King James I ascended the English throne in 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I. The religious issues that had started with Henry VIII and the English Reformation had never really stopped – a swing to the radical Protestant under Henry’s son, Edward; a swing back to the Catholic under Queen Mary; and swing back toward the center under Elizabeth. But the issues were far from settled.
The background of James himself exemplified these conflicts. He was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots; he was raised by ardent Presbyterians in Scotland where, for self-protection, he learned to lie and dissemble. And then he becomes king of England (and Scotland) and the head of the Church of England. One of the first things he did as king was to convene a conference at Hampton Court Palace of the various Protestant religious groups and factions, seeking some kind of common ground as long as that common ground accepted him as head of the church.
It was a time of excitement about regime change, expectations of things getting better, and anticipation of the good things the reign of James would bring. It couldn’t last, but of all the things James did, one had by far the greatest and most long-lasting impact – the assembling of six companies of theologians to create a new version of the Bible. It became what we know as the King James Version; it’s impact on religion and the English language can’t be overestimated.
In God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, British writer Adam Nicolson tells the full story of how that version of the Bible came to be. Originally published in in 2003, reissued in 2009, republished yet again in 2011 for the 400th anniversary of the KJV, and republished in 2016, God’s Secretaries provides the history and context of the times, and how the KJV emerged from it. It was not a sure thing.
Religious conflicts were ongoing. If anything disabused James of his notion of him leading a new era, it was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a small group of Catholic extremists planned to blow up Parliament, the King and Queen, and government officials.
The conflicts weren’t only between Protestants and the remaining Catholics in England. They could be just as intense between Anglican officials and groups called “Puritans,” people who had a more radical Protestant view. They could be persecuted as much as the Catholics at times; one group, known as the Pilgrims, would eventually leave England for Holland, and a few years later sail in the Mayflower for America. But some of the KJV translators, and particularly the group based in Cambridge University, had definite Puritan sympathies.
Few documents from the translation program actually survive. A few discoveries in the 1950s (by American scholars, no less) of documents mostly in Oxford have shed light on translators themselves and how they went about the process of translation.
The translators had no qualms about borrowing from five previous translations approved for the work. One of those translations was by William Tyndale (1494-1536), and the KJV translators borrowed liberally from it (so did William Shakespeare).
Nicolson is the author of a number of popular history and nature books. His history works include Seamanship: A Voyage Along the Wild Coats of the British Isles (2004);
Men of Honour: Trafalgar: and The Making of an English Hero (2005); Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar (2006); Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War (2008); Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History (2008); Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class (2011); and The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (2014), among others. His nature books include accounts of walks in France, Britain, the United States, and Scotland and The Smell of the Summer Grass: Pursuing Happiness at Purch Hill (2011).
“The language of the King James Bible,” Nicolson writes, “is the language …of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good.” He notes that this kind of language has largely died.
God’s Secretaries is a wonderful story of the KJV, one that places the translation in its time and context, and one that judges the main actors in its creation and its translators in their own era and not ours.
Related: “Tyndale” by David Teems.
Top illustration: the title page of the first edition of the King James Bible in 1611.