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FCN series on the Payette Bibles continues
Great Bible made English version more available
A close-up of the New Testament title page to the 1541 Great Bible attributed to the famous artist and engraver Holbein. It is estimated that more than one year was needed to create this work of art, which is used on the General and New Testament title page and then never seen again. In the center of the upper portion, we see Henry VIII depicted and displayed prominently taking up most of the real estate of the page. Almost as an afterthought, a depiction of God is squeezed in above the King. Flanked below King Henry VIII, on the left, is Cranmer and on the right, Cromwell. While not shown in this photo, Cromwell had been beheaded a year prior. But based on the tremendous cost of commissioning Holbein to create this work of art, shockingly Cromwell remains on the page, though his crest is removed by a small blank circle. This New Testament title, as well as the identical General Title, represent perhaps the most sought-after title pages produced. - photo by Micah Green

About this series

Charles Payette’s Bible collection — numbering more than 3,000 books, wood blocks and other rare artifacts — is considered one of the world’s finest and rarest in private hands. In fact, some books in his collection are the only known ones in existence. Over the next 12 weeks, the Forsyth County resident is offering a closer look at some of the Bibles.



Visit to watch a video of Charles Payette talking about The Great Bible.


Next week

In the third of a 12-part series on the Payette Bibles, the FCN will offer a look at the 1548-49 Erasmus English Latin Paraphrase of the Gospels.

FORSYTH COUNTY — The second installment of The Payette English Bible Collection Series, is the 1539-41 Great Bible Folio Sixth Edition.

This Bible is magnificent, both in its physical appearance (as the largest of the seven editions) and for the symbolic role it played in the events of the English Reformation.

Indeed, as the first ever Bible authorized to be placed in the largest churches, the importance of this particular Bible is monumental.

The cost of purchasing one copy of this edition was so high that only a few hundred churches were able to acquire a edition, and many times had to accept unbound as the cost of a bound copy would equate to roughly 17 years of a gentleman’s annual salary. 

To set the historical stage, recall this is after the error of King Henry VIII, King of England, in authorizing the Mathews Bible. The Roman Catholic Church, while still extremely powerful, is certainly up against some opposition in the powerful king.

Simply put — and, of course, the history is quite complex — Henry wanted to end his marriage to wife, Catherine of Aragon. While many assume Henry wanted a divorce, what he really wanted was to have his marriage annulled.

Some background information: Catherine was actually first married to Henry’s older brother Arthur. After just a few months of marriage, Arthur died.

Henry and Catherine’s parents (from Spain) wanted to keep the peace between their two countries, so arranged for Henry to marry Catherine when he turned 18.

By all accounts, when Henry was a young man, he was handsome and athletic, and loved by his subjects. Also by all accounts, he desperately wanted a male heir, being convinced the only way for England to survive and thrive was if there was a strong king at the helm.

Catherine did give Henry an heir, but daughter Mary was not what Henry truly desired. Catherine had more children, and even a few sons, but none survived.

Henry decided he needed a different wife, and even had one in mind, Anne Boleyn.

Henry had Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England, write to Pope Clement asking him to annul the marriage on the grounds that Catherine had already been married before. The Pope refused and this set off events that would change the world.

Henry, of course, did not believe anybody had the right to tell him what he could and could not do — not even the Pope. In fact, Henry believed he had “divine right” and that his authority came directly from God.

Henry fired Wolsey and appointed Sir Thomas More, who was a lawyer, judge and accomplished writer. Henry no doubt felt More would “side” with him and be a good advocate.

As Henry began issuing laws and decrees limiting the power and influence of the church and instead putting the power square in the hands of the monarchy, More resigned.

Henry, who had not lived with Catherine in two years, decided to secretly marry Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant with their child, and did so in January 1533.

A few days later, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the highest ranking English bishop, made it official by declaring Henry and Catherine’s marriage null and void.

In June 1533, Boleyn was crowned Queen of England. The very next month, Pope Clement excommunicated Henry VIII.

Henry continued to break with the Catholic Church by issuing the Act of Succession, which basically said Henry had to agree with any law that had to do with the church, and that it was no longer heresy to deny the authority of the pope.

Sir Thomas More would not sign an oath affirming the act, and was thus thrown into the Tower of London and soon executed for his “heresies.”

Partly to unify England, but moreso to spite the Catholic Church and those who condemned him in the papacy, Henry ordered the Bible printed in English and then placed in all churches, fulfilling the dream of Tyndale but sadly not until after three years of his execution.

This edition, exquisitely rebound in the 19th century, the green morocco over thick pasteboard is nothing short of spectacular. The edges and covers are gilded, with narrow ruled borders, scrolled borders, and scroll centerpiece.

This book is 100 percent complete in its original form — containing no other leaves from other editions. That is extremely rare, as most do.

In fact, in his landmark comparative work on the Great Bible, published in 1865, Francis Fry found just 32 complete, correct copies of the 1539-41 editions out of the 146 known copies to exist which he examined.

This is one of those copies that he personally certified and so stated in a long handwritten note still attached. This particular copy resided in the Cardiff Castle, with its beautiful full color book plate still attached, but was used in Fry’s analysis.

This copy also maintains the original Title Page, which Fry notes is extremely rare as this elaborate woodcut was designed by the infamous Hahns Holbein.

It prominently features Henry VIII in the center, with a depiction of God squeezed into the top, flanked by Cromwell and Cranmer.

In this 1541 edition Cromwell had been missing his head since 1540, so as a result his coat of arms was simply removed by placing a small blank circle on the title yet his full figure depiction remains.

The Holbein work of art was just too valuable to be altered in any other way. By examining every leaf and carefully comparing it to the other known copies in existence Fry devised elaborate tests to determine that copies were either “mixed” or not — and his conclusions have been accepted by bibliographers and cataloguers for over 85 years.

The Great Bible has three main distinctions.

First, it was the only Bible ever to be “authorized” and printed in Britain, although the first few copies of the 1539 first edition were printed in France. Each leaf was later smuggled back to England, many times in the lining of hats.

Second, just thirteen years after Tyndale’s 1526 English New Testament had been “smuggled” into England, and three years after Tyndale’s first complete Bible in English (featured in the FCN on Aug. 10), the Great Bible made the English Bible much more available to the people.

Third, though Coverdale leaned more toward a Latin direction when he translated his first edition in 1535, the average person would have “gotten” the Tyndale prose and knew of its true origin.

When Queen Mary took the throne (Edward VI became king at 9, but died six years later), she was on a mission to convert England back to Catholicism.

In doing so, she made sure the Bibles were no longer in the churches and, if confiscated, burned. Tolerance was not a part of Mary’s philosophy; those who refused to convert, were burned at the stake.

The printers of the Great Bible were ordered before a council and imprisoned. Clearly, during Mary’s reign it was a great setback for the Great Bible and most copies were destroyed.

The next edition of the Great Bible appeared in 1549, (Payette also possesses one of these rare editions, and it too is in pristine condition and believed to have been owned by Cranmer himself), two years after the accession of Edward VI.

There was chaos in England, and soon after it was announced that the Great Bible was no longer allowed to be read in church. A year later, it was decreed the Bible could not be read at all, with few exceptions.

The Great Bible did make a comeback during the reigns of Edward and Elizabeth, with a rare final edition printed in 1569. It is also a part of the Payette collection.

Be sure to read next week’s article which features a 1548-49 Erasmus English Latin Paraphrase of the Gospels.