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The King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible remains the most widely published text in the English language. It was the work of around 50 scholars, who were appointed in 1604 by King James (r. 1603–25), and it is dedicated to him. 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.
In the West, the official language of the medieval Church was Latin – the language of the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as its religion during the fourth century. Christians continued to be governed from Rome by the Pope during medieval times. Church services were conducted in Latin and translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular, in other words the local language anyone could understand, was actively discouraged. Translations of the Bible into various forms of English, such as Old English, were made over the centuries, but these were hand-written copies with a very limited circulation.
However, by the 1500s vernacular Bibles were available in parts of Europe, where they added fuel to the popular questioning of religious authority initiated by the monk Martin Luther – a religious crisis known as the Reformation, which resulted in the splitting of Christianity into Catholic and Protestant Churches.
In England however, under the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford, it was strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into the native tongue. This ban was vigorously enforced by Cardinal Wolsey and the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, in an attempt to prevent the rise of English 'Lutheranism'. The only authorised version of the Bible was St Jerome's Vulgate, which was understood only by highly-educated people.
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 John Wycliffe's teachings, in February 1401.
Although Wycliffe 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.
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 1525. 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”.
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.
But by Shakespeare's time, England had split with Rome, and the political scenery had changed markedly. Bibles in English were now available, such as Henry VIII's authorised 'Great Bible'; the 'Geneva Bible', copiously furnished with Protestant footnotes.
King James I (r. 1603–25; he was also James VI of Scotland) abolished the death penalty attached to English Bible translation, and commissioned a new version that would use the best available translations and sources, and importantly, be free of biased footnotes and commentaries.
The translation committee of 50 scholars drew on many sources, especially Tyndale's New Testament (as much as 80% of Tyndale's translation is reused in the King James version). The result was first printed in 1611, and was 'appointed to be read in churches'. For this purpose, it was published in a large format, suitable for public use, and without illustrations. The use of the antiquated 'black letter' font was intended to add status and authority to the new version.
Several aspects of the typography stand out to modern eyes. Most noticeable of these is the use of the 'long s', visually resembling (but not pronounced as) a modern 'f' (as in the word 'Goſpel'). The modern form of the letter 's' was only used at the end of words, and in a few other specific circumstances. The 'long s' persisted in English print until the late 1700s, and survives in mathematics today as the symbol to denote an integral ('s' to denote a sum of infinitesimals).
Other striking features include: that the letter 'j' has not yet fully grown away from 'i' ('Iohn' vs. 'John'); that the letter 'v' has not developed from 'u' ('euery' for 'every', verse 9); and that there are two alternative forms of the lower-case 'r', selected according to no clear logic (see the word 'preferred' in verse 15 for instance).
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 1807 (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.