The finger bone of Miles Coverdale, bible translator

This exquisite little box encloses the metacarpal bone of the right forefinger of Miles Coverdale [1488–1569]. Like Martin Luther, Coverdale was a former Augustinian friar. Swept up by evangelical ideas, by 1528 he had abandoned his order and fled overseas. He is best known for his work as a bible translator: his handsome volume of the complete Scriptures was published, probably in Antwerp, in 1535. Coverdale served as Bishop of Exeter between 1551–3, but went into renewed exile in Denmark and Switzerland following the accession of Catholic Queen Mary I. In Elizabeth’s reign he briefly held the living of St Magnus the Martyr by London Bridge and was connected with the publication of an important edition of the letters of the Marian martyrs. He died in February 1569 and was buried in the chancel of St Bartholomew by the Exchange in London, under the altar. When the church was demolished to make way for the new Royal Exchange, his remains were disinterred in 1840 and moved to the rebuilt Wren church of St Magnus the Martyr, where there is a tablet to his memory on the east wall. During the process of exhumation, the finger bone was ‘procured’ by William Lowe, whose name appears on the engraved plaque on the side of the box, which is made from the wood of Coverdale’s original coffin. Attesting to the vitality of Victorian interest in the English Reformation, this fascinating remnant of one of England’s earliest and most illustrious Protestants may be seen as a reformed relic. AW

The Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows

The inscribed plaque indicates the date of Coverdale’s burial as 19 February 1568. In the sixteenth century, the new year did not begin until 25 March, so this refers to 1569.

The provenance of this item is not known. The Librarian, Dr Nicolas Bell, reports that in the late nineteenth century, the College was ‘being inundated with curios like this — one week Sir Walter Scott’s purse, the next week “an unusual excrescence on the skull of a deer”, and next the heart of a dog injected with blue dye to show the circulation of the blood. The last of these was thrown out in [William] Whewell’s day [Master of Trinity, 1841–66], but the others remain!’.

Further Reading

David Daniell, ‘Coverdale, Miles (1488–1569)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004; online edn. 2009), (accessed 28 July 2017).

Miles Coverdale, Certain most godly, fruitful, and comfortable letters of such true saints and holy martyrs of God, as in the late bloodye persecution here within this realme, gaue their lyues for the defence of Christes holy gospel: written in the tyme of theyr affliction and cruell imprisonment (London, 1564).

Peter Nockles and Vivienne Larminie (eds), Reinventing the Reformation in the Nineteenth Century: A Cultural History, special issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 90. No. 1 (Spring, 2014).

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