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Discovery casts new light on Cromwell Bible

07 August 2020

Alterations ‘were Tudor equivalent of Photoshopping’

Ian McKee

The edges of Cromwell’s portrait are barely noticeable, but reveal that it was painted separately and glued on to the vellum page

The edges of Cromwell’s portrait are barely noticeable, but reveal that it was painted separately and glued on to the vellum page

PEOPLE should be less quick to “idolise the past” in the light of discoveries about a Tudor-era Bible, a senior lecturer in material history at Queen Mary University of London, Dr Eyal Poleg, has said.

It was announced at the end of last month that a copy of the Great Bible of 1539, held by St John’s College, Cambridge, contained Tudor-era alterations showing Thomas Cromwell’s last known portrait before he was executed. The researchers have said that it demonstrates the significance of Cromwell’s political manoeuvrings at the time.

Ian MckeeThe title page of the St John’s College Great Bible. Thomas Cromwell is seen receiving a copy of the Bible from Henry VIII (top, right), and a figure that is likely to be Richard Rich hands out Bibles in the illustration beneath. Jane Seymour’s portrait appears in the bottom right-hand corner

The title page of the Great Bible, often seen as an emblem of the English Reformation, depicts Henry VIII handing copies of the Bible to Cromwell and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer and a man long assumed to be Cromwell are shown giving the book to members of the clergy and lay nobility.

Dr Paola Ricciardi, a senior research scientist at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, however, who had used an X-ray spectrometer and a digital microscope to analyse the Bible’s title page, found that several alterations were made to the Bible in the 16th century. Cromwell’s portrait had been glued over one illustration, while in another his image had been replaced by a different royal adviser. A portrait of Jane Seymour, Henry’s favoured third wife, was also added to the Bible.

Dr Poleg, who interpreted the findings and whose book A Material History of the Bible: England 1200-1553 is due to be published by OUP on 27 August, said: “The Great Bible is usually seen as a landmark of reform, distributed in every parish church at a time when most churches did not have a copy of the Bible, and a huge revolution in how people accessed the Bible. However, this transformation was very gradual, and the recent discoveries we have made really fit into this new understanding.”

He continued: “There’s a visual echo of Henry’s life through the image of his wife. Thomas Cromwell made the modification, as Henry did not really support the English Bible, and Cromwell was trying to sell it to him. Cromwell and Cranmer were the ones pushing for the Great Bible, but Henry was ambivalent about distributing it among the laity.

“Therefore, being shown to receive a Bible from Henry was a much safer position to be in. Cromwell was doing something very smart: changing small things to reposition himself on the title page, and, in the process, putting himself politically in the right place.”

Ian McKeeClose-up of the woman whose picture was transformed into Jane Seymour

Kathryn McKee, special-collections librarian and sub-librarian at St John’s, said: “I’ve looked at the St John’s Great Bible title page very many times and I had no idea that those faces were pasted on later. I have always told people, ‘This is Cromwell receiving the Bible; this is Cromwell giving the Bible,’ because that’s what the story is of the Great Bible. That this one should be different is extraordinary.”

Dr Poleg said: “Legislation was passed later on to stop women and the ‘lower orders’ from reading the Bible. Henry VIII had expected people to receive the Bible and have it reaffirm their sense of loyalty to the Crown; however, he was also worried that, if people started reading it, they might discuss and dispute it, and therefore make their own sense of it, in a way that did not favour him.

“What happened on these title pages is a kind of ‘photo-shopping’. We should not idolise the past by seeing this time as a clear transition from Catholicism to Anglicanism. People struggled with their religious identity then, as they do today. I am hoping that people will see the English Reformation as a long process rather than a single moment.”

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