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‘A day after doomsday’: Cranmer and the Bible Translations of the 1530s

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the inaugural moment for the English Reformation, and for the rendering of the scriptures in English within a national church. In May 1530, Henry VIII began to suggest that it was his duty to cause the New Testament to be translated into English for his subjects, marking a hesitant and reluctant shift towards a possible translation of the Bible. The King’s suggestion was met with opposition from senior churchmen on the one hand, and frustration by English evangelicals on the other, and Henry subsequently imposed legislation that limited Bible reading. This chapter examines the complex issues involved in the protocols that governed how scripture was disseminated to the laity.

Keywords: Bible translation, Erasmus, Paraclesis, Thomas Cranmer, Lollards, Tyndale, national church

If it is true, as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote in his 1540 prologue to the Great Bible, that ‘the word of God’ is ‘the mooste preciouse Juell, and moste holy relique, that remayneth upon earth’,1 then the history of how, generation by generation, that holy jewel has been possessed and endowed is one of the great stories of the Christian Church. Among the fiercest of the political battles that took place during the Reformation were those over the protocols that governed how scripture was to be withheld, and how it was to be distributed to the laity. To what extent was the Word of God a private gift as well as a common possession to be shared by all believing people?

Although the story may seem familiar, much can still be learned from the struggle to inhibit Bible reading, especially in the 1530s and 1540s. This chapter is concerned with a paradox: how can the most important of all books be given to the laity and withheld from them at the same time?2 It is one of the great ironies of the Reformation that the translation (p. 24) of the New Testament that was released under Henry VIII and that was ultimately adopted in the King James Bible was mainly the work of William Tyndale.

I. Rationing the Common Treasure

By 1500, holy writ was understood to be a ‘common treasure’, yet at the same time it was reserved well away from the laity’s touch. As sacred objects, the books that were used during the Mass were kept behind the rood screen in the chancels of parish churches, where they could be glimpsed, but not handled by the worshippers.3 The mystical sanctity of the Bible meant that it could be compared to the consecrated Host as a numinous treasure that needed to be protected as well as reverenced. Seeing the Host through the rood screen was a daily event for many people. Taking communion once a year at Easter was a communal rite and a public act in every parish.4 Similarly, the access that the laity was allowed to the Bible was filtered, with the clergy acting as intermediaries between them and the written Word, just as they were also the agents who showed the people the Host. Scriptural teachings were presented to the laity by the clergy in highly ritualized moments: when the verses of the Epistles and Gospel of the day were read or sung; when homilies were read; and when sermons were preached in churches, or outdoors in the pulpit crosses that stood beside cathedrals and religious houses. The people received the Word aurally, in keeping with the understanding from Romans 10: 17 that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.5 The sharing and hearing of the Word was a common or corporate experience, in which the priest or the preacher represented due authority over the people whom he instructed.6

Part of the caution that made Bible reading a clerical monopoly before the Reformation stemmed from the fear of Wycliffite heresy. At the end of the fourteenth century, some of the followers of the Oxford theologian John Wyclif collaborated on translations of the entire Bible, which they encouraged the laity to read on their own, privately in their households and without the mediation of priests. To Wyclif and the Lollards, the Bible was the chief source of authority. Their views seemed to threaten a broad range of essential teachings in the church, including the meaning of the eucharist.7 Authorities moved against Wyclif’s followers with a vigorous array of measures. Erring theologians were constrained (p. 25) as supervision was tightened over scholars at Oxford. Sermons by unlicensed preachers were suppressed. The church, acting in concert with the government, decided that, for the laity, direct access to the Bible in English was not necessary. Three statutes passed by Parliament, as well as church law, forbade the laity from reading the Bible in English. Under the new legislation, the bishops and the secular authorities shared responsibilities for suppressing heretics.8 Well into the sixteenth century, English bishops continued to hunt for Lollards.

This marked a profound change, for translations of scripture into English had begun during Anglo-Saxon times, as Cranmer noted in his prologue to the Great Bible, for ‘the Saxones tonge’ was once ‘oure mothers tonge’. In ‘olde abbeis’, as their libraries were being dismantled at the closure of the monasteries, Cranmer noted that manuscript copies had recently been discovered, and they were of ‘soch antique maners of writynge and speaking’ that few were now able to read and understand them. But as this language had ‘waxed olde and out of comen usage’, the Bible was again ‘translated in the newer language’. He believed that ‘it is not moche above one hundredth yeare agoo’, from the time that measures were taken against the Lollards, ‘sens scripture hath not bene accustomed to be redde in the vulgar tonge within this realme’.9

Never completely suppressed nor separated from the church, the Lollards continued to attend Mass in their parishes, and they were able to teach their views in their private ‘scoles of heresie’,10 where they could indulge in eccentric ideas as they read to and learned from each other.11 There may have always been ‘an insidious element’ in private lay reading of the small, easily concealed books that could encourage ‘subversion or heresy’.12 At the beginning of the sixteenth century, many bishops and theologians remained deeply distrustful that the laity in England could ever approach scripture with the appropriate attitudes of reverence.

Despite all prohibitions, the demand for the Bible in English was strong. Untold numbers of Wycliffite books of scripture in manuscript were confiscated and destroyed, though influential owners, as Margaret Aston has noted, were able to evade prohibitions by reserving their English Bibles for liturgical use. Some great nobles kept a large English Bible on the lecterns of their private chapels in their households. Although their books must have been both expensive and dangerous to possess, evidence suggests many people from a wide (p. 26) social range were willing to obtain them. Approximately 250 medieval English manuscripts still survive for various books of the Bible.13

The development of print in the fifteenth century only intensified the desire at all levels of society for devotional books. Withheld though the physical book of the Bible might have been from the majority of people, a large selection of material became available for the laity to enjoy in printed as well as oral and ritual forms, as Eamon Duffy has demonstrated. As many lay people wished to emulate the holiness of monks and nuns by following the round of prayers of the divine office, their primers incorporated important excerpts from the Vulgate in English as well as in Latin. Reading the Gospels or Psalms or Canticles was recognized as being especially appropriate for increasing devotion. The market for macaronic books was almost limitless,14 though following the readings in a book of hours surely was a different devotional experience than a direct approach to the unabridged text of the New Testament.15

II. The Written Word

In the early decades of the sixteenth century, the laity’s access to the Bible in the vernacular gained important support from Erasmus and other scholars of the learned languages. In the Paraclesis, his introduction to his Greek and Latin New Testament of 1516, Erasmus began to place important new emphasis on Christ. The written Word was his ‘living and breathing likeness’. In Erasmus’s famous conclusion: the New Testament revealed ‘the living image of His holy mind and the speaking, healing, dying, rising Christ himself’. The Gospels ‘render Him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon him with your very eyes’.16 Erasmus promoted the written text as a more vital means of understanding God than the visual appeal of contemplating a crucifix or gazing on the Host. His Paraclesis came at the same moment that Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros of Toledo’s vast de luxe polyglot edition of the Bible was nearing completion, and they were part of the same trend for the study of biblical languages that English patrons, including Bishop John Fisher of Cambridge, wished that they had the resources to emulate fully. A parallel moment occurred in Europe in the first decades of the sixteenth century: university-educated clergy of the highest stratum could enjoy their exquisite new skills in the learned languages exactly at the same time that Erasmus argued in Latin that men and women of even the lowest echelons of (p. 27) society should have the Gospels in their hands and mouths, at least in their books of hours.17

The astonishing, even destabilizing, recognition that Erasmus received in his lifetime for his scholarship, not least for his commentaries on St Jerome, and the fresh translation of the New Testament that he made from the Greek in 1519, was problematic. What Erasmus achieved in challenging the primacy of Jerome’s Vulgate through his innovative use of critical philology was to create the possibility of a fluid text of scripture, or rather, of translations that could never be fully complete, comprehensive, or fixed in the sense that the Vulgate had set the sacred text for its many uses in the church.18 Sir Thomas More noted in a rejoinder to John Frith that ‘If every man that can fynd out a new fonde fantasye upon a texte of holy scrypture’ was believed, even against the orthodoxy of the writings of the holy doctors of the church and the saints, ‘than may ye surely se that none article of the christen faith can stand and endure long’.19

Erasmus removed some stability from the Christian Church at the same time that he increased the possibility of eccentric readings of scripture that were developed by individuals reading on their own, privately, without guidance. He was heavily criticized for some of the editorial decisions he made as he translated from the Greek. In England, one of his fiercest opponents was Edward Lee, who had been More’s friend from their youth. Lee maintained in 1520 that Erasmus did not have the authority to produce what amounted to a new version of holy writ.20 Now a single translator working alone or almost alone could challenge the primacy of Jerome’s text. A decade later, William Tyndale worked directly from the Greek and Hebrew rather than the Vulgate as he translated the New and the Old Testaments into English.21 In addition to his famous boast that he hoped that ‘he would cause a boy that driveth the plough, to know more of the Scripture’ than did even learned priests, Tyndale was provocative for his boldness in placing his own name on the title-pages of his translations.22 In some senses, the translation of scripture by Erasmus or (p. 28) Tyndale or Martin Luther represented the triumph of the individual scholar’s intellect over the church and its inherited traditions.

To circumvent the manifold dangers that a single translator could impose on his text, for England in the 1530s and afterward into the seventeenth century, a new emphasis was placed on consensus among the divines who worked together on biblical translations. Consensus was the goal for producing fresh translations that were consonant with traditions in the church as they were perceived and interpreted. A common sharing was also the goal for the presentation of scripture in the gathering of the people in worship together. The group in consensus rather than the idiosyncratic reader alone remained one of the goals for public worship.

For England, Luther’s appearance only intensified episcopal control over illicit books. Pope Leo X forbade Luther’s writings in 1520 and he condemned his views the following year, which precipitated an immediate and sensational response from Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The Pope was surprised by the King’s spirited defence of the seven sacraments, and for the rest of his life, Henry built his reputation as a scourge of Luther.23 The threat that Lutheran books posed in England increased the bishops’ vigilance against older heretical books and English Bibles. In 1511 and 1521, Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury and Bishop John Longland of Lincoln renewed their efforts against the Lollards they detected in their dioceses.24 When Tyndale’s illicit translation of the New Testament was printed from 1525, first in Cologne, then in Worms, English bishops confiscated every copy that they could find.25 The Lollards’ books, Luther’s writings, and Tyndale’s New Testament were lumped together as erroneous and dangerous material that deserved to be forbidden.26 In 1528, the discovery at the universities of heretical books caused Wolsey and Longland great concern. To supply English clergymen with sound material to preach to their audiences, Fisher recommended the Enchiridion by one of Luther’s greatest opponents, Johann Eck.

III. 1530

In an important episode that deserves to be better known, a paradoxical change in royal policy became evident in 1530.27 In the previous year, Convocation had begun to examine (p. 29) the heretical books that had been discovered at the universities. As Defender of the Faith, Henry was alarmed when he heard that English books ‘conteynyng many detestable errours and dampnable opynyons’ were being printed ‘beyond the see’ and brought into England. Now Henry began to position himself all over again as the heroic safeguard of his people, ‘like a noble and vertuouse prince’, by assuming ‘a wider responsibility for the spiritual affairs of his kingdom’.28

On 4 May 1530, Henry sent letters to the vice chancellors of the universities, bidding each of them to send a dozen ‘of the beste lerned men in divinitye’ to London, to arrive within a week so that they could examine the contents of ‘certayne printed bokes written in the Englyshe tonge’.29 In the letter that summoned the Cambridge men to London, Henry announced that he feared the devastating potential of erroneous books to ‘perverte and corrupte’ the opinions of ‘our people’, leading to ‘division, contention and debate, in the cheif and principall pointes and articles of our faithe and religion’ that could bring about ‘the dissolution of our common wealthe’ through ‘totall confusion and destruction’. What Almighty God expected Henry to provide in the governance of the realm were conditions that would encourage ‘the unite [unity] and agreement in oone persuasion of faythe and religion’.30 By the middle of May, a worried Bishop Richard Nixe of Norwich wrote to the Duke of Norfolk to explain that he had done all that he could to suppress ‘Arronious bokes in englyshe’, but that those he was examining for their heresies were encouraged because they had heard ‘that the king’s pleasure is the new testament in english shulde go forth, and men shulde have it, and rede it’.31

Another urgent reason that drove Henry to assemble the divines was as part of his efforts to discard Katherine of Aragon by establishing that the theological basis of their marriage was unsound. Only two months earlier, the members of the University of Cambridge’s Convocation had cast their ballots in a way that supported the legitimacy of Katherine’s marriage, but the King, with the contrivance of Hugh Latimer and others, had massaged the results to make them look as if the university supported the King’s (p. 30) cause instead.32 Henry thrust himself forward in the matter of heretical books even if his intervention threatened his bishops and the autonomy of the church in England so that he could exert, through them, increased pressure on the papacy to annul his marriage.33 Like More, Archbishop Warham found himself in an almost impossible predicament. More had defended Erasmus against Lee and probably would have supported a translation of the Bible into English if approved by statute and canon law. But now he and Warham had to decide how to best defend the church’s authority against the King’s growing cognizance of his own dominion over matters spiritual in his realm.

How were the dozen participants from each university selected? Henry’s letter instructed Cambridge’s vice chancellor William Buckmaster to ‘chose out and apointe’ them. Buckmaster had been badly embarrassed when the university voted on the question of the King’s marriage, and the selection of those who should go to London was a matter of the greatest sensitivity. We do not know how formally the members of the university met to ‘chose out’ their delegates, but ‘The Names of them whiche I dyd appointe’ were recorded on the surviving copy of the King’s letter.34 Among them, John Watson was the most eminent. He was master of Christ’s College and he had been one of Erasmus’s closest friends during the brief period that the great man had resided in Cambridge. But Watson had examined and denounced Luther’s books for Wolsey as long ago as 1521.35 Latimer was also chosen, and he had already strongly expressed his support for the King in his Great Matter. Buckmaster was present at court when Latimer preached his first sermon there only a few weeks earlier in April.36 Cranmer was not present to be added to the group, for he had been sent on embassy to Italy at the beginning of the year.37

Our most important source for the proceedings is ‘a writing’ or a ‘bill in englisshe’ that Warham prepared at Henry’s behest as an announcement to be read ‘by prechers abroade unto the people’. With some lengthy explanatory material, the bill was recorded in his Register. It was closely related to the royal proclamation that was issued in June 1530, and one borrowed from the other, though the account in Warham’s Register is the more revealing of the two.38 Warham presided over the ‘congregacion’.39 More, as chancellor of England, also took a leading role. In addition to the theologians from the universities, among those who were also called to join the proceedings were ‘the cheffe prelates and Clerkes of his Realme’:40 a stellar group of successful career clerics with deep connections to the regime, many of whom were already deeply involved in advancing the King’s (p. 31) marital cause. They included Stephen Gardiner, royal secretary; Richard Sampson, dean of the chapel royal; Richard Wolman, master of the Court of Requests; Nicholas Wilson, confessor to the King, and the Greek scholar William Latimer.41 Warham was also assisted by Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, who was about to leave London for his new see at Durham. Tunstall had elicited More’s assistance against Wyclif’s and Luther’s heresies by early 1528. More had begun to write against Tyndale in his Dyaloge of 1529.42 His latest printed work had already denounced one of the confiscated books, Simon Fish’s anonymous Supplicacyon for the Beggars.43

Beginning on 11 May 1530, the divines spent two weeks reading the suspected books to determine whether or not they were ‘contagious’ and ‘whether the oppynyons conteyned in them were agreeable to goddis works and doctrine or noo’.44 Among them were: Frith’s Revelation of Antichrist;45 The Summe of Scripture;46 and several works by Tyndale, as well as his Old and New Testaments.47 They listed the ‘heresies and errours’, or the ‘Errours blasphemys and heresies’ that they found in several of the works. With vehemence (but less detail), they referred to the ‘great errours and pestilent heresies’ that they observed in the translation of the Bible, which they summed up as having been ‘corrupted by William Tyndall’.48

The King joined them on 24 May in St Stephen’s Chapel in the Parliament house in Westminster, when their discussion turned on the delicate point of royal responsibility as it related to scripture in the vernacular. The potential for division and upheaval in the realm was perceived to be a real threat. Henry told the assembly that he had heard that some of his subjects held the opinion that it was his duty to cause ‘the scripture of God’ to be translated, and that he and the prelates ‘doo wronge in denying’ it. He asked every man there present ‘freely and frankly’ to show what could be proved by scripture itself on this point, and also by the teachings of the ancient fathers of the church. The King ‘openly protestid’ that he ‘might conforme himself therunto, minding to do his dutie towardes his people, as he wolde they shulde’ towards him.49

Although many of the details are lost to us, the ensuing deliberation was intense and involved. Scripture was sifted for illumination on this point. The opinions of ‘holy doctors and auctours’ were ‘alleged and red’. This process took a long while. In the proclamation that was released in June, the English people were told that the King, ‘in his own royal (p. 32) person’, with his primates and divines, ‘hath seriously and deeply, with great leisure and long deliberation, consulted, debated, insearched, and discussed the premisses’,50 until ‘all thynges sayde might be on both sidys and for bothe partes spoken, deduced and brought furth’.51

The release of the Bible in English had its champions: at least three or four of the theologians, Hugh Latimer among them, wanted scripture to be released in English. Latimer was so outspoken that his opinions were widely remarked upon afterward.52 That Henry made a forceful case in favour of the New Testament in English is hinted in the account of the meeting that Warham released. But the evangelicals were in the small minority, or as Latimer noted later, ‘the most part overcometh the better’.53 After every man had been asked, all authorities consulted, and all things had been said that could be said on the subject, a resolution was reached, or rather, a set of resolutions. The moment of decision was recorded as a defining moment of clarity: ‘fynally it appered that the having of the hole [sic] scripture in Englisshe is not necessarye to christen men’. It was not necessary because people could still ‘folowe suche leassons as the preacher teachith theym’. They might be as ‘lerned by his mowthe’ and as edified ‘spiritually in their soules’ as they would by scripture in written form. Therefore, the Bible in English was not necessary for all men to read. At certain earlier times in the church’s history, the fathers had thought that it was ‘mete and convenient’ for scripture to be ‘in the vulgar tongis and in the commen peoples handes’, but at other times they had judged it ‘not expedient’. Listening to the lessons taught by preachers in their sermons was perfectly adequate for the edification of their audiences. Salvation came from hearing, not reading.54 The King and his prelates were doing well in carrying out their responsibilities. They were protecting souls by forbidding an imperfect translation.

Perhaps Warham and More now wanted matters to go no further. But this was not the absolute end. Henry seized the opportunity to position himself in the tradition of great Old Testament kings like Hezekiah by promoting scripture. In the midst of their discussion, Henry ‘did openlye say and protest, that he wolde cause the newe testament to be by lerned men faithfully and purely translated into [the] englishe tongue’ so that he might ‘have it in his hands redy to be gevyn to his people’ once he was convinced by ‘their maners and behavor’ that they were ‘mete apt and convienent to receyve’ it. The onus was on his subjects. They had to demonstrate that they detested pernicious books of the sort that had just been examined. They had to show that they abhorred ‘thes hereses and newe opynyons’. The English people had to prove that they were willing to accept the teachings (p. 33) of their priests rather than pursue their own ‘fantasies’. They had to demonstrate that they were ‘so sober, quiet, meek and temperate’ that they could not be guilty of ‘misusing the gift of Scripture’. Only then would the King and his prelates recognize that their duty lay in giving the Word of God in English to the people.55 But this was a striking promise that Henry uttered, as well as a direct political appeal to good order. It was an early indication that the King intended to take a more direct role in the spiritual lives of his subjects in return for their loyalty.56

The next day, 25 May 1530, Henry entered Star Chamber and formally forbade heretical books, though he again promised that he would ask the best learned men of the universities to provide a translation of the New Testament to replace the corrupt version that he was prohibiting.57 On 22 June 1530, a royal proclamation prohibited books by Tyndale and Fish among others, and also the existing translations of the Old and New Testaments. Copies of the New or Old Testaments in English, being in print, or copied from books in print, were to be surrendered to the local bishop within fifteen days. But the proclamation repeated the King’s assertion that he ‘intendeth to provide that the Holy Scripture shall by great, learned, and Catholic persons [be] translated into the English tongue, if it shall then seem to his grace convenient so to be’. The only persons allowed to buy, receive, or keep the New or Old Testaments in English were those appointed by the King and the bishops for correcting or amending Tyndale’s translation.58

Henry’s promise was repeated again when Warham released his ‘bill’ for preachers to read to the laity. His statement incorporated a sensitive rendering of Henry’s concern for his people, for it was the King’s own ‘pleasure and determynation’ that his subjects ‘be notified by prechers’, and especially those theologians who had been called by the King to pass judgement on the heretical books. At the same time, the archbishop ensured that no one would be left in any doubt that the English New Testament would not be released now, or perhaps ever. Warham instructed preachers to declare that the people should not grudge or murmur against the ‘very trouthe’, which was that they could not ‘require or demaunde’ for ‘scripture to be divulged in thenglishe tonge’ unless their superiors thought ‘in their conscience it may doo yowe good’. Warham took the idea of disorder that Henry had already conveyed and now he stressed that the risk was far too great to proceed in translating scripture. As the Bible in English had been withheld in ages past, then the King and his prelates were actually doing great good for the realm by withholding it. Warham placed the blame for their decision on the English people themselves, for the people had demonstrated by their appetite for heretical reading matter that they were not ready to take the Word of God into their own hands. If the English New Testament would not benefit the realm, then those authorities would ‘doo amysse in sufferyng yowe to have it’.59

Not only did Archbishop Warham tune England’s pulpits in an attempt to prevent anyone from advocating the release of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, but he affixed a (p. 34) formal attestation to the proceedings, certified by his notaries Thomas Ashley, Richard Watkyns, and Mathew Greston, that provided the names of the most notable participants, and declared that they had approved of the decisions that were taken at Westminster. Latimer was embarrassed, for Warham’s announcement had the effect of making him publicly endorse a policy that was at odds with his real position that the people should be given the Bible in English as soon as the King allowed. Thus Warham won at least a partial victory over the evangelicals, and perhaps over the King as well. In effect, the archbishop appropriated the victory against Tyndale’s New Testament through his own representation of a consensus that did not exist.60

Towards the end of 1530, as Henry continued to be absorbed in the struggle to resolve his marital difficulties, he gathered his control over the Church in England. At Michaelmas, the first charges of praemunire were made against Fisher and other bishops, and they were followed by a general charge against the entire clergy for infringing on the King’s jurisdiction.61 But there was no immediate sign that Henry thought a ‘convienent’ time had arrived for a new translation of holy scripture.62 Wolsey died in disgrace at the end of November 1530, and at that time, Latimer circulated anonymously, among his friends, a satirical letter that he said he had addressed to the King. But it was nothing of the sort. Henry never saw Latimer’s letter (nor was he meant to see it). In reality, Latimer shared a clever jest that was meant to hearten those who had been disappointed in the turn that events had taken, and to repair his own reputation, privately, among his friends for seeming to endorse a policy that contradicted his actual intent. The text was a sensational reproof of the King. It warned Henry that his very soul was in jeopardy for not releasing the Bible in English ‘even today, before tomorrow’. Those ‘mischievous flatterers’ who had dissuaded the King from releasing the English New Testament in the summer had pressed forward their own deceitful ideas, ‘as they have done many times more’. Henry should not be so confident as ‘a defender of his faith’ for God would have it defended by no other means than by his Word. Nothing that the King could do that seemed good in his own sight would actually be in keeping with divine commandment ‘without the word of God’. The English Bible was essential, and the need for the people to have it was immediate. Henry’s initial desire to give the English Bible to his people should be an inseparable element of his kingship.63

IV. Great Labour

In succeeding years, as the terms of the royal supremacy over the English Church were codified, doing as the King wanted became the criterion for all subsequent Henrician Bible translations. Thomas Cranmer succeeded Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury in time to crown Anne Boleyn. Tyndale continued to revise his own work, and his most mature edition of the New Testament was printed in Antwerp late in 1534, the same year that the (p. 35) medieval laws that restricted the Bible in English were repealed by Parliament.64 In summer 1535, when Fisher and More were going to the block and the King put heavy emphasis on the dangerous ‘usurpations’ of the Bishop of Rome,65 the time was more ‘convenient’ for ‘great, learned, and Catholic persons’ to see that the New Testament was ‘thoroughlie corrected’.66 Cranmer had it ‘devided’ into ‘ix or x partes’, and ‘written large’, with wide spaces between each line, ‘in paper bokes’, which he distributed ‘unto the best lernyd bishopps, and other lernyd men’ so that they could make ‘a perfect correction’ of the text.67 Gardiner, now Bishop of Winchester, translated the Gospels of Luke and John, ‘wherin I have spent a gret labour’, as he informed Thomas Cromwell, in the midst of a full agenda of efforts to promote the royal supremacy.68 According to the famous story told by Cranmer’s secretary Ralph Morice, John Stokesley, Bishop of London (who was a superb scholar, adept in Hebrew as well as Greek), refused to correct the Acts of the Apostles, and returned his portion with the words: ‘I mervaile what my lorde of Canterbury meaneth, that thus abuseth the people in gyvyng them libertie to reade the scriptures, which doith nothing else but infect them with heryses’.69

Cranmer was able to send ‘a new translation’ of the Bible in a fresh printed edition to Cromwell in late summer 1537, with a request that Cromwell gain the King’s approval for it. This was what has become known as the ‘Matthew’ Bible, even though the work was mainly Tyndale’s, overseen following his execution the previous year by John Rogers and Miles Coverdale, and then issued under a pseudonym. Cranmer admitted that he was only semi-satisfied by the translation: ‘so far as I have read thereof, I like it better than any other translation heretofore made; yet not doubting but that there may and will be found some fault therein, as you know no man ever did or can do so well, but it may be from time to time amended’. Cranmer asked that it be licensed to be read of ‘every person’, with a wry comment about the difficulties involved in correcting the text: ‘until such time that we the bishops shall set forth a better translation, which I think will not be till a day after doomsday’.70 When he learned the King had given his permission to have it sold and read in England, his relief and pleasure, like Latimer’s, was unbounded.71

Although Cranmer could recommend to Cromwell privately that the Matthew Bible be released for ‘every person’ to read, his preface to the second edition of the Great Bible of 1540 (Tyndale’s work, edited again by Coverdale) was much more cautious. Though the preface was obviously influenced by Erasmus’s evocative Paraclesis, the potential for (p. 36) disobedience by members of the laity still concerned the archbishop. The previous year he had sent Lord Lisle in Calais a letter of clarification concerning the manner in which the Bible should be approached. Those who read loudly enough to disturb services ‘do much abuse’ the King’s intent in placing the Bible openly in parish churches. They were not supposed to ‘allure great multitudes of people together’ to hear them read, nor were they to interrupt worship. The Bible should only be read ‘in time convenient’, and ‘privately’ for the ‘amendment of the lives’ both of the people who read and for ‘such hearers as cannot themselves read’. The readers should read only the ‘simple and plain text’ as it ‘lieth printed in the book’, and they were not to interpret or expound the text to their listeners unless they had the specific authority to do so, as licensed preachers or other clergymen.72

In his preface to the Great Bible, Cranmer argued that those who refused to read the Bible or hear it read, like those who engaged in ‘inordinate reading, undiscreet speaking, contentious disputing’ through their ‘licentious living’ did ‘slander and hinder the word of God’. By citing long passages from the writings of Sts John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, Cranmer recommended a seemly restraint. Chrysostom was ‘ynough & suffyciente to persuade all’ who were not ‘perverslye sette in their awne wyllful opinion’ that ‘it is convenient and good’ that the scripture should be read or heard by all sort and kinds of people in the vulgar tongue, especially as the King ‘hath approved with his royall assente’ its setting forth. And even though the title-page proclaimed that the Old and New Testaments had been translated ‘after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke texts by the dylygent study by dyverse excellent learned men’, most of it was the work of William Tyndale.73

Take the book in hand, Chrysostom may have advised, but the Great Bible was not meant as a domestic book. Under the terms of the 1538 Injunctions, copies of the Great Bible were placed, somewhat ambiguously, in unfamiliar positions in the naves of churches and cathedrals, chained to desks or lecterns, where churchgoers could read them in loud voices and turn the pages themselves. In 1541, a proclamation again stipulated that English Bibles be set up in every parish church. But Bible reading by the laity in church, by men and especially women, was a conspicuous novelty that disturbed the Mass. The proclamation warned that no one should read the Bible ‘with loud and high voices’ during the celebration of Mass or other divine services, though the problem proved to be too much for the King to countenance.74 In 1543 the Act for the Advancement of True Religion forbade all men below the level of yeomanry from reading the Bible, and also all women, except those of the uppermost levels of society, who were permitted Holy Writ only in the strictest seclusion where no one could overhear them as they read.75 From 1543, most lay people were again excluded from handling the book. They had to learn the teachings of scripture by listening to the clergy as the text was read to them in the lessons, and expounded in homilies and sermons. Once more, the authority of priests and deacons over the people was enhanced. In Edward VI’s reign, Gardiner maintained that Cranmer had misrepresented St Gregory’s thinking to overemphasize the fact that the laity should read the Bible for themselves. That was not what Gregory meant, Gardiner argued, for poor men could (p. 37) not leave their other work to spend all of their time in studying scripture. The clergy must present scripture to the people.76 In the 1540s, Gardiner began plans for a fresh translation which would avoid the errors that he saw in the Great Bible. Another Bible was divided into parts in the Convocation House at Cranmer’s direction to be shared out among the bishops and divines.77 But that work was not completed. The Great Bible remained the most definitive translation for the English under Edward, and it continued in use in Elizabeth’s reign until it was revised again as the Bishops’ Bible. It informed, once more, the translation that was completed in 1611.78

Cranmer understood that true consensus, like a perfect translation, was elusive. So was possession of the treasure. The Bible has always been both a common and a contested jewel. In the sixteenth century bishops discovered that many of the old constraints were defeated. Holy scripture was seized by England’s princes to be poured into every ear if not given into every hand. Tyndale’s New Testament became the great gift of the English people from its kings.

Further Reading

Aston, Margaret. ‘Lap Books and Lectern Books: The Revelatory Book in the Reformation’, in R. N. Swanson (ed.), The Church and the Book, Studies in Church History, 38 (2004): 163–89.Find this resource:

    Marshall, Peter, and Alec Ryrie, eds. The Beginnings of English Protestantism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).Find this resource:

      Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible, ii. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).Find this resource:

        Hunt, Arnold. The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).Find this resource:

          Moore, Helen, and Julian Reid, eds. Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011).Find this resource:

            Morrissey, Mary. Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons 1558–1642 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).Find this resource:

              Nicolson, Adam. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).Find this resource:

                Wabuda, Susan. ‘The Woman with the Rock: The Controversy on Women and Bible Reading’, in Susan Wabuda and Caroline Litzenberger (eds), Belief and Practice in Reformation England: A Tribute to Patrick Collinson from his Students (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 40–59.Find this resource:


                  (*) This chapter is drawn from my forthcoming book, Hugh Latimer and the Reformation in England: Man and Myth. In quotations from manuscripts, I have silently expanded common abbreviations and I have modernized punctuation.

                  (1) Thomas [Cranmer], Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘A Prologue or Preface’, in The Bible. In Englyshe, 2nd edn of the Great Bible (London, 1540), ✠1r–✠3v, quotation at ✠2v; and reprinted in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr, 1556, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1846), 122.

                  (2) David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003); Lori Anne Ferrell, ‘The Preacher’s Bibles’, in Peter McCullough, Hugh Adlington, and Emma Rhatigan (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 21–33; and Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), ch. 3. See also Diarmaid MacCulloch and Elizabeth Solopova, ‘Before the King James Bible’, in Helen Moore and Julian Reed (eds), Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011), 12–39.

                  (3) Margaret Aston, ‘Lap Books and Lectern Books: The Revelatory Book in the Reformation’, in R. N. Swanson (ed.), The Church and the Book, Studies in Church History, 38 (2004): 163–89; and, in the same volume, Susan Wabuda, ‘Triple-Deckers and Eagle Lecterns: Church Furniture for the Book in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, 143–52.

                  (4) Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 93–102; Arnold Hunt, ‘The Lord’s Supper in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, 161 (1998): 60–1, 69.

                  (5) Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Matthew Milner, The Senses and the English Reformation (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); Susan Wabuda, Preaching during the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

                  (7) Anne Hudson, ‘Lollardy: The English Heresy?’, in The Lollards and their Books (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), 149.

                  (8) Statutes: (1382) 5 Ric. II, st. 2, c. 5; (1401) 2 Hen. IV, c. 15; (1414) 2 Hen. V, st. 1, c. 7. See also Susan Wabuda, ‘The Woman with the Rock: The Controversy on Women and Bible Reading’, in Wabuda and Caroline Litzenberger (eds), Belief and Practice in Reformation England: A Tribute to Patrick Collinson from his Students (Aldershot and Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998), 40–59.

                  (9) Cranmer, ‘Prologue’, The Bible [2nd edn of the Great Bible], ✠1r; Cranmer, Writings, 119. A vast literature on the history of the pre-Tyndale Bible has been summarized by MacCulloch and Solopova, ‘Before the King James Bible’, esp. 14–25.

                  (10) The confession of Hawisia Moon of Loddon, 1430, printed in Anne Hudson (ed.), Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 34–7.

                  (11) Patrick Collinson, ‘The English Conventicle’, in W. J. Sheils and Diana Woods (eds), Voluntary Religion, Studies in Church History, 23 (1986): 229–59; and Collinson, ‘Night Schools, Conventicles and Churches: Continuities and Discontinuities in Early Protestant Ecclesiology’, in Peter Marshall and Alec Ryrie (eds), The Beginnings of English Protestantism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 209–35.

                  (14) Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, 53–87, 209–65; and Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240–1570 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

                  (15) Patrick Collinson, ‘The Coherence of the Text: How it Hangeth Together: The Bible in Reformation England’, in W. P. Stephens (ed.), The Bible, the Reformation and the Church: Essays in Honour of James Anderson, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, supplement series, 105 (1995): 84–108.

                  (16) This is the translation from the Latin by John C. Olin, in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, ed. and tr. Olin (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 92–106, esp. 105–6.

                  (17) See Bob Scribner, ‘Heterodoxy, Literacy and Print in the Early German Reformation’, in Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (eds), Heresy and Literacy, 1000–1530 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 255–78.

                  (18) Margherita Morreale, ‘Vernacular Scriptures in Spain’, in G. W. H. Lampe (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible, ii. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 465–91; and, in the same volume, Louis Bouyer, ‘Erasmus in Relation to the Medieval Biblical Tradition’, 492–505.

                  (19) A Letter of Syr Tho. More Knight Impugnyge the Erronyouse Writing of John Fryth against the Blessed Sacrament of the Aultare (London: William Rastell, 1533), C4v; reprinted in The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, ed. Elizabeth Frances Rogers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), no. 190, at 446.

                  (20) Apologia Edouardi Leei contra quorundum calumnias and annotationes Edouardi Leei in annotationes noui testamenti Desiderii Erasmi (Paris: Egidii Gourmont [1520], CUL Td. 54. 28). For the most recent treatment of their rivalry, see Controversies: Apologia qua Respondet Invectivis Lei, Responsio Ad Annotationes Lei, ed. Jane E. Phillips, tr. Ericka Rummel, in The Collected Works of Erasmus, lxxii (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005). See also Claire Cross, ‘Lee, Edward (1481/2–1544)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), 2004, <>.

                  (21) Patrick Collinson, ‘The Bible, the Reformation and the English Language’, Douglas Southall Freeman Historical Review (Richmond, Va., 1999), 21–2.

                  (22) Plough boy: John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London: John Day, 1583), 1076. For one example of his title-pages among many: The Newe Testament, Dylygently Corrected and Compared with the Greke by William Tindale (Antwerp, 1534). Also included in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. George Townsend, v. 118–19.

                  (23) J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1968). See also J. J. Scarisbrick, ‘Warham, William (1450?–1532)’, ODNB, 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008, <>. Susan Wabuda, ‘The Reformation of the English Church under Henry VIII’, in Arthur L. Schwarz (ed.), Vivat Rex! An Exhibition Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Accession of Henry VIII (New York: Grolier Club, 2009), 30–44.

                  (24) Foxe (1583), 973–86; Acts and Monuments, iv. 219–46; Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), i, no. 85; Lollards of Coventry 1486–1522, ed. and tr. Shannon McSheffrey and Norman Tanner, Camden 5th ser. 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

                  (25) John Harryson [pseud. for John Bale], Yet a Course at the Romyshe Foxe ([Antwerp], 1543), 58r.

                  (26) See Johann Eck’s comprehensive denunciation of heresies in his Enchiridion locorum communium adversus Lutheranos (London, 1531) esp. G2v–G4r.

                  (27) This remarkable episode was not discussed in David Daniell’s William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), nor in any detail in his Bible in English, 165. Among the reasons for the meeting at Westminster in May 1530 not receiving adequate attention is the confusing manner in which the material was presented in the Townsend edition of Foxe, where it was divided between volumes v. 569–99 (incompletely) and vii. 499–506. See Louis A. Schuster, ‘Thomas More’s Polemical Career, 1523–1533’, in The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, Complete Works of St. Thomas More, viii/3. 1209–1215 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). For Anne Boleyn’s role in persuading Henry towards challenging the papacy through Tyndale’s works, see Maria Dowling, ‘Anne Boleyn and Reform’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 35 (1984): 30–46; and Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 160–7.

                  (28) The National Archives: Public Record Office SP 1/57, 104r–128r (LP, vol. 4(3), no. 6401); David Wilkins (ed.), Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hibernia (London, 1737), iii. 717–24. Defender of the Faith: Lambeth Palace Library, Warham’s Register, I, 182r, 185v. For ‘spiritual affairs of his kingdom’, see Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 252–4.

                  (29) The King’s letter to Cambridge: CCCC, MS 242, 17v–18v printed in John Lamb, A Collection of Letters, Statutes, and Other Documents, from the MS. Library of Corp. Christ. Coll., Illustrative of the History of the University of Cambridge, during the Period of the Reformation (London: John W. Parker, 1838), 26–7. Our chief source for events is Archbishop William Warham’s Register: LPL, Warham’s Register, I, 182r–186v, printed in Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 736; reprinted in Acts and Monuments, vii. 503–4. The ‘lerned men’: LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v.

                  (30) The King’s summons: CCCC, MS 242, 17v–18 v, printed in Lamb, 26–7. Also, Tudor Royal Proclamations, i, no. 129.

                  (31) Bishop Nixe to [the Duke of Norfolk], 14 May 1540: BL, Cotton MS Cleopatra. E. V, 389 (LP, vol. 4(3), no. 6385).

                  (32) CCCC, MS 106, 113–15, printed in Lamb, 20–4. Further details will be found in my forthcoming book, Hugh Latimer and the Reformation in England.

                  (34) The names of the Cambridge men appointed by Buckmaster were: John Watson, Edward Wigen, Edward Crome, Geoffrey Downes, Nicholas Shaxton, Hugh Latimer, John Thixtell, James Hutton, one Tylson, John Skippe, Nicholas Heath, and Ralph Bayne. CCCC, MS 242, 17 v–18 v; printed in Lamb, 26–7.

                  (35) Grace Book B II: Containing the Accounts of the Proctors of the University of Cambridge, ed. Mary Bateson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 92.

                  (36) CCCC, MS 106, 113–15, printed in Lamb, 22–3.

                  (37) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 47–53.

                  (39) Congregation: TNA: PRO SP 1/57, fol. 130r (LP, vol. 4(3), no. 6411); LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v.

                  (40) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 182r, 185r.

                  (41) This William Latymer was not the chaplain of Anne Boleyn. Among the others, as listed in Warham’s Register, were John Bell (future Bishop of Worcester) and Richard Dook (Archdeacon of Wiltshire). LPL, Warham’s Register I, 186r.

                  (42) Correspondence of More, no. 160. A Dyaloge of Syr Thomas More … Wherin be Treatyd Dyvers Maters, as of the Veneration & Worshyp of Ymages (London, June 1529), reprinted from May? 1530, and answered by Tyndale from Antwerp in 1531. See the comments by J. B. Trapp in More’s Apology in vol. ix of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. xxvi–xxviii.

                  (43) For More: [Simon Fish], A Supplicacyon for the Beggars ([Antwerp? 1529?]); answered by More in The Supplycacyon of Soulys (London, 1529).

                  (44) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v.

                  (45) John Frith, The Revelation of Antichrist ([Antwerp, 1529]).

                  (46) Henricus Bomelius, The Summe of the Holye Scripture, tr. Simon Fish ([Antwerp, 1529]).

                  (47) William Tyndale, That Faith the Mother of all Good Works Justifieth Us (The Parable of the Wicked Mammon) ([Antwerp, 1528]), and The Obedience of a Christen Man ([Antwerp, 1528]).

                  (48) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 182r–183r, 185r.

                  (49) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v.

                  (50) A Proclamation; Tudor Royal Proclamations, i, no. 129.

                  (51) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v.

                  (52) John Clyffe to Edmund Bonner, chaplain to Cardinal Wolsey, 29 May 1530: TNA: PRO SP 1/57r (LP, vol. 4(3), no. 6411).

                  (53) Hugh Latimer’s anonymous and open letter, supposedly to Henry VIII, 1 Dec. 1530: Sermons and Remains, ed. George Elwes Corrie (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1845), quotation at 305. Some speculations have been offered about those who shared Latimer’s views. He was probably supported by Edward Crome of Cambridge. J. F. Mozley, in William Tyndale (London: SPCK, 1937), 161, suggested William Latimer as a third, though he confused this Latimer with Anne Boleyn’s chaplain of the same name. In addition to Crome and Thixtell, Allan G. Chester suggested also Nicholas Shaxton as a strong possibility: Hugh Latimer: Apostle to the English (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954), 58.

                  (54) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 185v–186r.

                  (55) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 186r. For Gardiner’s view of Henry as another Hezekiah, The Letters of Stephen Gardiner, ed. James Arthur Muller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), 313.

                  (56) Wabuda, Preaching, 89–99; Ethan Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

                  (57) Wilkins, Concilia, iii. 740.

                  (59) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 186r.

                  (60) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 186r–186v.

                  (62) LPL, Warham’s Register I, 186r.

                  (63) Latimer, Remains, letter 3. Chester established from the four extant versions of the letter that it was written anonymously and was never meant to be read by the King. Hugh Latimer, 61–5.

                  (64) For Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament, see David Daniell, ‘Tyndale, William (c.1494–1536)’, ODNB, 2004; online edition, May 2011, <>. 25 Hen. VIII, c. 14. See John Guy, ‘The Legal Context of the Controversy: The Law of Heresy’ in The Debellation of Salem and Bizance, in Complete Works of St. Thomas More, x, ed. John Guy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 47–67.

                  (65) See my ‘Bishop John Longland’s Mandate to his Clergy, 1535’, The Library, 6th ser. 13 (1991): 255–61.

                  (67) British Library, Harley 422, fols. 87r–87v, printed in ‘The Answers of Mr. Thomas Lawney’ by Ralph Morice, in Narratives of the Days of the Reformation, ed. John Gough Nichols, Camden Society, 77 (1859): 277–8.

                  (68) Gardiner, Letters, no. 49. See also 313.

                  (69) BL MS Harley 422, fols. 87r–87v, printed in Morice, ‘The Answers of Mr. Thomas Lawney’, in Narratives of the Days of the Reformation, 277–8.

                  (70) Cranmer, Writings, 344–5; Matthew Bible: The Byble, which is all the Holy Scripture, tr. Thomas Matthew [pseud. for William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale] (Antwerp, 1537).

                  (71) Cranmer, Writings, 395–6.

                  (72) Cranmer, Writings, 390–2.

                  (73) The Great Bible, title-page and ✠2r–✠2v; Cranmer, Writings, 118–25; Aston, ‘Lap Books’, 180; Wabuda, Preaching, 99–106.

                  (75) Statutes of the Realm; Wabuda, ‘Woman with the Rock’, 40–59.

                  (76) Gardiner to Cranmer, Letters, nos. 124–5, esp. 313, 359.

                  (77) Gardiner to Cranmer, Letters, no. 124, at 313.

                  (78) Collinson, ‘The Bible and the English Language’, 20; Daniell, ‘William Tyndale’, ODNB; Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 58–9.