In 1539 Cromwell, under the approval of King Henry VIII, ordered the setting up of “the Holy Bible of the largest volume” which later became known as the Great Bible. It is referred to as the Great Bible some believe based on its massive size, others as it represents the only Bible in English ever to be authorized in England to be placed in churches. Unfortunately, the tremendous cost of printing this huge undertaking made the purchase price prohibitive for most churches other than those that were very large and well established. Our focus in this article is of course on the monumental woodcut which graces the General Title as well as the identical New Testament title page.
The ironies in this famous woodcut title page are endless. The historical significance of the Great Bible, is it being the first Bible in English authorized to be placed in churches. Even the center of the title proclaims “The Bible in English”. Yet how ironic that all but two of the scrolled words pronounced by the citizens and even God himself are all in Latin. The image projects two primary forces with King Henry VIII on the top third and a crowd of well- dressed yet seemingly bewildered people on the bottom third of the image. Yet no one appears to be touching this monumental Bible in English! They all seem to be simply praising the King in Latin instead of even listening to or reading from this precious new Bible in English which clearly they were not allowed to handle.
This massive, crowded, and highly detailed title page is thought to be created from the school of Holbein, or perhaps even by the master Holbein himself. This is not surprising as a large portion of Holbein’s career was spent as a portrait artist for none other than King Henry VIII. Many believe it took over one year to create at an enormous expense. With Henry VIII appearing prominently in the center, the artist has managed to squeeze in above him what appears to be a head and shoulders depiction of God providing perhaps his blessing of this historical event. From his mouth God quotes the scriptures of Isaiah 55:11 and Acts 13:22. How ironic that God himself had trouble getting in the picture so to speak. King Henry VIII is depicted as passing the Verbum Dei to his, at the time, trusted partners being Cromwell on the right side and Archbishop Cranmer on the left side of the image although both are respectfully a bit lower than the King. They are without their royal headgear and in a bareheaded humble state. They then appear again beside the panel in the center of the image this time in full regalia and facing outward. Their respective coat of arms are placed in wreaths beneath them. To demonstrate the line of power Cranmer is now passing down a more petite version of the “Verbum Dei” to a lower priest with the order “Feed ye Christ’s flock”, I Peter 5:2, and Cromwell in turn commands to what appears to be a nobleman “Eschew evil, and do good”, Psalm 34:14.
If you look closely another important and ironic message appears in this famous woodcut. One must remember at this time, and returning with the reign of Bloody Mary beginning only 11 years after, that owning or reading scripture in English was subject to imprisonment and perhaps even death. The most notorious prison for such heinous activity, Newgate Prison, is now shown in the lower portion of the woodcut. Perhaps an implied destination for those who failed to loudly praise the King in Latin, “Vivat Rex” in appreciation of receiving their beloved scripture in their vernacular language for the very first time.
The next event is clear evidence of just how costly this woodcut work of art must have been. You see in 1540 Cromwell lost his power, and eventually his head, for displeasing the King. Yet his full image was not removed or even altered from the woodcut, only a small blank circle now covers the space where his insignia coat of arms once was. The flawless November 1541 edition in the Payette Bible Collection shown here and on our home page shows this minor modification. This is noteworthy as it was not uncommon at the time to make massive changes or even complete obliterations of portions of a woodcut or title to comply with the rapidly changing political climate of the time.
In addition Thomas Cranmer, now Archbishop, also included a Preface to the Bible starting with the second edition in 1540, and encouraged the reading aloud of such Preface as well as the Bible itself. As a result of these events, the Great Bible is also referred to as Cranmer’s Bible. Based on the tremendous investment required to possess one of these rare editions, many churches who could afford a bound copy also physically chained the bible to the pulpit or to a metal pole. Hence another term, “the chained Bible” has also been used to refer to this first edition.
Another significant change can be noted in the November 1541 edition found in the Payette Collection. Not only does the central panel state this to be “the largest and greatest volume” (in fact this Nov 1541 edition is actually the largest of the seven editions produced) but it serves to re-clarify the position of King Henry VIII in no uncertain terms. He is now “supreme head of this his church” and is now referred to as “our most redoubted Prince and sovereign Lord King Henry the VIII.”