Those who emigrated on the Mayflower in 1620 seeking religious liberty might not have realised the challenges that lay ahead of them. Roaring summer heat and bitter winters were only part of their test. Economic instability, disease and troubling encounters with the native population meant that the early years of the Plymouth colony were tarnished by hardship.
However, it was not only material and environmental adversity that faced the colonists or their friends and families back home. The distance stretching between those who stayed and those who sailed was felt painfully and persistently.
As such, correspondence played a central role in the pilgrims’ lives. It sustained friendships and kinship over immense distances. Letters extended social habits of communal worship, sharing spiritual knowledge and advice, and collective prayer that had once been practised in person.
Many of the Mayflower pilgrims had left England long before they set sail for the New World. They had radical religious beliefs and did not agree with the way the Church of England was run.
Looking for religious freedom, they fled to Leiden, the Netherlands. There, many worshipped at the Pieterskerk with their pastor, John Robinson. This group of refugees stayed in Leiden for 12 years. However, Holland was not as tolerant of their religious practices as they liked, and they began to fear the spread of the Thirty Years War that was overwhelming much of Europe.
In 1620, many of the group set sail again, this time for the New World. By then, they were a close community, and in 1625 those that had stayed behind expressed their grief that, “[they were] constrained to live disunited each from other, especially considering our affections each unto other”.
Puritans were intensely sociable in their worship. They believed that they belonged to a society of God’s saints. These were radical Protestants.
They had come together as minority groups in the face of criticism and ridicule from those around them. The name “puritan” was originally an insult, made by mocking neighbours poking fun at their intensely pious nature. With the sailing of the Mayflower, the separation of their close communities meant the disruption of the religious practices that defined them, particularly their emphasis on collective worship.
The Bible was a vital text for puritans and they felt strongly that they should study it together as often as they did privately. They did so constantly searching to learn more of God’s intentions for them.
In a practice called “gadding”, many puritans would travel to hear sermons given by ministers who believed the same things as themselves, since not everyone had access to a puritan preacher in their home parish or town. When unable to travel, they counselled each other. This happened in person where possible, but also in correspondence due to networks spread across Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Getting word across oceans
Puritan friendships were spiritual and social, and communion between friends provided emotional and material support. Their dispersal across England and the Netherlands made letter writing essential, even before emigration to the New World.
But these distances proved little in comparison to the Atlantic Ocean. With the prospect of a long term or permanent separation, puritans relied on their letters with increased urgency. Writing to her brother in law John Winthrop in 1629, Priscilla Fones expressed her fear at his impending departure:
… for though the bond of love still continues, the distance of the place will not let us be so useful one to another as now we are.
Correspondence provided the Leiden pastor John Robinson with a space to reassert his ties with his former congregants. In 1621, he wrote that “neither the distance of place nor distinction of body, can at all either dissolve or weaken that bond” between them. He vowed to maintain their spiritual connection with prayer and passed on well wishes from the wives and children of the emigrants, and others of the congregation who had stayed behind in Leiden.
Transatlantic correspondence came with many problems. Ships had to be available to carry these letters, while the journey was slow and the passage unreliable. Roger White, a citizen of Leiden, wrote to the pilgrims in 1625, lamenting that “I know not whether ever this will come to your hands, or miscarry, as other of my letters have done”.
Exercising caution, in 1630 John Winthrop, a leading figure among the Puritan founders of New England, sent news to his wife across two letters and sent it on different ships. These fears were not misplaced. News came to Massachusetts in 1633 that some other letters recently received in England had been washed “white and clean with saltwater” after the ship carrying them was wrecked.
The Mayflower pilgrims and those that later settled in other parts of New England were supported by their letters. They relied on them for the endurance of their friendships, and the lifting of their spirits. Words set in ink provided emotional support; letters were kept, stored, read and reread to bring absent loved ones to heart and mind.
Waiting aboard the Arbella at Southampton, on the eve of his departure for the new world, John Winthrop wrote to his wife. He told her that he often re-read her letters with “much delight”, although he found that he could not “read them without tears”. More than just words on a page, letters were an emotional and spiritual lifeline. Correspondence brought people together in familiar patterns of worship, despite their great distances.
It is July 1620 in Southampton, England. Arriving into port is the Speedwell, a ship carrying a small religious group from the Netherlands. Anchored just off of the west quay of the town is the Mayflower, a larger ship with more passengers aboard, which is loading for a transatlantic voyage with the Speedwell. The passengers have permission and funding to start a trading settlement in the Colony of Virginia (which at the time extended far further than the modern state of Virginia), under the control of the Virginia Company.
Despite the historical significance of the Mayflower, we know very little about the ship and its voyage. We only know its name from a document written three years after the voyage. At the time the Mayflower was not notable or special and – because some of the passengers faced persecution for their religious activities – they probably kept a low profile.
Evidence suggests that it was “burden about nine score” or 180 tons. “Burden” was a term for cargo capacity, while a “tun” was a large cask of wine. The ship could therefore carry the equivalent of 180 tuns of wine.
There are unfortunately no illustrations or plans of The Mayflower from the time, so we don’t even know for certain what the ship looked like. We do know, however, that ships around this time were built to a series of similar rules (outlined in Swedish shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik af Chapman’s Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, published in 1768). We can therefore begin to estimate the proportions for the cargo carried, but with a caution that the rules varied between shipwrights, with many details not recorded and drawings not made.
In fact, the famous 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys tells us that shipwrights “depended on their eyes … never pretending to the laying down of a draught, their knowledge lying in their hands so confusedly”. Based on typical proportions from the time we could expect that The Mayflower would have been around 30 metres in hull length and about 7.5 metres in breadth.
English merchant vessels were also expected to form a navy to protect the country if required. From similar vessels of the time, we can therefore reasonably assume that The Mayflower had raised “castles” at the bow and stern. A height advantage from the castles would have been useful in battle to fight and resist boarding.
The ship would also have carried a small number of cannon – mainly for self-defence. These would have been on a cramped gun-deck (where the passengers would also live) with gun-ports.
On August 15 1620, the two ships sailed for the New World from Southampton, but as soon as they departed, the Speedwell started leaking badly (despite some repairs already having been made in Southampton), requiring a diversion to Dartmouth to make repairs.
In mid-September 1620, they again departed England, but around 300 miles west of Land’s End the Speedwell leaked badly again, with the ship’s master complaining that “his ship was so leaky, as he must bear up, or sink at sea”. They returned to Plymouth, transferred as many passengers and stores as possible to the Mayflower, and set sail west again on 16 September. At the time it was suggested that the leaks were a plot by the captain and crew of the Speedwell to avoid a long and dangerous voyage.
Navigation in the 1600s was comparatively more advanced than many other sciences at the time. Sailors could measure their heading with magnetic compasses, and their speed with a log that was trailed behind the ship.
By measuring the height of the North Star above the horizon with instruments that were the forerunners of sextants, sailors could determine their position north of the equator (known as the “latitude”). However, on a rolling ship under cloudy skies taking accurate measurements and finding accurate positions was far from easy.
Knowing your position west or east of a point (“longitude”) was far more complicated. It could be found from measuring the local time when the sun reached its highest point in the sky, and comparing it to the time at a known point on land, as the local noon occurs four minutes later for every degree of longitude travelled west around the world.
Sadly clocks at the time were nowhere near accurate enough to measure this, and accurately measuring the height of the sun was difficult. Instead, sailors at the time used a combination of the compass, hourglasses and a log to record direction, time and speed, calculating a resulting position based on “dead reckoning”, which would become more inaccurate as the voyage progressed.
Despite some treacherous storms that nearly destroyed the vessel, The Mayflower arrived in North America after 66 days’ sailing. The ship was, however, just off Cape Cod, slightly north of the Colony of Virginia (which at that time extended north to Long Island Sound) where the colonists had permission to settle.
They tried sailing south, but encountered treacherous reefs and breaking waves and, low on provisions, they wisely headed north again, coming ashore initially at Provincetown, Massachusetts on November 21. But having landed outside of the Colony of Virginia, they had no contract to settle, or laws to follow.
Their solution was to draw up a democratic agreement (known as the Mayflower Compact), which governed them independently from England until they could obtain permission to settle where they landed. This was the first western example of a consensual government without a monarch. If their navigation had taken them just 65 miles further south, they would have landed in the Colony of Virginia, and history may have been different.
The Mayflower itself returned to England the following year, but sadly her Captain died in 1622. Left on the riverbank of the Thames, she fell into disrepair and was in such a poor condition that she was sold for parts in 1624. Ironically the Speedwell lasted far longer, sailing from Southampton to Virginia and back in 1635.
They were enemies of the state – religious malcontents and political subversives. This left England’s most radical puritans with just two options under Tudor treason law (besides execution, of course): either shut up or pack up and leave.
Elizabethan severity against Roman Catholics made sense, as Catholic powers across Europe were waging war against England. They united in a series of conspiracies to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots. The pope excommunicated Elizabeth and even ordered English subjects not to “dare obey her orders”.
But why would a Protestant queen outlaw zealous Protestants – and what was so subversive about worshipping the way they wanted?
The trouble was that some reformists went beyond insisting on minor improvements to the Church of England. They denounced it all together as false. They rejected the monarch’s supremacy over the church. And they widely publicised all this, calling bishops monstrous beasts.
When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne in 1603, his attempts to appease both ends of the spectrum fell on deaf ears. Disaffected Catholics hatched an elaborate plan to blow up the king and parliament in the Gunpowder Plot. On the other end of discontent, zealous Protestants separated from the Church of England and decided to pack up and leave. But they refused to shut up.
Many puritan dissenters headed to the Netherlands, where they exploited freedom of the press to print and distribute illicit texts from Leiden. They did so, according to the chief minister and leader of the core Mayflower migrants, John Robinson, because “lesse hurt comes by silence, than by speech” but so too “doth lesse good”.
Recently discovered manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin Library shed new light on the pilgrims’ views and their later reception. Robinson himself had been strongly influenced by Henry Jacob (1562/3-1624), a Calvinist minister from Kent.
Jacob engaged in extensive underground exchanges with his fellow puritan critics. These hidden debates open up new ways of seeing how Jacob and Robinson played a far more radical role in one of the greatest political, military, and religious conflicts in British history.
According to his critics, Jacob was the first in the English-speaking world to espouse a view of ecclesiastical “independency”. Invoking the ancient Roman Republic’s idea of liberty as non-dependence, he argued explicitly that each particular church was free and not dependent on any higher ecclesiastical authority (whether the pope, bishop or church council). More importantly, he argued for the first time that any group of individual believers had the freedom to set up a new church society if they so chose.
Contemporaries feared Jacob would “begin a new world” by justifying the freedom to create new self-authenticating church societies. And that was exactly what he did. He migrated to Virginia after planting an independent church in London.
He also inspired Robinson, who cited Jacob to justify the freedom to establish new churches. Robinson further developed the idea of the freedom to discover the unknown, warning that injury from falling forward was less fatal than falling backwards.
Brave new world
Two decades after the Mayflower voyage to the new world, these ideas were threatening to create another crisis back in the old world.
Critics claimed that Robinson was responsible for spreading far more radical ideas back in England than in the new Plymouth colony. As the British Isles spiralled into civil war in the 1640s, radicals seized the moment to make new claims to liberty – which ended in the trial and execution of Charles I.
It was here that Robinson reappeared. His work was allegedly plagiarised by revolutionaries in parliament’s New Model Army who were fighting against royalist troops and threatening to dismantle all social hierarchy.
Edmund Chillenden was one such army agitator who appeared to silently lift Robinson’s arguments to make the case for any man – however humble and whether ordained as a minister or not – to preach publicly. No surprise that Chillenden was also a member of one of Jacob’s offshoot churches in London.
Jacob’s brand of independence did more than simply revive the Roman idea of freedom as non-dependence. He was the first person to argue that the church was defined in the New Testament solely as an independent congregation, as opposed to seeing each church as part of a single universal visible church.
This stretched independence beyond a political idea reserved for an elite group of men and made it universally applicable to every believer. This meant it could appeal to men lower down the social order and might even extend to women.
Robinson was careful to qualify the most egalitarian implications of his ideas. For instance, he denied that women had the right to speak and teach in public church assemblies ordinarily. (Exceptional women who were seen as prophetesses could speak openly in church, but this was rare.) New England colonists were at pains to deny their views would result in social anarchy.
But the Jacob connection again tells a different story.
Another member of the Jacob offshoot churches in London cited Robinson to stretch the social boundaries of freedom as independence. Katherine Chidley was one of the earliest and most vocal female writers and political activists in the English Revolution, leading an army of women in London to petition parliament.
She vigorously defended Robinson’s views in her Justification of Independant Churches. For Chidley, there was nothing exceptional about this. She believed in the freedom and natural ability of women to speak independently in public.
Following the Plymouth plantation in the new world, Robinson helped plant a new one in the old. Chidley used his ideas to justify female speech and dissent. Her public interventions were offensive – and even insulting – to many at the time because they challenged traditional hierarchy and overturned social conventions. They were pushing the same ideas in England that had prompted the Mayflower voyage.
One obvious difference, of course, was that she didn’t have to pack up or shut up. Instead, she spoke up.
Popular anglophone histories tend to play up England’s settlement of the “New World”, but – in reality – England under Elizabeth I was, by comparison with Spain and France, a minor player on the European scene and for the most part non-existent in the New World.
Having lost Calais, its final territory in France, in 1558 – and having experienced the two short reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary – England could not compete with the strength, stability and financial resources of Spain. At that time Spain was vastly rich as gold and silver flowed from the mines of the New World, especially from Potosi, into Spanish coffers.
England and Spain had long been allies before Elizabeth’s reign – Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, as was Mary Tudor’s husband Philip II. But animosities beneath the surface eventually boiled over into open warfare after England intervened in the Dutch Revolt to support the Dutch against Spanish control in 1585.
Philip had entertained the idea of aggression against England prior to 1585, but English engagement in the Netherlands along with piracy on the seas by the likes of Francis Drake provoked the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in an attempt to invade and subjugate England to Spanish control. As the saying goes, “God blew and they were scattered”, and the 1580s mark a turning point in English ambition on the seas and relative to its European neighbours.
With adventurers such as Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers, soon independent Englishmen found private investors to finance their voyages to, and activity in, the New World. This was seen as a countermeasure to Spain and an opportunity to explore commercial ventures for trade.
The landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 is a significant historical marker. Its recognition is warranted because of the legacy that followed. But in many ways, the Mayflower represents not only the beginning of an Anglo-American story, for it is just one part of a wider European tale of exploration, settlement, and displacement and subjugation of indigenous populations.
The Mayflower followed the first successful English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, which itself was more than a century after the initial forays of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.
‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was Italian and sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag. Other Italians followed in his wake – including Amerigo Vespucci, under both Spanish and Portuguese flags shortly after Columbus, and Giovanni Verrazzano under the French flag in 1524. Zuan Caboto (Britain knows him as John Cabot) sailed under an English flag in the 1490s, but his efforts never resulted in any permanent settlements by the English. Spanish exploration and colonisation in the New World stretched thousands of miles from deep into South America to the plains of North America.
New Spain (“Hispania Nova”) dominated early maps of the western hemisphere, and in these lands the Spanish government established colonial governance and administration, complete with churches and missionaries to attempt converting the indigenous. Lands claimed by Portugal in modern-day Brazil were also vast and easily recognisable on such maps.
International acknowledgement of Spanish and Portuguese territories and domination came with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 – which, in the years that followed, earned the pope’s approval in Rome. Not to be outdone, by 1550 the French explored and subsequently claimed massive lands in what is now Canada – “Nova Francia”, though active settlement by the French in this area was limited.
Spain’s activity was not restricted to Central or South America. Spanish exploration in North America continued to expand as the century progressed. Hernando de Soto explored Florida during the 1540s, while Francisco Coronado the south-west (and Grand Canyon) at the same time. What is today Mexico had by this point been thoroughly occupied by Spain, the colonial capital city of Mexico City being built upon the ashes of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish empire expanded further and further across the globe under King Philip II during the second half of the 16th century, especially when all Portuguese lands came under his dominion in 1580. So mighty, so awe-inspiring was Spanish power in Europe and the New World that none dared question it, even if daredevils like Drake drew Spanish ire by plundering along the coasts of South America during the 1570s.
By the early 17th century, England was more assured of itself on a European level than it had been since the reign of Henry VIII, but it still had a lot of catching up to do. Alongside Spain (especially having absorbed Portuguese dominions), the Dutch and even the Danish soon became active in exploring and claiming lands in the Americas.
The English, led by private companies or religious refugees, such as the Mayflower pilgrims, were in some respects on the back foot until the second half of the 17th century.
To situate the Mayflower within a broader context of European exploration and colonisation, and to understand early modern England among its mainland European neighbours, is not to belittle the achievements or significance of either. Rather, doing so helps us to see how a wide variety of countries and peoples came together – in commerce and trade but also in rivalry and war – to bring European cultures to the indigenous cultures of the New World with dramatic and often horrible effects.
And so began the great mixing and melding of peoples in the Americas.
The Great Bible is often seen as a monument of English reform – but could it also contain the first known example of political photoshopping in early modern England? Printed in 1538-9, it was to be purchased by every parish church in the realm. Its creation was overseen by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The Great Bible ushered in the English parish Bible and its large size and meticulous printing set the bar for centuries to come. Nowhere is its iconic appearance more evident than in a unique presentation copy made for the Tudor court. This copy was printed on vellum and hand-coloured by highly skilled illuminators.
I encountered this lavish copy while carrying out an in-depth study of the production and use of Bibles in late medieval and early modern England. Researchers have long known about the Great Bible and used its striking title page for illustration. But little or no scientific analysis has ever been carried out on it. So I asked Paola Ricciardi, scientist in residence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, to help me with a new investigation which utilised the latest technology to study the Bible in forensic detail. The results blew us away.
Our analysis revealed a new – and hitherto unknown – plot by Cromwell to literally change the balance of power on the Bible’s front page, just one year before his execution for high treason. We plan to publish our research results in full later this year.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
As Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals (Henry’s deputy in matters relating to the church), Cromwell was the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s court. Henry’s break from the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries became an opportunity for Cromwell to advance religious reform. For Cromwell, support for a vernacular Bible (translated into English for the general population) was linked with obedience to the King. But he had to counter a strong opposition and a substantial conservative faction in court and within the church. Henry’s support for religious reform was always limited. His stance on religion was influenced more by his political aims, rather than faith, so his support for a vernacular Bible was hesitant from the start.
Cromwell thought that the best way to ensure royal support was to produce a Bible worthy of royal patronage – both in its content and in its material grandeur. Such a Bible would combine Cromwell’s own evangelical leanings with the political aim of consolidating Henry’s control over the English church. Production began in Paris. English printers were simply not equipped to produce a book of the magnitude sought by Cromwell.
A letter to Cromwell from the production team in Paris dated June 23, 1538, reveals that two luxurious vellum copies of the Bible were being prepared. It reads: “We have here sent unto your lordship two examples, one in parchment, wherein we intend to print one for the King’s grace, and another for your lordship.”
Printed on parchment and meticulously hand-coloured, these copies have survived – one at the National Library of Wales and the other in St John’s College, Cambridge. In November 2019, with the kind assistance of St John’s College, we engaged in a technical and scientific investigation of their copy of the Great Bible.
We employed various non-invasive analytical techniques to examine the St John’s Bible, including X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, reflectance spectroscopy (in the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared range), high-resolution digital microscopy and advanced technical imaging. Scientific investigation of works of art has much to offer and is more reliable for material identification than visual analysis (historically the primary identification method for painting materials and techniques).
The focus of our technical examination of the Bible was the decoration. Knowledge of the painting materials and techniques used to decorate books can provide a wealth of information on production methods and artists’ skills –and, occasionally, on their identity. All of the hundreds of black-and-white images printed in the Bible were painstakingly hand-coloured by a group of talented artists for this special presentation Bible. In some cases, the artists did not simply colour in the print, but made significant changes to the black-and-white printed images used in the regular editions of the Bible.
Our investigation focused on 14 images, spread out across the volume. First, we used a range of spectroscopic methods to analyse a selection of small areas in each image, allowing the identification of individual pigments. The pigments identified throughout the volume were consistent with what is known about the materials used by Continental painters and illuminators during the 16th century. One of the most interesting results of this investigation was the fact that different “palettes” can be identified in different images, which suggests the presence of no less than six (and quite possibly more) artists at work on the decoration of this Bible.
The spectroscopic analysis was followed by high-magnification digital microscopy (in direct as well as raking and transmitted light). The close-up images captured using these methods not only provided greater insight into the stylistic preferences and working methods of the artists, but were also crucial in revealing the extent to which the printed images were modified at the painting stage.
From black and white to colour
We paid special attention to the Bible’s title pages. Each of the book’s five parts is preceded by a full, illustrated and meticulously hand-coloured title page. The title pages depict scenes from the parts of the Bible they precede (historical books, the words of the prophets, or the New Testament). We discovered that the St John Bible’s main front page was actually a hand-coloured adaption of the printed black-and-white version which would have been present in all the mass-produced Bibles. But this luxurious front page – meant for the eyes of King Henry VIII – contained some key differences, as the slider image below illustrates.
The main black-and-white title page depicts an ideal scenario in which the majestic Henry VIII distributes bibles to lay and religious subjects, assisted by two of his faithful ministers – Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cromwell. Renowned art historian Tatiana String believes the printed title page was the visual manifestation of Henry’s authority. Henry reigns at the top of the page, distributing bibles to laypeople and clerics, aided by Cromwell to his left and Cranmer to his right (each identified by his coat of arms). The Word of God then reaches the general public in the lower part of the page, who duly proclaim “vivat rex” and “God save the king” (apart from those in prison, who are seen on the bottom right and shout nothing).
This black-and-white title page of the Bible masterminded by Cromwell, distilled his theory of scripture and obedience. The dissemination of the Bible was from top to bottom (literally), resulting in greater submission to the monarch. Its details reveal, however, that it moves away from the more radical reformation ideal of putting the Bible “in the ploughboy’s hands”. The laity at the bottom of the page do not hold the Bible, they simply listen to the Word of God preached from the pulpit. This was a nuanced and hierarchical way to disseminate the book and it reflected the unease Henry had with common people reading the Bible.
In the St John’s copy, the printed title pages were carefully hand painted, with the original print at times peeping through. For example, in the hand-coloured version the prison was obliterated and replaced by a dedication scene. The original brick background is still visible through the red stockings of the green-clad figure.
Cut and paste politics
The most striking modification we found has so far been hidden from scholars working on this Bible. Under a microscope with raking light, it becomes evident that some of the faces were painted on separate pieces of vellum and pasted over the existing page. A thin line can be seen under Cromwell’s face where the image was pasted in. This was done in a highly professional manner, covering much of the border area with paint overlapping the edges and creating the impression of a single image. This major modification applied to Cromwell and another key figure.
We believe that the instigator of this modification was Cromwell himself and the change had much to do with his representation on the page – a page which illustrates Henry’s complex attitude towards the lay readership of scripture, wavering between distribution and retraction. The same phenomenon, more nuanced but equally powerful, is evident in this careful modification. The pasting of Cromwell’s portrait had reshuffled political powers and affinity to the monarch.
In the original black-and-white design, Cromwell is affiliated with distributing the Bible to the laity – his coat of arms is in the middle of the page, below the figure whose features resemble Cromwell, handing the Bible (inscribed verbum dei, or “the Word of God”) to lay nobility. He mirrors Cranmer’s image, on the other side of the page, distributing a similar book to the clergy. This accorded with Cromwell’s central role in lay administration, as with his reformed leaning and his support for the printing of the Great Bible. In this image, then, Cromwell is on the level below the King and positioned in the middle of the page.
In the painted version of the title page, on the other hand, Cromwell is moved up a level and transformed into the person receiving the book from Henry’s left hand. This serves two purposes. It enhances the affinity between Cromwell and Henry, placing them next to each other. It also renders Cromwell in a more passive position, receiving the book from Henry rather than actively distributing it. Given Henry’s ambivalence towards the lay readership, this was a much less hazardous position. The careful and extensive modifications of the title page demonstrate Cromwell’s political prowess and his ability to read the political map and manipulate the visual image accordingly.
This transformation was both careful and premeditated. A back-light exposure reveals that the faces underneath the pasted elements had not been previously painted in, but rather left blank – anticipating the subsequent pasting. The scientific analysis reveals that the two faces were painted at the same time, most likely in a setting different from the painting of other features in the Bible. Very similar pigment mixtures were used across the two faces and they differ from those employed for flesh tones in the rest of the Bible.
Similarly, the pigments used in the uppermost sections of the fur garments in which the two figures are cloaked (those closest to the faces) differ from those identified in the lower portions of the garments. The same is true for the green brushstrokes surrounding the faces, painted with posnjakite (a copper sulphate mineral) unlike the rest of the grassy landscapes, which were painted in a different sulphate of copper.
This all suggests a targeted campaign. The separation between the painting of the other elements of the presentation copy and the faces reveals that the latter was carried out in a different location and at a later time – most likely in England – after the Bible had arrived from Paris. Reallocating the painting of the faces to London ensured greater accuracy, especially for those whose likeness was less well known outside of England.
In London, very few artists were capable of such skilled and intricate work. The workshops of either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein are the likely location where these portraits were painted and inserted into the title page. The involvement of artists with such close ties to Henry’s court (Horenbout was King’s Painter and court miniaturist from 1525 until his death in 1544, and Holbein was also painting for the court by the mid-1530s) would have guaranteed great accuracy in the depiction of key people. The features of the upper pasted face on the title page closely resemble known depictions of Cromwell. The image of him in the hand-coloured title page is probably his last accurate portrait.
But who was the second person, distributing Bibles below Cromwell? There is no obvious answer. Based on court politics at the time, and the iconography of the portrait, we believe that this could be Richard Rich, Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations (responsible for dissolving English monasteries) and Speaker of the House of Commons. A comparison between Rich’s known portrait and the pasted face supports this hypothesis.
This would demonstrate, once again, Cromwell’s political manoeuvring. Rich, once an affiliate of Cromwell and a leading politician at the court, would have been a natural ally in the dissemination of the Bible to the laity. By placing him underneath, further removed from Henry and closer to the more tricky endeavour of empowering the lay readership, Rich was presented as subordinate to Cromwell (which was not the case at the time) and with a clearer evangelical stance (again, this was not the case).
Rich was instrumental in facilitating the execution of Cromwell soon after and this may attest to Cromwell’s distrust of him. A few years earlier, Rich’s testimony was key in the executions of John Fisher and Thomas More.
The image of the woman on the bottom right of the page (and in front of the prison in the black-and-white page) was also changed in the painted copy. In the printed image, a woman is sitting next to a group of children, her hair in curls, possibly with a white undercap. Her hands instruct the children, while she is facing the man on her left (who appears to be the prison warden).
In the painted image, however, this was completely transformed. The woman now faces the children and her features are more distinct and more subtle. Her headgear has been turned into a lavish gable hood, worn by nobility and royalty. This sumptuous gable, trimmed in gold and possibly jewelled, together with the distinctive facial features are reminiscent of Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour, painted in 1536.
The portrait was well known at the time and served to inspire other depictions of Jane Seymour, who was Queen of England from 1536 to 1537 as Henry’s third wife. One such portrait was made in 1539 – the same year as the hand-painted title page. The importance of this figure is revealed when looking at the materials used for its creation.
The woman’s headdress and collar are the only instances where gold leaf was used on the page. Every other gilded area was decorated using “shell” (or powdered) gold. Pigment analysis also reveals the dress, which appears white with dark grey lines, contained tarnished silver. This combination of dazzling gold and silver makes the woman a truly spectacular addition to the colour title page.
Cromwell and Cranmer had previously used the King’s affinity to Seymour to elicit his support for the English Bible. In 1537, they evoked her pregnancy in the dedication to Henry which prefaced the Matthew Bible. The title page of that Bible proclaimed: “Set forth with the King’s most gracious licence.” Seymour’s pregnancy led to the birth of the future Edward VI – Henry’s much sought-after male heir. It is little wonder then that the woman in the painted title page is instructing a group of children, with her gaze directed to them – unlike the turned head of the woman in the original image.
Seymour died shortly after labour on October 24, 1537. Henry grieved for her and cherished her memory. Her loss permeated throughout the remainder of his life and he was subsequently buried at her side at Windsor Castle. A further change of mind about this female portrait is evident in the hand-painted title page. The analysis of the woman’s dress reveals an additional layer of modification, which attests to a later transformation of the figure. Under a microscope, it becomes evident that the white of the upper part of the dress conceals a red layer of paint.
The dress was therefore originally red with a low neckline, mirroring the dress worn by Seymour in the Holbein portrait and was later modified. The motivation for this later transformation is not yet known.
Political upheaval and betrayal
The importance of this presentation copy of the Great Bible – and its sister copy held in Wales – should not be underestimated. These copies were most likely the first ones seen by Henry and his court.
The modifications we have uncovered provide a unique insight into Cromwell’s thought process. Between the design of the printed title page and the hand-colouring, he has grown more cautious and more weary of Henry’s support of the English Bible and reform in general. As a result, he wished to distance himself from the role of distributing Bibles and instead put in his place the person who was to play a key role in his downfall and execution.
The Great Bible was reprinted in six subsequent editions, all produced in quick succession between 1539 and 1541. Henry approved of the printed title page, which was kept in all editions – and later even replaced the title page to the New Testament. However, further transformations to the title page reveal the political upheavals which were to come and the ultimate fate of Cromwell.
Shortly after the appearance of the Great Bible, Cromwell devised Henry’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves in January 1540. The conservative faction in court used this opportunity to move against Cromwell, leading to his execution in July 1540 – in which the perfidious testament of Rich was instrumental.
The printers of subsequent editions of the Great Bible faced the problem of retaining the image of a convicted traitor. The solution was not to replace the woodcut used for printing altogether (a cumbersome and very costly endeavour). Instead of erasing Cromwell’s image entirely, they erased his coat of arms from the fourth edition of November 1540 and all subsequent editions thereafter.
Rather than completely obliterating Cromwell’s memory, the blank circle reminded readers of the fate of traitors to the Crown. Henry also grew disillusioned with the dissemination of bibles to the laity. He came to realise that reality was different to the ideal of the printed title page, and that reading the Bible did not necessarily lead people to shout “long live the king”, but rather to think for themselves.
Cromwell’s fear, leading him to rejig the images, became a reality. Henry’s distrust of lay reading led to legislation in 1543, prohibiting lay women and men of the lower classes from accessing the Bible. Our analysis reveals how key players reacted to political and religious changes. The image modifications have laid bare the truth of the English Reformation period and illustrated just how dangerous and political 16th-century England was – especially in the court of King Henry VIII.
The “palace letters” show the Australian Constitution’s susceptibility to self-interested behaviour by individual vice-regal representatives. They also reveal the vulnerability of Australian governments to secret destabilisation by proxy by the Crown.
They reveal a governor-general, fearing his own dismissal, succumbing to moral hazard, and the British monarch’s private secretary encouraging him in the idea that a double dissolution was legitimate in the event a government could not get its budget bills passed.
The letters confirm the worst fears of those who viewed Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government as a constitutional coup. They reveal Kerr shortened by at most a mere three months the resolution of the crisis created by the conservative Malcolm Fraser-led opposition’s refusal to pass the government’s budget bills, compared to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s own timetable shared with Kerr.
The correspondence shows Kerr was privy to Whitlam’s plan to hold a double-dissolution election in February 1976 if all other avenues, including a half-Senate election, failed to secure passage of the budget beforehand. Whitlam candidly told Kerr he would be replaced as governor-general if he obstructed that plan. This introduced the element of moral hazard that saw Kerr take a reckless and self-interested route in ending the crisis rather than the steadier one privately put to him by Whitlam – one that Kerr could have, had he chosen, quite properly facilitated.
Crucially, the palace provided a specific nudge to Kerr in the direction of dismissing the government as a solution. It did so by highlighting one expert’s view that Kerr could secure an election while saving his own position as governor-general.
A September 24 1975 letter from the queen’s private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, to Kerr pointed him to Canadian constitutional law expert Eugene Forsey’s opinion that:
[…] if supply is refused this always makes it constitutionally proper to grant a dissolution.
In such correspondence, the queen’s private secretary is understood as speaking for the queen herself. As such, this could be interpreted as the monarch providing not just comfort but actual encouragement to the governor-general in his sacking of the government.
By adding his point about Forsey as a handwritten postscript to the letter, Charteris created a degree of ambiguity on this score, giving rise to a potential argument that it was Charteris’s personal view and not that of the queen.
But this should be read in the context of the overall correspondence in the year leading up to The Dismissal. In these letters, Kerr repeatedly canvasses the opposition’s potential blocking of supply, the likely resulting constitutional crisis and his difficulties in that context. There is, notably, no counterveiling call from the palace to let the legitimately elected prime minister see his plan through, even though Kerr had conveyed Whitlam’s plan to the palace.
In a crucial letter to Charteris on September 30, Kerr outlined Whitlam’s privately proposed electoral path to a resolution.
In the event the opposition continued to block the budget bills, Whitlam wanted to hold a half-Senate election. After that the government would again put the budget bills to the Senate. Should the opposition continue to block them, Whitlam planned a double-dissolution election. Kerr relayed to Charteris Whitlam’s view that it “could not take place until February 1976”.
Why didn’t Kerr co-operate with Whitlam to implement this relatively speedy path to resolution of the crisis? The answer likely lies in Whitlam’s candour in telling Kerr he would ask the queen to replace Kerr should he not accede to the plan.
Since the letters through Charteris also confirm the queen’s intention, unreservedly, to accept Whitlam’s advice to sack Kerr should she be asked to do so, Kerr knew this threat to be real and increasingly immediate.
The question is, since the queen made clear through Charteris she would uphold Australia’s constitutional convention that the monarch follow the prime minister’s advice, why would her representative, Kerr, not simply do the same with regard to Whitlam’s plans for the crisis’s resolution?
This is the note missing from the palace side of the correspondence – an absence against which Charteris’s handwritten postscript pointing Kerr to the Forsey opinion that “dissolution” was a legitimate option when governments fail to get their money bills passed is stark.
Forsey was later a strong public supporter of Kerr’s sacking of the Whitlam government. No wonder the palace fought to stop these letters being released.
But it may hearten Black Lives Matter consumer activists to learn that the first-ever boycott – organized over 50 years before the term was even coined – was ultimately a success, if not in the way the woman behind it intended. I stumbled upon this history during research for my just-published book about the end of slavery in the British Caribbean.
In the 1820s, Elizabeth Heyrick felt disgust over Britain’s enslavement of people on islands such as Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies, where large sugar plantations produced virtually all the sugar consumed in Western Europe.
Heyrick joined the abolition movement from a position of privilege and wealth. But after an early marriage to a hothead husband ended with his death in 1797, she converted to Quakerism and vowed to give up “all ungodly lusts.” She eventually found a passion for the antislavery movement, though with marked frustration for the slow-moving process of pushing bills through the English Parliament.
Contemptuous of the male abolitionists in Parliament whom she regarded as too willing to appease the wealthy slaveholders who clung to slavery as an economic pillar, Heyrick launched a campaign to get ordinary Britons to quit using the sugar produced on these islands and for grocers not to carry it.
If people must have the “sweet dust,” she said, they should at least make sure it was grown in Britain’s colonies in the East Indies – Bengal and Malaya – where canefield laborers were impoverished but at least technically free.
Her campaign involved writing a series of booklet-sized polemics. In one such broadside, she asked those who favored gradual emancipation to reflect “that greater victories have been achieved by the combined expression of individual opinion than by fleets and armies; that greater moral revolutions have been accomplished by the combined exertions of individual resolution than were ever effected by acts of Parliament.”
“Let the produce of slave labor henceforth and for ever be regarded as ‘the accursed thing’ and refused admission to our houses,” she wrote. “Abstinence from one single article of luxury would annihilate the West Indian slavery!!”
Her focus on citizen-driven change through deliberate consumer activism was unpopular with her contemporaries who preferred negotiations among government officials to achieve their ends.
The Baptist War
Heyrick grew despondent with the seeming lack of progress from her boycott effort and died in 1831 without seeing her goal of “imminent emancipation” achieved. Her passing was barely noticed by British newspapers, yet her efforts would come to bear astonishing results very soon after her death.
Heyrick could not have known that an enslaved Baptist deacon in Jamaica named Samuel Sharpe was – while she was pushing for a boycott – reading about the anti-slavery movement she did so much to fuel, almost certainly including the “Quit Sugar” movement.
Heartened by the news that many people in the faraway capital of the empire were actually sympathetic to him and his fellows, he began to formulate his own revolutionary vision and preached about it and his plans for rebellion to select groups of elite slaves.
Sharpe’s rebellion, known as the Baptist War, began on Dec. 27, 1831. The uprising lasted less than two weeks and resulted in the destruction of dozens of buildings and killing of at least 500 slaves – both during the fighting and in reprisals. A giant pit had to be dug outside Jamaica’s Montego Bay to hold all the bodies. Sharpe was hanged a few months later.
But the mere demonstration of military competence – the rebels defeated the island militia in at least one head-to-head confrontation – made an impression like no other uprising had before and helped inspire the British Parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in the West Indies. Full freedom wasn’t achieved until 1838.
The headlines of 19th century newspapers thus performed a double-function as they crossed the Atlantic. News of the sugar boycott helped inspired enslaved people to revolt, and news of their visceral unhappiness to the point of mayhem helped inspire the British Parliament to push for immediate abolition – which is what Heyrick had been saying all along.