The Byble in Englyshe

Eighty years elapsed between the appearance of Gutenberg's Latin Bible and the publication of the first complete printed Bible in English. It was translated and edited by a Yorkshireman, Miles Coverdale, drawing on previous translations by William Tyndale and others, and printed in 1535 probably in Zurich or Cologne. The first edition of this Coverdale Bible to be produced in England appeared two years later and was the work of James Nicolson of Southwark, though some sources say all he did was import ready-printed pages from the continent*

Nicolson was permitted to declare in his edition that it was 'Set forth with the Kynges moost gracious licence', which was something of a breakthrough. Since 1414 a law had been in place in England under which anyone found reading the scriptures in the mother tongue would 'forfeit land, catel, lif and goodes from their heyres for ever'. Tyndale himself was executed for heresy. But that all changed when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.  English Bibles went from being banned to being required reading and in 1538 Henry's Secretary Thomas Cromwell directed that a large English Bible be placed in every church in the land, so that parishioners might 'most commodiously resort to the same and read it'. Those who could not read could listen to it being read.

Between 1535 and 1611, when the so-called Authorised (or 'King James') Version appeared, some 125 editions of the Bible in English were produced, according to a list produced by the Revd Henry Cotton in 1821. Versions such as the 'Great Bible' and the 'Geneva Bible' appeared in multiple editions over several years and differing versions were often in circulation simultaneously. Leaves from several of these follow here.

Much of Tyndale and Coverdale's original wording survived right through until 1611. The opening words of Tyndale's Book of Genesis were In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ... . By 1611 these had only evolved into In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.


*Nicolson, by the way, had earlier in his career been one of the glaziers, probably from the Netherlands, who made the stained glass windows for King's College Chapel in Cambridge.