Bigger Than Shakespeare?

Lancelot Andrewes is hardly a household name, but he arguably had as much influence on the English language as William Shakespeare. Andrewes would have walked the same London streets as Shakespeare. He was born in the shadows of the Tower of London in 1555 and has a handsome tomb in what is now Southwark Cathedral, close to Shakespeare’s Globe. He was one of the most respected theologians and translators of his day and rose to become the Bishop of Winchester. He was the last Bishop of Winchester to use Southwark Palace, the ruins of which can still be seen just behind Borough Market, dying there in 1626.

The new Stuart King James I in 1604 was keen to establish an “official” translation of the Bible in English and he created a process with panels of translators to produce this work. Lancelot Andrewes was designated by the King as the chief of the Westminster Translators. In this role the translators presented their text and Andrewes chaired the meetings and had final say on which version of the translation was included.

Andrewes was the guiding hand that gave us the King James Bible. Published in 1611 this version would have been in every church in Britain, and as Britain’s dominions grew it had a truly global impact.

The timing overlaps, between 1604 and 1611, some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays including Othello, King Lear and the Tempest, and he even writes Macbeth for James, the new Scottish king of England. In tours I often quiz guests on quotes on whether they are from the King James Bible or Shakespeare. Similarities are striking. “Out of the mouths of babes”, “Eat, drink and be merry”, “At wit’s end” and a “labour of love”, are all very Shakespearian quotes that are from the King James Bible.

Quotes from the King James Bible also lie at the heart of some of America’s key speeches, from Lincoln (“A house divided against itself cannot stand”) to Martin Luther King (“justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream”). This small part of London, during a short period, had a massive impact on this global language.

Our  Southwark walking tour explores this fascinating part of London, with 2,000 years of history. Private tours of Southwark are also available.


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