William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire in 1494 to parents who worked in the cloth trade. Tyndale was born into a Catholic-dominated England under the rule of Henry VII. He was brought up a strict and devout Catholic being taught the importance of mass and good works which would help him gain access to heaven. He would have participated in regular confession and penance and his daily life would have been dominated by Saint days and following the Catholic faith. The bible that Tyndale would have known growing up would have been written in Latin, the holy language. Meanwhile, the common people would have spoken English, a rough language which was not considered suitable for the holiness of the Church.
With the bible and many masses being conducted in Latin this allowed those that spoke the language, such as the Bishops, the Pope and the King, to dictate what the people were told and what information they knew. As they could not read the bible the common people relied heavily upon the Church to tell them what they should and should not do – this, in turn, gave the Church and the King great power over their subjects.
Naturally, without being able to read the bible and access the information within for themselves, the people were not able to challenge the Church or the laws. Instead, they were expected to accept what they were being told. To translate the bible into English during the early 16th century was strictly forbidden. It was considered heresy and punishable by death.
In 1506, at just twelve years of age Tyndale started his education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford one of the leading Universities in all of Europe at the time. His education would last eight years and while he was at Oxford his passion for languages flourished. He would have been taught Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian, languages which would be vital for his biblical translations later in life. Oxford University was dominated by the Roman Catholic doctrine and studying the bible at Oxford naturally meant reading it in Latin. While at Oxford Tyndale became dissatisfied with studying the bible in Latin and he began to lean on learned scholars and humanists from Europe such as Erasmus. Erasmus believed that to study the bible it must be studied in its original language, which for the New Testament was Greek. Tyndale was also inspired by Martin Luther, who translated the bible into German. Luther discovered that the bible did not talk about the Catholic Church being the path to heaven by that the path to heaven was obtained by the justification of faith.
Tyndale openly declared that he defied the pope and all his laws. His mission was now to translate the bible into English so that the common people could read what was really written in the bible rather than blindly accepting what they were being told by the Catholic Church.
Rumour quickly began to spread throughout Gloucestershire that Tyndale was a heretic. In 1523 Tyndale fled to London to track down Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London who he believed would help him in his mission to translate the bible into English. Tunstall was a former Oxford scholar himself and had helped Erasmus when he had been in England. Tyndale turned to the Bishop as a possible patron however Tunstall was a devout Catholic and had no time or inclination to support Tyndale.
In 1524 Tyndale left for Germany. Tyndale’s whereabouts over the next few years are difficult to track but it is known that during this time he began his translation of the bible into English. He studied both Erasmus Greek bible and Luther’s German Bible and worked long hours, up to fifteen hours a day.
Once Tyndale had translated the bible into English he faced another great hurdle, finding someone who would print it. In Cologne, funded by English merchants, Tyndale found a sympathetic printer in Peter Quentell. While Tyndale’s bible was being printed an associate of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London also happened to commission Peter Quentell to do some printing. Through a drunken discussion, it was discovered that three thousand copies of the bible in English were to be printed and sent to England. The printer was raided but Tyndale had managed to escape, however, he was now a man on the run.
In 1526 copies of Tyndale’s bible began to filter into London. Despite costing around two and a half weeks wage for the common servant people began to buy Tyndale’s bible and read in earnest. The Catholic Church and Henry VIII were immediately alarmed. The Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More began an all-out attack not only on Tyndale but on anyone caught reading or smuggling copies of Tyndale’s bible. On the 26th October 1526, Bishop Tunstall preached a vicious attack upon Tyndale’s translation, stating that it was full of lies and errors and then outside of St Paul’s copies of Tyndale’s bible were publically burnt. When Tyndale heard of this he became more determined than ever and began to write a series of attacks against the Catholic Clergy.
While all this was happening Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Henry sought to cast his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, aside and pleaded to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage, which the Pope refused. Ironically Anne Boleyn handed Henry VIII a book by Tyndale entitled “The Obedience of the Christian Man” written in 1528. Henry was enthralled by this book. Within its pages, Tyndale had first emphasised the importance of the scripture over any other authority, such as the Catholic Church and the Pope. He also emphasised the authority of the King, stating that it was God who appointed Kings and that the King was the authority of his realm. Naturally, this idea, that Henry had authority over the Pope, was extremely relevant to Henry at the time.
Yet in 1530, a mere two years later, Tyndale published another book entitled the “The Practyse of Prelates”. Within this book, he attacked Henry’s desire for an annulment of his marriage saying that it was unscriptural. Perhaps in the hopes of gaining support from Tyndale Henry VIII offered Tyndale a return to England and a place at his court with all his past transgressions forgiven. Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to the King organised for one of his agents, Steven Vaughn to meet Tyndale and Tyndale accepted but he stated that the only way that he would return was if Henry VIII would bring out a bible in English.
Despite Henry VIII’s eventual break with Rome, the King remained conservative in his beliefs and still believed in such Catholic traditions as penance, the sacraments and the mass. He also still strongly believed in the bible being only in Latin.
In 1530 Tyndale began his translation of the Old Testament, not from German or Latin but from the original Hebrew. His resolve to see the bible translated into English was stronger than ever.
In 1535 Tyndale was in Antwerp which was under the rule of The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. During this time Tyndale became friend with Henry Phillips, a fellow graduate of Oxford. Tyndale was lead to believe that Phillips held the same beliefs regarding the translation of the Bible into English but ultimately he would be betrayed. Phillips was a strict Catholic and was undercover in an attempt to flush Tyndale out of hiding. In a ruse, Phillips came to Tyndale’s house one day saying he had no money, Tyndale believing his friend took him out to dinner but before they could eat Tyndale was arrested.
Taken to Vilvoorde near Brussells Tyndale was held for at least fourteen months in appalling conditions. Even facing death Tyndale pleaded for his Hebrew bible and paper so that he could continue his translations. Eventually, he was charged with heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On the 6th of October 1536, Tyndale was taken from his cell and tied to a stake. His last words were recorded as “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” As an act of mercy, he was strangled but he did not die and as he was being burned he woke but made no noise or attempt to move as he was burnt to death.
Ironically in 1535 Henry VIII commissioned a bible to be translated into English by Myles Coverdale, of which Coverdale used much of Tyndale’s own translation to assist his own. In 1538 Henry VIII ordered that a copy of the bible in English be placed in every parish in England. Despite his tragic death Tyndale’s greatest desire had finally been achieved, the bible was now accessible to every Englishman.
Sadly while thousands of Tyndale’s original bibles in English were printed today only one complete copy remains and this is at the Wuerttemberg State Library, Stuttgart. Through examining this surviving copy it can be seen that Tyndale chose to keep the words simple and the sentences short. He carefully chose the translated meaning of each word so that the bible was not filled with references to the Church or Priests but to people who shared a common love of God. In essence, he wanted the common people not only to be able to read but to understand the bible in their own language.
William Tyndale’s greatest legacy was translating the bible into English, making it accessible to the common person. He wanted to spread the word of God to the English people so that they would no longer be clouded by the laws and rules of the Catholic Church but that their path to heaven would be through justification by faith in God.
Daniell, D 2001, William Tyndale: A Biography, Yale University Press, USA.
The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England 2013, Documentary, BBC, United Kingdom, Presented by Melvyn Bragg.