William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire in 1494 to parents who worked in the cloth trade. Tyndale was born into a Catholic dominated England under the rule of Henry VII. He was brought up a strict and devout Catholic being taught the importance of mass and good works which would help him gain access to heaven. He would have participated in regular confession and penance and his daily life would have been dominated by Saints' days and following the Catholic faith. The Bible that Tyndale would have known growing up would have been written in Latin, the holy language. Meanwhile the common people would have spoken English, a rough language which was not considered suitable for the holiness of the Church.
With the Bible being in Latin and the Mass being conducted in Latin, those that understood the language, such as bishops, the Pope and the King, were able to dictate what the common people were told and what information they knew. As they could not read the Bible, the common people relied heavily upon the Church to tell them what they should and should not do – this in turn gave the Church and the King great power over their subjects.
Naturally, without being able to read the Bible and access the information within for themselves the people were not able to challenge the Church or the laws. Instead, they were expected to accept what they were being told. To translate the Bible into English during the early 16th century was strictly forbidden, it was considered heresy and was punishable by death.
In 1506, at just twelve years of age, Tyndale started his education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, one of the leading Universities in all of Europe at the time. His education would last eight years and while he was at Oxford his passion for languages flourished. He would have been taught Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian, languages which would be vital for his biblical translations later in life. Oxford University was dominated by the Roman Catholic doctrine and studying the Bible at Oxford naturally meant reading it in Latin. While at Oxford, Tyndale became dissatisfied with studying the Bible in Latin and he began to lean on learned scholars and humanists from Europe such as Erasmus. Erasmus believed that to study the Bible properly it must be studied in its original language, which for the New Testament was Greek. Tyndale was also inspired by Martin Luther, who translated the Bible into German. Luther discovered that the Bible did not talk about the Catholic Church being the path to heaven but that the path to heaven was obtained by faith.
Tyndale openly declared that he defied the pope and all his laws. His mission now was to translate the Bible into English so that the common people could read what was really written in the Bible rather than blindly accepting what they were being told by the Catholic Church.
Rumour quickly began to spread throughout Gloucestershire that Tyndale was a heretic. In 1523, Tyndale fled to London to track down Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, who he believed would help him in his mission to translate the Bible into English. Tunstall was a former Oxford scholar himself and had helped Erasmus when he had been in England. Tyndale turned to the Bishop as a possible patron, however, Tunstall was a devout Catholic and had neither the time nor the inclination to support Tyndale.
In 1524 Tyndale left for Germany. Tyndale's whereabouts over the next few years are difficult to track but it is known that during this time he began his translation of the Bible into English. He studied both Erasmus's Greek Bible and Luther's German Bible and worked long hours, up to fifteen hours a day.
Once Tyndale had translated the Bible into English, he faced another great hurdle: finding someone who would print it. In Cologne, funded by English merchants, Tyndale found a sympathetic printer in Peter Quentell. While Tyndale's Bible was being printed, an associate of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, also happened to commission Peter Quentell to do some printing. Through a drunken discussion it was discovered that three thousand copies of the Bible in English were to be printed and sent to England. The printer was raided but Tyndale managed to escape, however he was now a man on the run.
In 1526, copies of Tyndale's Bible began to filter into London. Despite costing around two and a half weeks wage for the common servant, people began to buy Tyndale's Bible and to read it in earnest. The Catholic Church and Henry VIII were immediately alarmed. The Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More began an all-out attack not only on Tyndale but on anyone caught reading or smuggling copies of Tyndale's bible. On the 26th October 1526, Bishop Tunstall preached a vicious attack upon Tyndale's translation, stating that it was full of lies and errors, and then outside of St Paul's copies of Tyndale's Bible were publicly burnt. When Tyndale heard of this he became more determined than ever and began to write a series of attacks against the Catholic Clergy.
While all this was happening, Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Henry sought to cast his first wife Catherine of Aragon aside and pleaded to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage, which the Pope refused. Ironically, Anne Boleyn handed Henry VIII a book by Tyndale entitled “The Obedience of the Christian Man”, written in 1528. Henry was enthralled by this book. Within its pages, Tyndale emphasised the importance of the scripture over any other authority, such as the Catholic Church and the Pope. He also emphasised the authority of the King, stating that it was God who appointed Kings and that the King was the authority of his realm. Naturally, the idea that Henry had authority over the Pope was extremely relevant to Henry at the time.
In 1530, a mere two years later, Tyndale published another book entitled the “The Practyse of Prelates”. Within this book, he attacked Henry's desire for an annulment of his marriage saying that it was not scriptural. Perhaps in the hopes of gaining support from Tyndale, Henry VIII offered Tyndale a return to England and a place at his court with all his past transgressions forgiven. Thomas Cromwell, right hand man to the King, organised for one of his agents, Steven Vaughan, to meet Tyndale and Tyndale accepted, but he stated that the only way that he would return was if Henry VIII would bring out a Bible in English. Despite Henry VIII's eventual break with Rome, the King remained conservative in his beliefs and still believed in such Catholic traditions as penance, the sacraments and the mass. He also still strongly believed in the Bible being only in Latin.
In 1530, Tyndale began his translation of the Old Testament, not from German or Latin but from the original Hebrew. His resolve to see the Bible translated into English was stronger than ever.
By 1535, Tyndale was in Antwerp, which was under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. During this time, Tyndale became friends with Henry Phillips, a fellow graduate of Oxford. Tyndale was led to believe that Phillips held the same beliefs regarding the translation of the Bible into English, but ultimately he was to be betrayed. Phillips was a strict Catholic and was undercover in an attempt to flush Tyndale out of hiding. In a ruse, Phillips came to Tyndale's house one day, saying he had no money. Tyndale, believing his friend, took him out to dinner but before they could eat Tyndale was arrested.Taken to Vilvoorde, near Brussels, Tyndale was held for at least fourteen months in appalling conditions. Even facing death, Tyndale pleaded for his Hebrew Bible and paper so that he could continue his translations. Eventually, he was charged with heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On 6th of October 1536 Tyndale was taken from his cell and tied to a stake. His last words were recorded as “Lord! Open the King of England's eyes!”. As an act of mercy, he was strangled before being burned, but unfortunately he did not die and as he was being burned he woke but made no noise or attempt to move as he was burned to death.
Ironically, in 1535, Henry VIII commissioned a Bible to be translated into English by Myles Coverdale and Coverdale used a significant amount of Tyndale's translation to assist his own. In 1538, Henry VIII ordered that a copy of the Bible in English be placed in every parish church in England. Despite his tragic death, Tyndale's greatest desire had finally been achieved: the Bible was now accessible to every Englishman.
Sadly, while thousands of Tyndale's original Bibles in English were printed, only one complete copy remains today, and this is at the Württemberg State Library, Stuttgart. In examining this surviving copy, it can be seen that Tyndale chose to keep the words simple and the sentences short. He carefully chose the translated meaning of each word so that the Bible was not filled with references to the Church or to priests, but to people who shared a common love of God. In essence, he wanted the common people not only to be able to read it, but to also to be able to understand it.
William Tyndale's greatest legacy was translating the Bible into English, making it accessible to the common person. He wanted to spread the Word of God to the English people so that they would no longer be clouded by the laws and rules of the Catholic Church but that their path to heaven would be through justification by faith in God.
Click here to read Claire Ridgway's article on William Tyndale, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII over at The Anne Boleyn Files. Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man is available to read online at http://www.godrules.net/library/tyndale/19tyndale7.htm.
Tudor Society members can view a documentary about William Tyndale in our Videos section.
Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day. She is currently working on a biography of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
- Daniell, D 2001, William Tyndale: A Biography, Yale University Press, USA.
- The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, 2013, BBC Documentary, United Kingdom, presented by Melvyn Bragg.