William Tyndale — the man who gave England her Bible 
Early in 1535, Tyndale was living with Thomas Poyntz and his wife in the English House, the focus of the English merchant community in Antwerp.
While he did not quite enjoy diplomatic immunity in the modern sense, the local authorities would have been cautious about causing unnecessary offence when the English woollen trade was such a large contributor to the city’s prosperity.
He probably felt as secure as he had at any time since he left England, a little over ten years before, and was looking forward to taking on the challenge of the poetic books of the Old Testament, together with the wisdom literature and prophets.
At this point we must introduce a man named Henry Phillips. Phillips was a young man of good family from the West Country and may have been intended for the church. His father had been three times a Member of Parliament and was a port official from Poole in Dorset.
At some point Phillips passed into the criminal underworld. It seems to have been triggered off by his own folly when his father entrusted him with a sum of money which he was to deliver to merchants in London.
Forty pieces of silver
He promptly stole and then gambled with it, only to lose it all. In desperation he fled to the Continent, where he became a useful tool for other, more shadowy figures.
Who was pulling the strings? One recent biographer of Tyndale, Brian Moynihan, favours the idea that Sir Thomas More orchestrated the campaign to get Tyndale arrested.
More’s antagonism towards Tyndale is not in doubt, but by this time his star was on the wane. His opposition to Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage, together with his opposition to the royal supremacy, whereby Henry made himself head of the English Church meant that More’s glittering career was finished.
Stripped of his office as Lord Chancellor and imprisoned in 1534, he was beheaded a few months before Tyndale was martyred. It is difficult to know how More could have manipulated Phillips’ activities on the Continent while under confinement himself.
It is more likely that Phillips was being used by John Stokesley, Bishop of London. According to Foxe, Phillips had made his way to Antwerp in Spring 1535 and wormed his way into the confidence of Tyndale, perhaps even passing himself off as a fellow evangelical.
On the morning of 21 May 1535 he invited Tyndale out for dinner, having asked the scholar for a loan of forty shillings. Passing through a narrow street, he politely asked Tyndale to go ahead.
It soon transpired that he had a party of armed guards lying in wait and had hung back so that, being the taller of the two men, he could point down at his quarry. The translator was spirited away to the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels, and the imperial authorities mounted a raid on the English House in Antwerp in the hope of seizing any of Tyndale’s materials.
We can only be grateful that the English merchants were alerted in time to prevent Tyndale’s translation of the historical books of the Old Testament from being seized, since they duly appeared in Matthew’s Bible.
Tyndale spent almost a year and a half in prison at Vilvorde. There was little prospect of extricating him. England was diplomatically isolated because of the royal divorce. Vilvorde lay within imperial jurisdiction and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was the nephew of the humiliated and disgraced Catherine of Aragon. He owed no favours to an English heretic.
In the meantime, Tyndale’s patron, Thomas Poyntz, made several attempts to secure his release, ruining himself in the attempt, and spending a short time in prison for having exhausted the patience of the authorities.
During that time, Tyndale was subjected to a lengthy examination and trial. By now he was one of the most prominent heretics in the whole of Europe and considerable efforts were made to turn him, all without success.
The one thing that has come down to us from Tyndale’s own pen during his time in prison is a letter that he wrote in Latin to the local governor, the Marquis of Bergen-op-Zoom.
Foxe knew nothing of this letter, as it lay undiscovered in the archives of the Council of Brabant for three centuries. Mozley’s translation of the Latin is as follows: ‘I believe, right worshipful, that you are not unaware of what may have been determined concerning me.
‘Wherefore I beg your lordship, and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain through the winter, you will request the commissary to have the kindness to send me, from the goods of mine which he has, a warmer cap; for I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh, which is much increased in this cell; a warmer coat also, for this which I have is very thin; a piece of cloth too to patch my leggings.
‘My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woollen shirt, if he will be good enough to send it. I also have with him leggings of thicker cloth to put on above; he has also warmer night-caps. And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark’.
‘But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.
‘In return may you obtain what you most desire, so only that it be for the salvation of your soul. But if any other decision has been taken concerning me, to be carried out before winter, I will be patient, abiding the will of God, to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ: whose Spirit (I pray) may ever direct your heart. Amen. W. Tindalus.’1
Early in August 1536, William Tyndale was formally condemned as a heretic. This condemnation included a public reading of the articles of guilt. He was then degraded from the priesthood. The anointing oil of the sacrament of ordination was scraped from his forehead and hands, the bread and wine of the mass were placed in his hands and then removed to indicate that he could no longer perform the miracle of transubstantiation.
Clerical vestments were stripped from him and he was formally handed over to the secular authorities for execution. In the meantime, according to Foxe, he had conducted himself with such a gentle and Christ-like spirit that both the warden of the prison and his daughter had been won to faith in Christ.
The grim machinery of the law however was implacable. On 6 October 1536 he was first strangled at the stake and then burned. Tradition has it that his last words were, ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes’.
When the fire was no more than a few charred embers, the ashes were raked through and tipped into the nearby River Zenne so that the ashes of a blasphemer and heretic might not defile the earth. Tyndale had anticipated the possibility of such an outcome long before. Here is his version of Paul’s famous challenge to the church in first century Corinth.
‘Though I speake with the tonges of men and angels and had no love I were even as soundynge brasse: and as a tynklynge cynball. And though I could prophesy and understode all secretes and all knowledge: yee, if I had all fayth so that I coulde move mountayns oute of there places and yet had no love I were nothynge’.
‘And though I bestowed all my gooddes to fede the poore and though I gave my body even that I burned and yet have no love it profeteth me nothing. Love suffreth longe and is corteous. Love envieth notte. Love doth nott frawardly, swelleth nott, dealeth not dishonestly, seketh not her awne, is not provoked to anger, thinketh not evyll, reioyseth not in iquities: but reioyseth in the trueth, suffreth all thynges, beleveth all thynges, hopeth all thynges, endureth in all thynges.
‘Though that prophesyinge fayle, other tonges shall cease or knowledge vanysshe awaye; yet love falleth never awaye. For oure knowledge is unparfet and oure prophesyinge is unperfet: but when thatt which is parfet is come: then that which is unparfet shall be done awaye.
‘When I was a chylde, I spake as a chylde, I understode as a chylde, I ymagened as a chylde: but as sone as I was a man I put away all childesshness. Now we se in a glasse even in a darke speakynge: but then we shall se face to face.
‘Nowe I know unparfectly: but then shall I knowe even as I am knowen. Nowe abideth fayth, hope and love, even these thre: but the chefe of these is love.’2
What prompted one of the finest scholars of his age to forsake his native land, the comforts of marriage, home and kindred and to risk not only the loss of preferment, the scorn of the establishment, extreme poverty and death itself?
The only explanation is that it was all done for love, first of all for love of Christ and his gospel, then for love of the Word of God, and indeed for love of the people of England, not least the toiling ploughboy, who languished for want of the Scriptures in their native tongue.
1. J. F. Mozley, William Tyndale (London, 1937), pp.333-5.
2. The New Testament translated by William Tyndale (1526); ed. W. R. Cooper (2000), pp.369-70.