William Tyndale ( 1492-1536)

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The contributions made by William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer are especially important to the story of the English Reformation as they steered Protestantism through the turbulent years of Henry VIII, Edward VI , and Mary Tudor.

The introduction of printing by William Caxton (1422-1491) made available many more copies of  William Tyndale`s  printed English Bible, first produced in 1525.  This was highly significant as under the church of Rome the Bible was not freely available, it was in Latin, and interpreted by the priests, often accompanied by personal (erroneous) interpretation, mysticism and rites.  There had long been attacks on the Lollards who had had the benefit of a Bible in the vulgar tongue (English) since the days of John Wickcliffe. But copies were rare and expensive until printing became available. These were major milestones in the education of the general populace who, for the first time, were able to read, interpret, and think for themselves about religion and its moral values.

Tyndale is thought to have been born in Slymbridge , Gloucestershire, and in 1512 was a graduate of the University of Oxford, apparently attached to Magdalene College. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, where he met such as Latimer, Cranmer and Bilney who were also intent on spreading the Gospel. John Foxe relates that Tyndale would “read privily to certain students and Fellows of Magdalen College some parcel of divinity, instructing them in the knowledge and truth of the Scriptures.” He graduated B.A. in 1512 and M.A. in 1515.

In 1520 Tyndale accepted the post of chaplain to Sir John Walsh’s household at Little Sodbury where there were frequent visitors, including church dignitaries, which afforded the opportunity to learn of the recently published works of Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus had published his Greek and Latin New Testament which were to be relevant to Tyndale`s own work. Finally he had to leave the place and move on. But not before translating a book, the title of which might be put into English as “The Pocket-dagger of a Christian Soldier.”  But then came his first brush with the prelates when he was arrested for ministering the Word. In Bristol he sometimes used a location known as St Austin`s Meadow, in which to preach. On one occasion the priests laid waste to the land in retribution such was their pettiness. It was about this time that Tyndale realised the absolute need for an English Bible so that the people could themselves attack the sophistry of the priests. As it was he was much taken with view of Erasmus that

“even the weakest woman should read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul; that they might be translated into all languages so that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough; that the weaver should hum them to the tune of the shuttle, and that the traveller should beguile with their stories the weariness of his journey.”

This was the turning point when he decided to undertake the same task for the English language.

The charge against him was “for spreading heresy in and around the town of Bristol.” He was fortunate, given his growing reputation, to get away with a stern admonishment not to preach publicly any more.

 In the winter of 1522 Tyndale reluctantly left Sodbury to go to London. He had references from Sir John Walsh to Sir Harry Guildford, the Kings Comptroller, and by him to several clerics. Tyndale sought the support of Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall one of the more enlightened bishops, but he was coolly received and not able to obtain a position. However, he preached at the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West where a merchant, Humphrey Monmouth,  heard him. In a new phase of his quest to bring enlightenment Tyndale  preached that the universal standard was the Scriptures; his justification of faith that

"The word of God was the basis of salvation, and the Grace of God its essence"

He explained

" It is the blood of Christ that opens the gates of heaven and not thy works...  I am wrong, .... Yes, if thou  will have it so, by they good works shalt thou be saved. Yet, understand me well . -not by those that thou has done, but by those that Christ has done for thee. Christ is in thee and thou in him, knit together inseparably. Thou canst not be damned , except that Christ be damned with thee; neither can Christ be saved except thou be saved with him.      

 As a result of Tyndale`s preaching Monmouth took him home and supported him for over a year.  Tyndale worked  with John Frith, a mathematical scholar who was good at Greek. He joined Tyndale’s cause and helped to translate the New Testament. This they did for about six months before the clerics found them out and they were forced to leave. Tyndale left for Hamburg while his generous host, Monmouth was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. He managed to obtain his release by appealing to Cardinal Wolsey.

Tyndale again moved on to Cologne where he continued his work and had his first type set for printing. However, loose talk led to John Cochleus, a Romanist nicknamed “the scourge of Luther,” latching on to him and Tyndale barely had time to gather his things together before hurriedly moving on. This time he went to the homeland of Martin Luther at Worms. It is probable the two men met and Tyndale would have enjoyed some measure of protection as a result. At his new home Tyndale continued his translation from the Greek to English  probably using  Erasmus’ third edition of the Greek New Testament, and Luther`s German version. 

 In 1525 the first copies  was smuggled into England by five Hanseatic merchants, hidden amongst their cargo of wheat, since neither Henry VIII nor the prelates desired the free  circulation of the Bible. These smuggled copies came into the care of an unsung hero of the Reformation, Thomas Garret, who coordinated their sale and dispersal throughout the land. A copy was eventually obtained by the Church who, as to be expected, declared it to he heretical and erroneous and ordered it to be publicly burnt. This took place on the 11th of February, 1526, at St Paul`s before a splendid gathering of thirty-six bishops, abbots and priors arrayed in all their splendour. The first edition in 1525 had been published anonymously in two sizes, octavo and quarto, being one of the poorest kept secrets of the age that it was Tyndales work. The impulse the six thousand copies gave to the Reformation was very great, with copies smuggled into England mainly through the east coast ports of Yarmouth, Harwich and Norwich. To Tyndale`s annoyance  several unauthorised editions  were issued by Antwerp printers  between 1526 and 1528. In 1534, just as he was about to issue his own revision, George Joy, a Protestant refugee, issued a reprint of Tyndale`s New Testament. Frustrating though this no doubt was to Tyndale the fact was that the English language version was in great demand throughout Europe. The clerics were particularly irritated by the side notes and glosses that Tyndale provided which were called `nefarious and distorted comments` by Archbishop Warham. In a vain attempt to cut out the smuggled copies the bishops even clubbed together to buy up as many copies as they could before they left Antwerp. These were ostentatiously and publicly burned at St Paul`s Cross  in May 1530, duly supervised by Bishop Tunstall.

D`Aubigne writes in his History of the Reformation  that Tyndale  was "indignant  against those coarse monks, covetous priests, and pompous prelates,' who were waging an impious war against God."  In a doctrinal tract  " Obedience of a Christian Man" Tyndale kept up his assault on them and gained their enmity with criticisms such as :

 "What a trade is that of the priests.they want money for every thing: money for baptism, money  for churchings, for weddings, for buryings, for images, brotherhoods, penances, soul-masses, bells, organs, chalices, copes, surplices, ewers, censors, and all manner of ornaments. Poor sheep! The parson shears, the vicar shaves, the parish priest polls, the friar scrapes, the indulgence seller pares ..... all that you want is a butcher to flay you and take away your skin He will not leave you long. Why are your prelates dressed in red? Because they are ready to shed the blood of whomsoever seeketh the word of God? Scourge of states, devastators of kingdoms, the priests take away not only Holy Scripture, but also prosperity and peace; but of their councils is no layman; reigning over all, they obey nobody; and making all concur to their own greatness, they conspire against every kingdom."

It was about this time that Wolsey turned his attention to the perceived problem of Tyndale and the distribution of the New Testament. Wolsey was not totally opposed to change or reform particularly if he was to profit from it. But his primary concern was to maintain the privileges and uniformity of the hierarchy. His plan now was to seek the capture of Tyndale and wrote accordingly to the envoy in the Low Countries to bring pressure on the local authorities; this resulted in the arrest of an Antwerp merchant (Harman) awho was a principal supporter of Tyndale. He then despatched a Franciscan friar named John West to track down Tyndale and have him arrested. West came close to Tyndale on a number of occasions, even being in the same town together. But he was frustrated in his attempts to seize his quarry and returned to report his failure to Wolsey. By then the Cardinal had returned to the problem of Henry`s divorce and trying to get a decretal from the Pope. It was soon to be Wolsey`s time to depart the scene, cast out from office and subsequently dying in November 1530.

Having published the first New Testament in 1526 Tyndale was rejoined by John Fryth ( who had escaped from Oxford) and they set about further translations, this time of the Old Testament ; in 1529 they published  Genesis and Deuteronomy that was avidly seized upon by the people. In the prologue to Genesis they wrote:

 "As thou readest, think that every syllable pertaIneth to thine own self, and suck out the pith of the Scripture."    ,.... We are saved not by the power of the sacrifice or the deed itself, but by the virtue of  faith in the promise , whereof the sacrifice  or ceremony  was a token or sign."

It was while staying with a  Thomas Poyntz, in 1534, that Tyndale was betrayed by one Henry Phillips, possibly a  papal spy, but definitely a reward seeker,  who delivered him into the hands of the authorities in Brussels,  He was  taken prisoner to the castle of Vilvorde, eighteen miles away from Antwerp. From May to October he remained in prison, where he endured both a terrible trial, and the dank and airless dungeons. Inevitably he was judged guilty of heresy and on October 6th, 1536, was taken from prison, tied to the stake and strangled. Then his lifeless body was burnt to ashes. His last prayer, was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Within a year the English Bible received royal recognition, and a year later every parish church in England was supplied with its own copy.

 In his wake Tyndale left a small core group of Protestants in positions of great influence at Cambridge University with Master Stafford, Master Arthur, Master Thistle and Master Bilney among them. The latter was responsible for the conversion of the zealous Hugh Latimer to the Protestant cause. John Clark, a master of arts at Cambridge was recruited by Thomas Wolsey for the new college that he had founded. at Oxford. There, Clark and the young Anthony Dalaber taught an evangelical, Protestant, faith to the  students eager to hear them. Following Tyndale `s versions of the New Testament came several other books. The first complete  printed English Bible was produced probably in Antwerp, adorned with woodcuts and maps - the work of Miles Coverdale based on translations from the Latin Bible of Pagninus in 1528 and the Swiss Bible of 1524-9. It was 1537 and the third edition, before the much desired statement " set forth with the king`s most gracious licence."  appeared on the title page.

 In 1537 yet another version edited by John Rogers, a friend of Coverdale, termed "Matthew`s Bible" became available. This included translations by Tyndale and Coverdale to which was added a Protestant commentary and the books broken down into chapters and  sections and adorned with woodcuts. Despite having much of the detested translation and notes of Tyndale in it, this Bible was well received by Henry VIII and he ordered that "it shall be allowed by his authority to be bought and read within this realm". The public acceptance of it was reflected in the sale of over fifteen hundred copies within a very short time. This version became the basic source for subsequent revisions of detail during the next seventy five years.

Perhaps the version  known as "The Great Bible" issued in April 1539, and sometimes as "Cromwell`s Bible" was the most important to the Reformation because it was by law distributed throughout England. While it was still in the printers, Thomas Cromwell issued an injunction requiring the clergy to provide in each parish "one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English," the cost to be shared between the parson and the parish. It was further required that it should be set up  in a convenient place within the church for general reading, and the clergy should "expressly provoke, stir , exhort, every person  to read the same."  At St Paul`s six copies were set up for public use and people were allowed to read it to an auditory provided it did not interfere with divine service. This of itself was of great value to those who could not read, the old and infirm. and even crowds of small boys wanting to hear the scriptures read. This period of liberty was, however, to suffer again when Mary Tudor came to the throne.


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