The First Bible in English

In a TV story, Robin Hood is depicted as protecting a holy man from persecution. Robin explains that the man is translating the bible into English and, “His Lordship the Pope” has condemned such work as heretical. Millions of viewers will accept this as true history. The story is perpetuating the myth that the Catholic Church prevented the laity from reading the bible.

When the Church was founding schools throughout Western Europe, she taught Latin which enabled the many tribes to communicate with each other. (English holds a similar position in many parts of Africa today). The bible was published in Latin because that was the language people could read. In the 9th Century, Pope Adrian II honoured saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries in Eastern Europe, for translating the bible, and the Mass, into Slavonic.

As local languages developed in Western Europe, the bible was translated into them. This included the Saxon dialects of England. But after the 1066 conquest, French became the language of those who could read.  There were few able to read English. Richard the Lion Heart, who in the TV      series was Robin’s idol, never learnt it. Between 1360 and 1400 a cultural-revolution took place. English replaced French in the army and Law Courts. Chaucer, who read the bible in French, was becoming: ‘The Father of English literature’. And in 1348 English became the medium for teaching in the schools.

To meet the new situation, two priests, John Wycliffe and Nicholas Hereford, undertook a translation of the bible. When published in 1384 it was difficult to read, so a revision was required. Archbishop Thomas Arundel praised Queen Anne, at her funeral in August 1394, for helping (presumably financially) with the work of bible translation. (We do not know who by).

Fr. John Purvey (1354 – 1427?), the life-term secretary and companion of Wycliffe had played an important part in the work of translation. In 1395 he produced a version easier to read.

The translations were accurate and a great achievement, but a complication arose. Wycliffe and Purvey promoted heretical beliefs in their notes. The bishops outlawed such copies but others, without the notes, were used widely. Of 250 surviving copies, 89 include links to Mass readings. Some are of a size suitable for reading from a Lectern. A letter writer gave his view that nuns should read the verses in English before, not during, Mass.

Sometimes it is asserted that John of Gaunt, a follower of Wycliffe, was brave to stand up in the House of Lords to defend the idea of an English bible. It is true that when John was young, he was a strong nationalist supporting some of Wycliffe’s political and religious opinions. But in 1382 when Fr, Wycliffe denied transubstantiation, John separated from him.

The debate, concerning a motion in the House of Lords opposing an English bible, took place in 1390. By this time John was a loyal Catholic and his speech stressed how all the other peoples of Catholic Europe had the bible in their mother tongue. He was speaking in tune with the thinking of the House of Lords, which consisted of 46 Abbots and Bishops, and 53 Catholic Earls and Knights.

John’s words:

         “The people of England would not be the dregs of all men, seeing that all nations besides them had the Scriptures in their own tongue”.

This shows that he knew it was not heresy to translate the bible. The rest of Catholic Europe had the bible in their own languages.

The motion was defeated by this Catholic dominated House of Lords. Later in life both John of Gaunt and Fr. Hereford entered monastic orders.

The public knew that French bibles were available in England and that Queen Anne, born in Bohemia, had read bibles in German and Bohemian.

In 1408 the English bishops outlawed translations of Scripture unless approved as accurate and free of heretical notes. The decree is often printed without its final part. This makes it appear that all translations of Scripture into English were being condemned.


The 1408 Constitution issue by the bishops of England:

        “It is a perilous thing, as St. Jerome testifieth, to translate the text of Holy Scripture from one idiom to another, since it is no easy matter to retain in every version an identity of sense, and the same blessed Jerome, even though he was inspired, confesseth that herein he had, himself, been frequently mistaken”.

It was therefore enacted and ordained, that:

        “thenceforth, no one should translate any text of Scripture, by his own authority, into the English or any other tongue, in the way of a book, tract or treatise; and that no publication of this sort, composed in the time of John Wycliffe, or since, or thereafter to be composed, should be read, either in part or in whole, either in public or private. Under the pain of the great excommunication, until such translation should be approved by the diocesan of the place, or, if the matter should require it, by a provincial council; everyone who should act in contradiction to this order, to be punished as an abettor of heresy, and error”.


Some accounts of Wycliffe’s life imply that he was oppressed by this law.  Yet it was not issued till 24 years after his death.


The Lollard Bible and other Medieval Biblical Versions

By Margaret Deanesley,    1919, 2002, 2008.

For a long 1951lecture by Margaret Deanesley

Enter into Google:

The Significance of the Lollard Bible

The First English Bible

By Mary Dove, 2007

For The Introduction and Chapter 1 of The First English Bible

Enter into Google:

The First English Bible – The Text and Context of the Wycliffite versions. Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (No 66). – Introduction – The heart of Lollardy.

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Version: 25th March 2013