The History of the English Bible: The Great Bible of 1539

The Great Bible of 1539 is the first fully “authorized” Bible in English.  Its creation, production, distribution, and use in churches being decreed by the command of the king, Henry VIII.  The previous versions, Coverdale and Matthews, had simply be approved or licensed to be sold in England. It was no longer a crime to possess the Bible in the English language.  Some have insisted that the King James Bible was the first and only “authorized” Bible, but this simply is untrue.  The Great Bible, in many ways, stabilized the production of the Bible in English, and once allowed and placed into the churches the process could never be reversed and undone.


This is the first “authorized” version of the Bible in English. Also completed by Myles Coverdale, this Bible was called “Great” because of its size. It was also known as the “Whitchurch Bible” after the original publisher, the “Chained Bible” because of its being attached to the stands in the churches, and the “Cromwell Bible” after Thomas Cromwell (1485–1550)[1], who oversaw the work.

To call the politics of the English Reformation complex would be the most massive of understatements. There is often a tendency to view this period simplistically from only one angle. The German Reformation under Luther is often viewed as “spiritual” and the English Reformation under Henry VIII as “political.” This is to ignore the very real political intrigues surrounding Luther and to ignore the very real spirituality of Henry. The production of the Great Bible in 1539 shows this complexity at its greatest and shows the balance of political power and conservative piety that marked most of Henry’s reign. Greenslade summarizes this well:

The intricate story of the English Bible from 1535 is but one aspect of the story of the English Reformation. Apart from repudiating the papacy, Henry did not wish to move far doctrinally. But he approved some practical reforms and wanted to check superstition. He would consider restatement of doctrine in terms conducive to unity and was ready enough to exploit the religious convictions of others for his own political ends, for example by intermittent negotiation with German Protestants. Anne’s fall, therefore, which it marked (rather than caused) the end of the first round of negotiations with Germany and was soon followed by the mainly conservative Ten Articles (July 1536), did not provoke a sharp reaction. Indeed, the injunctions which accompanied the articles gave some encouragement to the reformers Jane Seymour was a Protestant, and Cromwell still more powerful. In the episcopal debate preceding the Bishop’s Book of 1537, Edward Foxe, a mediating theologian, could say” ‘The lay people do know the holy scripture better than many of us; and the Germans have made the text of the Bible so plain and easy by the Hebrew and Greek tongue that n many things may be better understood without any glosses at al than by all the commentaries of the doctors.’ Henry himself had instruction Convocation to determine all things by Scripture and not by custom and unwritten verities, a phrase which may suggest the influence of Cramner. About a vernacular Bible he was cautious, but open to persuasion. In 1537 Cromwell could tell Cramner that the king would authorize an English version which the archbishop had just submitted for license ‘until such time that we the bishops shall set forth a better translation which I think will not be till a day after doomsday.[2]

We have already met the two ministers most responsible for the Great Bible, the kings close advisor Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540) and the archbishop, Thomas Cramner (1489–1556). Cromwell had been both the architect and general contractor of the break of England with Rome, carrying out Henry’s larger vision, in so doing, Cromwell implemented the larger vision moving the church in the direction of Protestantism along with Cramner.

Both Cromwell and Cramner realized that the work of Tyndale (whom both acknowledged as a genius in linguistics and translation) was an important step in securing an English church separate from the power of Rome. With Myles Coverdale now returned to England, the pair had the perfect man to organize a new translation of the Bible into English that Henry could “call his own” and place into the churches by royal decree and the authority of Cramner as Archbishop of Canterbury. The plan was for a not so much a new translation, but a thorough revision and updating of the Matthew’s Bible (most of which was Tyndale in disguise and Coverdale). The work was to be done in Paris and printed by Grafton and Whitchurch at their excellent presses there. The best printers were in Paris at this time and such an arrangement was fairly common. The Bible was to be produced in a large folio size and in such quantity that essentially every church in England could be supplied (as well as the personal chapels of important families).

Coverdale began his work in 1537 and printing began in 1538. There was an initial problem with the British Ambassador to France, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. Although Gardiner had been Cardinal Wolsey’s spokesman at the Vatican on behalf on Henry’s marriage annulment from Catherine, he was vigorously opposed to the Reformation and a vernacular translation of the Bible. When he began to actively hinder the production Coverdale and Grafton sent word to Cromwell. Cromwell engineered Gardiner’s recall, removal from the ambassadorial post, and replacement with the new Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner (1500–69).[3]

However, the peace and progress was short-lived. The French “Inquisitor General” seized 2500 completed copied of the Bible and Coverdale, Grafton, and Whitchurch had to flee back to England. During the next year there was a series of adventures, including a chase in the open sea and a protracted legal engagement with over the seizure of a ship with unbound pages from the printer.

Ultimately the Great Bible reached the English parish churches beginning in 1539, remarkably only 13 years after Tyndale “illegal” Bible, the Great Bible came with the full authority, authorization, and encouragement of Henry VIII, now not only the de facto leader of the English Church, but also the de jure. One of the nicknames for the Great Bible, is The Chained Bible, because it was often chained to the podium in front of the pulpit. In some circles this nickname has taken on a negative connotation as symbolic of the Scriptures being “chained” to keep them away from the people an in the control of the church. That’s really romanticized nonsense however; these bibles were expensive and while not entirely portable, they could be stolen. They were secured with a “chain” or cable to keep them secure, not isolated. These were large volumes (14 x 9 inches) and they were used for public reading and the liturgical aspects of a service, not by the person delivering the sermon. As Bruce notes:

Many bishops, even some who were by no means friendly to the principles of the Reformation, encouraged their clergy to possess and study the English Bible. Some went further than that: Nicolas Shaxton, bishop of Salisbury, required his clergy, early in 1538, to see to it that by Whit Sunday of that year an English Bible should be chained to the desk in every parish church throughout the diocese, in order that literate parishioners might read, and illiterate ones hear, ‘wholesome doctrine and comfort for their souls.”[4]

In fact the practice of the preacher having a Bible in the pulpit when they are preaching is a relatively modern convention. The idea of an extemporaneous sermon (that is not read from a manuscript) would be been unheard of and even highly improper more than 100 years ago.

When the Great Bible was finally produced, the title page is an elaborate woodcut that has Henry on his throne handing the Bible to Cramner with his right hand and to Cromwell with his left hand. Below them the masses are crying out “God Save the King!” and above God is looking down approvingly and proclaims: “I have found a man after my own heart who shall perform all my desire” (Acts 13:22). Interestingly enough, all of the “word balloons” in the woodcut have the speech by God and Henry in Latin. The title page was slowly changed as Cromwell fell out of favor. In the 1540 edition his arms were removed and by the fourth and sixth editions removed his likeness removed entirely. Interestingly enough in the 1540 edition (the 4th edition) the preface was re-written and the charge of carrying out the King’s instruction that the Bible be used in his whole realm was given to Bishop Cuthbert of Durham; the same Cuthbert Tunstall who 17 years earlier as Bishop of London had been central to the story of William Tyndale.

The Great Bible was a good solid translation. Coverdale’s lack of facility in Greek and Hebrew did mean that he was mainly limited to Latin and German sources. But this was politically advantageous, as the conservative and pro-Catholic faction of the bishops would have rebelled at anything that connected it to Tyndale. He did modernize the portions of Tyndale and as we noted in an earlier essay his work in Psalms, despite not knowing Hebrew, was particularly strong and his metrical sense made for an excellent English wording for singing the Psalms. Daniell called Coverdale an “inspired choice” to head the project and states, “Coverdale’s skill with English spoken rhythms would ensure the Bible in English sounded well in stone churches.”[5] Tyndale’s genius was in English prose and creating a translation in English in the manner in which people actually spoke. Coverdale’s genius was in English poetry, rhyme and meter and making the poetic sections of the OT read and more importantly at that time, sing, properly.[6] In fact Coverdale’s Psalms became so entrenched in English Churches that they would be brought back into the Bishop’s Bible at a major revision, as English churchgoers viewed the original Psalms in the Bishop’s as “unsingable”.

Although authorized by the Henry VIII, he soon began to put restrictions on its use and possession. This was mainly due to his more pious nature. The English translations had become quite popular and the text was beginning to find it’s way into everyday speech, literature, and even popular songs. However, some of the “popular” songs of the day were often drinking songs from the local public houses. Henry apparently was exceptionally offended by a couple of the ones he heard and decided the masses were profaning the Bible. There was also the problem that was reported to Cramner that people were reading the Bible out loud in the public services, often while the sermon was bring preached. Cramner had to also issue decrees forbidding this practice as well as unauthorized “readings” and “expositions” during the week by those not “qualified” or licensed.  While today we are used to anyone, anywhere, regardless of training (or even skill) being able to lead a Bible study, preach a sermon, or even write a book; this was not the case well into the 18th century, when a preaching “license” was still required.

By the end of his reign he had decree that the Bible could only be read in church, owned by upper class families, and all marginal notations were blacked out. Shortly before his death he also outlawed the use of any Bible except the Great Bible, which led to many of the copies of the previous versions being destroyed.

As for Myles Coverdale, although he would have some minor involvement in the production of the Bishop’s Bible before his death in 1569, in many ways he reached the pinnacle of his career with the Great Bible; at least within England itself. In 1553, Edward VI died and a Catholic revival began under the reign of Mary, Coverdale was arrested and in danger of execution, but because of the intercession of brother-in-law, the chaplain of the King of Denmark, the Danish government put pressure on Mary[7] and Coverdale and his wife were allowed to go into exile (for the third time). In 1558 Coverdale settled in Geneva and had another role to play in another Bible, The Geneva Bible.



[1] Who should not be confused with Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) later Lord Protector of the short lived English Republic. Oliver Cromwell was distantly related, through Thomas Cromwell’s sister.

[2] S. L. Greenslade (ed), The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge UK: The Cambridge University Press, 1963), 149–50.

[3] Interestingly enough Bonner would later rejoin Rome and under Mary was known as “Bloody Bonner” for his persecutions of Protestants. Bonner, like Gardiner, came to reject the royal supremacy in the English Church in favor of the Pope. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 Bonner was persona non grata and ultimately died in the Tower of London.

[4] F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 67. This reference also makes it clear that the idea of “chaining” a Bible to the desk predated the Great Bible.

[5] David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 200.

[6] Hebrew poetry is actually based on parallelism and not rhyme and meter, a concept that was still not well recognized in Biblical studies. Coverdale and even the later King James translators in places tend to obscure this in their translations as rhyme and meter are superimposed onto the text; but their work was still vital as their translation made memorizing the Scripture easier to the English reader.

[7] England was still not an empire yet and Mary’s hold on the throne was tenuous, she and her main advisor, Cardinal Reginald Pole, simply could not afford to offend and possibly go to war with Denmark, which at the time was the far superior navel power..