Died 1536, at Vilvoorde (modern Belgium)
William Tyndale was born to a privileged family in the west of Gloucestershire, near the Welsh border of England. Little is known of his childhood, but he began a Bachelor of Arts degree at Oxford University in 1506. He graduated in 1512, became a subdeacon, and decided to pursue higher theological studies.
William received a Master of Arts from Oxford in 1515 and then spent four years at Cambridge University. Lutheran ideas flooded the halls of Cambridge at the time, and it is likely that this is where he developed his passion for reform. But as he pursued his studies, he lamented that his official coursework did not include the systematic study of scripture. He said of his teachers, “They have decided that no man shall look at scripture, until he is nursed by heathen learning for eight or nine years and armed with false principles, which clean shut him out of the understanding of scripture.” He left academia to join the household of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor, north of Bath.
Between 1521 and 1523, William Tyndale served as chaplain to Walsh’s household and tutored the family’s children. From time to time abbots, deacons, and other clergymen visited to dine at Little Sodbury. William eagerly joined them in conversation about current events, particularly the work of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus on the European continent.
During these conversations, he probed these spiritual leaders’ knowledge of scripture. What he found shocked and disturbed him. He often disagreed with these supposed intellectuals of the church. Whenever this happened, he immediately opened the Bible to explain his position and refute their errors. Rarely could one of these clergymen keep up, let alone contend with him, in clear exposition of the Bible.
During one of these conversations, a member of the clergy, frustrated with William’s reliance on scripture, said, “It’s better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.”
“I defy the pope and all his laws,” replied William, “and if God spares my life, before many years pass I will help the boy who drives a plow to know more of the scriptures than you do!”
“Not only was there no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but there was no place to do it in all England.”
Spurred by his dissatisfaction with the clergy’s lack of appreciation for scripture and their growing disapproval of his teachings, William left the Walsh household in 1523. Before leaving he told John Walsh, “Sir, I see that I shall not be allowed to stay long in this country, and you will not be able, even though you are willing, to keep me out of the hands of the clergy. What things you’d suffer for keeping me, only God knows, and I would be very sorry for it.”
William had a new personal mission: to translate the Bible, at the time nearly exclusively in Latin, into common English. He believed the Word of God should be available to all English people, no matter their place in the social hierarchy. John Wycliffe had created such a translation many years before, but his version was hand-copied and inaccurate – it was translated from the Latin Vulgate instead of the original Hebrew and Greek – and nearly unavailable. The church had banned unauthorized translations of the Bible since 1408.
Seeking to do things openly, William set out for London to receive ecclesiastical approval for his translation project. He hoped to use the Greek New Testament published by Erasmus – the first of its kind – for the project. And he had just the man in mind to approve his project: Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall. The London bishop was a well-known classicist who had worked with Erasmus on his Greek New Testament. William hoped to play off of Tunstall’s friendship with Erasmus to convince him to approve his own translation project.
But when he approached Tunstall, the bishop declined, claiming that he had no room for William in his household. Taken aback by the excuse but undeterred, William preached and studied for a time in London, supported by a cloth merchant, Humphrey Monmouth. It wasn’t long before he realized that “not only was there no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but there was no place to do it in all England.”
Only a few years before, six men and a woman had been burned to death for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English.
In 1524 he left for Germany, never to return to England. He was deeply influenced by Martin Luther, who had been able to do German biblical translation work in Germany. William hoped for the same success in his project for English-speaking people. For the next year, he worked in Hamburg on his New Testament translation.
William worked directly from the original Hebrew and Greek, comparing his work to the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s recent German translation. William’s translation, of course, was explicitly illegal, against the church’s decree. Only a few years before, in 1519, six men and a woman had been burned to death in England for nothing more than teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and a few other Bible texts in English rather than Latin.
William’s facility and accuracy with the original languages were excellent, considering the difficulty in learning biblical Hebrew and Greek at the time of the Reformation. Very few scholars knew the languages, and William had used unusual study methods to master them. With the exception of the occasional public lecture, his Greek was essentially self-taught. His Hebrew, like that of a few other learned Christians of the Reformation, came from Jewish rabbis whom he studied under in Germany. The style of his translation was simple and beautiful, words suitable for the common people. His phrasing has had a tremendous influence on English translations and literature ever since.
In the beginnynge was the worde, reads his translation of the beginning of John, and the worde was with God: and the worde was God. The same was in the beginnynge with God. All thinges were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made. In it was lyfe and the lyfe was the lyght of men and the lyght shyneth in the darcknes but the darcknes comprehended it not.
“The spectacle of the scriptures being put to the torch provoked controversy even among the faithful.”
He found a printer in Cologne named Peter Quentell who would produce his work, the first mechanically printed English translation of scripture. But Cologne was a dangerous place for anyone with Lutheran sympathies. When one of William’s assistants let the content of his work slip out after drinking too much, Johann Dobneck, a staunch opponent of the Reformation, raided Quentell’s press. Thankfully, William was warned. He escaped with the pages already printed.
William learned from his mistake. He looked for his next printer in Worms, a city in the process of adopting Lutheranism. As copies of his New Testament translation began to roll off the press, they were smuggled into England and Scotland. Six thousand copies were printed, but only two survive. The others fell into the hands of bishops who denounced William’s work. Among these was Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, whom William had approached for approval a few years earlier. Apparently there was a deeper reason why the bishop had rejected William than a full house. Tunstall warned booksellers not to carry the translation and even burned copies at St. Paul’s Cathedral. A later scholar would note that this “spectacle of the scriptures being put to the torch . . . provoked controversy even among the faithful.”
William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, followed Tunstall’s lead. He advertised that he was interested in purchasing any copies of William Tyndale’s translation available. A friend of the translator, Augustine Packington, answered the archbishop’s call, saying, “My lord, I can do more in this matter than most merchants that be here, if it be your pleasure. . . . I will assure you to have every book of them that is printed and unsold.”
Warham answered, “Do your best, gentle master Packington! Get them for me, and I will pay whatever they cost; I mean to burn and destroy them all.” Packington did precisely what he was told, selling any and all copies to the archbishop. Then he promptly delivered the proceeds to William, who used the money to improve upon his translation and print a second edition.
Seeing in Tyndale a potential master propagandist, King Henry extended an invitation to him to return to England and write for the court.
William Tyndale’s work eventually made its way into the hands of King Henry VIII. The timing was excellent. The headstrong king had recently separated England from the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the new church – all so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon, who had not provided Henry with a male heir. He immediately married Anne Boleyn, a “bewitching” young lady who had enchanted him.
But the majority of England mourned the separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry and his advisors began searching for ways to smooth things over with the public. Henry found his answer when his new wife showed him a copy of William Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the English New Testament and a copy of The Obedience of a Christian Man, a book emphasizing obedience to governing authorities which William had written to answer critics who claimed reformation would fragment society and lead to rebellion against established rulers. After reading it, the king said, “This book is for me and all kings to read!” The ever-political Henry saw in William a potential master propagandist. He extended an invitation to William to return to England and write for the court.
But Henry’s men discovered William to be different from what the king had imagined. Not only was William unwilling to leave his translation work (he was now busy translating the Old Testament), but he had previously argued from scripture that divorce was against God’s will, specifically Henry’s divorce of Catherine. He also had written that, to gain power, recent corrupt popes had manipulated naïve and foolish kings, including Henry.
When Henry was informed of these things, his admiration of William turned to disdain. The king’s agents searched England and Europe with orders to kidnap the translator, but William was well hidden among the merchants in Antwerp. Eventually Henry gave up his search, but William had made an extremely dangerous enemy, and others would soon succeed where the king had failed to find him.
Henry Phillips, the disgraced son of a wealthy family, was desperate to improve his fortunes. After gambling his father’s money away, Phillips had been branded a traitor and rebel. An English dignitary (probably Bishop John Stokesley, Cuthbert Tunstall’s successor and an infamous opponent of reformation) approached Phillips, offering financial reward if he would spy on the English translator. Phillips agreed without hesitation.
In Antwerp, William was a guest of Thomas Poyntz, a relative of his previous benefactor, Lady Walsh of Little Sodbury. Henry Phillips gradually won the confidence of the English merchants of Antwerp, and eventually he befriended William. The translator invited Phillips to the Poyntz home, shared a meal with him, showed him his writings, and discussed the need for reform in England.
William trusted his new friend, but Thomas Poyntz had misgivings. He shared his suspicions with William, but the translator assured his host of Phillips’ Lutheran sympathies. Thomas set aside his doubts.
Eager to make up for his initial mistrust, Thomas took Phillips on a tour of Antwerp. Phillips was full of questions about the alleys, buildings, and leadership of the town, and Thomas answered them all. Only later did Thomas realize that Phillips had been feeling him out to discover if, for the right price, Thomas might turn against William. Convinced he would not, Phillips left to take matters into his own hands.
Knowing what likely awaited him at the end of his captivity, he poured himself into writing one final treatise.
After obtaining a small party of officers from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s imperial court in Brussels, Phillips returned to Antwerp. Shortly after Phillips arrived, Thomas Poyntz left Antwerp on business in Barrow, eighteen miles away. Phillips took the opportunity to position the officers for an ambush. He convinced William to cancel his lunch plans and eat with him instead. Then, recognizing he was in a position to take further advantage of the trusting William, Phillips asked if the translator would lend him two pounds, claiming that he had lost his purse. William gladly gave Phillips the money.
On their way to lunch, the pair reached a narrow alley. William stepped aside to allow his friend through first, but Phillips politely insisted that William enter before him. Two officers entered the alley from the opposite direction, and Phillips – a much taller man than William – pointed down with his finger to indicate that this was the man they were supposed to arrest. The officers bound William’s hands and delivered him to the castle of Vilvoorde, six miles north of Brussels.
Henry Phillips gained nothing by his betrayal. He spent the rest of his life fleeing the agents of King Henry. He traveled from Paris to London to Italy, stealing clothes from friends and begging his family for help. Eventually, he was captured and given a choice between losing his eyes or his life. Nothing is known of miserable Phillips’ fate beyond this point, though one account envisions him “consumed at last with lice.”
William Tyndale, imprisoned in the dungeons of Vilvoorde, resigned himself to his fate. Thomas Poyntz and other friends (including King Henry’s own chancellor, Thomas Cromwell) did everything they could to help William, to no avail. Poyntz’s efforts resulted in his banishment from the Low Countries, the loss of his merchant interests, and separation from his wife and family for years.
The charges against him were read: He maintains that faith alone justifies.
Though he suffered from cold day and night, William did not let his time in prison go to waste. Knowing what likely awaited him at the end of his captivity, he poured himself into writing one final treatise, Faith Alone Justifies before God, a summary of the gospel. Through the winter, he only had a few hours of daylight to work. During the long nights, he could only sit and wait in silence for the sun to once again shine into his cell. The only letter written by William’s own hand that survives to this day is a plea to the prison governor for a few essential items to help in his study: warmer clothes, his Hebrew Bible, his Hebrew grammar, and his Hebrew dictionary.
Finally, after he had been eighteen months in prison, William’s trial began. Gaunt from insufficient food, he was brought before his judges and a crowd of spectators. The presiding judge silenced the assembly and said, “He has been arrested for many great heresies; his chamber has been searched, and prohibited books have been found in great numbers; and he has himself composed many treatises containing heretical opinions, which have been widely circulated.”
His charges were read before the assembly:
First, he maintains that faith alone justifies.
Second, he maintains that to believe in the forgiveness of sins, and to embrace the mercy offered in the gospel, is enough for salvation.
Third, he avers that human traditions cannot bind the conscience, except where their neglect might occasion scandal.
Fourth, he denies the freedom of the will.
Fifth, he denies that there is any purgatory.
Sixth, he affirms that neither the Virgin nor the saints pray for us in their own person.
Seventh, he asserts that neither the Virgin nor the saints should be invoked by us.
Many similar charges followed, though in reality his main offense had been translating the Bible. In August 1536 he was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death.
He was ordered one final time to recant.
Before a large crowd of clergymen, William was defrocked. He was led out in his priestly vestments and forced to kneel before his accusers. His hands were scraped with a knife or a piece of glass to symbolize the removal of his anointing with oil. Bread and wine of the Mass were placed in his hands, then immediately taken away. Finally, his vestments were torn from him one by one and replaced with the clothes of a layperson.
Two months later, in October 1536, the date of his execution came. William Tyndale was taken outside the city to the place of execution – a large pillar of wood surrounded by a circle of stakes. He was ordered one final time to recant. According to John Foxe, who recounted William’s story in his Book of Martyrs in 1563, William said nothing for some time, then uttered a few final words: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
With that, the executioner bound William to the stake and fastened an iron chain around his neck. Above that, a hemp noose was tightened at his throat; he was to be strangled before being burned. After brushwood and logs had been piled around William, the executioner pulled back on the noose. Before long, William no longer drew breath. The pyre was engulfed in flames, and William’s body burned with the wood.
Three years later, William’s dream became reality: the English Bible was finally in the hands of the plowboy.
Three years later, William’s prayer that the King of England’s eyes would be opened was answered. In 1539, at the encouragement of his chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII required every church in England to provide its parishioners with a copy of the English Bible compiled by Miles Coverdale, largely translated by William Tyndale. A recent analysis of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible estimates that William’s translation accounts for 76 percent of its Old Testament and 83 percent of its New Testament. As William had once dreamed would happen, the English Bible was finally in the hands of the plowboy.
Based on several sources, including the account in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe, edited by William Byron Forbush (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1967); Martyrs Mirror, by van Braght; God’s Bestseller, by Brian Moynahan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002); Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice, by David Teems (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012); and Christian History and Biography 16 (October 1987).