King James Bible
Until the mid-1500s, attempts to give lay people access to an English-language Bible had resulted in severe punishment. Finally, in 1611, came an officially approved version that also had enduring appeal: the King James, or Authorised, Version
King James Bible, London, England, published by Robert Barker, 1611. Gospel of St John 1
BL C.35.l.11, signature 2I31
Copyright © The British Library Board
Why weren't Bibles available in English before?
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church held a rigid control over the Bible and would not allow it to be translated from Latin into other languages. Holding any view contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church was seen as heresy.
But in 1376 the Oxford theologian John Wyclif argued that the Church should not have wealth or possessions and that the Pope had no right to claim sovereignty over kings. Maintaining that all authority derived from the scriptures, he worked on an English translation of the Bible, so that everyone could have direct access.
Wyclif completed his translation of the New Testament in around 1380. He was assisted on the Old Testament by Nicholas de Hereford and others. Their work, a verbatim translation from Latin, was completed by 1384. The Church condemned the translation as inaccurate and opinionated, but as the first full version in English it proved very popular. About 30 copies survive.
Wyclif's work encouraged the Lollards, whose preachings found a lot of popular support in the social unrest of the late fourteenth century.
What happened to supporters of English-language Bibles?
In 1401, on the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry IV introduced a law which outlawed the translation of the Bible and made heresy a capital crime, punishable by burning at the stake. The first martyr to do die in this way was William Sawtre, a priest in London who preached Wyclif's teachings, in February 1401.
Although Wyclif had died in 1384, he did not escape Papal retribution. In 1415 he was declared a heretic, his bones were exhumed and burned along with his books, and the ashes cast into the River Swift at Lutterworth. By then the Lollard movement was in decline and it would be a hundred years before further attempts were made for an English Bible.
How did the Tyndale Bible come about?
The preachings of Martin Luther, challenging the authority of the Pope, lit the flames of Protestantism across Europe in the 1520s. In 1521, the Pope condemned Luther's writings and ordered that they be burned. Henry VIII, who had an extensive theological education, opposed Luther's views, and the Pope conferred on Henry the title "Defender of the Faith." There were public burnings of Luther's books in London.
Flouting the ban on translating the Bible by working abroad, William Tyndale published his English version of the New Testament in Germany in 1526. Some copies were smuggled in to Britain, but many were burned - as was Tyndale, at the stake, in 1536, after being betrayed while working on his translation of the Old Testament. His last words were reportedly, "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."
Why did Henry suddenly change his mind about Bibles in English?
Open they did. Since 1526, Henry VIII had been waiting for the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Furious that this didn't happen, his Act of Supremacy, agreed by Parliament on 3 November 1534, established Henry as head of the Church of England and no longer answerable to the Pope.
As a consequence, he needed an English Bible. In 1539 he gave approval to a translation by Myles Coverdale, who had worked with Tyndale. Completed in 1540, it became known as the "Great Bible". Henry VIII decreed that it should be available to everyone in every church in England.
Finally, in 1611, the King James, or Authorised, Bible appeared. The product of a team of 50 scholars, it relied extensively on Tyndale's work, using around 80 per cent of this once heretical translation. It remains the most-printed work in English in the world.
What is the King James Bible like?
It is large – the size and weight of a heavy briefcase – and was a high-quality item: in the volumes available to all readers in the British Library's reading rooms, the paper and ink have faded little nearly 400 years on. The typeface used is a heavy 'gothic' script. Despite a few period characteristics (such as the use of a 'long S' that resembles a modern f, and some archaic spellings) it is easily readable by the modern user.
What about Bibles in Welsh, Irish, and so on?
Although the Welsh language was no longer used in official documents, a Welsh translation of the Great Bible was achieved by William Morgan and published in 1588.
A Gaelic version of the New Testament was published in Ireland in 1603, but the Old Testament did not appear until 1685. Both were adapted for Scottish Highlanders in 1690, with more suitable translations in 1767 (New) and 1801 (Old).
A complete Manx translation appeared in 1772 but although parts of the Bible were translated into Cornish during the eighteenth century, it was not until 2004 that the New Testament was completed.