Today (May 2) in London History – “does the leopard change its spots?”

The King James Version of the bible was published on May 2, 1611. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


How would I describe the honourable gentleman? Here’s how I would describe him: A man without shame, a man who thought he was a law unto himself. A man who thought he could be all things to all men. Look at him now. He’s been tested by fire and found wanting. He’s hanging on by the skin of his teeth. He’s at his wit’s end. How are the mighty fallen.” 

Let me ask, which of his colleagues will be his scapegoat?

He’s sitting there shaking his head. 

Look at these headlines Mr Speaker: Disgrace, Sorry Not Sorry, Cock and Bull Tory. I say to the Honourable gentleman, “thou shalt not bear false witness.” I say to this House, “by their fruits you shall know them.”

“And as for his expression of contrition and his promise to set his house in order, I say Mr Speaker “does the leopard change its spots?”

Ok, it’s not a straight lift from Hansard but it could be. And I’ve whipped it up for this podcast because today, May 2nd, is the 411th anniversary of the publication of the King James’ version of the bible. And that withering attack on “the honourable gentleman” – smackdown after smackdown, eleven of them in total – are phases from the King James Version of the bible.

“A law unto himself, all things to all men, tested by fire, skin of his teeth, wit’s end, how are the mighty fallen, scapegoat, thou shalt not bear false witness, by their fruits you shall know them, set thine house in order, does a leopard change its spots” – those 24-carat phrases, all well known, all part of our mental makeup if we’re native speakers of English…they’re all from the King James Version of the bible. Along with hundreds of other words and phrases that we – as native speakers of English – are steeped in, words and phrases that condition the way we see the world. 

It’s the good book indeed, the King James’ version of the bible. Along with Shakespeare and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress it’s the most important book in English. Culturally formative, linguistically formative, psychologically formative. Its cadences, its phrasing are our linguistic moorings.

It’s one of those stories that’s of its time but also for the ages. The conception moment for the King James Version of the bible was a conference at Hampton Court in 1604. The conference stemmed from a petition that had been presented to James I the previous year as he made his way from Edinburgh to London at the start of his reign. More than a thousand clergymen, many of them of Puritan leanings, had presented the “Millenary petition” as it was called to the new monarch. They were seeking remedies for what they saw as the diseases afflicting the Church of England. Some of the issues raised by the petition concerned the marriage of clergymen, their education, popish ceremonies and vestments. The petitioners wanted a church more securely founded in scripture. The petition led to the conference. On the second day of the conference came the call for a new bible. In the event, over 50 scholars were recruited for the work. They were formed into six teams. Two teams each in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Seven years later – that spring day – May 2nd – in 1611 the good book saw the light of day. 

By their fruits, we know those men, those scholars.

Well, you can of course do a Google if you want delve deeper into the story. Since what we at London Walks do is anecdotal history, I’ll end my brief account here with a mention of the so-called Naughty Bible. It was printed 20 years later, in 1631. By the same printer who’d printed the very first edition. He was one Robert Barker, known as the King’s printer. Something went wrong with that 1631 edition. It may have been an act of malice or of mischief or perhaps weariness and carelessness. In any case, the word “not” was omitted from the seventh commandment, thereby apparently making adultery mandatory. Thou shalt commit adultery the commandment read. And equally shocking, the phrase “God’s greatness” was rendered as “God’s great asse.”

Poor Robert Barker. He was fined. The fine was beyond his means. He was ruined. He spent the rest of his life in the debtor’s prison of king’s bench. He died in prison. Poor man. 

Ok, here’s your Today in London recommendation. Stationer’s Hall – which is still very much with us – was the livery company of the book trade. It played an important role in the publication of the King James Version of the bible. Indeed, that poor benighted, imprisoned printer ended up handing over his right to the Bible patent to the Stationers Company, Anyway, come Open House Day in London – it’s normally in September – it should be possible to visit Stationers’ Hall. Pre-Covid that was certainly the case. I’d strongly recommend a visit. It’s a fascinating place. Not least for what they’ve got in their rather wonderful private garden out behind. Namely, the only extant 17th-century warehouse in London. Take my word for it – put it on your To-Do list – you won’t go wrong with a visit to Stationer’s Hall. It’s a special place. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

Here’s the soft sell. The reason for all those awards is the calibre of the guiding. With London Walks guiding is not a summer job done by college students. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally-qualified Guide of the Year Award-winning Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides – Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *