Encyclopedia of World Biography | Date: 2004

Gregory Martin

Gregory Martin (c. 1540-1582) was a Roman Catholic priest and scholar. He was the primary translator of the Douai-Rheims Bible, the first English translation specifically for Catholics. His work has long been heralded as an important contribution to biblical scholarship.

The significance of Martin's life must be judged in relation to the historical time and place in which he lived. In England, the sixteenth century was marked by political and religious turbulence. When King Henry VIII's wife Catherine of Aragon did not bear a son to inherit the throne, Henry began looking for means by which he could annul the marriage. The reason was not hard to find, but in the entanglement of politics and religion, the situation became problematic. Catherine had been previously married to Henry's brother Arthur, since deceased. Because it was against church law, based on the teachings of the book of Leviticus, for a man to marry his brother's widow, Henry had sought and received a special dispensation from the pope to allow their marriage. Now, needing to be free from the marriage, Henry called upon the pope Clement VII to renounce the dispensation and annul the marriage. When the pope refused, Henry rejected the Catholic Church and the pope's authority and in 1542 established the Anglican Church, over which he, as the king, ruled as the supreme head. He then divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn.

Although Henry was motivated by political reasons, the outcome had numerous religious ramifications. Some who refused to acknowledge the king as supreme ruler of the church were martyred, most notably Sir Thomas More. Spurred on by the influence of similar reformations in Europe, the Anglican Church suppressed monasteries and introduced the Bible in English (previously only available in Latin) to the local churches. When Edward VI ascended the throne in 1547, the Protestant movement advanced rapidly as he enacted a systematic reform of church doctrine and worship. Upon Edward's death in 1553, England returned to Roman Catholicism under Queen Mary for a short period. In 1558 Elizabeth I took over the throne and once again restored the Protestant church. Due to the conflict, both Catholics and Protestants suffered persecution as power shifted back and forth.

Catholic Translation of Scriptures

It was into this turbulent time that Martin, a lifelong devout Catholic, rose to acclaim as the one who would provide English-speaking Catholics with a Catholic translation of the scriptures. He was born in Maxfield, a parish of Guestling, near Winchelsea, in Sussex, England. Although the date of his birth is not known with all certainty, it is believed to be around 1540. His name is first mentioned in historical records in 1557, when he was selected as one of the original scholars of St. Johns College, Oxford, newly founded by Sir Thomas White. During his time at Oxford, where he became a highly respected scholar of Greek and Hebrew, he befriended Edmund Campion, who would later become a Jesuit martyr, and was influential in Campion's conversion to Catholicism. Martin engaged in the standard course of studies, including logic and philosophy. Earning his Master of Arts degree in 1564, Martin left St. Johns around 1569 because of religious tensions. Although he did not publicly affirm his Catholic faith until the following year, he remained quietly Catholic while at Oxford, a life that became increasingly difficult to sustain. He found employment and refuge as a tutor for the children of Thomas, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, including Philip, Earl of Arundel, who would later be martyred as well.

In 1570 Martin relinquished his tutoring responsibilities and traveled to Douai, France, where he enrolled as a candidate for the Catholic priesthood in the English College, founded by William (afterward Cardinal) Allen. Allen, who had long felt the need for an English version of the Bible as a means to combat the biased Protestant translations, put upon Martin the job of developing a new translation. For the remainder of his life, Martin devoted himself to teaching biblical studies and producing a translation of an English Bible for the Roman Catholic Church. He was subsequently ordained in March 1573 and received his licentiate in divinity in 1575. He remained in Douai teaching Hebrew and scriptural studies until 1576, when Allen called upon him to travel to Rome to assist in the establishment of a new English College there. For two years Martin stayed in Rome and helped to organize the new Catholic school. In 1578, he returned to the English College, which was temporarily moved to Rheims due to increasing political problems in Douai. During his tenure at the college in Rheims, Martin contracted tuberculosis. He traveled to Paris in search of a cure, but found none. He died on October 28, 1582, as his New Testament translation went to print. Due to a lack of funds and interest, his translation of the Old Testament, completed before his death, was not published until 1609-10.

Douay Bible

Under the direction of Allen, Martin headed a team of Catholic scholars in the creation of what is commonly called the Douay, or Douai-Rheims, Bible. The work is so named because the New Testament was published while the English College was located in Rheims and, by the time the Old Testament was published, the school had returned to Douai. Martin undertook the vast majority of the translating work, methodically translating two chapters a day. His translation was then reviewed and revised by Thomas Worthington, Richard Bristowe, John Reynolds, and Allen himself, all of whom had been educated at Oxford. According to the 1909 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia, "The original Douay Version, which is the foundation on which nearly all English Catholic versions are still based, owed its existence to the religious controversies of the sixteenth century. Many Protestant versions of the Scriptures had been issued and were used largely by the Reformers for polemic purposes. The rendering of some of the texts showed evident signs of controversial bias, and it became the first importance for the English Catholics of the day to be furnished with a translation of their own, on the accuracy of which they could depend and to which they could appeal in the course of argument."

Tied up in the controversy of the translation was Martin's decision, along with the other scholars, to translate from the Vulgate, rather than from the original Hebrew or Greek texts. The Vulgate is the Latin version of the Bible translated by St. Jerome late in the fourth century. For the next 12 centuries, the Vulgate was transcribed with less and less accuracy, until finally, during the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a revised Vulgate was issued. The reworked Vulgate was declared authoritative for Catholics by the Council of Trent and affirmed by Pope Pius IV in his acceptance of the council's decrees in 1564. Along with the political significance of using the Vulgate, the translators also believed that it was a purer translation than many of the transcriptions of the original Greek and Hebrew text available at that time. In the long and controversial preface to the Douay version, the authors write, "We are very precise and religious in following our copy, the old vulgar approved Latin: not only in sense, which we hope we always do, but sometimes in the very words and phrases, which may seem to the vulgar read and to common English ears not yet acquainted therewith, rudeness or ignorance." They assert that their work was rendered necessary by the many "false translations" by Protestants, who have skewed the meaning of the scriptures by "adding, detracting, altering, transposing, pointing, and all other guileful means: specially where it serveth for the advantage of their private opinions."

Martin's translation is characterized by the retention of many Latinisms, making the text rather cumbersome and difficult to read. In other words, when Martin felt he could not substitute a Latin word with a suitable English word that would fully convey the meaning, he anglicized the Latin word, changing the Latin letters into English letters. It was assumed that when readers came across unfamiliar words, they would stop to inquire their meaning. According to the Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968), "The translation, although competent, exhibited a taste for Latinisms that was not uncommon in English writing of the time but has seemed excessive in the eyes of later generations." Although burdensome to read, the Duoay (Old) Testament and later the Rheims (New) Testament were heralded as important translations for the Catholic Church.

Although not officially noted as a source, Martin's translation is commonly recognized as having a large influence on the King James Version. Undergoing extensive revisions in 1749 by Richard Challoner, the Douay Bible became the standard source for Catholic scripture reference into the twentieth century. Although the Douay version is still used in Ireland and England, it is based on the revisions made by Challoner, who wished to make the text more accessible to readers and inexpensive to purchase. As a result, the contemporary Douay Bible resembles the original Douai version in little more than name. According to S. L. Greenslade in his article "English Versions of the Bible, 1525-1611, found in The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West From the Reformation to the Present Day (1963), "Gregory Martin showed that he could write with power. All the rhythms of his speech. have been destroyed by the revising hand of Bishop Challenor in the eighteenth century, and the Douay version as it is now known has lost much of what Martin gave it."

Other Works

Along with his important contribution to biblical translation, Martin also wrote numerous works on religious topics. His book A Treatise of Schisme (1578) led to the printer of the book to be charged with treason and executed as it was believed that the text contained a recommendation to assassinate the queen. In 1582 Martin published A Discovery of the manifold Corruptions of the Holy Scriptures by the Heretics of our days, specially the English Sectaries. The work sparked a fierce debate between Catholic and Protestant scholars and resulted in the publication of numerous rebuttals, including William Fulke's Defence of the sincere and true Translations of the holy Scriptures into the English Tongue. Martin's other writings include A Treatyse of Christian Peregrination (1583), Against the Marriage of Priests (1584), Of the Love of Soul, with questions to the Protestants (1603), and numerous titles published in Latin.


The Bible in Its Ancient and English Versions, edited by H. Wheeler Robinson. Clarendon Press, 1954.

Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations from the Earliest English Versions to the New English Bible. Oxford University Press, 1970.

The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West From the Reformation to the Present Day, edited by S. L. Greenslade. Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Delaney, John J., and James Edward Tobin, Dictionary of Catholic Biography. Doubleday and Company, 1961.

Fulke, William. A Defence of the Sincere and True Translations of the Holy Scriptures into the English Tongue Against the Cavils of Gregory Martin. Edited by Charles Henry Hartshorne. Cambridge University Press, 1843.

The Jerome Biblical Commentary. edited by Raymond Brown, Prentice Hall, 1968.

Smith, George. The Dictionary of National Biography, The Concise Dictionary: Part I: From the Beginnings to 1900. Oxford University Press, 1961.

Webster's New World Companion to English and American Literature. edited by Arthur Pollard, Word Publishing, 1973.


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"Douay Bible," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Kevin Knight, 1999. http://www.newadvent.org (January 3, 2001).

"Gregory Martin," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Kevin Knight, 1999. http://www.newadvent.org (January 3, 2001).

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