Before 1536, it was forbidden to produce a Bible in English. The Word of God was controlled by those who could read and understand Latin. But in 1536, Henry VIII made it legal to translate the Bible into English, giving his people direct access to the Word of God. This was in line with wider religious reforms taking place on the continent, as part of the Reformation.
In 1538, Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell issued an injunction ordering every parish to buy a copy of an English Bible and place it in ‘some convenient place’ for all to see and read. To meet this demand, the Great Bible (so-called because of its size) was put into production. It was based on an earlier version begun illegally by William Tyndale and adapted by Miles Coverdale in 1535. Six editions followed, with more than 9,000 copies printed by 1541.
The woodcut title page was an unmissable opportunity to communicate a visual message about Henry VIII’s role as the Supreme Head of the Church, independent of the Pope’s authority in Rome. The illustration visually reinforces the idea that Henry is receiving the Word directly from God. The speech-scrolls carry the words straight from God to Henry, and from the King to the clergy and the local parish congregation, via Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury (on the left), and to the nobility through Thomas Cromwell (on the right).
This particular Bible with its hand-coloured title page was printed in 1540 and was very probably Henry VIII’s personal copy.
To hear a short talk about Henry VIII's Great Bible please see here.