William Tyndale

WILIAM TYNDALE (1494?-1536)

Linguist, Bible Translator and Martyr

There is some dispute as to when William Tyndale (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tyndale for more) was born as there is no documentary evidence of him until he arrives at Oxford. The year of his birth is calculated backwards from the age that someone would normally attend University. He was probably born near the town of Dursley near Bristol in Gloucestershire and his family were significant men in the area. He went to Magdalen Hall Oxford around 1506, receiving his MA in 1515. Magdalen Hall was where Hertford College is now.

The main historical source on the life of William Tyndale was ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.’ This was first published in 1559 and then expanded in 1563 and again in 1570 until it became a huge work of 2,300 pages. In its day it was very popular and in fact the Queen ordered every church should have a copy. It was in fact a history of the Reformation period and has remained a major source of information for historians and is still in print today although in a much reduced form. Some have tried to discredit his work calling it Protestant propaganda, but it has stood up to much investigation and should be treated as a reliable source.

Up until this time the only Bible legally available was one in Latin, but only the educated, and they were a tiny proportion of the population, could read Latin. At the end of the 14th Century John Wycliffe wrote a translation of the New Testament into English (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_wycliffe for more), but that translation was from the Latin Version into English and not from the original Greek. The translation was banned, although there were still a few hidden copies kept by some of his followers (Lollards). The Church was keen to hide the truths of the Bible from the common man because if known they would discover that the very principles that that gave the Church hierarchy power and control over the common man were lies. In 1516 when Tyndale was still at Oxford, there came a book from Holland that would really begin the Reformation. This was Erasmus’s (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderius_Erasmus for more) Greek New Testament that he also translated into Latin. No book like this had ever appeared before and those who could read Latin scrambled to buy a copy and minds were stirred. Erasmus wanted to get back to the pure Word of God which had been obscured for centuries by the Church worthies. He thought the time was right and that he did not expect any opposition from the Church but he was wrong. A future Archbishop of York said ‘If we do not stop this leak it will sink the ship.’

At the same time a monk in Germany by the name of Martin Luther (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther for more) was starting events that would change the world. Luther was fed up with the excesses of the Church and began to write about the need for change and these writings began to arrive in England in 1517. These writings stirred more minds in England and it was in this environment that Tyndale studied and contemplated his future.

It is thought that Tyndale went to study in Cambridge University sometime between 1517 and 1521. In 1521 he moved to Little Sodbury Manor in Gloucestershire to be the tutor of two young children and/or to be chaplain to the family.His reasons for coming to Gloucestershire are unknown but it is reasonable to suppose that he wanted to find somewhere quiet so that he could think and study and at the same time have a roof over his head and receive a salary. As well as performing his duties we know that he went around locally, including Bristol, preaching in the open air. Tyndale had meals with his employers Sir John and Lady Walsh and often had discussions with local gentry and clergy who were invited to share a meal. He was astonished at the ignorance of the clergy and it is probably during his two years at the Manor that he decided that scripture should be available to all. It was reported in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs that one day he had a discussion with a learned man who was getting the worse of the discussion and said, ‘We were better be without God’s laws than the pope’s’; to which Tyndale replied, ‘If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.’ This sums up the situation in the Church at that time. Thirty years later the Bishop investigated the state of the clergy in Gloucestershire and found that nine did not know how many commandments there were, 33 did not know where they appeared in the Bible, 39 did not know where the Lord’s Prayer appeared in the Bible, 34 did not know its author and ten could not recite it.

By 1523 Tyndale decided that that an English Bible was an indispensable preliminary to any possible reformation of the abuses which abounded in the Church. He said that the Church did not want an English Bible because it wanted, ‘To keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine, to satisfy their filthy lusts, their proud ambition, and insatiable covetousness, and to exalt their own honour… above God himself.’ He decided that the only way for lay people to understand the lies that the clergy were telling them was to see the truth in the Bible for themselves. He therefore decided to go to London to find a sponsor who would employ him to do this work. His main target was the scholarly Bishop of London Cuthbert Tunstall. The Bishop was not willing and nor was anyone else as the Church was uncomfortable with the idea of a Bible in English. During his stay of almost a year in London he was taken in by a rich merchant Humphrey Monmouth who had seen him preach at St Dunstan in the West. Under the Constitution of Oxford 1408 it was forbidden, on penalty of death, to translate the Bible into English without permission of a Bishop, so he decided that the only way to get the Bible translated and printed was to go to the Continent. Monmouth and some other friends gave him money and he set sail for Germany in 1524, never to return to his homeland.

Tyndale went into hiding to work on his translation of the New Testament. The Continent was not that safe; Luther had really stirred things up and while some princes supported his view, some did not, the same can be said the people. By 1525 the New Testament was ready for publication and so he went to a printer in Cologne, but unknown to him an enemy of the Reformation was using the same printer and he found out what Tyndale was doing and informed the authorities. Fortunately Tyndale found out what had happened and escaped to Worms with his papers and the printing was finished in 1526. The New Testaments were immediately sent secretly to England; they were taken by friends and Hanseatic Merchants who hid them in bales of cloth, barrels of wine etc. Some of the Bibles were landed and hidden at Steelyard in London by London Bridge (now Cannon Street Bridge).

The authorities in England did everything they could to find the books and burn them. Cardinal Wolsey (head of the Church and State) condemned Tyndale as a heretic and sought to arrest him. The brave people who carried his book around the nation did so at a huge risk and several of them were burned at the stake when they were caught. The authorities clearly had some success in destroying the books as there are only two copies left in existence today and one of those is incomplete. One method that was quite successful was buying them when they arrived in the country.

Somewhere between 1526 and 1528 Tyndale arrived in Antwerp. During this time he published several other works and in 1530 he published the ‘Pentateuch,’ the first five books of the Old Testament in English. In order to do this he had to learn Hebrew, but it is unlikely that he learned it in England as few people had any understanding of it at that time, so it is assumed that he learnt it on the Continent. From what I have read it seems that Tyndale became very skilled indeed at this language and it seems extraordinary to me that someone can become so skilled in such a short time; he clearly was very gifted. During his exile Tyndale was helped by several brave friends who shared his exile and assisted him in his work and by friends like Monmouth who sent him money so that he could fulfil his destiny. In 1529 things became too hot for him in Antwerp as it was announced that the government was going to proceed against the reformers and their writings, so he moved to Hamburg.

By 1534 Tyndale is back in Antwerp working on the remainder of the Old Testament. In that year he had published a revised New Testament and by 1535 he had translated about half the Old Testament. At that time an Englishman called Henry Phillips sought him out, befriended him and betrayed him to the authorities. He was imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle, near Brussels and in October 1536 he was burned at the stake, however mercifully he was strangled first. His last words were ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’

What Tyndale achieved was incredible. The Lord gave him a remarkable gift to help him; in his lifetime he became fluent in 8 languages. In his translation of the Bible he invented many English words that we take for granted today. Phrases like ‘let there be light,’ ‘the powers that be’ and ‘the signs of the times’ are just a few of the many phrases that Tyndale made part of our language. David Daniell says in his Tyndale biography, ‘His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters and to do so in away that, again unusually for the time, is still, even today, direct and living; newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare.’ Much of his translation is still with us today. Despite a host of academics coming together to create the King James Version of the Bible in 1611; they ended up using around 90% of his New Testament and around 90% of his work on the Old Testament. For ten years he lived in exile in fear of his life and he published pocket Testaments that enabled everyone who could read to see the glorious truths of the Bible. I think Tyndale succeeded in his vow ‘if God spare my life ere many years, ‘I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost’, don’t you?

In those days of the Reformation many ordinary people gave up their lives for the sake of Gospel truths, would you? Many people died so that we might read the Bible in our own language today. I for one take for granted that I can read the Bible in English wherever and whenever I want; in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries people couldn’t.

Recommended reading. ‘William Tyndale’ by David Daniell, published by Yale University press in 1994 and ‘William Tindale’ by Robert Demaus, published in 1871. Both these books are in-depth studies of his life.

Back to top