CONJURE up the title of one the best selling books of all time and you might be tempted to answer the magical Harry Potter. But there is one book whose sales figures would make even JK Rowling a little envious.
This month, the most influential work ever written - the King James Bible - celebrates its 400th birthday.
Dating back to 1611, for many centuries it was available in Latin text only. In the later 14th century, an English translation began but this was only read and studied privately and never used in churches. However, all was to change in 1604, thanks to King James I who convened the Hampton Court Conference. It was at this gathering that a new English version of the Bible was proposed.
The task of translating was assigned to 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England and all of whom, except one, were clergymen.
That one scholar who was not a man of the cloth, was Sir Henry Savile, from the parish of Halifax, who was responsible for major portions of the good book - albeit a little late.
“Savile was a celebrated scholar,” explains Calderdale genealogist and historian David Glover, who has researched Savile’s lineage.
“He was born at Bradley in the township of Stainland on November 30, 1549, the second son of Henry and Elizabeth Savile of Bradley Hall.”
He adds that Henry Senior, a wealthy landowner, had studied civil and canon law at Oxford and his son, Henry junior was to follow in his footsteps, studying at Brasenose College, Oxford. He graduated in 1561 and four years later he became a fellow of Merton College.
“He soon established a reputation as a Greek scholar and a mathematician with particular interests in geometry and in 1575 became Junior Proctor.
“The following year he travelled in Europe, collecting manuscripts and studying mathematics and astronomy in great detail. On return to England he was appointed Greek tutor to Queen Elizabeth I and this marked the start of his career as a courtier which was to lead rapidly to higher academic office. He seemed to have become quite a favourite of Good Queen Bess,” says David.
In 1585, Savile was appointed warden of Merton College by “unorthodox” means through the influence of her Majesty’s ministers Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham. He was a successful though tyrannical head but under his direction the college flourished. His translation of four Books of the Histories of Tacitus boosted his reputation.
In 1596, after a personal campaign, he was awarded the desirable post of Provost of Eton College, even though he was not qualified for the role which required a man in Holy Orders.
“Initially the Queen was reluctant but Savile nagged and begged both Elizabeth and her ministers and eventually he used the ingenious suggestion that the Queen had a right to dispense with the law and at last got his way,” explains David.
Savile’s career nearly came to an end however in 1601 when he was arrested on suspicion of having been concerned in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion but he was soon released and after the death of Elizabeth, his former friendship with Essex helped him gain the favour of the new king - King James I.
“Almost certainly this was helpful to Henry’s career and at this period, Henry’s brother, John also happened to be a senior government lawyer who had the admiration of King James.”
The King knighted Henry on September 30, 1604 and it was in the same year that he was named one of the body of scholars appointed to prepare what was to become known as the Authorised version of the Bible - so called because it was authorised by King James I.
“Henry was entrusted with parts of the Gospels, the whole Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation.”
Sir Henry Savile was to die at Eton in February 1622 and was buried in the college chapel there where his grave is marked by a simple tombstone.
His widow, Margaret arranged for a magnificent mural monument to be placed at Merton College. Savile also assisted Thomas Bodley in the establishment of the Bodleian Library at Oxford where he employed Halifax parish masons to help construct the building and other colleges in Oxford.
“Not only was Sir Henry Savile the sole non-ordained member of the Bible translating team, he was the one who held up the project more than any of the others,” says David.
“At the time he was heavily engaged in some editing work of his own and assisting were two young scholars who were also on the translation panel.
“Had it not been for this delay, we might now be talking of the 1610 Bible!”
n Halifax Minster is the setting for an exhibition of Bibles which opens today and runs until next Wednesday, May 25, from 10am to 2pm.