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Tongues of men and angels

05 October 2017

William Tyndale is commemorated today. Adrian Leak considers his influence

church times

Tyndale Gos­pel: the open­ing of St Matthew’s Gospel in a fragment of the uncom­pleted Cologne edition of 1525, from a 1926 facsimile

Tyndale Gos­pel: the open­ing of St Matthew’s Gospel in a fragment of the uncom­pleted Cologne edition of 1525, from a 1926 facsimile

WILLIAM TYNDALE was born in about 1491, into a prosperous Gloucestershire family of wool-merchants, administrators, and land­owners. After education at Oxford, and later at Cambridge, he joined the household of Sir John Walsh as tutor and chap­lain. He decided to make the transla­tion of the Bible into Eng­lish his life’s work.

To escape official persecution, he fled to the Continent, where he remained until his capture and execution in Antwerp in 1536. During his lifetime, copies of his translation of the New Testa­ment and much of the Old Tes­tament were smuggled into Eng­land, where they eventually became the substance of the 1539 Great Bible: the first to be au­­thorised in English. The Church commemor­ates him on the anniversary of his martyrdom, 6 October.


“I WISH that the husbandman may sing parts of [the scriptures] at his plough, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, and that the traveller may with their narratives be­­guile the weariness of the way,” Erasmus wrote in the preface to his 1516 edition of the Greek New Testa­ment.

A few years later, Luther and Tyndale used Erasmus’s Greek New Testament to make this dream possible for German- and English-speaking readers.

The availability of the Bible in the vernacular, and the invention of the printing press became the two mo­­tivating engines of the Reformation. To them must be added the expan­sion in the early 16th century of trade between the countries of north­ern Europe, and the growth of the mercantile class as it supplanted the clergy and the landed aristocracy in power and influence.

The part played in the Reforma­tion by Tyndale’s business contacts in the course of his career cannot be overstated. He had strong family connections with city merchants in London. It was to them that he turned when, as a young man, he failed to secure the patronage of the Bishop of London. He found refuge in the steelyard: an enclosed collec­tion of Thameside quays and ware­houses, a chapel, and accommoda­tion belonging to London mer­chants trading with the Hanseatic ports in the Low Countries and Germany.

Throughout his 22-year exile on the Continent, he made use of these contacts, and was sometimes funded by them. It was in their ships that Tyndale’s Bibles were smuggled into England. When he was finally ar­­rested in Antwerp, he had been liv­ing under the protection of the “English house”, the residence be­­longing to English merchants trad­ing in Flanders and Germany.


TYNDALE’S New Testament was not the first to appear in English. More than a century earlier, Wycliffe and his followers had pro­duced a translation into the ver­nacular. What was new was that, whereas the Wycliffites had used the Latin version (the Vulgate), Tyndale went back to the original Greek for his translation of the New Testa­ment, and to the Hebrew for the Pentateuch. Also, he was able to use German printers and a network of trade connections by which to dis­tribute his books.

The use of the original Greek text had a profound effect, not only on the accuracy of the translation, but on the style and cadence of the Eng­lish in which it was written. Tyndale explained the difference between a translation from the Latin and one from the Greek: “For the Greek tongue agreeth more with the Eng­lish than with the Latin. And the properties of the Hebrew agreeth a thousand times more with the Eng­lish than with the Latin.” With the Greek text, he said, all you needed was to translate it, word for word, and in the same natural order of common speech. But to translate the Latin, “Thou must seek a compass.”

To unlock the scriptures from the Vulgate was a dangerous thing to do. The Latin straitjacket that had encased them for centuries was the foundation on which was built the entire edifice of medieval theology. Tinker with one part, and the whole building might come crashing down.

Erasmus knew this, and was pre­pared to take the risk: “I abso­lutely dissent from those people who do not want the holy scriptures to be read in translation by the unlearned — as if, forsooth, Christ taught such a complex doctrine that hardly any­one outside a handful of theologians could understand it.”

Thomas More, Erasmus’s friend and disciple, knew it, too, but he was cautious, and unwilling to allow such an important matter to fall into the wrong hands. A translation might open the door to heresy.

Among others, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, inveighed against Tyndale’s English New Testament. In 1526, he called it “That pestifer­ous and most pernicious poison dis­persed throughout all our diocese of London in great number, which will contaminate and infect the flock committed unto us with most deadly poison and heresy.”


TYNDALE’S manner of life was hardly conducive to study. Branded as a heretic by ecclesiastical author­ities at home and abroad, he was compelled to live the life of a fugit­ive, moving under cover from Wittenberg to Cologne, Worms, Frankfurt, and Antwerp, ever vigil­ant for informers and ever fleeing the long reach of More’s spies. He was never safe.

Even so, he wrote books and commentaries as well as his transla­tions, all of which were smuggled into England. Among these was his Obedience of a Chris­tian Man, in which he wrote of the two divinely appointed authorities that all must obey: the Bible and the King. Ann Boleyn read it, and commended it to Henry VIII. He read it, and was delighted. “This is a book for me and all kings to read,” he said.

Finally, Tyndale was caught, be­­trayed by a “debauched and villain­ous” Englishman, Henry Phillips, who needed the cash to settle his gambling debts. Henry VIII, who had always been ambivalent about his troublesome subject, tried to save him from execution, but the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in whose jurisdiction Tyndale was held prisoner, was not willing to oblige. Tyndale was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death by strangulation at the hands of the public execu­tioner. His martyrdom took place in Antwerp on 6 October 1536.

Before he died, he was heard to cry out: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”


A FEW months later, in 1537, the first complete English Bible was pub­lished, this time “With the King’s most gracious licence”. Known as “Matthew’s Bible”, it comprised Tyndale’s New Testa­ment and Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and the rest of the Old Testament in Coverdale’s translation.

In 1539, a new version, the “Great Bible”, again incorporating Tyndale’s work, was ordered by Act of Parliament to be placed in every parish church. When James I’s Authorised Version was published in 1611, it contained, with some revisions, Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch.

If any single person can be called the father of the English Reforma­tion, it must surely be the exiled and martyred Tyndale.


The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in Surrey.

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