A spy named Henry Phillips betrayed one of the greatest of all English writers – the only one, perhaps, whose phrases by the dozen still fill the mouths of many millions of English speakers every day. Charged with heresy and treason, Phillips’s victim was picked up in Antwerp and imprisoned outside Brussels. His detention came, a deal between monarchs, as a result of the sort of inter-state solidarity against alleged subversives that now gives us the European Arrest Warrant. After months in his fortress jail, he went on trial and received the inevitable death sentence. He was strangled at the stake with an iron chain. Then his corpse was burnt. According to legend, the translator and reformer William Tyndale ended his life in September 1536 with the words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Tomorrow begins the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible of 1611: never strictly an “Authorized Version”, for all its traditional British name, but merely a bible “appointed to be read in churches”. As it says on the title page of the 1853 edition of the King James version, printed in Oxford, which Abraham Lincoln used when he swore the oath of office at his inauguration in 1861. The same volume was employed again for the same purpose in Washington DC in January 2009 – by Barack Obama.

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