Which Was the First Authorized English Bible?

In the years 1536-1539, the battle for the Bible was finally won in England. The soldiers in the front line of this battle were William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale, John Rogers, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer. Between them, and with the hard won cooperation of King Henry VIII, these men gave us three whole English Bibles: Coverdale’s of 1535, the 1537 Matthew Bible, and the 1539 Great Bible.

The story of these men and their work is woven together in my book, The Story of the Matthew Bible, due out in early 2018. One of the things I looked into was the question, which of these Reformation Bibles was the first authorized English Bible? I was frustrated by the disagreement I found among historians. Some assert firmly that it was the Matthew Bible, and others say only the Great Bible was ever truly authorized. So which was it, and why the confusion?

The Matthew Bible

Many of my readers will know that in 1537 the Matthew Bible arrived in England from Antwerp, where it had been illegally printed. This Bible contained the combined translations of Tyndale and Coverdale, compiled and annotated by John Rogers. The name ‘Matthew’ derives from the title page, which stated that the Scriptures were translated by ‘Thomas Matthew,’ a fictitious name used to conceal the involvement of William Tyndale, whose works were banned. A copy of the Matthew Bible was given to Archbishop Cranmer. He examined it, and wrote to his friend Thomas Cromwell, Vice-Regent to King Henry, asking him to seek the King’s consent for it to go forth. When the King granted his approval in the summer of 1537, it was a historic day for England.

Coverdale’s Bible

But the fact is that the year before, early in 1536, the King had approved Coverdale’s Bible. This was also a whole Bible, containing the New and Old Testaments along with the Apocrypha. Coverdale translated it mainly from Martin Luther’s German version. When Henry permitted it to be bought, sold, and used in the Church, this was also a big day – a huge day, in fact. Now, after centuries of darkness, and all the vicious persecutions of Lollards and Lutherans, England received the word of God lawfully in her own tongue.

However, Coverdale’s accomplishment is often overlooked. For example, take the famous story about Tyndale’s last words before he was garrotted and killed in Brussels, in October 1536. His last prayer was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” It is commonly held that this was a prayer for English Scriptures, and was answered the next year when the King received the Matthew Bible. However, when Tyndale was killed, Coverdale’s Bible had already been circulating for months. Therefore, either Tyndale did not know that his prayer had already been answered, or it has been misunderstood.

The Great Bible

Not long after the reception of the Matthew Bible in England in 1537, Henry desired a new Bible in order to appease the conservatives, who were complaining loudly about the existing versions. As a result, Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to revise the Matthew Bible. This revision, commonly known as the Great Bible, was published in 1539. It established vernacular Scriptures firmly in the Church.

How did the King authorize the different Bibles?

The inscription on the title page of the 1537 Matthew Bible, shown above, tells us that it was “Set forth with the kinges most gracyous lycēce,” or, in modern spelling, “Set forth with the King’s most gracious licence.” But did this licence mean the Matthew Bible was “authorized,” and if so, was it the first so to be?

I discovered that the answer lies in how the noun ‘licence’ and the past participle ‘authorized’ were used in the early 16th century. A little more research into the title pages of the three Bibles also assisted to answer the question.

Licence: In the early modern English period ‘licence’ meant simply ‘leave’ or ‘permission.’ Nowadays, therefore, we would say the Matthew Bible was “set forth with the King’s most gracious permission.” But as we know, the King had already granted permission for Coverdale’s Bible to go forth, and the title page of a 1537 (third) printing of Coverdale’s Bible also states that it was set forth with the King’s licence.

Authorized: (1) In an old, specialized sense, authorized meant “set up as authoritative, endowed with authority.” This is a rare use now. (2) A second, more common meaning is “sanctioned by authority,” which simply means permitted. This, of course, is the same thing as ‘licensed,’ and explains the confusion.

The title page in the fourth edition of the Great Bible, printed in 1541 (earlier editions were silent), says it was “ auctorised [authorized] and apoynted by the commaundement of oure moost redoubted prynce and soueraygne Lorde, Kynge Henrye … ” Without doubt, “auctorised” was used here in the old, specialized sense. Nowadays we might say it was commissioned and appointed for use in the Church.  Only the Great Bible was authorized in this special way. However, it is also fully correct to say that the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles were authorized, if we mean only that they had received authoritative sanction. In fact, they were not only sanctioned, but in 1538, both Cromwell and Cranmer issued injunctions requiring English Bibles to be placed in church lecterns, and directing clergy to read them, and also to encourage the people to read them. Parish records reveal that both Bibles were purchased after these injunctions were issued.

In conclusion, Coverdale’s 1535 Bible was the first authorized English version in the common sense, but in the special sense, the honour must go to the Great Bible. However, this does not diminish the significance of the Matthew Bible. Coverdale used it as his base for the Great Bible, and in this way it proved the dominant translation, and its Scriptures were largely preserved.

To avoid confusion, given the double meaning of ‘authorized,’ it might be best to simply avoid the word. We may describe Coverdale’s and Rogers’ Bibles as licensed, which is understandable, though archaic, and the Great Bible as the first to be commissioned for the Church. But in the eyes of God, man’s sanction, permission, or commission count for nothing, except when he uses it, as he did in the early Reformation, so that the people could freely have his word again.


©Ruth Magnusson Davis, November 2017

May be copied and distributed without charge, provided no alterations are made, with credit to:

Ruth M. Davis, Founder and Editor, New Matthew Bible Project, www.newmatthewbible.org, www.octobertestament.com

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