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The ‘Great Bible’ was the first officially authorised version of the Bible to be printed in English and in England.
The ‘Great Bible’, (so called because of its size – it is over 40cm in height and over 10cm thick), was the first officially authorised version of the Bible to be printed in English and in England.
This particular copy is one of two de luxe copies, that were printed on parchment and illustrated by hand in brilliant colours. One of these was made for Henry VIII himself, and this copy was made for his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who had overall responsibility for the publication of the Great Bible.
Thomas Cromwell issued orders in the king’s name, which required every parish church in England to buy a copy of the Bible in English and use it for the readings, that were part of church services. As there were over 8000 parishes, this was big business, and Grafton, Whitchurch, and Cromwell made a good deal of money out of it!
One of the more curious effects of publishing the Bible in English was that in the century following 1539, all sorts of new personal names became popular in England – names such as Adam, Josiah, Rebecca, Sarah, and Susannah – as the more enthusiastic followers of the new Protestant religion wished to express their faith, by choosing biblical names for their children.
Production began in Paris in 1538, but was soon transferred to London, where most of the work was carried out by the printers Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch. The project was undertaken on the instructions of Thomas Cromwell, who had issued orders in the king’s name in 1538, which required every parish church in England to buy a copy of the Bible in English and use it for the readings, that were part of church services. As there were over 8000 parishes, this was big business, and Grafton, Whitchurch, and Cromwell made a good deal of money out of it! Until this time, the readings in church services had been in Latin.
Publishing an official English Bible was part of the process of religious change in England, that began under Henry VIII and is known by historians as the English Reformation. It was one of the most far-reaching changes introduced by Henry, because by allowing more people than ever before to have direct access to the words of scripture, it helped pave the way for the more radical religious changes, that were seen in England over the following hundred years.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
The Bible is still an integral part of Christian life and worship, and large bibles of this kind are still often used for the readings in church services. But today, almost all Christian churches read from the Bible in vernacular translations, (the everyday languages of the people of a country), rather than in ancient languages.
In the hundred years or so before the reign of Henry VIII, the idea of making the bible available in English was regarded with some suspicion. It was feared that people might invent their own interpretations of the text and stray from official beliefs. The English Bible was available in manuscript copies, but it was extremely expensive. Only members of the elite were allowed to have access to it, in theory, only with the permission of a bishop. Henry’s change of policy was a dramatic break with the past.
The Great Bible was to be chained to a stand in each parish church, so that anyone who was literate could go there and read from it. The text of the bible was therefore much more widely available than ever before.
Henry VIII believed that by reading the bible his subjects would ‘better know their duties to God, to their sovereign lord the king, and their neighbour’. What he had in mind, was the moral instruction in the New Testament and the stories in the Hebrew Bible about the great and holy deeds of the kings of Israel. Having recently declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, which he separated from the Roman Catholic Church, he wished to persuade his people that his new religious power was biblically based.
But the bible is a very complex book. Not all of its kings were heroes, and many came to bad ends. A hundred years later, when England was torn apart by a civil war between the king and parliament, the bible played a major role. Many Protestants no longer read the Bible according to official methods but developed their own radical interpretations of the text, demanding far-reaching reforms in state and society on the basis of what they found in it.
One of the more curious effects of publishing the bible in English was that in the century following 1539, all sorts of new personal names became popular in England – names such as Adam, Josiah, Rebecca, Sarah, and Susannah – as the more enthusiastic followers of the new Protestant religion wished to express their faith, by choosing biblical names for their children, in place of the traditional Anglo-Saxon and Norman names that had been popular in the Middle Ages.
2006, 2nd edn., Palgrave
A detailed but accessible analysis of the key religious developments in England under Henry VIII, which sets the publication of the Great Bible in context and includes some specific comments on it.
Who was Thomas Cromwell?