Images merging text from both sides of the paper in a 1535 Latin Bible. Portrait of Henry VIII (1537-1547) by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger.

Secret Notes Found Hidden in a Bible Reveal Unexpected Details on the Reformation of Henry VIII

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Hidden annotations in England’s first printed Bible, published in 1535, show there was a short transition period between the Catholic era in England and the Reformation that violently transformed English religious history.

A few years after the Reformation began, the reformers brutally repressed the last vestiges of Catholic Church practices and adherents.

The historic Bible was later owned by a pickpocket who was hanged at Tybourn in 1552, an inscription on the back page shows. The Bible’s preface was written by Henry VIII and later recorded a transaction between the pickpocket and another man.

The historian Eyal Poleg, who did the research, told

“The book is a unique witness to the course of Henry’s Reformation. 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.”

Hidden annotations were found mixed with biblical text in the 1535 Latin Bible.

Hidden annotations were found mixed with biblical text in the 1535 Latin Bible. ( Lambeth Palace Library )

“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,” Dr. Poleg, of Queen Mary University, told the university’s news service about his research.“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.”

“Edward VI and the Pope: An Allegory of the Reformation.” By an unknown artist. (c. 1547 to 1570s) National Portrait Gallery, London.

“Edward VI and the Pope: An Allegory of the Reformation .” By an unknown artist. (c. 1547 to 1570s) National Portrait Gallery, London. ( Public Domain )

That said, the religious movement did involve quite a bit of upheaval.

“The terrorists who sparked Bonfire Night were fighting a regime which imposed the protestant religion with hangings, burnings and bloodshed,” says  an article  in The Telegraph on Guy Fawkes Day.

 “[T]he truth is that the Reformation was not a gentle evolution achieved by a few Parliamentary acts and redrafted ecclesiastical canons. It was a violent rupture with our country's recent history, achieved at the point of a sword,” The Telegraph says. “Here in England we had our own fanatics — men like Thomas Cromwell, who plundered the Church and universities to line his pockets and those of his henchmen, and who used the power of the State to ruthlessly murder those who got in his way, irrespective of gender or age.”

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. (c. 1532 and 1533) By Hans Holbein the Younger.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. (c. 1532 and 1533) By Hans Holbein the Younger. ( Public Domain )

Dr. Poleg and Graham Davis, a specialist in 3D X-ray imaging in the university’s school of dentistry, used advanced imaging to examine the Bible, which is England’s oldest Bible. Henry VIII’s printer published the Bible.

At first the Lambeth copy seemed completely clear of any hidden texts. But upon closer inspection Dr. Poleg saw that heavy paper was pasted over some of the book’s blank parts. His job was to reveal the annotations without damaging the Bible, he said.

A pasted page with the Library stamp.

A pasted page with the Library stamp. (Lambeth Palace Library )

Drs. Poleg and Davis took two images in long exposure, one using a light sheet beneath the pages and one without. The first showed the annotations mixed with the printed text, the second just the print.

Dr Davis wrote unique software to remove the second image from the first, which left a clear picture of the annotations, according to the university’s press release.

The annotations were written in later, between 1539 and 1549 and are from the Great Bible of Thomas Cromwell. The Great Bible is considered the epitome of the English Reformation. Later someone covered over the annotations, around 1600.

Isolation of hidden annotations.

Isolation of hidden annotations. (Lambeth Palace Library )

Dr. Poleg traced the Bible’s later owners, after the time Latin Bibles fell out of use in England. On the Bible’s back page, he uncovered a handwritten transaction between William Cheffyn of Calais and James Elys Cutpurse (a pickpocket) of London.


Very interesting read!

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