16th-century Bible 'Photoshopped' to Suit King Henry VIII's Interests, Researcher Finds

Israeli researcher reveals how Thomas Cromwell manipulated a copy of the scriptures he gave to King Henry VIII

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A copy of the Bible that belonged to Henry VIII, Cambridge University, England
A copy of the Bible that belonged to Henry VIII, Cambridge University, EnglandCredit: Ian McKee / St John's College
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

When Thomas Cromwell, the strongman in the court of Henry VIII, made changes to illustrations in the copy of the so-called Great Bible that he gave to the king of England, he never feared that it would be discovered. Only now, 500 years later and with the help of advanced technology, was the plot revealed. It turns out that the all-powerful royal adviser, who went down in history as a sly, wicked schemer, tried to promote himself and curry favor with the king while doing intentional damage to a Bible.

“What happened in the 16th century, in the court of Henry VIII, resembles today’s Photoshop,” Eyal Poleg of Queen Mary University of London told Haaretz. Together with senior research scientist Paola Ricciardi, Poleg analyzed the king’s personal copy of the Great Bible, which has been in a library in St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, since the 17th century using an X-ray spectrometer and a digital microscope. “We succeeded in identifying manipulations in the book,” Poleg said, adding, “It’s been done so professionally that a microscope and a good light source are needed to see it.”

In order to fully understand the situation, one must return to the first half of the 16th century. Thomas Cromwell played a major role in the English Reformation, which began when Henry VIII removed England from the Catholic Church and the authority of the pope and established the Church of England, installing himself as its head. One of the most important visual representations of this move was the publication of the so-called Great Bible, named for its size, an English translation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that was distributed to England’s churches. “It was the first time that every church in the kingdom was ordered to buy the Holy Scriptures in the English language,” Poleg explained.

The portrait suspected to be of Richard Rich.
The edges of Cromwell’s portrait are barely noticeable but reveal it was painted separately and glued on to the vellum page.

Poleg looked at the copy of the Bible that was given to the king, and printed in 1539 on parchment of good quality and with illustrations painted by expert artists. Afterwards, he compared it with the version distributed to the churches and found some significant differences.

In the original version, the king’s adviser, Cromwell, was immortalized in an illustration as someone handing out copies of the scriptures to simple people. However, according to Poleg, while the book was being printed Cromwell feared that the king no longer fully supported this step and understood that his appearance in the original illustration was dangerous. Therefore his image was redrawn and placed in a ‘safer’ place in the version that was given to the king. It documents him as someone receiving the scriptures from the king but not as the one who was handing it out to the people. “Cromwell with his sharp political senses, changed the picture in order to please Henry VIII,” Poleg says. “He recognized the risk he faced and the king’s lack of desire to support the distribution of the scriptures to the simple people.”

Poleg found another difference: In the copy received by the king, an illustration of a woman was distinctly changed so that she was recognizable as a real figure. “She was drawn with clear features and special clothing, so she could be identified with Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s beloved wife, who died a short time beforehand after Edward’s birth, the heir Henry had so awaited for many years,” Poleg said. The change was made based on a known portrait of Seymour. “With the help of advanced analysis, we found that her dress was colored with silver stripes and her head was decorated with a golden leaf – which made her a more distinguished figure in the illustration,” Poleg says. Cromwell hoped this would make the king happy.

Gold leaf adorns Jane Seymour’s portrait.
Close-up of the woman whose picture was transformed into Jane Seymour.

However, in the end, the “photoshop” effort on the part of the king’s court did not help his close adviser. Henry VIII reneged on his qualified support for distributing the Bible, and passed a list of laws intended to prevent the lower classes and women from reading the Holy Scriptures. In 1540 Cromwell was declared a traitor and beheaded.