Showing the state of our nation in the light of God’s Holy Word

THE LIFE AND WORK OF WILLIAM TYNDALE PART 3

By Michael Hobbis,
CW Committee Member

Part 3 (of 3)


In Part 2 of our account of the life of Tyndale, we last left him as having been furnished with extra funds to continue with the work of further revision of his translation of the New Testament. These funds came about by a merchant friend of Tyndale, ostensibly providing help to Bishop Tunstall to buy all of Tyndale’s translated Scriptures coming from the presses of Europe, which Tunstall in a great display promptly burnt. This, in turn, gave Tyndale more money to continue with his major work of revision and Old Testament translation.


We learn from Foxe that while he was sailing to Hamburg to print the translation of Deuteronomy, there was a great storm at sea and Tyndale lost ‘both money, his copies and time’. With Coverdale – with whom he was now working – he had to begin all over again – the Pentateuch being completed between Easter and December and printed in January, 1530 in Antwerp.

Tyndale was prodigious in his labours and in 1531 also translated Jonah and a revised Genesis. The great work of the year 1534 was a completely revised New Testament, with further slight revision in 1535. This was in addition to his previously published polemical works, already mentioned: The Obedience of the Christian Man and The Practise of Prelates and further work on the Old Testament.

The history of the English Bible at this time is admittedly unclear in its detail, but it is believed that every year on average since its first issue, a new edition had been printed and sent by merchants and other means to England. During this period of Tyndale’s labours for the Lord, he also was involved in a drawn out controversy with Sir Thomas More, who had, using all his erudition, sought to ridicule and discredit the faithful translator and Reformer. In 1529, More published a considerable volume entitled ‘The Dialogue’. This extensive work was a defence of the Church in its use in worship of images, penances, praying to saints and going on pilgrimages et al. This was a reaction to such books of Tyndale as ‘The Wicked Mammon’ and ‘The Obedience’, which reached England as More was preparing this tome. This literary assault upon Tyndale was written with all the consummate skill More could bring to it, but Tyndale had the Truth on his side and was more than capable of a clear and spiritual response. His ‘Practise of Prelate’s’ was an initial defence, but in 1531 he wrote ‘The Answer’; this more comprehensive work was plainly written and its straightforward arguments silenced most of More’s accusations. However, Sir Thomas More bitterly persisted with a further polemical work ‘The Confutation’; this second attack by More was regarded even by his friends as a failure, being some ten times the size of Tyndale’s ‘The Answer’.

With no certain dwelling place, and in the midst of these distractions from enemies such as More and the over-zealous monks Roye and Joye, this indefatigable soldier of Christ laboured so that you and I could hold in our hands the Word of the Living God, understandable and pure.

There were happier times during Tyndale’s self-imposed exile in Europe; viz. two wonderful influences upon the Royal courts of England, or should we rather say God’s work of providence, in regard to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his Queen. The first is the account whereby a maid of the Queen had obtained from her a copy of Tyndale’s work, The Obedience of the Christian Man; this book was in turn borrowed by a male friend who was so taken with its contents that he was loathe to return it. The maid, in much distress, confided in the Queen who, in turn, appealed to Henry for assistance, who obtained its return. Henry, curious as to its contents, began to read it, upon which he exclaimed ‘this is a book for me and for all Kings to read’. Such are the marvellous workings of the King of Kings.

Moreover, Anne, it seems, had so much sympathy with the work of the Reformation, that when a certain merchant, Richard Herman, was arrested and held in Antwerp for aiding in the distribution of Tyndale’s translated New Testament, she wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell desiring him to use his influence in giving this man his freedom again. She wrote:.

Anne the Queen: Trusty and right well-beloved, we greet you well; and whereas we be credibly informed, that the bearer hereof Richard Herman, merchant and citizen of Antwerp, in Brabant, was in the time of the late Lord Cardinal put and expelled from his freedom and fellowship of and in the English house there, for nothing else, as he affirmeth, but only that he did, both with his goods and policy, to his great hurt and hindrance in this world, help to the setting forth of the New Testament in English: we therefore desire and instantly pray you, that with all speed and favour convenient, ye will cause this good and honest merchant, being my Lord’s true, faithful and loving subject, to be restored to his pristine freedom, liberty and fellowship aforesaid, and the sooner at this our request, and at your good leisure, to hear him in such things as he hath to make further relation unto you in this behalf:

Given under our signet, at my Lord’s Manor of Greenwich, the 14th day of May.

Herman was indeed given his freedom and Tyndale, in gratitude for Anne’s generous protection, gave her a beautifully illustrated New Testament, tooled – and in large gilt letters on the edge – are inscribed the words Anna, Angliae Regina. Tyndale’s name nowhere appears on it and it is without preface. As has been remarked, the Bible needs no dedications to ‘Most High and Princes’. This precious volume was bequeathed to the British Museum by a Rev. Cracherode who, it seems, had rebound it.

Later there was a bitter controversy between Tyndale and George Joye, the aforementioned Reformed monk from England, also in self-imposed exile. This man, who had merely been assisting Tyndale, had taken it upon himself to produce his own revised and corrected New Testament, much to Tyndale’s dismay. This new work of George Joye was undertaken without Tyndale’s knowledge and by a man who, it seems, had little knowledge of the Greek and knew only Latin with any proficiency. It contained many errors and was a sad episode in the life of Tyndale, whose only desire was to give to the ordinary Englishman, in his own tongue, the Holy Scriptures of God as true to the originals as he could. Needless to say, as with another troublesome itinerant Reformed monk years before of a similar name, William Roye, these two also parted company.

Tyndale had been wrought upon to return to England by Cromwell, who dispatched Stephen Vaughan, a man who was favourably inclined to the Reformers. He was commissioned to seek out Tyndale and offer him safe passage to England. Happily, at this time, Tyndale refused. Vaughan himself declared that: ‘It is unlikely to get Tyndale into England, when he daily heareth so many things from thence that feareth him’.

This turned out to be a wise move on the translator’s part, since Bilney and Bayfield had been consigned to the stake, while John Frith, who had returned to the land of his birth from Tyndale and Europe, had been consigned to the Tower and was also later cruelly martyred on July 4th, 1533. Tyndale had already offended Henry by publishing the Practise of Prelates and, like John the Baptist before him, had reproved the King for his adulteries. Henry could, at any stage, have ordered officials in Europe to arrest Tyndale, but such was the animosity between Henry and the Emperor Charles that, while hostilities lasted, Charles would not have given up Tyndale to satisfy Henry.

For two years, 1533-1535, Tyndale resided at Antwerp and we learn from John Foxe that he lived frugally and kept two days a week for himself, which he termed ‘his pastime’. These were Mondays and Saturdays, which he kept for visiting the poor men and women who had fled England from persecution into Antwerp. He spent these ‘pastime’ days travelling the length and breadth of the city to give alms to any poor refugees he could find. He had been supported financially himself by the wealthy merchants among whom he lived and, in turn, shared this largesse with these needy souls. He ministered in the Scriptures on the Lord’s Day in the home of various merchants, when it is said he did ‘sweetly, gently and fruitfully read’ and, we may assume, expound the Bible to them too. It was towards the close of this period that he published a further revised and improved edition of the New Testament in 1535, when, for the first time, headings were provided by him to the Gospels and Acts.

Now the dark clouds of treachery and dangerous mists of intrigue were beginning to swirl around Tyndale and, like so many Godly martyrs before him, he had fought a good fight and was about to finish his course. This man had lived an abstemious life from his earliest days, which was beyond reproach by even his enemies. His greatest enemy, Sir Thomas More, declared that Tyndale was ‘well known for right good living, studious and well learned in the Scripture, and looked and preached holily’. He lived his life to bring the Gospel to the ordinary Englishman and was an embodiment of its sweet and holy influences. Our God, in His own purposes and decrees, sometimes chooses to show great kindness of grace in saving the very worst of sinners and restores the greatest backsliders to His own praise and glory. In other cases, as with William Tyndale, He shows the wonders of loving kindness and power in keeping them from all outward sin and in lives of consecrated single-minded holiness. Our great shame in this nation is that for many ‘a great prophet has been among us and we knew it not’.

Tyndale, in his latter years in Belgium, had been given hospitality in the home of wealthy merchants. A large mansion had been provided to the English merchants by the magistrates of Antwerp. In addition to this, it was one of the happy privileges of the Antwerpians that none could be arrested on suspicion alone, or held without trial for longer than three days. As long as Tyndale did not venture too far abroad, he might live in comparative safety. Sir Thomas More had been deposed and imprisoned and the Reformation had been forwarded by Cromwell and Cranmer who were now in the ascendancy; so the threats from England were not what they once were.

Now Tyndale sheltered beneath the roof of the ‘English House’ under the patronage of the merchant Thomas Poyntz. So long as he stayed there he could not be arrested, for the rule was that none but great criminals could be brought out from thence. Like Daniel, he declined the dainties of the well-laid table in the house, preferring, it is said: ‘Sodden meat and a small beer’. But very devious plans were now afoot to secure Tyndale’s arrest, which was to lead to his eventual martyrdom. Poyntz had left on business and now one Henry Phillips, a Catholic monk from England, who had recently made friends of the local merchants, also made the acquaintance of Tyndale. By guile, and because of the gentle simplicity of Tyndale, he was able by a ruse to entice him into the alleys and byways of Antwerp, where he was set upon by agents of Phillips who had, like Judas, pointed his finger above this poor man’s head as he walked behind him. Henry Phillips had been acting for those Catholics who hated what Tyndale was doing and, in truth, were even opposed to King Henry VIII, because of his split from the Pope. Upon his arrest, both Cromwell and, surprisingly, even Henry did what they could to secure Tyndale’s release; but all to no avail. He was held for 135 days in the castle of Vilvorde. Neither Cromwell nor Henry could actively interfere in the matter because of the bad relationship with Charles V, that it would no doubt have made things worse. They could only make appeals; indeed Poyntz himself was arrested for trying to secure his friend’s release and only just managed to escape to England.

While in the damp and cold castle dungeons, Tyndale, as with another in the prison of the Emperor Nero, asked the Marquis of Bergen-op-Zoom, an acquaintance of Cromwell, for a warmer coat, a light to read by, a Hebrew Bible and a Hebrew Dictionary and Grammar, that he might spend his time in study. Cromwell had already appealed to this man to intercede in Tyndale’s favour. Whether he received these mercies we know not, but we do know that he translated the Hebrew Bible as far as Chronicles before his death, which was transmitted to John Rogers, another later Marian martyr, to be printed by him with the Pentateuch and the New Testament, which is known as Matthew’s Bible. This seems to suggest that he did receive such mercies.

Tyndale’s long trial began in 1536, after which he was condemned to be strangled and then burned at Vilvorde on Friday, October 6th. The only detail we have concerning this faithful man’s martyrdom is from Foxe who said that this martyr cried at the stake with fervent zeal and a loud voice, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’. Tyndale had for some years expected this end and had stated that he knew that, for him, there was no other way into the Kingdom of Christ than through persecution, suffering and pain.

We leave this true Christian in his place as one of that great cloud of witnesses of whom the world was not worthy. The next time we pick up the Bible to read, may we perhaps consider what treasure our Lord has given us, in that we each have access to the Words of life and, by His grace, the cost of the lives of His faithful servants, such as William Tyndale. Let us also remember the even greater debt we owe to the One who is the very Word Himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord, without whose life and death and His precious blood given for us at the cross for our ransom, Tyndale himself would have had no hope of eternal life and peace.

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