Sep 25, 2017

Prince of Translators: William Tyndale

8 Min Read

William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536) made an enormous contribution to the Reformation in England. Many would say that he made the contribution by translating the Bible into English and overseeing its publication. One biographer, Brian Edwards, states that not only was Tyndale “the heart of the Reformation in England,” he “was the Reformation in England.” Because of his powerful use of the English language in his Bible, this Reformer has been called “the father of modern English.”

John Foxe went so far as to call him “the apostle of England.” There is no doubt that by his monumental work, Tyndale changed the course of English history and Western civilization.

Tyndale was born sometime in the early 1490s, most likely in 1494, in Gloucestershire, in rural western England. The Tyndales were an industrious and important family of well-to-do yeoman farmers, having the means to send William to Oxford University. In 1506, William, age twelve, entered Magdalen School, the equivalent of a preparatory grammar school located inside Magdalen College at Oxford. After two years at Magdalen School, Tyndale entered Magdalen College, where he learned grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. He also made rapid progress in languages under the finest classical scholars in England. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1512 and a master’s degree in 1515. Before leaving Oxford, Tyndale was ordained into the priesthood.

Cambridge and the White Horse Inn

Tyndale next went to study at Cambridge University, where it is believed he took a degree. Many of Martin Luther's works were being circulated among the instructors and students, creating great excitement on the campus. In this environment, Tyndale embraced the core truths of the Protestant movement.

In 1520, just three years after Luther had posted his Ninety-Five Theses, a small group of Cambridge scholars began meeting regularly to discuss this “new” theology. They gathered at a pub on the campus of King’s College called the White Horse Inn. As they debated the ideas of the German Reformer, this group became known as “little Germany.” The group included many future leaders in the Reformed movement.

In 1521, Tyndale felt he needed to step away from the academic atmosphere in order to give more careful thought to the truths of the Reformation. He also wanted time to study and digest the Greek New Testament. So he took a job back in Gloucestershire, working for the wealthy family of Sir John Walsh. During this time, he realized that England would never be evangelized using Latin Bibles. He came to see that “it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.”

Local priests often came to dine at the Walsh manor, and Tyndale witnessed firsthand the appalling ignorance of the Roman clergy. During one meal, he fell into a heated argument with a Catholic clergyman, the latter asserting, “We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Tyndale boldly responded: “I defy the pope and all his laws.” He then added these famous words: “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.” From this point forward, the ambitious task of translating the Bible into English was Tyndale’s driving mission.

To London with a Plan

In 1523, Tyndale traveled to London to seek official authorization for a translation project. He arranged to meet the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. Tyndale felt Tunstall would be open to his translation project, but he met resistance. Tunstall was determined to resist the spread of Luther’s ideas, fearing an upheaval in England such as had occurred in Germany after the release in 1522 of Luther’s German Bible. Tunstall knew that an English Bible, accessible to the people, would promote Reformed teachings and challenge the Catholic Church. Tyndale soon realized that he would have to leave the country to accomplish his translation project.

In April 1524, Tyndale, about age thirty, sailed to the Continent to launch his translation and publishing work. Tyndale would live in exile from England for the final twelve years of his life, a fugitive and outlaw.

After arriving in Hamburg, Germany, it appears that Tyndale first journeyed to Wittenberg to be under the influence of Luther, who had thrown off the last vestiges of popish authority. Here Tyndale began the work of translating the New Testament from Greek into English.

In August 1525, Tyndale traveled to Cologne, where he completed his first translation of the New Testament. In this bustling city, Tyndale found a printer, Peter Quentell, to publish his translation. He wanted the secrecy of the printing to be guarded at all costs, but the news about the project leaked. A bitter opponent of the Reformation, John Cochlaeus, overheard and immediately arranged for a raid on the press. However, Tyndale was forewarned; he gathered the printed leaves after only ten pages had been run and escaped into the night. He fled up the Rhine to the more Protestant-friendly city of Worms.

In 1526, Tyndale found a printer, Peter Schoeffer, who agreed to complete the printing of his English New Testament. This was the first portion of the Scriptures to be translated into English from the Greek and to be mechanically printed. Some six thousand copies were printed in clear, common English. In spring 1526, Tyndale began to smuggle his English New Testaments into England in bales of cotton. Demand quickly outstripped supply.

By the summer of 1526, this underground circulation of Tyndale's New Testament was known to church officials. Both the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London were enraged. They attempted to destroy all the copies of Tyndale’s New Testament that they could find and declared it a serious crime to buy, sell, or even handle it. But these actions failed to stop the spread of Tyndale's translation. Demand only increased.

On June 18, 1528, the archbishop of York, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, dispatched three agents to the Continent to search aggressively for Tyndale. Wolsey also ordered John Hacket—the English ambassador to the Low Countries (the Netherlands)—to demand that the regent of the Low Countries authorize the arrest of Tyndale. But Tyndale withdrew to Marburg for safety. Hacket eventually reported that Tyndale could not be found.

Translating the Pentateuch

In September 1528, another attempt was launched to track Tyndale down. John West, a friar, was dispatched from England to the Continent to apprehend the fugitive and bring him back. West landed at Antwerp, dressed in civilian attire, and began hunting for Tyndale. He scoured the cities and interrogated printers. Sensing the pressure, Tyndale remained in Marburg. He spent the time teaching himself Hebrew, a language that had not been taught in the English universities when Tyndale was a student. With this new skill, Tyndale began translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew into English.

In 1529, Tyndale moved from Marburg to Antwerp. This thriving city offered him good printing, sympathetic fellow Englishmen, and a direct supply route to England. Under this new cover, he completed his translation of the five books of Moses, but he felt the danger was too great to stay in this large city. He realized that the Pentateuch must be printed elsewhere. So Tyndale boarded a ship to sail to the mouth of the Elbe River in Germany and then to Hamburg. But a severe storm struck the ship and it was wrecked off the coast of Holland. Tragically, his books, writings, and the Pentateuch translation were lost at sea. He had to start the work from scratch.

Tyndale eventually made his way to Hamburg. There he was received into the home of the von Emersons, a family with strong sympathies for the Reformation. In this protective environment, Tyndale undertook the laborious effort of retranslating the Pentateuch from the Hebrew language. This task took from March to December 1529. In January 1530, the five books of Moses in English were printed in Antwerp, then smuggled into England and distributed.

In November 1530, Thomas Cromwell, a counselor to King Henry VIII, tried another strategy to sway Tyndale. He commissioned Stephen Vaughan, an English merchant who was sympathetic to the Reformation, to find Tyndale. On behalf of the king, Vaughan was instructed to offer Tyndale a salary and safe passage back to England. When he arrived on the Continent, Vaughan sent letters to Tyndale. Tyndale replied, and a series of secret meetings took place in Antwerp in April 1531. However, Tyndale feared that the king would break his promise of safe passage, ending the translation work. Therefore, Tyndale told Vaughan that he would return on only one condition—the king must have the Bible translated into the English language by someone else. If the king would do that, Tyndale said, he would return to England, never translate again, and offer his life unto death to the king if need be.

On June 19, Vaughan wrote back to Cromwell from Antwerp these simple words: “I find him [Tyndale] always singing one note.” In other words, Tyndale would not change his tune. He would not return to England until the king had commissioned a Bible in the English language.

Captured in Antwerp

In early 1534, Tyndale moved into a house in Antwerp as the guest of Thomas Poyntz, a wealthy English merchant who was, according to Tyndale biographer David Daniell, “a good, shrewd, friend and loyal sympathizer.” Poyntz took Tyndale into his protection and even provided him with a stipend.

Feeling secure, Tyndale set about the work of completing a revision of his New Testament translation. This second edition contained some four thousand changes and corrections from the 1526 edition. Tyndale’s Hebrew was now as good as his Greek, which allowed him to work masterfully on the next part of his Old Testament translation, Joshua through 2 Chronicles.

Back in England, a certain Harry Phillips had been given a large sum of money by his father to pay a man in London. But Phillips gambled the money away. An unknown high official in the church—probably the bishop of London, John Stokesley—was made aware of Phillips’ plight and offered him a large sum of money to travel to the Continent and find Tyndale. In his desperation, Phillips accepted the offer. He arrived in Antwerp in early summer 1535 and began to make the necessary contacts among the English merchants. When he found Tyndale, he deviously established his friendship and won Tyndale's trust. Then, one day he lured Tyndale into a narrow passage, where soldiers arrested him. After twelve years as a fugitive, Tyndale was captured.

Poyntz’s home was then raided and a number of Tyndale's possessions were removed. However, his bulky manuscript translation of Joshua to 2 Chronicles somehow survived the raid. In all likelihood it was in the possession of his friend John Rogers, who eventually printed it in the Matthew's Bible (1537).

Imprisoned in Vilvoorde

Tyndale was imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorde six miles north of Brussels. There, Tyndale languished for nearly a year and a half as preparations were made for his trial. Foxe writes that Tyndale “was affecting his very . . . enemies,” because, during the time of his imprisonment “it is said, he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household.”

In August 1536, Tyndale at last stood trial. A long list of charges was drawn up against him and he was condemned as a heretic. That same day, Tyndale was excommunicated from the priesthood in a public service. He then was handed over to the secular powers for punishment. The death sentence was pronounced.

Tyndale was executed on October 6, 1536. He was strangled, burned, and his body blown apart by gunpowder, but at some point before his death, he cried his famous last words: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

This article is part of the Men of the Reformation collection.