Easter with The King James Bible, 1611

This Easter, millions of people across the English-speaking world, be worshiping in Churches using The King James Bible, also known as The Authorised Bible.

For four centuries the Anglican community has regarded The King James Version [KJV] as a book of divinely inspired truth, and the foundation of its religion, knowledge and law. The KJV has become the standard English form of the Word of God, and is, what its translators called, ‘one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against.’

Despite its great age and archaic language, the KJV remains a firm favourite with Christians the world over, and continues to be one of the most popular and widely respected English translations of the Bible available today.

But whilst the KJV text may be have been inspired by divinity, it’s printing was definitely in the hands of man and behind its reproduction is a complicated, obscure and worldly story of litigation, bankruptcy, sabotage and imprisonment.

History of the Bible in English

cambridge bible

The original Biblical texts are ancient in origin and written in Latin and Greek: the KJV is an English translation of these primary texts. But rendering the Bible into the vernacular took more than 100 years and several Bibles were issued before publication of the KJV.

Translating the Bible began with the followers of John Wycliffe who undertook the first complete English translations of the scriptures in the fifteenth century. The Wycliffe Bible pre-dated the printing press but was widely circulated in manuscript form.

In 1525, William Tyndale, embarked on a translation of the New Testament and Tyndale's New Testament was the first printed Bible in English.

During the reign of King Henry VIII, Myles Coverdale edited and adapted Tyndale's translation of the Old and New Testament, and this work formed the basis for the Great Bible, which in 1539 became the first ‘authorized version’ issued by the Church of England.

When Mary I became Queen in 1553, she returned the Church of England to the communion of the Roman Catholic faith and many English religious reformers fled to Geneva where they undertook a translation that became known as the Geneva Bible.

On the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, the flaws of both the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible became apparent. The Church of England responded with the Bishops’ Bible [1568]. However, this new version failed to displace the Geneva translation as the most popular English Bible of the age because it was only printed in lectern editions, which were too large and too costly for most pockets.

In May 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Fife, where proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, he acceded to the throne of England as King James I of England: the ground was prepared for the King James Bible.

The KJV printers

Until 1629 printing the KJV was entirely carried out by Richard Barker, the King’s Printer. Barker had a monopoly to not only print the KJV, but also the Bishops’ Bible, and the Geneva Bible. His position should have been lucrative, but Bible printing brought Barker more problems than profit.

Folio Bibles were [and still are] expensive to produce and slow to give a return on investment. The KJV alone involved Barker in costs of at least £3,500, which he raised by selling stock at wholesale rate to, and borrowing from two rival London printers, Bonham Norton and John Bill who first became his partners, later his legal adversaries and final his alleged his saboteurs.

It was intended each printer would print a portion of the text, share printed sheets with the others, and split the proceeds. Bitter financial arguments erupted as Barker accused Norton and Bill of concealing their profits, whilst they in turn charged Barker with selling sheets due to them as partial Bibles for ready money.

Litigation, fines, debt and imprisonment dogged them all and titular and actual tenure of the office of King’s Printer passed between them as their fortunes varied.

Robert Baker’s run as the King’s Printer finally came to an end in 1631 when it was discovered the word 'not' was missing from the seventh commandment, thus instructing worshipers: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’ Barker alleged the error was sabotage on the part of Norton and Bill. Known as the Wicked Bible, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered the book be burnt and Baker was sent to prison where he stayed until his death.

Practicalities of production

Barker worked his men hard and they produced a staggering amount of work, as he flooded the market. Between 1611 and 1613 Barker’s compositors completely re-set the KJV text thirteen times, the KJV New Testament twice, four Geneva Bibles, three Geneva New Testaments and a Bishops’ Bible New Testament. They fulfilled the immediate church demand for folio Bibles, and provided something to most other parts of the market, including quartos in both black letter and roman type, octavos in roman type, a duodecimo roman type and one New Testament.

To cope with production Barker employed the common practice of page-for-page resetting. In each format every verso page ended at the same point, thus greatly speeding production by enabling simultaneous working on different parts of the text, either within one printing house or spread around several. Various compositors worked from several copies of an edition and it is doubtful there was much checking of the work against a single master copy. Page-for-page printing also allowed sheets from one impression to be mixed with sheets from another to make economical use of any over-supply of sheets.

This over-supply prompted more savings: Baker sold his Bibles for quick cash before they were fully printed thus missing out on the better prices that might have been achieved by waiting until the printing was completed.

Typographical errors

With so great an output, it was inevitable that textual accuracy was not always maintained and typesetting was made all the more difficult as the compositors were working directly form the translators’ hand written manuscripts.

Some of the errors came from the original copy, whilst the compositors contributed others.

Because there was insufficient type to set the whole Bible several pages were composed simultaneously, and printed on multiple presses. Errors were usually the result of apprentices incorrectly distributing the type and muddling ‘u’ for ‘n’ or ‘n’ for ‘u’, ‘c’ for ‘t’ and ‘e’ for ‘t’.

However, one mistake was probably deliberate and it suggests workplace tension inevitable under a driving master: instead of ‘princes have persecuted me with out a cause’ [Psalms 119:161] copies of the first octavo of 1612 read: ‘printers have persecuted me with out a cause.’ A cry echoed by many a libeled litigant over the centuries!


Visually, every typographic feature of the KJV was present in the 1602 Bishops’ Bible – plus a few additions, which were particular practice of Barker.

The first edition of the KJV was given added formality with the inclusion of Cornelis Boel’s copperplate engraving on the Old Testament title page announcing the revised newness of the text.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New: newly translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and Revised by his Majesty’s special commandment. Appointed to be read in Churches. Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the King’s most excellent majesty. Anno Domini. 1611.

The New Testament also had its own title page, a woodcut design cluttered with ornamentation surrounding the title itself. This baroque ornamentation is typical of Barker’s work. This title page was first used for some copies of the 1602 Bishops’ Bible and became the standard Barker title page for the JKV Old and New Testaments.

Reception and sales

When the KJV was launched it faced real competition from imported Geneva Bibles which, according to Archbishop William Laud:

By the numerous coming over of the [Geneva] Bibles . . . from Amsterdam, there was a great and just fear conceived that by little and little printing would be carried out of the kingdom. For the books, which came thence were better printed, better bound, better paper, and for all the charges of bringing, sold better cheap. And would any man buy a worse Bible dearer, that might have a better more cheap? And so preserve printing here at home . . .  was the cause of stricter looking to those Bibles.

To combat the cheaper imports, The King’s Printer exploited of his monopoly and the success of the KJV owed nothing to the superior quality of the translation or the attractiveness of its typography. It triumphed in the market place because Barker’s monopoly ensured it became the only Bible in England. The KJV triumphed over its rival despite its poor production, in fair competition it would probably have lost.

Today the KJV faces even greater competition from a plethora of Bibles – the Amplified Bible, Contemporary English, Good News, New English, New Century, Jerusalem Bible, and the Revised English, to say nothing of the Bibles for Children, for Women, for the blind, and of course Bibles on CD and on-line. But despite a sea of rivals, the KJV remains the most enduring and most beloved of all our Bibles.

Caroline Archer-Parre