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The Great Bible fiasco: 1539-1543

In a first flush of enthusiasm for the new English church, of which from 1539 he is the supreme head, Henry VIII decrees that a copy of the Bible in English shall be placed in every parish church. The particular version, known as the Great Bible, is supervised by Miles Coverdale. The sudden availability of the text to all who can read causes much interest and excitement. But the king becomes alarmed. Maybe an unsupervised diet of holy writ will provoke radical sentiments?

In 1543 the Bibles are withdrawn from the churches. Strict new regulations are issued as to their availability.

It is decreed that from now on only the aristocracy and the richer merchants may possess a copy of the Great Bible. There are further restrictions on what they may do with it. Noblemen and gentlemen may read it aloud to their assembled families. Rich merchants and the wives of the aristocracy may study it in the privacy of their own rooms. No other lay men or women are to have any direct access to the Bible in English.

This local event provides a vivid cameo of the Reformation - as a religious dispute which is only the visible surface, throughout western Europe, of underlying social, political and economic tensions.

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