On an evening in October, in the Nave of Westminster Abbey, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, gave the first of three public lectures organised by the Abbey in honour of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible. This trio  – it was followed by lectures by Lord Bragg and Nick Spencer on the cultural and political effects of the Bible respectively - was one of many events and projects taking place across the UK and around the World in celebration of this anniversary. The genesis of what is more widely known as the King James Bible lay in the accession to the throne of England in 1603 of James VI of Scotland, who, aware of the many different translations of the Bible extant in England, wished to bring a sense of unity to the theological and political tensions that existed between Catholic and Protestant factions of the population. He accordingly commissioned scholars in Cambridge, Oxford and (pertinently, given the setting for the lecture) Westminster to create a new translation of the Bible “with all possible speed”.

In providing ‘The Lawyer’s Perspective’, the Lord Chief Justice sought to bring to life the series of interchanges between King James, his judiciary, Parliament and the law courts, during and in parallel to the seven years from 1604 to 1611 that this Authorised Version Bible was being translated. Although few of these interchanges were in themselves of particular significance at this time, they were, to borrow Lord Judge’s metaphor, the ‘tiny…acorns’ from which ‘a mighty oak was to grow’. They had far-reaching impacts on constitutional arrangement that in due course led to the execution of Charles I and extended as far as the 18th century and the American War of Independence. While these interchanges did not explicitly influence the three groups of translators, nevertheless they formed a powerful context in which this Authorised Version emerged.

Lord Judge first set the scene for his audience – which included several of his Supreme Court peers who had crossed Parliament Square to take up front row seats – by drawing attention first to the precision of language that is the common attribute of both this particular translation process and the preparation of a legal contract. By way of example, he referred to the intensity of “the doctrinal debate whether what happened at the altar was consubstantiation or transubstantiation”.

He then turned to how initial excitement and enthusiasm for James’s accession palled at his blunt demands of allegiance to himself as King rather than, as the House of Commons within Parliament maintained, to the Crown as an institution and to the law. This contrasted sharply with the sure-footed intuition and “remarkable advocacy” of his predecessor Elizabeth. James compounded this with assertions that Kings had power to “judge all, and to be judged or accountable to none”, seeing the judiciary merely as delegates of his opinions and views. A dispute between the common law courts and the Ecclesiastical High Commission as to the right of the Commission to examine the beliefs of non-conformists escalated into a situation where James felt his supremacy over the Church was under attack.

Lord Judge deftly drew out how the hitherto supine status of judges changed soon afterwards when asked by James to pronounce that as King, he had the power to issue proclamations. “The king hath no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him”- an illustration of how closely the views of the judiciary and the Commons had become aligned, in no small part due to the number of lawyers who had become members there. Lord Judge’s final example of these interchanges lay in, as he termed it, “a throw away line” within a judgement given in 1610 where the College of Physicians had been a party to, the judge, and the beneficiary of a case against a doctor accused of practising without a licence. The comment by Judge Coke to the effect that common law could control an Act of Parliament if such an Act was against ‘common right and reason’ lay, argued Lord Judge, at the heart of the decision by the Massachusetts Assembly to declare as invalid Parliament’s Stamp Act of 1765.

He concluded that out of this “clash of views’” during the first few years of James’s reign eventually emerged the principles of constitutional monarchy, a “seminal period” during which the Authorised Version of the Bible was emerging.

After thanking Lord Judge for his wonderful lecture, the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev. Dr. John Hall, led the way to the Jerusalem Chamber, the room where 400 years ago Lancelot Andrewes and his colleagues met and worked to create what remains the single best selling book of all time; a fitting end to what had been an illuminating evening.

Lord Judge’s lecture is available on the WestminsterAbbey website www.westminster-abbey.org where you can listen to the lecture online, download it as a podcast or read the lecture or transcript.

Sally McCleery is Editor of Counsel