D Philip Veitch of Reformation Anglicanism kindly wrote in on Monday to recommend a three-part series of BBC programmes about the King James Version (KJV), which is 400 years old this year.

I believe that this is the first of the three Radio 4 instalments to which he refers, The Story of the King James Bible – The Commission.  It does not appear to have an expiry date, but do try to listen as soon as you can whilst the link to the broadcast is still available.

The first part of the 45-minute broadcast gives us an overview of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, immediately to the west of London and open to the public.  The Chief Curator, Lucy Worsley, explains what life at the palace was like and gives host James Naughtie a tour as the story of the three-day conference commissioning the KJV unfolds.

It should be noted that the peaceful accession of King James VI of Scotland — James I of England — to the throne came as a welcome relief to the British Isles.  Politically, people feared upheaval, particularly from England’s enemy Spain, which had territories across the English Channel in the Low Countries (where Benelux is today).

For Christians, the overwhelming majority of the population, a new monarch meant that they might be able to put forth their grievances about how the Church was governed and the impact of persecution.  Catholics planned to petition for a relaxation of penalties against them. Puritans  (Calvinists), some of whom had fled abroad to the Continent, wanted a more Presbyterian structure to the Church — including the abolition of lavish Catholic-style vestments and the Sign of the Cross. The Conformists — Anglicans — wished to ensure that the established Church maintained the status quo.

King James, on the other hand, wanted to do only what was ‘necessary’ in matters ecclesiastical.  He was happy with the Church being governed by the monarch and the bishops.  This meant that the Puritans — which we are told was a term of insult, as they preferred to call themselves ‘the godly’ — were on the back foot before having even started their petitions.

James convened a three-day conference at Hampton Court to determine what course to take.  Representing the Anglican Church was Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London.  Bancroft was expected to uphold the beliefs which the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, held.  The Archbishop was too ill to actually speak, hence his reliance on Bancroft to carry the day.  (Bancroft, incidentally, succeeded Whitgift as Archbishop that same year.)  Also expected to support the Archbishop was the renowned clergyman Lancelot Andrewes.

Whereas his predecessor Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) believed that a monarch’s succession was providential (‘God has placed me here’), James firmly believed in a stronger divine right of kings; monarchs were, in his view, God’s earthly representatives there to enforce His laws.

The first day of the conference, James sent the Puritans home and listened only to Anglican arguments.  The next day, the Puritans were invited.

Needless to say, the atmosphere of the Privy Council of Anglicans and Puritans (‘the godly’) was tense.  Each side had strongly held views.  Imagine if representatives of our Christian blogosphere today with all its many conflicts and perspectives actually met in person.  The arguments during James’s three-day conference about what course of action to take with regard to the Church were every bit as heated as our online debates are, if not more so.  Some of the language — including James’s — even got a bit earthy as tempers flared.  At one point, however, James reminded the assembled churchmen that if they used that type of impertinent language and rhetoric in their own universities and in a political sphere, they would be be whipped (something still done in those days and a common form of punishment for university students as well).

John Rainolds headed the Puritan delegation.  He was aware that James had already created a Psalter for use in Scottish Protestant churches.  He also knew that James was on the whole favourably disposed to the Geneva Bible, which Calvinists used.  Therefore, why not adopt the Geneva Bible to be used in all the churches?  James objected on two counts: first, he wanted a Bible without annotations (the Geneva Bible had many) and, second, he didn’t like the anti-monarchical tone of one of the notes in Exodus pertaining to the Pharaoh.

Although Rainolds was unable to further the use of his preferred Bible, the conference did decide to compose an entirely new translation.  Companies (committees) were created of scholars and clergy who would work in three different institutions in England — the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as well as Westminster Abbey, a Royal Peculiar.  This meant that James would be able to maintain a certain amount of control over the new translation.

One of the commentators mentioned that, when compared with our more modern Bible translations, the companies working on the KJV were much more ‘scrupulous’ and detailed in their research and discussions.  This might have gone some way towards preserving it as the Protestant masterpiece of Scripture that we still hold in such high esteem today.