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An Embroidered King James Bible

Joanna Munholland takes a look at an embroidered Holy Bible (King James I Version) from 1629 that we hold in our Collections, and talks about the influence of the Bible on Shakespeare's works.

Joanna Munholland

The following is the second of two guests posts by Joanna Munholland, who spent a two month placement with us in the summer as part of her Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She is now Curator & Archivist at the Sam Waller Museum in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada.

embroidered holy bible
Holy Bible with embroidered binding (SBT SR 98)

This Bible (SBT SR 98) was published in 1629 under the reign of James I, the nephew and successor of Elizabeth I. It is bound in leather and further covered in white silk. The silk has been embroidered with a “Garden of Eden” scene. This depicts various birds, serpents and insects around different plants and flowers. Which animals can you spot?

Additional decoration takes the form of metal sequins, known as ‘spangles’, and crewel work – the pieces of thread that appear to be ‘piled’ on the edge of the Bible. While many spangles are missing today, the multiple small holes in the silk suggest that when first decorated, the silk would have been covered in them. Another important decorative feature is the braid. It is created by a yellow thread that has been wrapped several times with fine metal thread. One can see a few places where the thread has unravelled and the yellow thread is visible. It is possible that the embroidery was not finished as there is some missing, but another possibility is that the Bible was used or moved so much that the completed embroidery fell apart. Likewise, the silk and threads have become faded from light exposure.

embroidered holy bible details
Detail of embroidered binding (SBT SR 98)

While medieval embroidery traditionally highlighted religious themes, embroidery in the 16th century had become more secular. Since it is on a Bible it is perhaps not surprising that the embroidery here represents the “Garden of Eden”. The embroidery, however, shows no people and no overtly religious symbolism to our 21st century gaze. The “Garden of Eden” pattern is similar to the “Tree of Life” pattern which was exceptionally popular at the time. Again, it had subtle connotations but did not display obvious religious symbolism. One reason that flora and fauna become more popular as decoration in the late 16th and early 17th century is because scientific texts with illustrations became more readily available to the public, who copied them enthusiastically in drawing, paintings and, as in this case, sewing. It is possible therefore that this embroidery cover was done at home by a skilled amateur rather than by a professional.

embroidered holy bible spine
Spine (SBT SR 98)

While the embroidered binding of this Bible is undoubtedly beautiful and eye catching, the written text is also important. The first page of the Bible says, ‘TO THE MOST HIGH AND MIGHTY PRINCE JAMES / by the grace of God, King of Great Britaine, / FRANCE, and IRELAND, defender of the Faith, &c. / The Translators of the Bible, with Grace, Mercy and Peace, / through IESVS CHRST our Lord.’ It goes on to praise King James and reflect that, while some were worried about what would happen to England when Elizabeth I died childless, he has been a good king and his rule has given comfort to his people. King James commissioned the third authorised English translation of the Bible and it was first published in 1611. Known commonly as the King James Bible, many phrases that we still use today can be traced back to it, such as ‘at my wit’s end’,  to ‘fall flat on one’s face’, and ‘in the twinkling of an eye’.

embroidered holy bible dedication page
Dedication Page (SBT SR 98)

Shakespeare would have been familiar with the Bible, having grown up hearing it read during school, church, and at home for family devotions. Examples of his use of Biblical references are vast, but a few include the title Measure for Measure, which is thought to come from Matthew 7:2, which states ‘For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ (King James Version). Another example is taken from Act 2, Scene III of Othello, where Cassio comments that because of drinking he has ‘give[n] place to the devil wrath’. This passage is a reference to Ephesians 4:27: ‘Neither give place to the devil’; there are many more examples to be found.