in 1525. He was a gifted linguist and translated the New Testament from the original Greek into accessible English. By 1534, Tyndale had settled in Antwerp and was working on a translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. However, in 1535, his friend Henry Phillips betrayed him to the Antwerp authorities. Tyndale was arrested, incarcerated for sixteen months, and in October 1536, he was publicly executed in Vilvoorde Castle, near Brussels, before he could complete his translation.

In 1535, just as Tyndale was printing his final revision of the New Testament in Antwerp, Miles Coverdale (c.1488-1569) was in the same city printing his complete English Bible. Coverdale was an Augustinian friar and a Cambridge man. Like Tyndale, his reformist views forced him into exile. He did not know enough Greek and Hebrew to translate the original texts, so he worked from German and Latin versions instead, consulting Tyndale’s version at the same time. Back in England, big changes were taking place: as Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell’s influence grew, Henry VIII became more inclined to fulfil the promise he had made five years earlier to provide ‘learned men’ with a translation of the New Testament. In this new climate, Coverdale dedicated his Bible to the King and was able to return safely to London.

Tyndale’s unpublished translations of the Old Testament were eventually printed in ‘Matthew’s’ Bible of 1537. John Rogers, chaplain of the English House in Antwerp, had rescued the manuscripts after Tyndale’s arrest and he printed them together with Tyndale’s Pentateuch and New Testament. For the remaining books of the Old Testament, he used Coverdale’s translation. Because Tyndale’s translations were still banned, the book was published under the fictitious name of Thomas Mathew. It is the closest thing we have to a complete Tyndale Bible. Ironically, this was the first English Bible to receive a royal license and copies were quickly distributed to every parish.

However, it soon became apparent that not enough copies had been printed to supply all 8,500 churches, and since the king still had some reservations as to some of the marginal notes, a new version was needed. The London Library’s copy of ‘Matthew’s’ Bible was printed by Thomas Raynalde in London in 1549, two years after Henry’s death. Henry VIII’s Great Bible was prepared by Coverdale, who revised ‘Matthew’s’ Bible rather than his own version. The first edition was printed in Paris in 1539. 

No new versions were produced during the short reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor. John Roger’s execution, ordered by Mary in 1555, must have served as a powerful deterrent for anyone contemplating Biblical translations on English soil. However, a group of English Protestants, which included the dean of Durham, William Whittingham (c.1524-1579), had fled Mary’s regime to settle in Calvinist Geneva where they prepared a new Bible translation. Coverdale had returned to England after Henry’s death, but when Mary Tudor came to the throne he was forced into exile once again, and in October 1558, he joined the Geneva translators. The Geneva Bible, first printed in 1560, became the most popular version of the Scripture and was still in regular use even after the publication of the King James Bible.

The Book of Genesis, King James Bible

The London Library holds several early editions of the Geneva Bible, the earliest being Christopher Barker’s folio edition of 1576. Barker was granted a patent to print the Bible in England for the first time, in 1575, and after publishing one edition in 1576, he obtained a press, which he used to print the first folio edition in Roman type. The following year, he bought the exclusive rights to print all English Bibles and passed the monopoly onto his descendants. The London Library copy of the smaller 1586 edition is the last produced by the founder of the printing dynasty. Christopher Barker retired in 1578, leaving the business in charge of his deputies, who were responsible for the 1589 and 1599 editions also held by the Library. The Library’s copy of the 1605 edition is the work of Christopher’s son, Robert.

After Mary’s death, the Geneva Bible was openly used in parish churches; however, Queen Elizabeth’s bishops thought that its extensive marginal notes were too heavily influenced by Calvinist doctrine, and Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, assumed responsibility for a new version. The first folio edition of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 was produced in London by the Queen’s printer, Richard Jugge. He printed a second, quarto, edition in 1569, and the Library holds a copy of its New Testament. Although this was meant to be Elizabeth’s ‘Great Bible’ it did not receive royal sanction until 1574; the London Library’s copy of the 1575 edition finally contains the words ‘set foorth by aucthoritie’ as well ‘God save the Queene’. But although copies were printed for official use in parish churches across the land, the ‘Calvinist version’ was retained for private use in most protestant households.

The Catholic alternative to these protestant Bibles was produced once again by religious exiles, this time settled in Douai and Rheims, where dissenting outposts of Oxford University had been established by the scholar William Allen. These English Catholics undertook to offer a vernacular version of the Bible that would conform to the Catholic doctrine and the New Testament was translated by George Martin, a reader of Divinity, who worked mostly from the Vulgate, but was also influenced by existing English versions. It was first printed in 1582 in Rheims; the Old Testament was issued in two parts in Douai over 1609 and 1610. The London Library holds copies of each of these versions.

The Geneva and the Bishops’ Bibles influenced most directly the Authorised Version of 1611; however, King James’ translators consulted every English translation available, including the Rheims-Douai version. The team of around fifty scholars, who worked on the Bible between 1604 and 1608, produced a version of such durability that it remains, to this day, the strongest link in the long chain of English translations of the Scriptures.

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is Head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

From The Archive:

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