A Rocky Start
  Work on the Great Bible began in 1536 when Thomas Cromwell, chief spokesman for King Henry VIII in Parliament, asked his friend Miles Coverdale (of Coverdale Bible fame), and publisher Richard Grafton, to create a new revision based on the Matthew's Bible.
National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Cromwell
Started the Project

Coverdale accepted — as if he really had much choice. You see, Cromwell was the second most powerful man in England (next to the King himself). In 1533 Cromwell had become Secretary to the King, in 1534 he became Principal Secretary and Master of the Rolls, and in 1536 Cromwell was named Keeper of the Privy Seal — not the kind of man you want to make mad. Saying "no" to Cromwell would be as good as saying "no" to King Henry himself — not a way to keep one's head!

Cromwell always remained involved in the production of the Great Bible. So while Coverdale worked on the actual revision, Cromwell decided that this Bible would be the most sumptuous book ever printed up to that time.
Miles Coverdale
Miles Coverdale
Wrote the Revision

He felt that England had neither enough high-quality paper nor sufficiently skilled printers to undertake such a massive project. So arrangements were made for the new revision to be printed in France.

The first pages of the Great Bible were printed in Paris in 1538. However shortly thereafter a rift began to develop between England and France, and soon France found herself in the middle of an Inquisition by the Roman Catholic Church. To the Catholic Church, the only valid Bible was the Latin Vulgate; it dealt harshly with publishers of other versions or translations. If the newly-printed pages of the Great Bible were found, they would be destroyed and the printers would be imprisoned. There was no way that work could continue in such an environment. So everything was shipped and/or smuggled from France back to England — the presses, the type, the already-printed pages, even the printers themselves. And work just picked up in England right where it left off in France. At last in April, 1539 the Great Bible was finally released.

A Beautiful Volume
  The Great Bible certainly fulfilled Cromwell's requirement
Title Page of the Great Bible
Title Page
[Detailed View]

that it be the world's most beautiful and impressive book. The size of its pages was immense -- 11 inches wide by 16½ inches long and it quickly became known as the "Great Bible" because of this. And although it was possible to buy an unbound copy (i.e., just the pages), most Great Bibles were sold with rich, lush, expensive bindings.

The Great Bible was impressive right from the start. It had a finely-engraved Title Page in which Christ is pictured blessing Henry VIII, who is handing out copies of the new Bible to Cromwell (representing the State) and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (representing the Church). Although this Title Page said that the revision was done by "diverse, excellent, learned men", the Great Bible was basically a revision done by just Coverdale himself, consulting the works of others, as needed.

The first edition of the Great Bible is sometimes known as "Cromwell's Bible", because Thomas Cromwell was the driving force behind the project. A special, personalized copy on vellum was printed especially for him. The copy was enhanced by beautiful colored pictures and skillful calligraphy. If you're ever at Cambridge in England, you can admire Cromwell's special copy, which on display at St. John's College.

A Best Seller
  Even before the Great Bible was released, the clergy was ordered by a certain date to "provide one book of the whole Bible in the largest volume, in English, set up in some convenient place within the church that ye have care of; whereat your paritioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it." As a result, copies of the Great Bible — chained to the wall to prevent theft — were placed in the Churches of English cities everywhere.

The Great Bible was a major step in spreading the knowledge of the Bible throughout England. Not only were a lot of people reading the Great Bible -- a good many of them could even afford to buy a copy. By 1541, more people were reading the Bible than were reading popular romances. (Who'd have thought — Harlequin Romances even back then.) Historians of the time give glowing accounts of the eagerness with which the Bible began to be read by the English People. "Englishmen have now in hand in every church and place, almost every man the Holy Bible and New Testament in their mother tongue, instead of the old fabulous and fantastical books of the Table Round, Launcelot du Lac, etc."

So popular did the reading of the English Bible in church become, that the King had to issue a proclamation forbidding the private reading of English Scriptures aloud during church services. Obviously the paritioners preferred reading the new Bible to listening to a sermon. (Note: the roots of boring sermons go way back.)

Falling from Grace
  But alas, this time of general Bible reading was short-lived. King Henry was a fickle man, and soon his attitude about this new translation began to change. After 7 printings in just 2 years, the presses were shut down, per orders from the King. And in 1543, with the Great Bible just 4 years old, it was enacted by Parliament that "no manner of persons, after the first of October, should take upon them to read openly to others in any church or open assembly within any of the King's Dominions, the Bible or any part of the Scripture in English, unless he is so appointed thereunto by the King ... on pain of suffering one hundred month's imprisonment." And women not of noble birth were forbidden to read the English Bible at any time, even in private.

A Lasting Legacy
  However, neither King Henry nor his proclamations could last forever. And times would come again when Bible reading would once more flourish in England. Although it had only a brief time in the spotlight, the Great Bible was a powerful influence on both its readers, and on future Bible translations. In fact, the Anglican Church's Book of Common Prayer still uses the Great Bible's text for the Book of Psalms.

But most importantly, the Great Bible was the first Bible to cause real excitement among common people — most of whom had just learned to read. Reading God's Word for one's self in one's own language was a new and exciting experience for English-speaking people in the 1540's. Bible knowledge spread throughout the land as more people read, or had read to them, the Scriptures in English. And none of Henry's proclamations ever came close to quenching the desire of his people to read and understand the Holy Writ of God. However, several more years were to pass before the English Bible could again be read freely by all.

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