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New light on Henry VIII’s Great Bible

The Great Bible, printed during Henry VIII’s reign, is often seen as the quintessential artefact of the English Reformation. Instigated by Thomas Cromwell, it was printed in Paris and London, and disseminated to parish churches across the realm. Two lavish presentation copies were printed on vellum for Cromwell and Henry. Currently at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the National Library of Wales (NLW), their woodcuts and title pages were hand-coloured by highly skilled painters and/or illuminators, whose identity is however unknown. Despite their importance for studies of art, religion and culture, these copies have received little in-depth scholarly analysis and have never been subjected to any technical or scientific examination.

The project involves the historical and scientific analysis of these two rare presentation copies. Initial research into the St John’s College copy has unearthed major discoveries, revealing how the Bible was transformed to accommodate the reality of the royal court, including the creation of hitherto unknown portraits of key personae (some painted professionally on separate pieces of vellum and then pasted onto the volume’s title pages at a slightly later moment in the production of this Bible). The project will undertake extensive cross-disciplinary research on both copies, shedding light on an outstanding artistic product of the Tudor court, but also on the uncertain course of the Henrician reformation, as well as the dense court politics towards the end of his reign.

Financial support through a CVC research grant will allow us to analyse the NLW copy of the Bible in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Analytical Laboratory in the coming months. Following the extremely fruitful examination of its sibling copy, the scientific analysis of this book is expected to shed further light on Tudor art, religion and politics.

Project information

Related publications

Eyal Poleg and Paola Ricciardi, How Thomas Cromwell used cut and paste to insert himself into Henry VIII’s Great Bible, The Conversation, 13 August 2020,

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