The followers of John Wycliffe undertook the first complete English translations of the Christian scriptures in the 15th century. These translations were banned in 1409 due to their association with the Lollards.
The Wycliffe Bible pre-dated the printing press but was circulated very widely in manuscript form, often inscribed with a date earlier than 1409 to avoid the legal ban. As the text translated in the various versions of the Wycliffe Bible was the Latin Vulgate, and as it contained no heterodox readings, there was in practice no way by which the ecclesiastical authorities could distinguish the banned version; consequently many Catholic commentators of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Thomas More) took these manuscript English Bibles to represent an anonymous earlier orthodox translation.
In 1525, William Tyndale, an English contemporary of Martin Luther, undertook a translation of the New Testament.
Tyndale’s translation was the first printed Bible in English. Over the next ten years, Tyndale revised his New Testament in the light of rapidly advancing biblical scholarship, and embarked on a translation of the Old Testament.
Despite some controversial translation choices, the merits of Tyndale’s work and prose style made his translation the ultimate basis for all subsequent renditions into Early Modern English.
With these translations lightly edited and adapted by Myles Coverdale, in 1539, Tyndale’s New Testament and his incomplete work on the Old Testament became the basis for the Great Bible. This was the first “authorised version” issued by the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII.
When Mary I succeeded to the throne in 1553, she returned the Church of England to the communion of the Roman Catholic faith and many English religious reformers fled the country, some establishing an English-speaking colony at Geneva. Under the leadership of John Calvin, Geneva became the chief international centre of Reformed Protestantism and Latin biblical scholarship.
These English expatriates undertook a translation that became known as the Geneva Bible.
This translation, dated to 1560, was a revision of Tyndale’s Bible and the Great Bible on the basis of the original language.
Soon after Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, the flaws of both the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible (namely, that the Geneva Bible did not “conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy”) became painfully apparent.
In 1568, the Church of England responded with the Bishops’ Bible, a revision of the Great Bible in the light of the Geneva version.
While officially approved, this new version failed to displace the Geneva translation as the most popular English Bible of the age – in part because the full Bible was only printed in lectern editions of prodigious size and at a cost of several pounds.
Accordingly, Elizabethan lay people overwhelmingly read the Bible in the Geneva Version – small editions were available at a relatively low cost. At the same time, there was a substantial clandestine importation of the rival Douay-Rheims New Testament of 1582, undertaken by exiled Roman Catholics. This translation, though still derived from Tyndale, claimed to represent the text of the Latin Vulgate.
In May 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at St Columba’s Church in Burntisland, Fife, at which proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, he ascended to the throne of England as King James I of England.