On 22 September 1568 Archbishop Matthew Parker wrote to William Cecil informing him of the completion of a new Bible translation. Four hundred and fifty years later, Dr Karen Attar, curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, takes a close look at ‘The holie Byble’ through copies held in the library.

September 2018 marks the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Bishops’ Bible, so dubbed because it was, at least in part, translated by English bishops. Less frequently, it has been termed ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Bible’, as the only new Bible translation carried out in England and issued during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Its hallmark is beauty, with a concomitant cost when first published of 27 s.8 d. It was lavishly ornamented with decorative initial letters, title pages with portraits, maps, and other illustrations, such that David Daniell was moved to declare: ‘There is no sixteenth-century English Bible quite so rich, even sumptuous, as this first 1568 Bishops’ Bible’ (The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (2003), p. 344). Meanwhile, William Thomas Whitley went so far as to describe it as ‘the most handsome edition of the Bible that has ever appeared’ (The English Bible under the Tudor Sovereigns (1937), p. 106).

Unfortunately, the quality of the content did not match the Bible’s appearance. Thomas Cranmer wanted the English bishops to produce a complete scholarly and carefully orthodox revision that would be acceptable to the new Church of England authorities. He failed in his endeavour, lamenting that the bishops would complete the task the day after Doomsday.

It was left to his successor but one as Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, to lead the process and to undertake more work than any other single reviser, translating Genesis, Exodus, Mathew, Mark, all the Pauline epistles except for 1 Corinthians, and the Letter to the Hebrews, and supplying preliminary editorial matter. Parker’s final list of translators includes three cathedral officers (one prebend and two deans, covering seven books between them).

Possibly some of the bishops allegedly involved in the translation process delegated the work to those better versed in Hebrew and Greek. Some bishops were less conscientious than others. The bishops of Chichester and Norwich lifted the text of their assigned portion, the Apocrypha, directly from the Great Bible of 1540. Overall, the bishops, who were not interested in spreading God’s word in the English tongue, in their amendments wrote poor prose and through inadequate knowledge of the source languages generally marred previous versions: ‘the work of third-rate scholars and second-rate writers’ (Gerald Hammond, 1982).

A couple of Parker’s aims were to mark ‘unedifying’ passages, such as genealogies, which should not be read in public, and to sanitise Old Testament words which might offend through ‘lightness or obscenity’. The second edition, of 1572 (left), included scholarly revisions to the New Testament suggested by Giles Lawrence, Professor of Greek at Oxford, and new decorated initials.

Parker wanted the Queen to authorise the Bishops’ Bible as the only one to be used in churches, but she refused to do so. Possibly this was in the awareness that its scholarship was inferior to that of the avowedly Protestant Geneva Bible (1560), and an instruction by the province of Canterbury in 1571 that deans and churchwardens should see that the Bishops’ Bible was in all cathedrals and churches was weakened by the qualification: ‘if it can be done conveniently’.

Thus the Bishops’ Bible ran through only 36 editions between 1568 and 1616 (its final appearance), far fewer than the Geneva Bible. It failed for standard market reasons, because at the time of publication the Geneva version was already in the field and was better and cheaper. Yet it has a significance beyond its worth in that the text of the 1572 Bishops’ Bible was the basis for the King James Bible of 1611.

Senate House Library has two editions of the Bishops’ Bible, the second folio and an early quarto edition, dated tentatively to 1573, which lacks most of the adornment of its folio predecessors. The latter was formerly owned by the businessman and bibliographer Francis Fry (1803-1886), who from about 1850 onwards collected English Bibles and worked on them bibliographically. This copy bears his inscription, from his home of Cotham (Bristol) in May 1880’, and his signed note: ‘This is a rare edition of the Bishops’ Version when perfect. I only know one perfect copy. This has a facsimile title from my copy. This is perfect from the Com. Prayer to the end.’

In a year in which the University of London is celebrating women, the connection to this Bible with Queen Elizabeth as the leading Englishwoman of the day, featured on the title pages of both editions (although the title page of this copy of the 1572 edition is also a facsimile), is especially relevant.

These copies enjoy a second female connection. They are two of 400 or so English and American Bibles and related works acquired by Ethel Mary Wood (1876–1970), the daughter of Quintin Hogg. They jostle for notice in her collection with a mediaeval manuscript, the Geneva, Coverdale and King James Bibles, a facsimile of a tiny pocket Bible taken by Cromwellian soldiers to war, and a commentary on the Ten Commandments printed in 1521 by one of England’s earliest printers, Wynkyn de Worde. Take a look!

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Cover image taken from the folio of 1572 B