In 1517, Martin Luther kick-started the Reformation in Europe. The rest of the century (and much of the next) would be dominated by the struggle between protestant and catholic. True, England sided with the protestants in the end, but it’s often overlooked just how late and reluctant a decision this was. Henry VIII enjoyed pretty much everything about Roman Catholicism, except the Roman bit – his chief gripe was with the Pope’s claim to political as well as spiritual power. Henry tore England from the papacy in 1534 (when he declared himself head of the English Church), but was keen to keep hold of everything else catholic, including the ‘bells and smells’, elaborate choral music, and the Latin language.
However, there were reformers around him, bending his ear: chiefly Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, and the infamous second wife Anne Boleyn, all nagging Henry to take the English reformation further than just booting the pope out of England. What they wanted most of all was a bible in the English language, so that the common people, who spoke no Latin, could understand it. In fact, most of clergy didn’t speak much Latin either – they would simply read from the Latin bible and then explain from the pulpit what it meant. Naturally, this wasn’t terribly effective as a teaching method if the priest didn’t understand it either.
Henry caved, and in 1539 his Great Bible was printed. The splendid irony to the story is that much of the English translation was by William Tyndale – an arch-reformer who had been brutally persecuted by Henry and driven to the continent, where he was later burnt at the stake. It turned out, though, that Tyndale’s translation was really rather good, so the English authorities adopted it, changed a few of the overly-protestant bits, supplemented it with a few bits Tyndale hadn’t got around to translating yet, and claimed it as their own, hoping nobody would notice.
The elaborate title page illustration depicts Henry on a grand throne at the top (rather larger and more impressive than God, hovering meekly above him) handing the word of God to the bishops on his right (notable is Archbishop Cranmer) and to his ministers on his left (Thomas Cromwell). Lower down, we see Cranmer, in turn, handing it to the lower clergy, and Cromwell to the common people. Beneath Cranmer we see his coat of arms. But beneath Cromwell we see a blank circle – the only dead space in this otherwise busy picture. Why? This book came off the press in 1540, by which time Cromwell was headless. He had annoyed the king by pushing his power as chancellor, and the reformation, too far, and his coat of arms was expunged from history. After the reforming decade of the 1530s, the 1540s marked a return to religious conservatism and English Catholicism in all but papacy. The Great Bible survived, though, and a mint-condition example is one of Bristol Cathedral’s finest treasures – a relic of perhaps the most turbulent and fascinating period of English history.
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Image right: Henry VIII depicted in stained glass, in the East Cloister of Bristol Cathedral