What the English Bible Cost One Man
William Tyndale studied at Oxford and Cambridge. He could speak seven languages and was proficient in Hebrew and Greek. He was a priest whose intellectual gifts and disciplined life could have taken him a long way in the church, had he not had one compulsion: to teach English men and women the good news of justification by faith.
Tyndale had discovered the freedom and joy of this doctrine when he read Erasmus’s Greek edition of the New Testament. What better way to share this message with English men and women than to put an English copy of the New Testament into their hands? This was not a passing fancy but became Tyndale’s life passion, aptly expressed by his mentor, Erasmus, in the preface to his Greek New Testament: “Christ desires his mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I would that [the Gospels and the epistles of Paul] were translated into all languages, of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known.”
It would be a passion, though, for which Tyndale would pay dearly.
He began decently and in order: in 1523, he sought permission and funds from the bishop of London to translate the New Testament. The bishop’s answer was no, a telling no. Further queries in England convinced Tyndale that the project would not be welcomed by authorities anywhere in his land. So he left England for the free cities of Europe—Hamburg, Wittenberg, Cologne, Worms, and Antwerp—some place where he could translate and publish an English Bible.
From the Lutheran city of Worms, in 1525, his New Testament emerged—the first translation from Greek into English. It was quickly smuggled into England, where it received a less-than-enthusiastic response from the authorities. King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Sir Thomas More, among others, were furious. It was, said More, “not worthy to be called Christ’s testament, but either Tyndale’s own testament or the testament of his master Antichrist.”
Copies of his translation were bought up and burned, and plans were hatched to silence the troublesome translator.
Tyndale soon moved to Antwerp, a city in which he was relatively free from both English agents and those of the Holy Roman (and Catholic) Empire. For nine years he managed, with the help of friends, to evade authorities as he revised his New Testament and began translating the Old.
He also gave himself methodically to good works because, as he said, “My part be not in Christ if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach.” On Mondays he visited others who had fled England because of religious persecution. On Saturdays he walked the streets, seeking in Antwerp’s nooks and crannies poor people he could minister to. On Sundays he would dine in a merchant’s home, reading Scripture before and after dinner. The rest of the week was devoted to writing tracts and books and translating the Bible.
We do not know who exactly planned and financed the plot that interrupted this routine—probably high-ranking English bishops. We do know it was carried out by Henry Phillips, a man who had been accused of robbing his father and of gambling himself into poverty.
Phillips managed to pick up Tyndale’s trail in Antwerp and wormed his way into Tyndale’s life. Thomas Poyntz, Tyndale’s associate and close friend, distrusted Phillips but could not convince Tyndale to avoid him. Phillips became Tyndale’s guest at meals. Soon he was one of the few privileged to look at Tyndale’s books and papers.
In May 1535, Phillips found a way to lure Tyndale away from the safety of his quarters at the English House of Antwerp, a house set aside for traveling English merchants. While slipping through a narrow alley, Tyndale walked into the arms of a band of soldiers whom Phillips had posted. He was immediately taken to the Castle of Vilvorde, the great state prison of the Low Countries, and accused of heresy.
Trials for heresy in the Netherlands were in the hands of special commissioners of the Holy Roman Empire. Based on other cases, we can draw a fairly accurate picture of the course of events Tyndale would endure. The trial would be carried out completely in private; the prisoner would not appear in public until the commissioners were ready to announce a verdict. It would take months for the law to take its course—while Tyndale lay in the cells of Vilvorde, languishing in loneliness, cold, and poverty, cut off from news and from friends.
Tyndale’s Final Words were a prayer.
A Friend’s Desperate Efforts
His arrest was in some sense a threat to the safety of all English merchants, who were supposedly safe from local authorities. So some merchants petitioned the Court of Brussels on Tyndale’s behalf. In the end, the merchants couldn’t deny that he was a heretic in the eyes of the law—and the laws against heresy had become ever more stringent.
Thomas Poyntz, Tyndale’s close friend, was the most diligent in trying to secure Tyndale’s release. He asked Lord Cromwell to apply political pressure upon the Low Countries. Tyndale, after all, was an English subject. But Cromwell was slow to move. His king, Henry VIII, was no friend of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. But he knew that King Henry had no love for Tyndale and would not grieve his death.
Letters from Cromwell eventually reached Flanders in September, asking for Tyndale’s extradition as a diplomatic favor. But it was left to Poyntz to press the affair with the authorities, which he did, at the expense of his business and personal life. His heroic efforts paid off: he was told, at last, that Tyndale would be set free.
Afflictions in Prison
At this news, Tyndale’s betrayer, Henry Phillips, seeing his plot beginning to unravel, went to the authorities and accused Poyntz of heresy. Poyntz was seized and placed in prison, where he remained for three months. In February 1536, he managed to escape, but he was forced to flee from Antwerp, leaving behind his business, his goods, and his wife. His life would never be the same. For Tyndale, Poyntz’s exile was fatal: it essentially brought all effort on Tyndale’s behalf to a standstill.
We know little of Tyndale’s affairs in his lonely prison cell. According to John Foxe, a contemporary of Tyndale, “Such was the power of his doctrine and the sincerity of his life that … he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household.”
There is also one letter, written in Latin, in Tyndale’s hand, that was found in Belgium last century. It bears no date nor name of place, but there can be little doubt that it was sent from his prison cell to the governor of the castle in the winter months of 1535. It tells us a great deal about the conditions in which he lived.
In contemporary translation, it reads, “I beg your lordship … by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here through the winter, you will request the commissary to have the kindness to send me, from the goods of mine which he has, a warmer cap; for I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh, which is much increased in this cell; a warmer coat also, for this which I have is very thin; a piece of cloth, too, to patch my leggings. My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. …
“And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. But most of all, I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.”
More than one historian has noted the likeness to Paul, who while languishing in prison asked Timothy for his cloak, his books, and his parchments (2 Tim. 4:13).
Dying Words Answered Two years after Tyndale prayed, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” King Henry VIII required each parish church to have “one book [copy] of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English.” As shown here, these Bibles attracted great attention and even had to be chained to keep them from being stolen.
Trial and Death
Was Tyndale’s request allowed? Did he continue work on his translation of the Old Testament? We do not know. Winter passed, and one more attempt was made to release Tyndale, but it was too late. Tyndale was already in the tedium of trial.
The trial was carried out in writing, and months were spent in a paper debate between Tyndale and the Roman Catholic inquisitors. The first step was to frame a formal accusation, to which Tyndale would reply. Then a series of papers were passed back and forth as Tyndale’s doctrines were brought up one by one.
It was not until summer that the trial came to its climax. Then, early in August 1536, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic, degraded from the priesthood, and delivered to the secular authorities for punishment.
The rite of degradation took place separately from the punishment for heresy. A typical degradation was held in a church or town square, the local bishops sitting upon a high platform for all to see. Tyndale likely would have been led in, clad in the vestments of the priesthood, and made to kneel. His hands were scraped with a knife or piece of glass, as if scraping away the oil he had been anointed with; bread and wine were placed in his hands and taken away. Last, his vestments were stripped from him one by one, and he was clothed in lay garments. Then the presiding bishop handed him over to the secular officer for punishment.
Two months later, on the morning of Friday, October 6, it was the secular authorities’ turn. We have but one brief description of Tyndale’s execution. From descriptions of others like it, we can surmise that the execution took place in a public square, in the middle of which two great beams were set up in the form of a cross, standing about the height of a man. At the top, iron chains were fastened, and there were holes through which a rope of hemp was passed. Brushwood and logs lay at the base.
After local officials took their seats, Tyndale was brought to the cross and given a chance to recant. That refused, he was given a moment to pray. John Foxe says that he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”
Then he was bound to the beam, and both an iron chain and a rope were put around his neck. Gunpowder was added to the brush and logs. At the signal of a local official, the executioner, standing behind Tyndale, quickly tightened the noose, strangling him. Then an official took up a lighted torch and handed it to the executioner, who set the wood ablaze.
One other brief report of that distant scene has come down to us. It is found in a letter from an English agent to Lord Cromwell two months later.
“They speak much,” he wrote, “of the patient sufferance of Master Tyndale at the time of his execution.”
Mark Galli is managing editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY.
Copyright © 1994 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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