Bible Stories

by Mark Calderwood

As much as any epic battle, Henry VIII’s break with Rome and foundation of a new Church altered the course of English history. But unlike the Lutheran reformation that galvanised common people across Europe, Henry’s reformation was top-down, spread to the people and soliciting their compliance through shrewd artistic propaganda.

In order to secure his Great Matter, Henry had to remake English religion- with himself at the top. He even went so far as to charge the entire clergy of England with treason in 1531, by dint of owing their first allegiance to Rome rather than the Crown. Convocation buckled, and surrendered to the king the style “sole protector and supreme head of the English Church and clergy”, subordinating their  ecclesiastical authority to royal supremacy. The Act in Restraint of Appeals that secured the Boleyn marriage two years later, cemented Henry’s imperial kingship, defining England as an empire and his right to rule without interference from “foreign princes or potentates”. Henry had become both Caesar and Pope, a priest-king after the biblical David.

Obedience to the prince- the duty of every Christian man- was the cornerstone of Henry’s political theology, backed up by law, financial incentives (of confiscated monastic lands), extensively applied oaths of fealty and allegiance- and harsh, and assiduously applied, legal penalties for treason. But this is not to suggest that Henrician England was a police state: accusations of treason were uncommon, and the trend to complaisance resulted from the ingrained social sense of obligation to established authority and the moral duty of obedience to the king. Indeed, Richard Sampson’s Oration of True Obedience in 1535 directly equated obedience to the king with obedience to the word of God, which was to become a hallmark of Henrician propaganda.

The pulpit and the printing press were used to disseminate the new sociopolitical order, as illustrated by the cover pages of the Coverdale and Great Bibles. Coverdale’s vernacular translation of the scriptures was published in 1535 under Cromwell’s patronage: tacit royal consent was implied in the unofficial dedication to the king and the title page by Hans Holbein.


The Coverdale iconography reflects the new idea of theocratic kingship. Medieval thought held that although the right to rule was divine, it hinged upon the sovereign receiving temporal authority from the Church; a tradition followed at Henry’s own coronation. The Coverdale page reverses this relationship. At the top, Godhead is represented by the Hebrew name Yahweh, symbolising divine revelation and unquestionable Old Testament authority; on either side are depictions of original sin and the risen Christ. Below these are Old and New Testament models for sacred kingship: Moses receiving the Commandments and Esdras delivering the Law to the Jews; Christ sending forth the apostles, and Peter preaching after Pentecost. King David and St Paul also appear flanking the king. Henry himself is depicted enthroned at the base, by implication in direct descent from, and with his power legitimised by, these Biblical models.

David is the most important of these models, representing authority derived from the scriptures rather than Church tradition. David was regarded as the prototype of the ideal monarch, a priest-king and intercessor ruling from the scriptures and a direct relationship to God without clerical intermediaries. As such he was the perfect model to explain the disenfranchisement of the Roman church, and Henry came to identify closely with the Biblical king. The presence of St Paul continues the portrayal of the king as apostolic successor to Christ, refuting the Petrine authority of the Pope. (Paul was invested with new importance in the Protestant tradition, his distinction between faith and works in Romans 3:28 providing the basis for Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The sword of Paul’s martyrdom was similarly identified by Protestants as an evangelical symbol equated with the word of God.)

The lower panel illustrates the unification of ecclesiastical and secular power in the hands of the king. Henry wears the arched crown reflecting England’s new imperial status, his fringed robe recalling Esdras’ priestly garments. The sword and book borne by the king reflects the reinterpretation of medieval iconography in Henrician propaganda: symbolic of royal authority, the sword is also identified here with the “sword of the spirit”, the exercise of royal jurisdiction in line with scriptural precepts. The book representing clerical authority was not prevalent in late medieval royal iconography, and could even be seen as an anti-regal symbol. In Tudor iconography, the book reappeared as a symbol of autonomous, evangelical kingship, becoming a prominent icon of Reformation royalism itself. Reversing traditional representations, Henry unambiguously hands the Bible down to the bishops- backed by the threat of the sword. Temporal lords and prelates alike kneel before the king demonstrating the obedience essential to the Church of Henry, although the clear emphasis is on the clergy brought to heel under royal supremacy.


In 1539, Henry officially authorised the Great Bible, intended for distribution to every parish church throughout England in a planned act of mass propaganda. Its title page clearly lays out the king’s divinely sanctioned authority, and the imposition from above of religious reform and social ordering.

The enthroned Henry dominates the page: a tiny scene of the king as David is squeezed above, summarising the legitimation in the Coverdale Bible. A Davidic king, Henry hands down to Archbishop Cranmer and Chief Minister Cromwell the book, now explicitly labelled Verbum Dei; the scriptures are clearly indicated as the basis of regal authority, that applies equally to both ecclesiastical and temporal hierarchies. In virtually a diagram of the vertical process, the word of God is passed from Archbishop to bishop, thence from the pulpit to the people. This is paralleled by the chain from chief minister to magistracy down to yeomanry and common folk, who despite still being passive recipients of the scriptures and royal prerogative, happily chorus “Long live the king.” The sword of royal justice is absent from this iconography: here, secular authority devolves to a prison with gaoled (Papist) dissenters in the lower right, reflects the acceptance of enforced obedience to Henrician policy. In contrast to the Coverdale page, the king wears secular dress instead of priestly garments, presenting a paternal rather than authoritarian figure leading his people to God through obedience to his Word.

Nobody was ever entirely sure exactly what Henry’s new religion was- including Henry himself. But his political images ably compelled its acceptance through political tumult and religious turmoil for the rest of his reign, and offer a glimpse into what Henry, perhaps, hoped to achieve.