Sunday, April 22, 2018

Henry VIII's Great Bible

In a list of ten important dates during the Tudor Era for History Extra, the BBC History Magazine blog, historian Lauren Mackay includes this date and event:

1539: creation of the Great Bible

Henry and his ministers, notably Thomas Cromwell, implemented dramatic changes within the English church, following the break with Rome. Henry had already declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and in 1538 work began in earnest to produce the first printed English-language Bible, which was published by Myles Coverdale.

It was a turning point in English history. For the first time ordinary men and women would be able to read and listen to the Bible in English, and without the need for the clergy’s interpretation. More than 2,000 copies of the Bible were printed in Paris, and it was distributed in churches throughout England. Coverdale had used, and expanded upon, the work of William Tyndale, an English scholar and passionate religious reformer, who had been executed for heresy in 1536.

But Henry VIII did not intend for "ordinary men and women" to interpret the Holy Bible on their own, "without the need for the clergy's interpretation". As this entry for what might be Henry VIII's own copy of the Great Bible at the British Library explains the frontispiece, Henry himself would decide how they should interpret the Holy Bible:

The woodcut title page was therefore an unmissable opportunity to communicate a visual message about the new Royal Supremacy to every English parishioner. By tracking the repeating motif of the Verbum Dei (the Word of God), every English man or woman could witness the flow of authority from God to Henry, descending thence to the clergy and to the local parish congregation via Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left, and to the nobility through Thomas Cromwell on the right.

The King took this hierarchical transmission of the Word of God seriously, as he told both the bishops and the nobility in his last speech to Parliament on December 24, 1545, just six years after the Great Bible was printed and distributed. He was upset about the failures of the clergy and the nobility to practice charity:

so that few preach truly the Word of God. Amend those crimes, and set forth God's word by true preaching and good example, "or else I, whom God has appointed his Vicar and high minister here, will see these divisions extinct." But you of the temporalty are not clean from malice and envy, for you rail on bishops and preachers, whereas if you know anyone to preach perverse doctrine you should inform our Council or us, whose office it is to reform such behaviour. They are permitted to have the Word of God in their mother tongue, but only to inform themselves and instruct their children, not that they may make Scripture a taunting stock against priests and preachers. I am sorry to hear "how unreverently that most precious jewel, the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern," and that the readers of it follow it so faintly and coldly. I am sure there never was less virtuous or godly living, nor God himself ever, amongst Christians, less reverenced.

In the kind of list Mackay produced, of course, she did not have space to qualify or explain all the aspects of this important date.

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