William Tyndale – the man who gave England her Bible
As William Tyndale lived long before the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages was made law in 1836, hard facts about his early years are elusive.
His date of birth cannot be established with certainty, although an estimate can be made by working backwards from the fact that the registers of Oxford University record his taking his BA on 4 July 1512 and his MA on 2 July 1515, all from Magdalen Hall, the ancestor of what is now Hertford College.
Assuming that he began his studies at the age that was then customary, this means that he probably came up to Oxford in 1506 and if so, was born in 1494. The same entry refers to him not as Tyndale but as William Hychyns, an alternative surname used throughout his life.
It is possible that there was a strand of Northumbrian ancestry and it used to be suggested that Northumbrian Tyndales had fled south during the Wars of the Roses and adopted Hychyns or Hutchins as an alias, but the truth is probably more prosaic, namely a desire to keep a surname alive that had been lost through marriage.
Tyndale’s exact birthplace is unknown too, though it was probably near Stinchcombe in the Vale of Berkeley in South Gloucestershire, between the southern escarpment of the Cotswolds and the estuary of the Severn.
He was moderately well connected. His brother Edward continued to farm in that region when William set his hand to a very different kind of plough and left his native shire and native land never to return.
The Cotswolds at that time was sheep country and the woollen trade enjoyed a measure of prosperity, trading out of the nearby port of Bristol. Some of the merchants had Lollard sympathies and it seems likely that in due course Tyndale was able to take advantage of an established network of contacts when the time came to make his way to London and then to the Low Countries.
The Oxford of his day was still in the throes of a tussle to embrace the new learning of the Renaissance. Those who favoured it were dubbed ‘Grecians’ and their opponents, who preferred the traditional world of scholastic theology, were therefore known as ‘Trojans’.
It is not difficult to work out where Tyndale’s sympathies would lie. At one stage during his stay at Magdalen Hall, Tyndale’s usher, or master, if only for a brief period, was John Stokesley, who as Bishop of London was very much to the fore in the persecution of Protestants and may have had a malign role in the harrying of Tyndale himself.
We cannot be certain about this, but there is a possibility that the future bishop took a strong dislike to the future Bible translator when the two men were, in effect, master and pupil.
There is a long-standing tradition, based on a brief reference in John Foxe’s account of his life, that Tyndale spent a brief period in Cambridge and it is attractive to imagine him as one of the luminaries of the White Horse group but there is no other evidence, such as an entry in a university register, to corroborate this, though Cambridge was certainly an easier place to be openly Lutheran than Oxford had been.
We can trace Tyndale’s movements with certainty once more in the summer of 1522, when he became tutor to the two sons of Sir John Walsh of Little Sodbury. He may have known the Walshes from his boyhood and was certainly back in familiar territory. Little Sodbury is only twelve miles south of Stinchcombe.
It is likely that he had been ordained priest prior to his arrival. His duties were not particularly onerous. His young charges were both under seven years of age. It was during this period that he developed a growing awareness of his life’s work. This arose because he had taken to preaching in the area around Little Sodbury and his forays into the surrounding countryside sometimes took him as far as Bristol.
Tyndale was preaching the kind of evangelical gospel that would set him on a collision course with the ecclesiastical authorities. On the one hand, it brought him a kindly warning from an ‘ancient doctor’ who befriended him. ‘Do you not know that the pope is the very Antichrist whom the Scripture speaketh of? … Beware what you say … for if you shall be perceived to be of that opinion, it will cost you your life’ (B. Moynihan, If God spare my life, London, 2002, p.31).
On the other hand, it brought him an early examination for heresy, though it seems that the local clergy were not sufficiently sure of their ground to risk antagonising a powerful local magnate like Sir John Walsh.
What resolved the matter as far as Tyndale was concerned was that two convictions grew side by side. The first was that the majority of the local clergy were blind guides leading their blind followers astray.
The second concerned the Scriptures, ‘how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, and they might see the process, order and meaning of the text’ (Moynihan, p.32).
The whole thing is reputed to have come to a head when Tyndale was in conversation with a learned man. The exchange, according to Foxe, became both heated and direct. Neither man left the other in any doubt as to where he stood.
The learned man declared for his part, ‘we were better be without God’s law than the pope’s: Maister Tyndall hearing that, answered him, I defy the pope and all his laws, and said, 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’ (Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563), p.514: and IV, p.117).
One wonders whether Tyndale’s vision of the biblically literate ploughboy occurred to him naturally, as well it might, for rural 16th century England certainly had ploughboys aplenty, or whether he borrowed the idea from Erasmus’ Paraclesis: ‘I greatly desire that the farm-worker should sing parts of Scripture to himself as he follows his plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller should banish the boredom of his journey by reading Bible stories'(N. R. Needham,2,000 years of Christ’s power; Part three: Renaissance and Reformation, p.57. Erasmus even envisaged the Scriptures being read by women, Scots and Irishmen, Turks and Muslims).
Now that Tyndale was resolved to set about translating the Scriptures himself, his first thought was to find a suitable patron. This was a normal approach when scholars needed funding for projects that would need large amounts of time for research, but there was an added edge where Bible translation was concerned.
The anti-Lollard Constitutions of Oxford and in particular the statute of 1401 known as De haeretico comburendo (‘on the burning of heretics’) had made the translation or even the mere possession of vernacular scriptures a capital offence.
He would clearly need a highly placed protector if he was to pursue his goal with safety in England. With this in mind, he travelled to London, probably in the summer of 1523, and made an approach to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, thinking that this man’s reputation as a friend of scholars, most notably of Erasmus, would make him well disposed to such a project.
He presented the Bishop with a translation of an oration by the Athenian orator Isocrates to demonstrate his own competence in Greek (Isocrates is notoriously demanding for the would-be translator) and as a way of responding to a common prejudice of the time that English, as a peasant tongue, was incapable of carrying high and abstract conceptual matter as the ancient tongues did.
Sadly Tyndale was rebuffed over a period of weeks and the conviction gained ground that he would never be able to translate the Bible into English within England itself while present conditions prevailed.
He had been staying at the home of a cloth merchant named Humphrey Monmouth, who, in all probability, had Lollard sympathies and connections with the German merchant community based on the Steelyard.
So it was that in the spring of 1524 William Tyndale slipped away to the Continent. His first port of call was Hamburg. He never stood on English soil again.
To be continued