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Lambeth Palace Bible
(c) Lameth Palace Library

England's oldest printed Bible sheds new light on Reformation

Recent analysis of a copy of England's oldest printed Bible has shed new light on the process of the English Reformation.

The Bible, which was published in 1535 by Henry VIII's own printer, was written in Latin, the standard language of the Catholic Church, and has a preface written by the King himself. It is one of just seven remaining copies and is held in Lambeth Palace, the London residence of archbishops of Canterbury since the 13th century. A historian from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), Eyal Poleg, was studying the copy when he realised heavier sheets had been pasted on it, suggesting something underneath. With the help of a specialist in 3D X-ray imaging at QMUL’s School of Dentistry, Graham Davis, the Bible was scanned under long exposure to see what lay beneath.

Underneath the pasted paper lay a number of annotations from the 'Great Bible' of 1539. Commissioned by Thomas Cromwell, it was the first authorised edition of the Bible in English and has therefore always been closely associated with the English Reformation. The annotations were copied into the Bible between 1539 and 1549, and cover the period which included the Dissolution of the MonasteriesA set of administrative and legal processes between 1536 and 1541 that disbanded the Catholic monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. It including taking their income and property and dismissing their members. and the executions of Anne Boleyn and Thomas More. The annotations were covered with the paper in 1600.

The findings suggest there was no clear and defined cut-off point between CatholicismThe faith and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. and Protestantism during the English Reformation. Rather, it was a slow and gradual process, and not as clear-cut as we generally believe today. As Dr Poleg says:

Until recently, it was widely assumed that the ReformationThe split from the Roman Catholic Church of protestants, inspired by people such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli. caused a complete break, a Rubicon moment when people stopped being Catholics and accepted Protestantism, rejected saints, and replaced Latin with English. This Bible is a unique witness to a time when the conservative Latin and the reformistSupporting the European Reformation of religion, where Protestants split from Catholic beliefs and practices, or supporting reform in a more general way. English were used together, showing that the Reformation was a slow, complex, and gradual process.

A further small piece of history, which has helped trace the date and life of the book, was found on the back cover. It records a handwritten transaction between Mr William Cheffyn of Calais and Mr James Elys CutpursePickpocket - someone who steals from someone's pockets or purse. of London. Cutpurse promised to pay 20 shillings to Cheffyn or go to Marshalsea (a prison in Southwark). After further research, it was found that Cutpurse was hanged at Tyburn in July 1552.

You can find out more about the research here.

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).