A Small World

It's a small world indeed, especially in the realm of old Bibles. In volume 1 of Reformation (pp. 221-51) I wrote of Richard Hunne and the unexpected, and hitherto unsuspected, influence that he had had on the English Reformation. On p. 229 appears the witnesses' depositions at Hunne's quite illegal post-mortem trial for heresy (Dec. 1514), in which the following is deposed by one Thomas Hygdon, who:

'... said and deposed that he heard one Roger, the parish clerk of St Botolph's, say that the English Bible [i.e. a Wycliffe Bible] which Hunne had was one Thomas Downe's, and that the said Roger said also to him this day that the said book was wont to lie in St Margaret's church in Bridge Street sometimes a month together when he was clerk there.'

Now, there were two great Bibles that were attributed in the trial records to Hunne's ownership, as well as Gospel Books, Wycliffe's Prick of Conscience, A Book of the Ten Commandments, and so on. One of his great Bibles is currently held at the Parker Library (MS147), at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and I had the immense privilege of examining this Bible some years ago. But at the recent book launch for Tyndale's 1526 New Testament at the British Library (4th July), I was approached by Valerie Offord, the editor of this Journal, with a Times press cutting and a notice downloaded from the Internet concerning the proposed sale of a Wycliffe Bible, and a request for me to find out more about it. Well, to cut a long story short, it turns out that this very Bible is the one once owned by Thomas Downe and mentioned in the trial records. I would never have expected the book to survive, imagining that it was probably burned along with Hunne's dead body on Wednesday 20th December 1514. But it has survived, in pristine condition and in its original early 15th-century binding, too!

In the Reformation paper, I did assume that the Thomas Downe referred to was a contemporary of Hunne's, and that he was indeed synonymous with one of the bishop of London's officers called Johannem Downam. in one record of the time. But I was wrong, for we see from the ownership inscription of the newly identified Wycliffe Bible (now in private ownership) that Thomas Downe had inscribed his name into his Bible in the year 1410, which makes him contemporary with the first Lollards who went to the flames. There's an enormous story to be told here, but much further research needs to be done. But I am very much indebted to Valerie Offord for thinking to show me that piece of paper concerning the Thomas Downe Bible. Had she not done so, one of the richest treasures in the history of the English Bible would have gone unrecognised.

© Dr Wm R Cooper