The Quiet, Mild-Mannered Translator
  One of the major characters in the production of several of the earliest English Language Bibles was Miles Coverdale. Coverdale was born in 1488 in Yorkshire, England (in the district of 'Coverdale' -- naturally). After studies at Cambridge, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1514. Later he returned to Cambridge to enter an Augustinian monastery there. Following additional studies, he received a 'Bachelor of Canon Law' degree. It was at Cambridge that Coverdale became acquainted with Thomas Cromwell -- who would become one of the most powerful statesmen of the time, and Coverdale's patron. Influenced by Reformation viewpoints, Coverdale abandoned the Augustiunian Order and in 1528 he left England for Germany. It was at this point in his life, following his break with the Catholic Church, that he began to seriously consider translating the Bible into English.

While in Germany, Coverdale began his translation. He was neither a Hebrew nor Greek scholar, but he was an excellent editor, gathering the best translations he could find and modifying passages to create a text that would read smoothly, yet be acceptable to Church hierarchy. To this end, Coverdale had no problems taking the work of others and including it in his Bible; this included the work of William Tyndale, who was working on his own translation at the time. Coverdale and Tyndale first met in Hamburg, Germany while each was busy on their respective translation. They became good friends, and it is possible that Coverdale may have even helped Tyndale with his translation of the Pentateuch.

Miles Coverdale
Miles Coverdale
(Sure looks meek)

Coverdale was an interesting translator. He was modest, gentle and agreeable — always considering the interests of others before his own. He worked quietly, with no expression of the burning zeal that folks like Tyndale always showed. But his marvelous capacity for harmony, in spite of his lack of scholarship, led him to create a Bible that was highly accurate to the original languages, yet easy to read and understand. His use of the English Language to secure beauty, harmony and melody attests to his skillfullness as an editor. The Coverdale Bible was basically a compilation of Tyndale's published works, combined with English translations of several German and Latin versions.

Even though William Tyndale was soon to be imprisoned and subsequently executed for publishing an English-language Bible, times were changing in the 1530's. The growing popular demand for an English Bible caused Henry to soften his stand a bit. In fact, in 1534, King Henry was petitioned that "the Holy Scripture be translated into the vulgar English tongue .. and be delivered to the people for their instruction." Henry VIII never did give explicit approval for the printing or circulation of the Coverdale Bible — but he didn't forbid it either. So without either royal sanction or prohibition, the first edition of the Coverdale Bible was released in 1535. It was immediately very popular.

The First Complete English Bible
  Up to this time there had only been two English versions of the Bible. The first was by John Wycliffe, but he had only translated the New Testament — and that was way back in the 1380's. The other version was by William Tyndale, but he had not completed the Old Testament before he was arrested and executed. So when the Coverdale Bible was published in 1535, it was the first time the entire Bible was available in the English Language.

Not much was documented about the actual publication of the first Coverdale Bible, and many details remain obscure. It was probably printed in Zurich (Switzerland), but even this fact cannot be established for certain. The Bible had 560 pages, about 8-inches by 12½-inches in size. The text was in a German-style English typeface, in two columns of 57 lines each. As had been tradition for centuries, the intial letter of the first word of each chapter was large and bold. Contrary to Tyndale's Bibles, Coverdale eliminated all notes; it was partly because of his scathing notes that Tyndale languished in jail awaiting execution. So Coverdale, wanting to avoid controversy (and possible imprisonment), included only cross references; it was just never his style to encourage dissension.

Coverdale Bible Title Page
Coverdale Bible
Title Page

[Detailed View]

The Main Title Page of the Coverdale Bible deserves special note. Click the picture to the left to see this page and read about its many features. This was the first Bible with such an elaborate Title Page, but it was hardly the last. Almost every English Bible that followed took their cue from Coverdale and included a highly ornamental Title Page. In the first edition, a flowery dedication was addressed to "the most victorious Prince and our most gracious sovereign Lord, King Henry VIII and his dearest and just wife, and most virtuous Princess, Queen Anne." In the second edition of 1537 the Queen's name was changed to "Jane." (Don't forget that Henry went through quite a few Queens during his reign.) In fact, some copies of Coverdale's first edition title page have been found with the name "Queen Anne" was scatched off, and replaced by hand with the name "Queen Jane". (They were concerned about political correctness even back then.)

The Bible's introductory pages also included a denunciation the Pope. This was an unabashed attempt to humor King Henry, who "disliked the Pope with high passion." In fact, it was the Pope's refusal to grant Henry a divorce from his queen so that he could marry again, that split England from the Vatican and caused the creation of the Anglican Church.

Coverdale New Testament Title Page
New Testament
Title Page

[Detailed View]

The Biblical text of the Coverdale Bible was divided into six sections — the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetical Books, Prophets, Apocrypha and the New Testament. Each of these, with the exception of the Pentateuch and the Poetical Books, had a separate Title Page with illustriative woodcuts. Click on the page at the right to see an example. The Coverdale Bible was the first to include pictures with the Bible text. There were 68 different woodcuts, appearing some 158 places. This, of course, means that some woodcuts were used more than once. In fact, the one of St. Paul was included 11 times!

Coverdale printed the Aprocyphal Books in their own separate section, rather than scattering them all over the Old Testament — a practice that was continued in Protestant Bibles for many centuries. Some of Coverdale's translations are quaint. One of the most famous being Psalm 91:5 — "Thou shalt not need to be afraid for any bugges at night." "Bugges" could mean either "bugs" (highly unpleasant in a dark room), or "Boogie", like the "Boogie Man." One of Coverdale's renderings remains to this day: In William Tyndale's Bible the Lord's Prayer was translated "Forgive us our trespasses." It was Coverdale that gave us "Forgive us our debts."

The Coverdale Bible was reprinted twice in 1537, once in 1550, and again in 1553. It was never fully sanctioned by either Church or State. But, as the first almost-legal English Bible, it became highly important — many of its translations being included in the great King James Bible 75 years later. As for Coverdale — he shows up again later, with the publication of the Great Bible.

Use the Menu on the left to view actual pages from a Coverdale Bible.