THE ELLAND PARISHIONER WHO HELPED TRANSLATE THE KING JAMES BIBLE
-An Article by Tony Murphy
As the English-speaking world celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the Authorized Version of the Bible, we in Elland can take some pride in that one of its leading translators was baptized and, in his youth, worshipped here at St. Mary’s. Henry Savile was one of three sons and five daughters born to Henry and Elizabeth Savile of Bradley Hall, situated between Greetland and Holywell Green (and now part of the clubhouse of the Bradley Hall Golf Club). He was baptized shortly after his birth on 30th November, 1549 in the church where his family had worshipped for generations and where they had provided benefactions over the years, including a chantry dedicated to St John the Baptist (where the present organ casing is situated) and the rebuilding of the chancel, with its very fine east window.
Henry, as with his elder brother John, was educated at home by private tutors, one of whom may have been the rector at Elland. He then followed in both his father’s and elder brother’s footsteps to Brasenose College, Oxford, which he entered at the remarkably early age of twelve. Here he made rapid progress in the liberal arts and his scholarship was recognized by Merton College who awarded him a Fellowship; he later astonished the university with his detailed knowledge of Ptolemy’s Almagest at his MA examination. He travelled widely in Europe for over four years, meeting leading scholars in France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Low Countries and copying or purchasing manuscripts wherever he went. Savile, both in his studies and in his own publications on Greek and Latin texts and also on astronomy, was undeniably at the cutting edge of Rennaissance humanism.
On returning to Oxford he very quickly procured the Wardenship of Merton College and later the Provostship of Eton College. These promotions were not without controversy. He had been engaged as tutor in Greek to Queen Elizabeth after his travels and spent much time cultivating influential friends at Court. Both Lord Burghley - the Queen’s chief minister - and Sir Francis Walsingham (her Secretary and chief “spy-master”) lobbied the monarch on his behalf. Nor was he universally popular with his fellow academics who felt over-looked. However, he certainly built up both Merton and Eton Colleges, furnishing their libraries with rare books and manuscripts and adding to their buildings. He was also a key figure in the establishment of the Bodleian Library with his personal friend Thomas Bodley and paid for new building works, in particular the famous Tower of Five Orders in the Schools Quad, for which he provided masons from Elland in its construction.
But it was his knowledge of the Greek language which led the new King, James 1, to include Savile among the 47 scholars appointed to provide the new Authorized Bible. What is most remarkable is that Savile alone of all these men was not in holy orders. Perhaps the knighthood bestowed by the king on him in 1604 was meant to lend further credibility. It seems that he was also appointed leader of his particular team at Oxford University which was assigned to work on the Four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation. Savile’s team met in his Warden’s rooms at Merton College. Here, over the seven years from 1604 to 1611, they studied the original Greek text and earlier English versions by Tyndale, Coverdale and the so-called “Bishops’ Bible” which had been introduced in Elizabeth’s reign to counteract the perceived Puritan leanings of the Geneva Bible, written by English refugees from Queen Mary’s Catholic reign. Both James 1 and Archbishop Bancroft were hoping for a translation of the Bible which authenticated the ecclesiology of the Anglican church and its Episcopal structures. What they also got was a literary work of art, whose resonant phrases and poetic cadences would echo down the years.
Henry Savile lost his only son during his work on the Bible, and would devote the rest of his life mainly to a translation of the complete works of the early Christian Father of the church St John Chrysostom, which he published in eight folios privately at great expense. He also founded and generously funded two professorships at Oxford - in geometry and astronomy - which exist to this day and died at Eton College on 19th February, 1622. He was buried in a simple tomb in the chapel there but his widow constructed a fine mural monument to him in Merton College. He had come a long way from his roots in Elland.