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A net of complex currents flowed across Jacobean England. This was the England of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Bacon; the Gunpowder Plot; the worst outbreak of the plague England had ever seen; arcadian landscapes; murderous, toxic slums; and, above all, sometimes overwhelming religious passion. Jacobean England was both more godly and less godly than it had ever been, and the entire culture was drawn taut between the polarities.

This was the world that created the King James Bible. It is the greatest work of English prose ever written, and it is no coincidence that the translation was made at the moment “Englishness” and the English language had come into its first passionate maturity. Boisterous, elegant, subtle, majestic, finely nuanced, sonorous, and musical, the English of Jacobean England has a more encompassing idea of its own reach and scope than any before or since. It is a form of the language that drips with potency and sensitivity. The age, with all its conflicts, explains the book.

The sponsor and guide of the whole Bible project was the king himself, the brilliant, ugly, and profoundly peace-loving James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England. Trained almost from birth to manage the rivalries of political factions at home, James saw in England the chance for a sort of irenic Eden over which the new translation of the Bible was to preside. It was to be a Bible for everyone, and as God’s lieutenant on earth, he would use it to unify his kingdom. The dream of Jacobean peace, guaranteed by an elision of royal power and divine glory, lies behind a Bible of extraordinary grace and everlasting literary power.

About fifty scholars from Cambridge, Oxford, and London did the work, drawing on many previous versions, and created a text which, for all its failings, has never been equaled. That is the central question of this book: How did this group of near-anonymous divines—muddled, drunk, self-serving, ambitious, ruthless, obsequious, pedantic, and flawed as they were—manage to bring off this astonishing translation? How did such ordinary men make such extraordinary prose? In God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson gives a fascinating and dramatic account of the accession and ambition of the first Stuart king, of the scholars who labored for seven years to create his Bible, of the influences that shaped their work, and of the beliefs that colored their world, immersing us in an age whose greatest monument is not a painting or a building but a book.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “This scrupulously elegant account of the creation of what four centuries of history has confirmed is the finest English-language work of all time is entirely true to its subject: Adam Nicolson’s lapidary prose is masterly, his measured account both as readable as the curious demand and as dignified as the story deserves.”

    Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author

  • “So few documents have survived this labor—apart, of course, from the translation itself—that piecing together the tale is at least as much a matter of intelligent guesswork as of hard research. This is what Adam Nicolson has done, and he has done it extraordinarily well.”

    Washington Post Book World

  • “An astonishingly rich cultural tour of the art, architecture, personalities, and experiences of Jacobean England: high and low entertainment, high and low churchmanship, courtiers, schoolmasters, and ecclesiastics. [Nicolson’s] picture is beguilingly full.”

    Times Literary Supplement (London)

  • “A marvelous book: there are few more stylish or sensitive introductions than this to the personalities, the sights and the smells, as well as the words of Jacobean England.”

    Sunday Telegraph (London)

  • “Unobtrusively learned, rich in curious and purposeful detail, an ideal balance between fervent enthusiasm and elegantly witty detachment…A brilliantly entertaining, passionate, funny, and instructive telling of an important and gripping story…Adam Nicolson has written a thrilling and constantly absorbing book.”

    Spectator (London)

  • “Nicolson deftly chronicles the personalities involved and breezily narrates the political and religious struggles of the early seventeenth century…Nicolson succeeds at providing insight into the diverse personalities involved in making the King James Bible.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Popular British author Nicolson proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction in this book concerning the making of the most famous English translation of the Bible…Its emphasis on background social influences makes the KJV and its era come alive. Recommended for public libraries.”  

    Library Journal

  • “Nicolson tells the KJV’s story so well that his book may prove to be the KJV’s indispensable companion for years to come.”

    Booklist (starred review)

  • “British travel writer Nicolson anatomizes the creation of the 1611 English-language Bible, perhaps the only work of art ever made by a committee. But what a committee it was: made up some of the finest poets, translators, and scholars in the thoroughly well educated realm of King James I…An engaging work of literary, cultural, and religious history.”

    Kirkus Reviews

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About the Author

Adam Nicolson is a British author of nonfiction titles about history, landscape, literature, and the sea. Among his many awards and honors are the Somerset Maugham Award, the W. H. Heinemann Prize, the Scottish BAFTA, the Spears Book Award, the British Topography Prize, and others. He lives on a farm in Sussex with his wife and their five grown children.