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New Testament frontispiece from the 1611 Canterbury KJB (5MB)

  • Printed by the King's Printer, Robert Barker, in 1611
  • While the Canterbury KJB lacks its Old Testament frontispiece, the opening of the New Testament is extremely well-preserved
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Genesis 1:1-6 from the 1611 Canterbury KJB (3.5MB)

  • The opening verses of Genesis, the Bible's first book
  • The KJB's decoration is minimal and there are no full-page illustrations beyond the frontispieces that begin the Old and New Testaments. There are, however a number of highly decorated initials
  • This initial 'I' features Scottish thistles and Tudor roses symbolising the fact that James VI of Scotland had united the English and Scottish crowns when he came to the English throne as James I in 1603

The Making of the KJB

At the time of James I's succession to the English throne in 1603 England was a powder keg of political and religious tensions. These strains were encapsulated in the varied English Bibles available. The same word might, for example, be translated ‘Church’ or ‘congregation’. The latter was a choice welcomed by reformers but anathema to traditionalists who much preferred the former. More disturbingly, from the perspective of James’s government, readers might encounter a preference for describing rulers as ‘tyrants’ in works such as the Geneva Bible.

James called the various factions together in 1604. One of the key outcomes of this Hampton Court Conference was the decision to produce a new translation of the Bible, one that would, it was hoped, be acceptable to all sides. In 1611 the project culminated in the KJB.

The KJB is distinctive for a number of reasons. It excludes, for example, the detailed – and controversial – explanatory notes that opposing sides incorporated into most translations. First and foremost, however, it is one of few success stories that can be ascribed to a committee. No lead translator was appointed. Instead, the work was apportioned to six ‘companies’ based at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. Rather than starting entirely from scratch, their approach was to draw on the existing translations, both Catholic and Protestant, in combination with the latest scholarship.

The translators ranged from the flamboyant Oxford scholar Sir Henry Savile, to the ill-fated John Overall, Dean of St Paul’s cathedral. Sir Henry’s other activities included international travel, translating the Roman historian Tacitus and lecturing on astronomy; John Overall’s disastrous marriage to a much younger woman, ‘bosom’d like a swan’, was the source of much public amusement during the project.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, reads Isaiah 11:1-9 from the KJB:


Online Resources

Full Text of the KJB (Canterbury Staff/Students only)

Manifold Greatness - Making the Book

Further Reading

Gordon Campbell, The Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford: OUP, 2011), chapters 2-4.

Judith Maltby & Helen Moore, 'Origins of the Project', in Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, ed. by Helen Moore & Julian Reid (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011), pp. 41-63.

David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), chapters 2-4.

Julian Reid, 'The Oxford Translators', in Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, ed. by Helen Moore & Julian Reid (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011), pp. 65-85.

Resources @ Canterbury

The Holy Bible: Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly translated out of the originall tongues: & with the former translations diligently compared and revised by His Majesties speciall comandement: appointed to be read in churches (London: Robert Barker, 1611).