The most dangerous man in Tudor England, BBC2 viewers learned last Thursday evening, was the scholar who first penned in English such Biblical phrases as: ‘let there be light’, ‘filthy lucre’, ‘signs of the times’, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, ‘sour grapes’, ‘rise and shine’ and many more.
Melvyn Bragg’s insightful documentary on William Tyndale (1494–1536) described the English scholar as both father of the King James Bible and of the modern English language. Yet Henry VIII wanted to assassinate him and tried to write him out of history. For several reasons, Tyndale was a dangerous man–not the least was his opposition to the king’s divorce and remarriage as being unscriptural.
Others threatened by Tyndale’s passionate drive to translate and print the Bible in modern English included Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the pope. Both understood only too well that the Bible in the hands of Tyndale’s proverbial ‘ploughboy’ would fuel a revolution upsetting the pomp, power and prosperity of both church and state.
Hounded from his native England in 1524, Tyndale roamed over the next decade through Hamburg, Cologne, Wittenberg, Worms, Stuttgart and Antwerp. Drawing on translations by his contemporaries Erasmus and Luther, he translated the New Testament into English and arranged for six thousand copies to be shipped across the channel to London.
Henry got wind of the shipment. He mobilised the navy to search all ships coming from the Low Countries and had warehouses on the Thames ransacked. Thousands of copies were confiscated and destroyed. But thousands more got through to readers eager to read God’s Word in understandable language.
The bishop of London decided to buy up the books at their source, ship them to London and publically burn them all on the steps of St Pauls Cathedral. Tyndale was twice happy: with the extra income to print more bibles and with the public outcry in response to the burning of Scriptures.
Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed by a fellow Oxford graduate while staying in Antwerp in 1535. A friendly and sympathetic Henry Phillips, posing as an interested inquirer in Tyndale’s work, led the unsuspecting scholar into a narrow city lane where agents of Charles V lay in wait. He was arrested and taken south towards Brussels to Vilvoorde Castle (close to Zaventem Airport today).
There he was held in the dungeon of the castle for seventeen months as repeated attempts to arrange his release by English expatriots living nearby failed.
A letter from Tyndale to the prison governor is on display in the museum located where the castle formerly stood, in which he requests: ‘a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold and have a cough… a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin; a piece of cloth too with which to patch my leggings and a woollen shirt… for my clothes are all worn out…And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.’
Although he apparently was allowed to continue his translation of the Pentateuch, he was found guilty of heresey the following year. Taken outside to a nearby bridge on October 6, 1535, he was executed by strangulation and his body burnt to ashes.
His last words were, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’. Just two years later, a divorced and remarried Henry authorised The Great Bible to be used in services up and down the country of the newly independent Church of England. Ironically, it had been Tyndale’s work, The Obedience of a Christian Man, which had given the king the rationale to break away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Henry’s Great Bible was officially a translation by Miles Coverdale, but largely Tyndale's work. Both the later Geneva Bible (1560) and the King James Version (1611) drew significantly from Tyndale, as did the Catholic Douay-Rheims New Testament of 1582. Scholars estimate the KJV New Testament to be over 80% Tyndale's, and of the Old Testament books he translated, 76%.
Coincidentally, I was booked to be in Brussels with YWAM staff tomorrow for a visit to Vilvoorde and the Tyndale Museum, as well as the house in Anderlecht, Brussels where Erasmus had stayed in 1521.
So thank you Melvyn Bragg, and BBC, for your timely documentary!
Till next week,
Till next week,