Jeremiah Radcliffe

Orwell's most eminent resident.

By David Miller

Photo:King James I

King James I

Most Orwellians will know the name of Jeremiah Radcliffe – the Rector of Orwell from 1590 until 1611, and whose monument is high up on the wall of the Church. He was one of the translators who worked to create a new version of the Bible under the authority of King James I.

However, few people know much more than that. The story of the writing of the King James Bible is fascinating, and there are numerous books about it, notably a recent one by Gordon Campbell, and there is more to be found on various websites.  These latter, it has to be said, are often presented with a distinct slant in favour of the beliefs of the site owners, from the Roman Catholics on one end of the scale to the Mormon church in America at the other.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Jeremiah Radcliffe' page

An unbelievable feat of scholarship

The 1611 King James version was, first and foremost, an unbelievable feat of scholarship: its translators were fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Ethiopic, as well as being expert theologians and Bible historians. They had numerous existing versions of the Bible to work with, from the oldest Hebrew scrolls to the latest printed Bibles deriving from the translation into German by Martin Luther. It was also an organisational feat, which brought together Britain's leading scholars and clerics in tiers of companies and committees. Getting such eminent academic individuals to work together in concert must have been like to trying to herd cats.  It is incredible that such a resounding success should be the end product, having regard to the usual results to be had by designing something by committee.

- With a degree of Royal self-interest

The authority of the King was an essential feature.  Once convinced of the desirability of having a new translation of the Bible (in no small part so that his belief in his divine right to rule could be re-stated), the King instructed the Dean of Westminster and the Regius professors of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge to put forward a list of names to act as translators. In theory, they were to improve upon the existing English translation then in general use (the Great Bible); but with so many linguists in the team it would be inevitable that they would refer back to the earlier versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as well.

Forty-seven translators with many different shades of opinion

The forty-seven translators were given a list of rules to abide by from the King. The books of the Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha, were divided up between teams from Westminster and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, with the intention that their works should all be reviewed by each other once they were finally finished. There were many different shades of opinion in religious affairs at the time, from the conservative Bishops of the established church to the reformist and even extremist Puritans, so resolving the various viewpoints must have been a near impossible task. At least the Scottish Presbyterians were not allowed to get a look-in. James had had enough of them when he ruled Scotland, and was adamant about that.

Photo:Click on this picture, and then use 'Control and +' to enlarge this image further.

Click on this picture, and then use 'Control and +' to enlarge this image further.

Jeremiah may have felt a little slighted because his team, the Second Cambridge Company, was given the Apocrypha to deal with.  However, these books were duly included in the final version of the Bible, and remained a part of it until 1666, when they were removed as being less authoritative than the main testaments.  Nevertheless, everyone felt assured that they were doing God’s work, and they prayed that God would watch over them and guide their hands in such a fundamental matter as the re-writing of the Holy Scriptures. The last link on this page (to Queens' College Library) gives an indication of the kind of problems which the translators would have faced. 

Was God's guiding hand sometimes absent ?

His Guiding Hand, however, seems to have been absent at times, both before the King James Bible and after it.  For example, the earlier Coverdale version became known as “the Treacle Bible” because of its passage "Is there no treacle in Gilead?” The modern translation uses “balm” as a better word than treacle. 


The 'Treacle Bible' and The 'Wicked Bible'

 A subsequent re-print of the King James version was known as “the Wicked Bible” because it accidentally omitted the word “not” from the Commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” And God must have been out to lunch altogether when He permitted this passage: “Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and makes kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls.”  Of course, it is more than possible that it was the typesetter who had been out to a liquid lunch instead. Again, “Lay thy bread upon wet faces” was a too literal early translation which was later re-translated into “Cast thy bread upon the waters.” “The parable of the vinegar” (instead of “The parable of the vineyard”) gave rise to the nickname “The Vinegar Bible” for one edition.

The translation work took four years

The translation work took four years. James busied himself during that time with his other concerns - trying to get money from Parliament, making peace with Spain, stamping out the embers of the Gunpowder Plot, and no doubt enjoying the hunt from his palace in Royston. 

Instead of payment, the King recommended that the translators should be given plum jobs or rich livings to recompense them for their time and labour.  This would not have been unusual for those days: One wrote for immortality and pro gloria, and to have received actual payment would have been somewhat demeaning. At the time, Jeremiah was Rector of Orwell, and actually lived in the village.  He also had his University post, having been appointed a fellow of Trinity in 1572, and Vice-Master in 1597. He never married – Fellows were not permitted to marry.

Jeremiah's life and family

Jeremiah was born at Hitchin in about 1552, and was educated at Westminster School. He was admitted to Trinity in 1567. He was vicar at Shudy Camps, and later was vicar at Trumpington. His Brother Edward was physician to King James I. There is a large wooden panel in Hitchin Church recording the details of the Radcliffe family, who retained property in Hitchin until 1964.

His own memorial at Orwell was erected by his brother Edward.



And the original order by King James can be found at:

This page was added by David Miller on 25/06/2013.

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