Documents on the changing status of the English Vernacular, 1500-1540



1. A License Granted to Sir Thomas More

[This license enabled More, who was the chief investigator of heresy in the early years of Henry VIII's reign, to possess heretical books needed as evidence in his investigations. More once swore that he would burn his own books, were they translated into English]

Cuthbert, by divine permission bishop of London to the very reverend and distinguished Sir Thomas More, . . .

Since of late, after the Church of God throughout Germany has been infested with heretics, there have been some sons of iniquity who are trying to introduce into this country of ours the old and accursed Wycliffite heresy and its foster-child the Lutheran heresy, by translating into our mother tongue some of the most subversive of their pamphlets, and printing them in great quantity. They are, indeed, striving with all their might to defile and infect this country with these pestilential doctrines, which are most repugnant to the truth of the Catholic faith. It is greatly to be feared, therefore, that Catholic faith may be greatly imperilled if good and learned men do not strenuously resist the wickedness of the aforesaid persons. . . .

. . . And to that end we give and grant you facilities and licence to keep and read books of this kind.


2. From Statutes of the Realm, 1542-43

An Acte (34 &35 Hen. VIII, capitulum I)


[The Act commenced by banning all books "written or printed" in English before 1540, with the following provisos or exceptions]:

Provided allso that all bokes in Englishe printed before the yere of our Lorde a thousande fyve hundred and fourtie intytled the Kinges Hieghnes proclamacions, iniunctions, translacions of the Pater noster, the Aue Maria and the Crede, psalters prymers prayer statutes and lawes of the Realme, Cronycles Canterburye tales, Chaucers bokes Gowers Bokes and stories of mennes lieues, shall not be comprehended in the prohibicion of this acte ...

And where the Kinges Majestie . . . hathe hertofore caused to be set foorthe the Byble and New Testament in the Englishe tongue . . . yet forasmuche as his Heighnes perceyveth that a greate multitude of his saide subjectes, most speciallie of the lower sorte, have so abused the same, that they have therebye growen and increased in divers naughty and erroneous opinions, and by occasion thereof fallen into great division and dissention among themselves, to the great unquietness of the Realm . . . FOR REMEDY WHEREOF be it enacted by the authority aforesaid . . no women nor craftsmen, apprentices, journeyman, servingmen of the degree of yeoman or under, farmers nor laborers shall read within this Realm . . . the Bible or New Testament in English, to himself or any other, privately or openly, upon pain of one month's imprisonment . . . Provided always that every noblewoman and gentlewoman may read to themselves alone and not to others any texts of the Byble or New Testament.


For more on the history of the Bible in English, click here.