The Great Bible (Paris and London, 1539)

The Great Bible, so called because of its size, was the first royally commissioned printed Bible in English. Many copies were produced, but this is one of only two known copies printed on parchment and beautifully illuminated. These may be the two referred to in a letter from Miles Coverdale and Richard Grafton, who were superintending the printing of the Great Bible in Paris, to Thomas Cromwell on 23 June 1538: 'we have here sent unto your lordship ii ensamples, on parchment, wherein we entende to prynt one for the kynges grace [Henry VIII], and another for your lordship ...' (quoted in L.A. Sheppard 'A vellum copy of the Great Bible, 1539', reprinted from the National Library of Wales journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1939, p. 10). This copy is thought to be the one made for Cromwell. It appears to have come to the Library from John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, who claimed kinship with the Cromwell family (see R.F. Scott's Notes from the Records of St John's College, Cambridge Third series, 1906-1913, p.583).

The title page to the Hagiographia shows Henry VIII, seated on his throne, presenting a Bible in either hand to clerics on the one side and laymen on the other. Below to the left and right are Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Cromwell distributing Bibles. This picture conveyed an important political message: that the Pope's authority over the Church in England had been replaced by Henry VIII's royal supremacy, and that the Bible should be accessible to the poorest subjects in the realm. Also shown here is the title page to the New Testament, with scenes from the life of Christ.