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Coverdale Bible

Zurich : C. Froschover, 1550.

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In 1534, the new English Church with Henry VIII as its head, petitioned , at the Convocation of Canterbury, for an English translation of the scriptures to be produced. By denying the supremacy of the Papacy, Henry had raised the scriptures above the authority of Rome, making it imperative that they be published. The King, as supreme ecclesiastical head reserved the sole right to authorize publication of the English Bible. It was Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) who was to produce this, the first complete translation being published in 1535.

Coverdale, born in Yorkshire and educated at Cambridge, was an Augustinian Friar. His patron was Thomas Cromwell. As his beliefs moved more and more towards the Reformation however he was forced to leave England and spent many years on the Continent. It is known that in 1529 for example, he was in Hamburg where he assisted William Tyndale with his translation of the Pentateuch.

Coverdale's Bible was printed, probably at Marburg, in 1535, and was inscribed to Henry, "our Moses". Coverdale sent copies of his Bible to England for review by the King. Henry VIII turned it over to various Bishops for comment. When they replied that it contained many errors Henry asked if it contained any heresies. Answered in the negative it was given Royal permission to circulate.Two editions printed in England were issued in 1537, one of which claims Royal licence, the rupture with Rome now being complete. Though Henry changed his mind about it after he had Anne Boleyn, who strongly supported it, executed, the book itself was not prohibited.

Coverdale is quite open about the sources from which he worked - the Latin Vulgate, Luther, Tyndale's New Testament, the Latin version of Pagnini, and Zwingli's Zurich Bible of 1531. On the title page he says it "was faithfully and truly translated out of Douche [i.e German] and Latyn". He does not profess to have translated from Greek or Hebrew originals.He reprinted Tyndale's text almost without alteration but from Chronicles to Malachi his own translation forms the text. Coverdale wrote beautiful melodious prose, no more so than in the Psalter which was used in the Book of Common Prayer and has come down to today. While in revision of this book in 1662, the Gospels, Epistles and other portions of scripture were taken from the Authorised version, the Psalms as translated by Coverdale were retained as being smoother, and more amenable to musical treatment. Many of the most famous phrases such as "Thou anointest my head with oil", "the valley of the shadow of death", "sufficient unto the day", and "I am as sounding brass" all come from Coverdale.

Owing to his unaggressive character he was never officially condemned as a heretic, so his Bible was allowed to circulate freely. Coverdale returned home and in 1551 became the Bishop of Exeter. His episcopal career was shortlived however for on the accession of Mary in 1553 he was deprived of his see. He was allowed to leave the country on the intercession of the King of Denmark and did not return until 1559, after the death of Mary.

Great Bible (1539)

London : J. Cawood, 1569

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As the English Reformation gained momentum, the need was felt for a dignified Bible of its own and Thomas Cromwell, as the King's vice-regent, determined to produce a volume which should, as far as possible, meet the demands of the reforming and conservative wings of the Church. He wisely handed the task to Miles Coverdale. Coverale set about revising earlier versions suchs as Matthew's Bible, deleting Rogers' somewhat aggressive notes, and working with the aid of Sebastian Munster's Latin translation of the Old Testament of 1534-5, Erasmus' Latin version, the Vulgate and the Complutensian Polyglot of 1520.

Coverdale worked under Cromwell's direct patronage, hence the book is sometimes known as "Cromwell's Bible". It is also known as "Cramner's Version", although the famous Archbishop had little if anything to do with its preparation beyond adding the prologue which first appears in the 1540 edition. Its most common name however is the Great Bible because of the sheer size of most of the printings.

In order to obtain such a splendid and sumptuous book, Henry VIII obtained permission from Francis I for printing to be done in Paris. Grafton and Whitchurch, the publishers, entrusted the work to Francis Regnault. A considerable potion had been printed when the Inquisition seized the press and ordered the suppression of the work. Coverdale and Grafton, who were in Paris to supervise the work through the press, had to flee for their lives. It was only following intervention by the English ambassador that the necessary manuscripts, presses, printing types and paper were allowed to be brought over to England, but not the sheets already printed. These were sold as scrap or waste paper. A large number of these were purchased by an English haberdasher and brought to England in four large vats. Printing was resumed in London and completed in April 1539 square gold grounds.

The Great Bible had more powerful backing than any previous version and the reading of any other Bibles, without express dispensation, was banned on pain of one month's imprisonment. The second edition proclaimed, "This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches", and the clergy were ordered to see that every parish church obtained a copy.

"One boke of the whole Bible of the largest volume in Englysshe and have the same sett up in summe convenient place within thechurche that he has the cure of, whereat his parishioners may most commodious resort to the same and rede yt".

But the clergy could only read a chapter, and only one chapter, to the congregation every Sunday or Holy Day, meaning it would take nearly a generation to go through the whole work and not surprisingly met with mixed reception. It is typical of the English character that they were hostile to the book inasmuch as it was being forced upon them but nevertheless this placing of a Bible in every church was a great event, so much so that an edict had to be issued in 1541 rebuking those who read or discuss it "with loud and high voices" while the Mass was being celebrated.

Seven editions of the Great Bible were to be issued between 1539 and 1541 and it was last printed in 1569.


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