16 August 2011

Three translators of the King James Version of the Bible in Lichfield

Lichfield Cathedral ... two bishops and a dean were involved in the translation of the King James Version of the Bible 400 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Looking at the exhibition of the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ in Lichfield Cathedral last week, it was good to see it placed in the context of the growth of Christianity in Mercia, with pride of place in the exhibition in the Chapter House being given to Saint Chad Gospels and the Angel of Lichfield.

The book known as the Saint Chad Gospels is older than the Book of Kells, and is the first object on display to be seen by visitors entering the Chapter House to see the exhibition.

Only last month, I was reminded of the role key members of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, had played in the translation of the King James Version of the Bible, first published 400 years ago. This week, I was reminded that three key church leaders from Lichfield, a dean and two bishops, had played important parts in the teams that translated the Authorised Version: Bishop John Overall, Bishop George Abbot, and Dean James Montagu.

Bishop John Overall (1559-1619) was a member of the First Westminster Company, directed by Lancelot Andrewes, which translated the Books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings.

Overall was Bishop of Lichfield from 1614-1618. He ended his days as Bishop of Norwich (1618-1619), but had also been Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (1601-1614), Master of Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge (from 1598), and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge from 1596.

Overall studied at both Saint John’s College and Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1579 and MA in 1582. He was ordained priest in 1591, and briefly was Vicar of Trumpington, near Cambridge (1591-1592). He returned to Cambridge in 1595 as Regius Professor of Divinity, a chair he held until 1607. At Cambridge, he was also a tutor to the future Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who had a life interest in the Manor of Lichfield.

During the translation on the Authorised Version of the Bible, Overall and Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626) became firm friends and allies. In 1614, Overall was appointed Bishop of Lichfield. He was translated to Norwich in 1618, and died the following year.

George Abbot (1562-1633) was Bishop of Lichfield for only a month in 1609 before being moved to the Diocese of London, and he later became Archbishop of Canterbury. But his appointment to Lichfield was an immediate reward from King James I for his work on restoring the episcopacy to the Church of Scotland. The king also engaged him in the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible, and he was a member of the Second Oxford Company that translated the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation.

Abbot was educated at Baliol College, Oxford, and became Master of University College in 1597 and Dean of Winchester in 1600. He was three times Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University.

In 1611, Abbot became Archbishop of Canterbury. Although sometimes remembered for shooting a gamekeeper, Abbot’s lasting legacy as archbishop must be his defence of the apostolic succession of the Anglican episcopacy and of the validity and Catholic character of Anglican orders. As archbishop, he was also appointed the fourth Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin in 1612, and he held both posts until his death in 1633.

James Montagu, who was Dean of Lichfield for a brief period in 1603, was – along with Bishop Abbot – a member of the Second Oxford Company, involved in translating the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation. But, despite being a member of this Oxford company, Montagu was intimately associated with Cambridge. In 1596, he became the first Master of Sidney Sussex, probably because he was related to the founder of the college, Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex: his grandmother, Lucy Sidney, was her sister.

Montagu laid the foundation stone of Sidney Sussex College, and remained here until 1608. While Master of Sidney Sussex, he became the Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1603 and then – for a brief period – Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Then, in rapid succession, he became Dean of Worcester in 1604, Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1608, and Bishop of Winchester in 1616. During this career, he also edited the collected works of King James I. He is buried in an alabaster tomb in Bath Abbey.

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