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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Bibles

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Great Bible (1539)
London : J. Cawood, 1569
Great Bible. Click to enlarge.

As the English Reformation gained momentum, the need was felt for a dignified Bible of its own and Thomas Cromwell, as the King's vice-regent, determined to produce a volume which should, as far as possible, meet the demands of the reforming and conservative wings of the Church. He wisely handed the task to Miles Coverdale. Coverale set about revising earlier versions suchs as Matthew's Bible, deleting Rogers' somewhat aggressive notes, and working with the aid of Sebastian Munster's Latin translation of the Old Testament of 1534-5, Erasmus' Latin version, the Vulgate and the Complutensian Polyglot of 1520.

Coverdale worked under Cromwell's direct patronage, hence the book is sometimes known as "Cromwell's Bible". It is also known as "Cramner's Version", although the famous Archbishop had little if anything to do with its preparation beyond adding the prologue which first appears in the 1540 edition. Its most common name however is the Great Bible because of the sheer size of most of the printings.

In order to obtain such a splendid and sumptuous book, Henry VIII obtained permission from Francis I for printing to be done in Paris. Grafton and Whitchurch, the publishers, entrusted the work to Francis Regnault. A considerable potion had been printed when the Inquisition seized the press and ordered the suppression of the work. Coverdale and Grafton, who were in Paris to supervise the work through the press, had to flee for their lives. It was only following intervention by the English ambassador that the necessary manuscripts, presses, printing types and paper were allowed to be brought over to England, but not the sheets already printed. These were sold as scrap or waste paper. A large number of these were purchased by an English haberdasher and brought to England in four large vats. Printing was resumed in London and completed in April 1539.

The Great Bible had more powerful backing than any previous version and the reading of any other Bibles, without express dispensation, was banned on pain of one month's imprisonment. The second edition proclaimed, "This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches", and the clergy were ordered to see that every parish church obtained a copy.

"One boke of the whole Bible of the largest volume in Englysshe and have the same sett up in summe convenient place within thechurche that he has the cure of, whereat his parishioners may most commodious resort to the same and rede yt".

But the clergy could only read a chapter, and only one chapter, to the congregation every Sunday or Holy Day, meaning it would take nearly a generation to go through the whole work and not surprisingly met with mixed reception. It is typical of the English character that they were hostile to the book inasmuch as it was being forced upon them but nevertheless this placing of a Bible in every church was a great event, so much so that an edict had to be issued in 1541 rebuking those who read or discuss it "with loud and high voices" while the Mass was being celebrated.

Seven editions of the Great Bible were to be issued between 1539 and 1541 and it was last printed in 1569.

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