On Friday 6 October 15361 William Tyndale was garrotted on a cross. Then his body was burnt. But it was his work which gave Genesis to the English people in a language they could understand, on a scale unprecedented in history that was to live on.
William Tyndale was a martyr. Born about 1492 in England, he followed in the footsteps of Erasmus, the renowned Dutch Catholic lecturer at Cambridge and Oxford universities. It was Erasmus who had revolutionised biblical study by producing a translation of the New Testament in both Greek and Latin—the first new Latin version since Jerome’s Vulgate in the 4th century. But only the scholars and the priests could read it.
In England at the time, there was little residual influence from Wycliffe’s Bible, which had been printed more than a century before, and the few copies were owned only by the very rich.
Sadly, as Bishop John Hooper recorded in 1551, ignorance among the priesthood continued as the rule of the day. When this Bishop of Worcester and Gloucester made the rounds of his diocese, he found that of 311 clergymen, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments, 10 could not say the Lord’s Prayer in English, and seven did not know its author. Tyndale, a Catholic priest, was much grieved by the anomalies in the Church. So at age 30, although still a priest, he chose to be tutor of Sir John Walsh, a knight of Gloucestershire, from 1521 to 1523.
The hospitality of Sir John and Lady Walsh often resulted in doctors and abbots sharing a meal with William Tyndale, where many a debate ensued. At one time a learned church man said to Tyndale, “We were better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale recognized that this sadly summarised the prevailing view of many church leaders who had little knowledge of the Scriptures. It only increased his burden that not only church leaders but lay people needed God’s word to read in a language they could understand. Tyndale replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” In the opinion of the learned, Tyndale was now clearly a heretic.
Tyndale had been tried for heresy about a year previously, and had been let off with a warning. But there would be no further warnings. The priest Erasmus had said he wished the common man to have God’s Word in his own tongue, but the priest Tyndale was to achieve it. Since John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in 1388, an Act had been passed prohibiting any man from translating the Scriptures without a bishop’s authorisation of such an action. Tyndale left his tutoring in Bristol, and headed for London to obtain permission. Bishop Tunstall, Bishop of London, put off seeing him for six months, and then coldly refused Tyndale authority to translate.
English soil was obviously inhospitable to the publication of a common language Bible, so in 1524 Tyndale went to Germany. He had started his translation while in London, and now continued it while in Wittenberg with Luther.
Tyndale found a printer in Cologne who used the new method of printing by pulping and diluting linen rags, then printing with metal type. The first trickle of his common language New Testaments seeped into England in 1526. Bishop Tunstall, Henry VIII, and Henry’s chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey—Tyndale’s enemies—had providentially been too preoccupied to notice the event.
Book of heresy
Owing to a shortage of wheat, hunger was prevalent in England. The ships that brought wheat from Europe to appease the physical hunger also carried in their hulls Tyndale’s New Testament. Wealthy evangelical German merchants at the London ports would unload the Bibles from their specially marked baggage. The cost of smuggling and printing? It was considered a bargain to get a New Testament for as little as one week’s wage! Bishop Tunstall, enraged by the new version reaching England, threw a copy into a public bonfire, and threatened similar treatment to any person found possessing this book of heresy in the common tongue. But Tunstall was to fight a losing battle.
Like a game of cat and mouse, the Bible began to appear throughout England and Europe. These were perilous times. Many were arrested and some confessed under pressure to their ‘heresy’. Part of their recanting involved the public humiliation of having to carry a bundle of twigs and burn the offending book.
Tyndale also was soon to receive a severe personal setback when the ship on which he was travelling was shipwrecked off the coast of Holland. He lost all his precious Bible manuscripts. He had no option but to start over. But it was not all discouragement. Even his enemies gave finance unwittingly to Tyndale. The Bishop of London bought a shipload of Bibles from a merchant named Packington in the hope that burning the Bibles would stem the tide. The result was the opposite. The Bishop had his Bibles to burn. The merchant had his thanks. Tyndale had enough money to print 51,000 corrected New Testaments.
Tyndale’s enemies decided his book had to be discredited no matter how unjustly or untruthfully. There were no laws against libel then, and the bishops had open season on Tyndale. Cochlaeus wrote, “The New Testament translated into the vulgar tongue is in truth the food of death, the fuel of sin, the veil of malice, the pretext of false liberty, the protection of disobedience, the corruption of discipline, the depravity of morals, the termination of concord, the death of honesty, the well-spring of vices, the disease of virtues, the instigation of rebellion, the milk of pride, the nourishment of contempt, the death of peace, the destruction of charity, the enemy of unity, the murder of truth.” What a sales pitch to excite the reading audiences of England!
Just as a spider can spin her web in a king’s palace, so Tyndale’s writings found a way in and a welcome even in the king’s household and staff. Henry VIII himself ‘delighted’ in reading some of Tyndale’s works because, as Henry saw it, Popes and prelates were placed under the authority of kings and he felt Tyndale supported this. But two years later Henry VIII’s honeymoon with Tyndale was over. He branded Tyndale’s work ‘blasphemous and pestiferous’.
All the while, Tyndale was under constant threat of arrest and the stake. But his heart was set on service to the King of Kings, and he set himself the task of translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into English. He had mastered several languages while at university, and he had few distractions to his work. His creature comforts were scant.
In the Low Countries around him (now Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg), men and women were being drowned, roasted, burnt, buried alive, branded and maimed for daring to put their faith in Jesus Christ instead of man-made traditions in the Church. Henry VIII thought his own feud with Rome would be given more credibility if Tyndale were in his employ. Tyndale graciously declined the offer, saying his work was to translate the Bible, but if another man could be found to give a more accurate translation, then he would write no more and would return to England.
Tyndale grieved that so many people were burnt, tortured or imprisoned because of the course of action he himself had precipitated.
‘Too few’ burnt
His translation of the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) was completed in January 1530. In May it was burnt along with New Testaments, and in 1531 several of Tyndale’s best friends were burnt. The greatest literary man in England, Sir Thomas More, wielded his pen against Tyndale, having been provided with a special licence from the bishop to read and collect heretical books without incurring the prescribed penalty. Thomas More may have been ahead of his time in promoting government by popular election and a utopian state of communal living, but it was a freedom in theory only. There was to be none given to the reformers. Sir Thomas More complained that too few of them were burnt.
In 1534 Tyndale completed his revision of the New Testament while staying with Thomas Poyntz, a relative of Sir John Walsh. The city authorities of Antwerp had turned over some mansions to English merchants to encourage international trade, and Antwerp was a liberal city. William Tyndale had more creature comforts and friends surrounding him than in his whole Christian life. But this was not to last. Henry Phillips, the son of wealthy and respected parents, had gambled and lost, and fled to the Continent penniless. He was to be Tyndale’s Judas.
Endowed with money and a servant, presumably from the Bishop of London, Phillips beguiled Tyndale and the evangelical merchants with his easy manner and silver tongue. Phillips arranged an ambush in the narrow streets of Antwerp for Tyndale, who was captured and put into custody in Vilvorde Castle, not far out of Antwerp. Poyntz made trips to and from England to obtain his friend’s release and was almost successful, but Phillips, fearing the loss of his quarry, had Poyntz imprisoned. After a few months Poyntz escaped—so he could extricate Tyndale.
To be in prison in those days was expensive. Prisoners had to provide the salary of their guards. Although Poyntz stinted neither his resources nor himself, he was unsuccessful. But Phillips’ victory was a bitter and hollow one. Unlike Judas, Phillips never gained the reward money promised. He spent the rest of his life a pauper, disowned by family, friends, Church and collaborators.
Tyndale was in prison, but his books were giving liberty and freedom. Even the Prior of the Abbey was found to have about 60 forbidden books, and was transferred to the Tower of London for his indiscretion. Tyndale knew death was inevitable, and he determined there would be no doubt about the reason for his death. His witness in prison was so compelling that even his keeper, and other members of the household, were converted.
Tyndale was in prison 18 months. In August 1536 the reformer was condemned as a heretic. The pageant of casting him out of the Church took place a few days later, since the State could not judge a priest of the church. Tyndale was handed over for secular trial. The Church had condemned him but left secular officers to stain their hands with his murder. Unexplainably, he remained a prisoner at Vilvorde Castle for another two months. On Friday, 6 October 1536 the day of his martyrdom—he was led to a cross from which hung a chain, and a noose of hemp. He was chained to the upright stake of the cross. His final cry was ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’
The rope snapped. Tyndale was dead. His body was cast into the fire to be burnt. He was about 44 years old. It was 10 years to the month after his New Testaments had first been burnt in Tunstall’s fire.
Tyndale’s offence was against man-made tradition in the Church. But Tyndale has never been found to have violated any law of translation. Even when the King of England was to finally approve an official vulgar language English text in 1612, the resulting King James Version would reflect Tyndale. The King James Version is 90 per cent unaltered, spelling excepted, from Tyndale’s Version. There was no right or wrong way of spelling before the 16th century, and Tyndale’s favoured way of spelling often became accepted as the norm. It was Tyndale who coined the word ‘At-one-ment’ for Christ’s sacrificial work on the Cross, and it was Tyndale who gave us in words the common English person could understand, ‘In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth’—a phrase which was to undergird the coming explosion of the art called science.
- Edwards, B.H., God’s Outlaw, Evangelical Press, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976.
- Merle d’Aubigne, J-H., The Reformation in England, Volumes One and Two, Banner of Truth, London, 1962 (Vol. 1), 1963 (Vol. 2).
- Neilson, G.A., Twelve Reformation Heroes, Pickering & Inglis Ltd., London, 1960.
- Foxe, J., Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Whitaker House, New Kensington, PA., 1981.
- Wild, L.H., The Romance of the English Bible, Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., New York, 1929.
References and notes
- Some sources suggest Tyndale’s execution may have been several weeks before this date. Return to text.