Cromwell's 'Great Bible'

A leaf from The Byble in Englyshe ... truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke textes, by the diligent studye of dyuers excellent lerned [men], printed by Thomas Petyt and Robert Redman for Thomas Berthelet in 1540 (320 x 217 mm)

In September 1538 a royal injunction decreed that every parish church in England should have ‘one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English’, kept in a place were parishioners might ‘most commodiously resort to the same and read it’. The cost was to be shared equally between the vicar and the parish. But the Bible version that most parishes acquired was not Matthew's.

Matthew's Bible had had its detractors. Some pointed out infelicities or even errors in the translation; others were offended by the inter-chapter notes which drew heavily on Tyndale and were said to smack of Lutheranism. So Thomas Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to revise and improve the Matthew Bible. The new version appeared in 1539 and became known as the Great Bible because of its size which made it suitable for use in churches.

My leaf is from a smaller edition of the Great Bible published early in the following year. It was the work of two London printers, commissioned by Thomas Berthelet who had premises in Fleet Street. Berthelet (yet another printer with a foreign-sounding name) had recently been appointed 'Prynter unto the Kynges grace' – official printer to King Henry VIIIth, in which role he received four pounds a year.

A feature of the Great Bible was its liberal sprinkling with pointing hands (manicules) printed in the margins and text – more than a dozen on this leaf alone. Coverdale originally intended these to cross-reference to explanatory notes given in a separate volume, but this never appeared and the surviving manicules merely draw attention to their absence.

At some stage in this leaf's history some corrosive liquid has fallen on it near the top, producing a hole and discolouring the surrounding paper. I thought at first this might have been the effect of candlewax, but the paper round the hole does not feel waxy so perhaps it was something else.

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