Print Contact Home About Christopher Bollyn The Boleyns and the English Bible

The Boleyns and the English Bible

February 3, 2011

Wherefore I do beseech you all, for the love of our Lord God, that you do at all seasons hold by the truth, and speak it, and embrace it.
- George Boleyn’s last words, 17 May 1536

The Great Bible of 1539 was the first authorized English Bible.  King Henry VIII commanded that a Bible be put in every parish in the kingdom.

Today, the Bible is the most popular book in the English language. When we read the Holy Scripture or hear it read in church we treat it with reverence, but it has not always been that way. In the 1520s, hundreds of Bibles, the first copies printed in English, were burned by the Roman Catholic Bishop of London. 

The first complete edition of the English New Testament by Tyndale was published in Worms in 1526.  It was illegal to own and those who had copies faced execution.  The Bibles were confiscated and burned by Roman authorities.  The whole printing was bought up by the church and burned in St. Paul's by Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall.

William Tyndale, the Father of the English Bible, was strangled and burned at the stake.

In 1536, William Tyndale, the Roman Catholic priest who translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew, was strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels. Branded a heretic and hounded by agents of Rome, Tyndale lived and worked on the English Bible in exile in Antwerp, Marburg, and Worms for the last 12 years of his life.  His New Testament, translated directly from Greek, was first published in Worms in 1526.

Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 in Brussels. "Lord, open the King of England's eyes" were Tyndale's last words. 

"While William Tyndale was praying in his dying moments that God would open the eyes of the King of England, God had already answered the prayer in his own way: he had used a woman to influence the King and the nation with the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. That woman was Anne Boleyn," wrote Kath Dredge in Anne Boleyn: One Short Life that Changed the English-speaking World by Colin Hamer.

The four-hundred year old King James Bible that we use today is essentially the Tyndale translation, which is the basis for about 85 percent of the King James Version of 1611. The Tyndale Bible allowed the people to read the Scriptures in English for the first time. The first book of Holy Scripture printed in England was a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament, printed on vellum and presented to Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England, in 1536.  Anne already had a personal copy from the Antwerp printing in 1534, which she openly displayed - although it was a banned book.

"The Newe Testament, dylygently corrected and compared with the Greke by Willyan Tindale. Antwerp, 1534." Anne Boleyn's personal copy of Tyndale's New Testament, with her coat of arms at the bottom.

The Boleyn family had been instrumental in bringing the Scripture to the people in the English language. “Promoting the vernacular Bible was clearly a Boleyn family enterprise,” Eric Ives writes in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. To understand how revolutionary the English Bible was in the 1530s we need to consider that for seven centuries after the conversion of England to Christianity (in the Third Century), the common man had no access to the text of the Scriptures. It was not until 1538, when Henry VIII commanded the clergy to install the Great Bible in a convenient place in every parish church that the common people were able to read the Bible in English.

The Gospel of John translated by William Tyndale
In Catholic England the Scriptures were in Latin, often read by priests who understood very little of the text. The Church of Rome wielded immense political power and owned one-third of the land in the kingdom. Keeping the Holy Scriptures out of the hands of the people was essential for the Church to maintain its power over the people and their king. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was dedicated to liberating England from the clutches of the Church of Rome, a mission for which she paid the ultimate price.

In "George Boleyn, Religion and the Reformation," Claire Ridgway points out that the Boleyns were "reformist Catholics":

Until Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome, England was a devoutly Roman Catholic country.  Henry himself was fervently Catholic and, until his desire for a divorce led him to a break with Rome, he actively persecuted religious reformists. This led to the Pope giving him the title, ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title he was immensely proud of. Despite Henry’s active persecution of those who failed to conform to the orthodox Catholic faith, Thomas Boleyn favoured reform of the church, as did his youngest two children.  It was their religious idealism which bred in zealous Catholics a hatred of them which continued long after their deaths, and which spawned many of the rumours, innuendos and slanders against them that persist to this day.

Reform amounted to a desire to rid the church of increasing greed and corruption, for the rites of the faith to be reformed, and for the word of God to be accessible to the masses. George and Anne Boleyn were not only devotees of this idealism; in time they came to embody it...They sought reform of the Catholic religion, not a complete departure from it, and both of them died as Catholics.  They obviously supported a break with Rome because that was essential in order for Anne to become Queen, but their passion for reform did not mean that they altered their basic religious beliefs, and for them, the break also meant that the reforms which they envisioned could be brought to fruition.  They died as reformist Catholics, not as Protestants.

Anne and her brother George were beheaded in May 1536. George Boleyn, a close advisor of King Henry VIII, said these last words before he was killed:

ruly so that the Word should be among the people of the realm I took upon myself great labour to urge the king to permit the printing of the Scriptures to go unimpeded among the commons of the realm in their own language.  And truly to God I was one of those who did most to procure the matter to place the Word of God among the people because of the love and affection which I bear for the Gospel and the truth of Christ’s words.
- George Boleyn’s scaffold speech, 17 May 1536

Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Gibot (1835)
"True religion in England had its commencement and its end with your mother."
- Alexander Ales to Elizabeth I from 'A brief treatise or cronikelle of the most vertuous Ladye Anne Bulleyne, late Queen of England' by William Latimer.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

Hamer, Colin, Anne Boleyn: One Short Life that Changed the English-speaking World, Day One Publications, Leominster, U.K., 2007

“Biblical Literature”, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, University of Chicago, 1974

Chambers Biographical Dictionary
, edited by Una McGovern, Edinburgh, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 2003

Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, Da Capo Press 2007

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell Publishing 2005 

Ridgway, Claire, "George Boleyn, Religion and the Reformation",, 16 April 2010

©2022 Christopher Bollyn | Sitemap | christopher at bollyn dot com