The King James Bible and the King's Printer

Jason Peters, Ph.D. Student, University of Toronto

        One of the many dramas that played itself out in the printing of the 1611 KJB was the contest of power surrounding the print trade, particularly as it relates to the monopoly on bible printing that went to the holder of the King's Printing house. Although the drama began several decades earlier with two powerful printing families (the Barkers and the Nortons) vying for control of this lucrative position, 1611 marks a crucial turning-point in their struggle – one that would eventually lead to a drawn out legal battle, to bankruptcy, and to Robert Barker losing his hold on the monopoly for good.

        This struggle had much to do with the fact that printing bibles offered a relatively sure way for a shrewd businessman to make a solid return on his investments. At the time there was a large and stable market for affordable editions of the bible, as English readers eagerly snatched up whatever English (and often foreign) printers were able to produce. More importantly, the bible-trade was not simply open to all comers; only the King's printer had the right to print English bibles. Therefore, the individual or family who held the monopoly effectively controlled a large and valuable segment of the English print market.

        But even with these advantages there were potential problems, and Barker seems to have faced many such problems when it came to the KJB. First, as King's Printer Barker was required to print the new bible; but he still had to pay a ₤3500 fee for the rights to do so – a massive sum considering the average labourer at the time would have earned between about ₤39 and ₤65 a year. To make matters worse the KJB never actually received an official endorsement from the church or the king, so there was no pressing need for churches to buy a copy any sooner than they felt necessary. Worst of all, there was to be no financial backing from the church or king which meant that Barker would have to raise the funds himself.

        For these and other reasons Barker made a fateful decision – fateful both for the long-term success of the KJB and for the failure of his own business. In order to raise the capital that he needed, Barker sold off his large supply of Geneva bibles to his competitor Bonham Norton – something that he almost certainly would not have done if he had had any other option. This sale did of course bring in the ₤7000 that Barker needed (besides the ₤3500 payment to the translators, another ₤3500 went towards the materials for printing); but it also meant that Barker would no longer be able to make a profit from the lucrative Geneva bibles that were such a staple part of his business. It also meant that Barker was handing over control of the Geneva bible market to his main competitor; and it meant that Barker would have to rely on the still untested KJB to earn back his initial investment.

        This uncertain state of affairs raised yet another problem. Church bibles like the KJB (other examples include the earlier Great and Bishop's bibles) typically sold for less than they cost to produce. This disparity in cost can be attributed to two main causes: first, paper was relatively expensive at the time, and large books used lots of paper; and second, because every church had to own a copy, there were strictly enforced limits on the price for which church bibles could be sold. Without the ability to sell the Geneva bible to finance the KJB folio, Barker was facing a potentially serious financial crisis. His solution was simple; he began printing a series of small editions of the KJB that would be able to compete with the Geneva bible. And in the first few years this plan certainly seems to have worked well enough, as the KJB went through eleven editions by 1613, eight of them in smaller, more profitable formats. By this time the KJB was already establishing itself as a popular translation. Nevertheless, Barker's own fortunes were on the decline. In the end, Barker himself never benefited from the growing sales of the King James Bible; because of the mismanagement of his business holdings after the costs he incurred while printing the new Bible, and because of an ongoing feud with Bonham Norton, Barker would eventually lose the office of King's Printer in 1618. And although he would later regain it for a short period in 1619, he would lose it again in 1620, finally ending up in debtors’ prison in 1635 where he would stay until his death ten years later. But in spite of all of Barker's ill-fortune he had managed to lay the groundwork for the King James Bible's success, and in the following years its popularity would continue to grow without him.