Bible in English, 1539

London: Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch, 1539

The earliest printed English Bibles, issued in 1535 and 1537, were translated by exiles and produced on the Continent. This is the first Bible that circulated freely in England. It was a revision of the earlier editions and is known as “the Great Bible” because of its large size. Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), Henry VIII’s “Vice Regent in Spirituals,” requested that a copy of this Bible be displayed in each of the about 9,000 parishes of the kingdom. By the end of 1541 six additional editions had been printed to satisfy this request.

The first edition of the Great Bible has a striking title page teeming with figures and biblical quotes and emphasizing the authority and generosity of its royal patron, Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547). Its long title starts with the phrase “The Bible in English,” printed in red ink. Ironically, all the Bible verses scattered through the title page are given in Latin. In the upper register Christ surrounded by clouds pronounces the words: I have found … a man after mine own heart (Acts 13:22), while Henry VIII kneeling bareheaded to his right answers Thy word is a lamp unto my feet (Psalm 119:105). Above the title there is a second, much larger, image of Henry VIII enthroned in full regalia. The king is distributing copies of the Bible with both hands: to the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) and the clergy with his right hand, and to Thomas Cromwell and the laity with his left hand.

In the left section of the middle register Archbishop Cranmer, identifiable by his miter and arms gives a Bible to a lay person while below stands a preacher. In the right section Cromwell identifiable by his robe and device offers a Bible to a lay person.  Below the Vice Regent looms the ominous depiction of Newgate Prison with two convicts behind its barred windows.  At the bottom of the title page a happy multitude cries in Latin Vivat Rex and two figures that may represent children utter the only English texts in the woodcut: God Save the King.

Henry VIII died of multiple ailments on January 28, 1547 at the age of 55. Thomas Cromwell was executed without trial on July 28, 1540 and his shield was erased from all later editions of the Bible. Thomas Cranmer died at the stake under the reign of Queen Mary, on March 21, 1556.

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