William Tyndale was an English scholar who became a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in the years leading up to his execution. He is well known for his translation of the Bible into English.
He was influenced by the work of Desiderius Erasmus, who made the Greek New Testament available in Europe, and by Martin Luther. number of partial translations had been made from the seventh century onward, but the spread of Wycliffe’s Bible in the late 14th century led to the death penalty for anyone found in unlicensed possession of Scripture in English, although translations were available in all other major European languages.
Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English translation to use Jehovah as God’s name as preferred by English Protestant Reformers, the first English translation to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. It was taken to be a direct challenge to the hegemony of both the Catholic Church and the laws of England maintaining the church’s position. In 1530, Tyndale also wrote The Practyse of Prelates, opposing Henry VIII’s annulment of his own marriage on the grounds that it contravened Scripture.
A copy of Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man fell into the hands of Henry VIII, providing the king with the rationale to break the Church in England from the Catholic Church in 1534. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year. In 1536, he was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation, after which his body was burnt at the stake. His dying prayer was that the King of England’s eyes would be opened; this seemed to find its fulfillment just one year later with Henry’s authorization of the Matthew Bible, which was largely Tyndale’s own work – missing sections supplemented with translations by John Rogers and Miles Coverdale. Following this came the Great Bible and then the Bishop’s Bible, authorized by the church of England. Hence, the work of Tyndale continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across the English-speaking world and, eventually, to the British Empire.
Tyndale began a Bachelor of Arts degree at Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College) of Oxford University in 1506 and received his B.A. in 1512, the same year becoming a subdeacon. He was made Master of Arts in July 1515 and was held to be a man of virtuous disposition, leading an unblemished life.
He was a gifted linguist and became fluent over the years in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, in addition to English. Between 1517 and 1521, he went to the University of Cambridge. Erasmus had been the leading teacher of Greek there from August 1511 to January 1512, but not during Tyndale’s time at the university.
Tyndale became chaplain at the home of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury and tutor to his children around 1521. His opinions proved controversial to fellow clergymen, and the next year he was summoned before John Bell, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, although no formal charges were laid at the time. After the meeting with Bell and other church leaders, Tyndale, according to John Foxe, had an argument with a “learned but blasphemous clergyman”, who allegedly asserted: “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”, to which Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
Tyndale left for London in 1523 to seek permission to translate the Bible into English. He requested help from Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, a well-known classicist who had praised Erasmus after working together with him on a Greek New Testament. The bishop, however, declined to extend his patronage, telling Tyndale that he had no room for him in his household. Tyndale preached and studied “at his book” in London for some time, relying on the help of cloth merchant, Humphrey Monmouth. During this time, he lectured widely, including at St Dunstan-in-the-West.
The beginning of the Gospel of John, from Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the New Testament.
Tyndale left England and landed on continental Europe, perhaps at Hamburg, in the spring of 1524, possibly travelling on to Wittenberg. There is an entry in the matriculation registers of the University of Wittenberg of the name “Guillelmus Daltici ex Anglia”, and this has been taken to be a Latinisation of “William Tyndale from England”. He began translating the New Testament at this time, possibly in Wittenberg, completing it in 1525 with assistance from Observant friar William Roy.
In 1525, publication of the work by Peter Quentell in Cologne was interrupted by the impact of anti-Lutheranism. A full edition of the New Testament was produced in 1526 by printer Peter Schöffer in Worms, a free imperial city then in the process of adopting Lutheranism. More copies were soon printed in Antwerp. The book was smuggled into England and Scotland; it was condemned in October 1526 by Bishop Tunstall, who issued warnings to booksellers and had copies burned in public. Marius notes that the “spectacle of the scriptures being put to the torch… provoked controversy even amongst the faithful.” Cardinal Wolsey condemned Tyndale as a heretic, first stated in open court in January 1529.
- Born: 01 January 1494, England
- Died: 06 October 1536, Vilvoorde, Netherlands
- Notable Works: Bible translation