The King James Bible along perhaps with the Qu’ran and the Communist Manifesto is one of the most influential and widely read books ever written. It has defined religious worship for hundreds of millions of people around the world in the centuries since its first publication, and the rhythmic quality of its verse, the unique quality of its phrasing, and the beauty of its language has been a source of inspiration to poets, authors and scholars ever since.
Charles James Stuart, was crowned King James I of England on 25 July 1603 having already been King James VI of Scotland since the deposition of his mother Mary Queen of Scots in 1567,, when he was just 13 months old.
His elevation to the English throne had largely been due to the machinations of Elizabeth I’s Chief Minister Robert Cecil. There had been no obvious and immediate successor to Elizabeth who had died childless, and Cecil had worked hard and in great secrecy to secure the throne for James and ensure a peaceful transition.
Mary Queen of Scots had been the personification of the Catholic menace and was considered England’s greatest security threat particularly as she was Elizabeth’s cousin and the next in line to the throne, a claim she had refused to relinquish even after being forced to flee Scotland and seek Elizabeth’s protection in England.
Kept under house arrest, Mary became the focus for any number of plots against her cousin and was supported in her claim by most of Catholic Europe who deemed her to be the rightful Queen and not Elizabeth – the illegitimate daughter of the whore, Anne Boleyn.
As a result of the threat posed by Mary and her Catholic friends, England became a country paranoid about Papists and Jesuits seeking to reintroduce auto-da-fe onto the streets of London and elsewhere and under Elizabeth’s Spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, an entire security apparatus had been created to combat it.
In the end this paranoia would cost Mary her life but the threat would prove real when just eighteen months after her execution England was threatened by the Spanish Armada.
Elizabeth could not countenance the thought that James, the son of the woman who had intrigued against her for so many years should inherit her throne and so Robert Cecil was forced to tread carefully, though in reality she knew it was inevitable.
By the end of her reign a series of failed harvests, rising unemployment, and an ever harsher penal code had seen Elizabeth’s relationship with her subjects sour and her image as the Virgin Gloriana become tarnished, but even so she would be a hard act to follow.
James I would not only have to display considerable political nous but prove his religious credentials.
He had been baptised a Catholic but raised a strict Protestant leaving many uncertain as to which he was and some Catholics now believed they had a King who would be more sympathetic to their cause but James was a devout Protestant who never saw himself as anything else even if he disavowed religious extremism which disappointed the Puritans.
Even now, many expressed doubts – wasn’t his wife Anne of Denmark a practising Catholic, and any toleration of Catholics was as greatly feared as the heresy of their religious devotions.
To be secure upon the throne James would have to end such uncertainties.
In January 1604, he convened the Hampton Court Conference of leading theologians to discuss the translation of a definitive authorised version of the Bible.
The reason for doing so was as much political as it was theological, partly undertaken to placate a small but increasingly vocal Puritan faction among the merchant class James also believed that he could use the new Bible to assert his authority and cement his firmly held belief that he was divinely ordained to rule and answerable only to God. He also wanted it made known that he was not just the ruling Monarch of England and Scotland but the King of a new Great Britain and an authorised version of the Bible for all the people would serve as a unifying factor.
The task was undertaken by 47 scholars, only one of whom wasn’t a cleric, divided into six working committees.
The task began in the spring of 1604 but it was to prove an expensive venture and so on 22 July, James wrote to Richard Bancroft, the soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, demanding that all ordained clergy make a donation towards the project.
The translation was taken from many different texts and earlier Bibles written in both Greek and Latin taking almost eight years to complete and James remained hands on throughout the process with the Bible compiled very much as per his instructions – he was determined there should be no doubt as to its eternal truth, as to its divine origins, and as to its political purpose.
In January 1609, the various Committees met at Stationers Hall in London to review the completed texts and arcane arguments soon ensued as to the exact wording of certain phrases, how the more contentious elements of the text should be interpreted, and whether or not those parts that appeared to make reference to the creation of the one true Catholic faith should be removed.
After much disputatious and often heated debate the new authorised King James Bible was published on 11 May, 1611.
The process of printing it however was to be ruinously expensive and the money for it was certainly not going to come from the Royal Purse. It may have been the brainchild of the King but he certainly wasn’t going to pay for it.
Indeed, such was the cost of its production that the rows between publisher and printer looked like ending up in the Courts, souring the entire project.
The King James Bible was intended along with the Common Book of Prayer to be the only authorised texts for use in Church of England services but the cost of the Bible at 10 shillings for a loose leaf copy, and 12 shillings for the bound version, was beyond the means of many poor parishes and as such it was not to be widely distributed for many years so it took time for the authorised version to have an impact and it certainly did not secure the throne for the Stuart Monarchy. Indeed, just thirty eight years after its publication James successor, his son Charles I was executed by those very Puritans that it had been intended to placate.
But it remained a remarkable achievement admired by the religious and non-religious alike and it would in time become part of the fabric of British society containing as it does some 250 idioms such as – reap the whirlwind, feet of clay, a fly in the ointment, a multitude of sins, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the salt of the earth, don’t give up the ghost, and a law unto themselves that have since become an integral part of the English vocabulary.
It provides the core doctrine of the Anglican faith, is the Bible by which all others are judged, and in its language alone helped secure the spread of Protestantism around the world.