Researcher finds Protestant Reformation secrets hidden in England’s oldest print bible

The Protestant Reformation turned 16th-century Europe on its head as religious power shifted and splintered across the continent in one fell swoop—or at least, many people tend to think of it that way. But new evidence found hidden inside a copy of the first Bible printed in England shows that this cultural revolution took longer than we thought.

Finding hidden notes

The Bible in question is one of seven surviving copies left, all of which were published by Henry VIII’s printer, Thomas Bethelet in July of 1535. The preface of the Bible, which can be found in Lambeth Palace Library, was written by King Henry himself—but the rest was deceptively normal.

“At first glance it appears to be a clean copy, with little to no marginal annotations and signs of reading,” wrote the researcher who made the discovery, Dr. Eyal Poleg of Queen Mary University of London, in a blog post for the library.

“A more careful look reveals a hidden layer.  At empty spaces at the end of prologues and sections, or at blank margins, a very thick paper was carefully pasted.  This was done so professionally that previous librarians have placed the library stamp and wrote the shelf mark on this pasted paper.”

Naturally, Dr. Poleg wondered why paper had been pasted over blank sections of the Bible, and so with the library’s permission, he began a non-obtrusive experiment.

“Using long exposures and a light-sheet, Steph Eeles, the Library’s resourceful photographer, was able to reveal some of the happening underneath,” wrote Poleg. “It revealed a mass of marginal annotations. However, as the images merged texts from both sides of the paper, they were virtually indecipherable.”

This is the scanned page with both sides of annotations visible (Credit

This is the scanned page with both sides of annotations visible (Credit Lambeth Palace Library)

And so Dr. Poleg recruited Dr. Graham Davis, who specializes in 3D X-ray imaging at Queen Mary’s School of Dentistry. Dr. Davis wrote a new piece of software that took the merged photographs and subtracted one layer of annotations from the other, producing clear pictures of one side of each page.

Some of the annotations after the images were processed (Credit: Lambeth Palace Library)

Some of the annotations after the images were processed (Credit: Lambeth Palace Library)

Hidden notes

As it turns out, the annotations come from the Great Bible of Thomas Cromwell—the first authorized version of the Bible in English, often seen as the epitome of the English Reformation. Up until the point in which it was printed, Latin has been the language of all things related to the Church; services by law were conducted in Latin, and English Bibles had been strictly forbidden in England. However, the majority of those attending church and reading the Bible could not speak Latin, thus requiring the Church and priests to act as mediators.

These English annotations, meanwhile, were written between the year the Great Bible was printed, 1539, and 1549—the most tumultuous years of King Henry’s reign, including moving away from the Church of Rome, suppression of the monasteries, the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the executions of Anne Boleyn and Thomas More. Their discovery indicates that the Reformation was more of a gradual shift in lieu of a sudden cultural flip.

“Until recently, it was widely assumed that the Reformation caused a complete break, a Rubicon moment when people stopped being Catholics and accepted Protestantism, rejected saints, and replaced Latin with English,” said Poleg in a Queen Mary statement. “This Bible is a unique witness to a time when the conservative Latin and the reformist English were used together, showing that the Reformation was a slow, complex, and gradual process.”

The annotations were obscured in 1600, and they remained hidden until 2015. Interestingly, Dr. Poleg was able to trace the path of the book during the intervening years, when Latin Bibles had more or less ceased to be used entirely. For example, on the back page, he discovered a handwritten communication between two men: a William Cheffyn of Calais, and a James Elys Cutpurse (with his last name indicating his profession—pickpocket) of London.

Cutpurse had written an agreement with Cheffyn, in which he had promised to pay him 20 shillings or else go to a notorious prison known as Southwark. Poleg discovered in archival research that Cutpurse was later hanged, in July of 1552.

“Beyond Mr Cutpurse’s illustrious occupation, the fact that we know when he died is significant. It allows us to date and trace the journey of the book with remarkable accuracy – the transaction obviously couldn’t have taken place after his death,” said Poleg.

“The book is a unique witness to the course of Henry’s Reformation,” he added. “Printed in 1535 by the King’s printer and with Henry’s preface, within a few short years the situation had shifted dramatically. The Latin Bible was altered to accommodate reformist English, and the book became a testimony to the greyscale between English and Latin in that murky period between 1539 and 1549.

“Just three years later things were more certain. Monastic libraries were dissolved, and Latin liturgy was irrelevant. Our Bible found its way to lay hands, completing a remarkably swift descent in prominence from Royal text to recorder of thievery.”


Image credit: Lambeth Palace Library