William Tyndale — the man who gave England her Bible (4)
The late 1520s saw William Tyndale drawn into other literary endeavours beside his primary task of translating the Scriptures.
Each of these ventures was an understandable response to the pressures of the moment, but it is a moot point whether the combined result was, in fact, a time-consuming distraction.
The first book to appear under Tyndale’s own name was a sermon on justification by faith called The parable of the wicked mammon. Like all Tyndale’s works from that time onwards, it was printed in Antwerp. The printer was Johannes Hoochstraten, though he concealed his identity as Hans Luft of Marburg.
The book was an exposition of Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16 and is similar to a treatment of the same theme by Martin Luther. Tyndale felt compelled to address this subject because of the activities of his erstwhile helper, William Roye, who together with a man named Jerome Barlow had produced an anti-Catholic satire named Rede me and be nott wrothe.
This was scurrilous in tone. Its opening page was a crude cartoon depicting Thomas Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat, surrounded by axes dripping with blood (though Tyndale himself was not above referring to the cardinal as ‘Wolf-See’). The body of the book was made up of doggerel rhymes.
Tyndale felt that Roye had lowered the tone of the whole debate by using ‘railing rhymes’, but more seriously Roye had, in passing, let it be known that Tyndale was the author of the Worms New Testament, and had even claimed that he, William Roye, had contributed a significant share of work to the prologue, when he had not been involved at all.
Most of all, Tyndale simply felt that such a dreadful treatment of a key doctrine of the faith meant that someone ought to respond, by setting out the wonderful reality that we are not saved by any merit of our own, but only through what Jesus Christ has done and suffered for our sakes, and do it attractively and winsomely.
It was clear that Tyndale anticipated the kind of criticism that would say, ‘What is the point, when your enemies will burn the book when it comes out?’ ‘Some man will ask peradventure why I take the labour to make this work inasmuch as they will burn it, seeing they burnt the gospel? I answer, in burning the New Testament they did none other thing than that I looked for: not more shall they do, if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be’.1
Bonfires of New Testaments had begun within a short time of their arrival on these shores, the first at St Paul’s in October 1526. Things took a considerable turn for the worse, when the old practice of burning people alive for heresy was reintroduced.
The first Protestant martyr was a converted priest named Thomas Hitton, incinerated at Maidstone within the diocese of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in February 1529. Sir Thomas More, soon to become Lord Chancellor of England, described Hitton as ‘the devil’s stinking martyr’.2
The translation of Cuthbert Tunstall from the see of London to Durham early in 1530 meant more wealth for him, but it also meant the arrival of the grim John Stokesley at Lambeth Palace and a steadily intensified level of persecution for the evangelicals.
Over the next few years, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, Thomas Benet, James Bainham, John Bent, Thomas Harding, Andrew Hewitt, John Frith, Elizabeth Barton (the maid of Kent) and several more lost their lives on top of bonfires.
Across the sea in the Low Countries, William Tyndale knew that several of his friends, and other Christian people who had committed no crime worse than reading his Testament, had perished, bearing their hideous punishments with magnificent fortitude.
It was against this backdrop that Tyndale wrote his last book, a short work entitled The practice of prelates. It was chiefly intended as a tract against Henry VIII’s proposed divorce of his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and as such was hardly calculated to get the king on his side. But the book had much to say, in passing, against the senior clergy of the day.
Reviewing Cuthbert Tunstall’s time as Bishop of London, it is hard to avoid the sense of dismay that radiates from Tyndale’s prose: ‘For what service done in Christ’s gospel came he to the bishopric of London; or what such service did he therein? He burnt the New Testament, calling it doctrinam peregrinam — “strange learning”.’3
It was during this period that Tyndale agreed to a series of clandestine meetings in the outskirts of Antwerp with one Stephen Vaughan, acting on behalf of Thomas Cromwell, whose star was rising in court circles.
Vaughan was an essentially decent man, but the purpose of the first meeting was somewhat threatening: to ascertain why Tyndale had written The practice of prelates. Something approaching the promise of a safe conduct was offered if Tyndale would return to England to explain himself.
Tyndale was shrewd enough to say that he feared that, once he got back to England, it would be withdrawn on the grounds that promises made to heretics were null and void, in any case.
A second meeting took place, in which Tyndale promised that he would certainly return to England and suffer whatever King Henry might have in mind, ‘offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea what death his grace will’, provided that someone, whoever that might be, was permitted to translate the Scriptures into English. A third meeting proved inconclusive. Vaughan sadly reported, ‘I find him always singing one note’.4
In the meantime, Tyndale had also produced a significant work on the subject of the loyalty that the Christian owes to the authorities, The obedience of a Christian man. This was published in October 1528 and was Tyndale’s rebuttal of the charge that the Reformation encouraged anarchy and sedition, a sensitive issue in the aftermath of the German peasants’ revolt of 1525.
In this volume, Tyndale made the case that, whether in the family or the commonwealth, the believer must obey those who have the rule over him, as part of the duty he owes to God, except when his obedience to the lesser magistrate comes into conflict with the obedience he owes to the greater, namely to God himself.
However, if such a situation should arise and obedience has to be withheld from, for example, an earthly prince, a Christian subject must bear the consequences patiently. It appears that a copy of this particular work came into the hands of Henry VIII, by way of Anne Boleyn, and that he pronounced it ‘a book for me and all kings to read’.
In passing, Tyndale’s Obedience throws one or two interesting sidelights on religious conditions in England at the time. In one passage, full of vivid but disturbing imagery, he compares the institutional church of his day to a slaughterhouse, with the clergy treating the common people of England in the same way that slaughtermen process animal carcasses.
‘The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the friar scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth. We lack but a butcher to pull off the skin’.5 Another passage provides a worrying insight into the real content of what passed for Christianity, in a land that had been formally Christian for over a thousand years.
‘Baptism is called volowing in many places of England, because the priest saith volow [“I wish it”] say ye. The child was well volowed (say they) yea and our vicar is as fair a volower as ever a priest within this twenty miles. Behold how narrowly the people look on the ceremony.
‘If aught be left out or if the child be not altogether dipt in the water, or if, because the child is sick the priest dare not plunge him into the water, but pour water on his head, how tremble they? How quake they? How say ye Sir John, say they, is this child christened enough? Hath it his full Christendom?’6
Sir Thomas More
Another distraction that Tyndale could cheerfully have done without was a literary duel with Sir Thomas More, which began in June 1529. Tyndale, for his part, was emphatically not looking for a fight. He had more than enough to occupy his time and energies as an exile and fugitive facing a task unfinished.
More, by contrast, was one of the most powerful men in England, only months away from his appointment as Lord Chancellor, a confidant of the king and one of the tiny handful of intellectuals of real note in England.
For the best part of two decades, he had formed one half of a mutual admiration society with the Dutch scholar, Erasmus,7 and it is more than likely that he had ‘ghost written’ a substantial part of Henry VIII’s famous response to Luther on the sacraments, the Assertio septem sacramentorum.
It is sickening to think that a powerful man like More should subject Tyndale to what amounted to a gratuitous literary mugging. It began with More’s Dialogue concerning heresies, which appeared in four folio volumes — a large and forbidding book.
More chiefly took exception to Tyndale’s use of the words ‘senior’, ‘congregation’, ‘love’, and ‘favour’ rather than ‘grace’. He also objected to his use of marginal glosses, even though these were confined to the Cologne fragment and were explicatory and uncontroversial.
Tyndale’s response came out two years later in 1531. It was Tyndale’s Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s dialogue. The tone is vastly more cool and dispassionate, as he tried to mount a defence of his reasons for translating certain Greek words with certain English words and explained, in passing, much about his understanding of the nature of Holy Scripture and the Christian gospel.
A comparison of the two books rapidly makes it clear that, if you read More, you learn what makes him tick: what Daniell describes as ‘the amusing, richly stored, clever, long-winded, devious, malevolent mind of Thomas More’.8 By contrast, if you read Tyndale, you end up knowing the Bible much better.
The final contribution to this literary duel was More’s The confutation of Tyndale’s answer, which came out in instalments between 1532 and 1533. In all, it ran to nine volumes and half a million words.
As a response to what More conceived to be the mistranslation of four Greek words, it seems entirely disproportionate. It should also be noted that More devoted an enormous quantity of ink to the subject of clerical marriage, in particular the marriage of Martin Luther to the former nun, Katherine von Bora.
Much of his spleen can be attributed to the fact that as a married man and devout Catholic layman, More must have regarded himself as a failure on two counts, both as a failed celibate and a failed candidate for ordination.
Had it escaped More’s notice that Tyndale was a bachelor? Above all, the sheer, relentless obsessiveness of More’s attack leaves the modern reader alarmed that this man is still regarded as a role model by the Roman Catholic Church of today.
Like Tyndale, he too was a martyr of a kind. But how many of his admirers are aware that he described Tyndale as ‘a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil’, ‘a drowsy drudge drinking deep in the devil’s dregs’, ‘a new Judas’, ‘worse than Sodom and Gomorrah’, ‘an idolater and a devil worshipper, worse than a Mahometan’, ‘discharging a filthy foam of blasphemies out his brutish beastly mouth’,9 and much more besides?
The two men could not have more contrasting legacies. As Daniell has it, ‘More gave us three quarters of a million words of scarcely readable prose attacking Tyndale. Tyndale outraged More by giving us the Bible in English, England’s greatest contribution to the world for nearly five hundred years’.10
To be continued
1. D. Daniell, William Tyndale, a biography (Yale, 1994), p.169.
2. Ibid, p.182.
3. William Tyndale’s doctrinal treatises (1850), edited for the Parker Society by Henry Walter, p.337.
4. J. F. Mozley, William Tyndale (London, 1937), p.200.
5. B. Moynihan, If God spare my life (London, 2002), p.157.
6. William Tyndale’s doctrinal treatises, op cit, pp.276-7.
7. The Latin title of Erasmus’ work,
In praise of folly (Moriae encomium),
may well have been a pun on his name.
8. Daniell, op cit, p.271.
9. Ibid, p.277.
10. Ibid, p.280.