In a discovery that would not look out of place in the plot of a Dan Brown novel, a scholar has found secret handwritten notes hidden beneath false pages pasted into the oldest printed Bible in England.
The inscriptions, concealed in the 1535 edition of the Bible, indicate historians have been wrong about the extent of Henry VIII’s power over his subjects.
Annotations written in the margins of the Bible, one of only seven copies to survive, suggest parishioners continued to speak Latin in church even after Henry banned it as part of his campaign against Roman Catholicism.
The evidence was sealed beneath sheets of paper glued into a Bible held in the library of Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Eyal Poleg, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, said at first glance the Bible appeared to be clean of annotations. However, it had unexplained blank pages.
He noticed a small hole in one of the blank pages, which revealed the letter E in printed text beneath and realised that someone had made neatly fitting sheets to cover up the pages.
Dr Poleg knew it would be too destructive to attempt to peel away the blank paper. With help from Graham Davis, a specialist in 3D X-ray imaging, they photographed the front and back of the pages against a light sheet, exposing the hidden ink.
The annotations, made between 1539 and 1549, are a “table of liturgical days” that instructs worshippers on passages of scripture they need to recite at particular times of year. Dr Poleg said this meant people were using the Bible to find forbidden readings in Latin. “This Bible is a unique witness to a time when the conservative Latin and the reformist English were used together, showing that the Reformation was a slow, complex and gradual process,” Dr Poleg said.
He believes worshippers were trying to find a way to comply with the law by conducting most of their services in English while retaining some Latin readings.