Hidden Text in England’s Oldest Printed Bible Revealed

March 24, 2016

Long-hidden annotations in a Henry VIII-era Bible reveal the messy, gradual process of the Protestant Reformation.

The handwritten notes were just discovered in a Latin Bible published in 1535 by Henry VIII’s printer. There are only seven surviving copies of this edition, which features a preface by the king himself. The version with the annotations is in the Lambeth Palace Library in London.

“This Bible at first glance seems like a blank copy, so nothing interesting there, and very clean, which is the opposite of what we want it to be,” said Queen Mary University of London historian Eyal Poleg, who is writing a book on the history of the Bible in England and who uses handwritten notes in Bibles to learn about how they were used.

But a closer look revealed that heavy paper had been glued over the margins of the Bible, hiding writing beneath. That writing would turn out to illustrate the Reformation in a nutshell.

Religious history

The 1535 Bible was published in a transitional time for religion in England. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Possessing an unlicensed translation of the Bible in English was a crime punishable by death. English scholar William Tyndale had nevertheless been working on a translation from Hebrew and Greek since the 1520s, a feat that earned him an execution by strangling in 1536.

(Translating the Bible had long been dangerous work. John Wycliffe was the first person to attempt a full English translation, in the 1380s. At least one of his followers was burnt at the stake, the fire lit with manuscripts of the English pages. Wycliffe himself died of natural causes, but his bones were later removed from consecrated ground, burned and cast into the river by the order of the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Constance.)

Only a few years after publication of the 1535 Latin Bible, Henry VIII showed signs the Church of England was moving away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church — called the English Reformation. He was already on the outs with the Roman Catholic Church after the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, had declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England, and was well on his way toward dissolving England’s monasteries, a process said to have funded Henry VIII’s military campaigns. [Family Ties: 8 Truly Dysfunctional Royal Families]

Poleg’s discovery of the annotations written during this period was mere happenstance. He was at the Lambeth Palace Library in order to examine one of the two 1535 printed Latin Bibles there. But he accidentally ordered the wrong one. While he was waiting for the librarian to retrieve the version he’d meant to order, he took a closer look at the volume in his hands. In the margins of one page, he noticed something odd.

“I saw there was a very small hole, and a few letters were peeking out,” Poleg told Live Science. Someone had pasted heavy paper over the margins.

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