Thought to be one of the greatest men in English history, William Tyndale was a revolutionary scholar. However, his opposition to the teachings of the church, earned him a reputation as a subversive.

However, 500 years ago, this was the scene of a primitive and horrifying execution.

Melvinn Bragg Prison Cell

In 1536, an English priest and one of its very greatest scholars, was led from this cell to a nearby bridge, tied to a stake, wood piled around him and burnt to death.

His crime was translating the Bible into English. His name was William Tyndale. Today, many have never even heard of him, yet this man’s legacy lives on in every English-speaking country.

Furthermore, the influence of William Tyndale was immeasurable. His translation of the Bible fuelled a Protestant ascendancy that went throughout the world. The biblical ideas that he released into the common tongue fired the English Reformation. And his genius, now acknowledged, makes him, alongside Shakespeare, one of the co-creators of the modern English language.

William Tyndale’s words and phrases have shaped the way we express ourselves and what we believe. Yet, the history books are surprisingly devoid of his name. Perhaps because of the savage truths his story reveals about the men and women who dominated Tudor England.

William Tyndale the thinker

However, William Tyndale was a matchless scholar whose heroic life of principle took on the great forces of Henry VIII. With only an army of words, he proved him to be a hypocrite, a bully and a tyrant. Henry VIII retaliated by trying to hunt him down and have him killed.

William Tyndale
William Tyndale

I think that William Tyndale is one of the greatest men in English history. And in this film, I’m going to uncover his remarkable story. It’s a quest that reveals a man who was courageous pioneer. Who wanted to see the word of God accessible to everyone, from ploughboy to monarch.

But, his work was unpopular. It caused fear among kings, statesmen and bishops alike. They thought his revolutionary work would rip the status quo apart. In the longer term, they were right.

This is a story of 16th-century espionage. It was a time for burning heretics and sympathisers. These were people risking their lives to get the word of God into English homes.

Life in Exile

William Tyndale lived in exile for most of his adult life. Constant persecution led him to flee his own country.

Yet no-one in history has changed our language as he did. No-one has had the impact on it, which released imagination, shaped thought and reconsidered belief.

So, who was William Tyndale and why did his work strike fear into the hearts of England’s most powerful men?

According to his Wikipedia page, he was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation.

William Tyndale had his story continued in a later documentary.

After his time in Oxford, Tyndale became a priest.

And it was in his very first post back in Gloucestershire, as tutor and chaplain to the Walsh family, that his subversive beliefs began to cause a stir.

Tyndale would attend dinners held by local clergy. He would have frequent, heated discussions with the clergy.

According to the account’s, churchman William Tyndale was arguing which went, “It would be better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”

This totally appalled and infuriated Tyndale, as it had done Luther.

Word of God

The whole point was that the Bible contained the word of God. It did not contain laws and rules. It had been successive popes, over centuries, that had created the rules. This was this system that Tyndale found objectionable.

For Tyndale the only way to save your soul, which was the only meaning of being on Earth, was to listen to the word of God. And to find the word of God, you were to understand it, preferably in your own language.

It was an argument that provoked William Tyndale to lay bare, probably for the first time, the ambition that would drive the rest of his life. His determination to translate the Bible into English.

At that same meeting, Tyndale is reported as saying that he defied the Pope and all his laws. And he added, “If God spares me, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

Access for the Ordinary Man

William Tyndale’s passion to make God’s word accessible to the ordinary men and women of Tudor England was made explicit. Tyndale’s choice of the image of the ploughboy was brilliant… because the ploughboy was illiterate.

And what Tyndale intended to do was to write a book, a Bible, that would be available to everybody, that could be read aloud and understood by everybody. And the effect of this was to be immeasurable.

In Tyndale’s eyes the Catholic clergy seemed unfit to transmit to the word of God. So the commons of England had to be able to read it for themselves, in plain English, to ensure their souls were saved.

But, Tyndale’s criticism of papal law and his radical ambition turned the local clergy against him. Rumours spread that he was a heretic and his days in Gloucestershire were numbered. To achieve his dream, Tyndale needed a patron. He made for London.

London 1523

In the 16th century this was a city of spies and heretic hunters. And, the introduction of an English bible had many sympathisers. But, the discovery of these people would lead them to severe punichment.

London, 1523
London, 1523

London under Henry VIII could be a savage city. There were as many prisons, stocks and whipping posts as there were gleaming spires. People would face trial and torture, if whispers of Lutheranism reached the bishops. It wasn’t the best place to come to seek the privacy and the finance to translate the Bible into English.

But Tyndale, nonetheless, sought out the man he believed would help him realise his ambition. Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London. Tunstall was a traditionalist. He hated Luther just as much as his master, Henry VIII, hated Luther. He was also a friend of Thomas More, by then Speaker of the House of Commons. The loathing of any form of heresy united the two men.

Cuthbert Tunstall meeting

Tyndale was polite to Tunstall when they met. But, Tunstall rejected these friendly advances. He also made it clear that no door in London would be open to him, in his quest to translate the sacred text.I

Cuthbert Tunstall
Cuthbert Tunstall

If William Tyndale had shown an innocence in thinking the Bishop would back his cause, it seemed he knew immediately what this rebuff meant.

In 1524, he boarded a boat out of London. At a time when no new work could be published without permission of the church, he knew that he would never achieve his mission in Tudor England. This was the most decisive moment of his life, a solitary scholar leaving the country he would crucially help revolutionise.

William Tyndale didn’t know this at the time, but he embarked on a self-imposed exile which would last until his death a decade later. He was in his 20s and he would never see Tudor England again.

He would be fighting not only the people in this city – Bishop Tunstall and Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII – but eventually, the spies from the holy Roman Emperor and from the Pope himself. For the rest of his life William Tyndale was a hunted man.

Tyndale’s destination was Germany, Luther’s home and a place where he believed he would find financial support for his venture. It was a journey that would set in motion a train of events, ultimately leading to chaos and revolution in Tudor England and trigger a battle in which religion almost destroyed the Tudors.

Cologne, Germany 1525

When he reached the continent, William Tyndale disappeared and it was during his first two years undercover that he started work on a book that would make him the most dangerous man in England… his translation of the New Testament.

Cologne, Germany 1525
Cologne, Germany 1525

It’s difficult to keep track of Tyndale once he’s in Germany. He did some translating in Hamburg, some in Wittenberg, where he might have met Luther.

Certainly, he learned vernacular German, in order to translate Luther’s Bible into English, just as he was working on Erasmus’ Greek version of the New Testament. He would work 12-15 hours a day, we are told. And when he’d finished it, the next thing was to find somebody who would be bold enough to take the risk of printing it.

Cologne was a city known for its printing presses. It was also staunchly Catholic. The publishing of heretical works was an offence, punishable by death. And, the Archbishop kept an aye on all publishers in controlling new publications.

Tyndale manged to find funding from sympathetic English merchants. Despite the danger and expense of such an endeavour. And, Peter Quentell was a printer willing to take a chance on his New Testament.

But as the work began, Tyndale’s plan was interrupted. One of the Bishop Tunstall’s friends and a notorious Bible Hunter, Cochlaeus, was Cologne. And by an unfortunate coincidence, he’d also commissioned Peter Quentell to publish a work for him. He got friendly with Quentell’s men and while drunk one night. They revealed that 3,000 copies of an English New Testament were to be secretly shipped to England.

Printing Workshop Raid

However, the printer’s workshop was raided. When the authorities arrived, William Tyndale had already fled. But the damage was done. Word of his dangerous work was already on its way to England. Cochlaeus wrote to Wolsey and Henry VIII to keep a strict watch for the “pernicious merchandise.”

Tyndale might have escaped but the printing of his New Testament was far from complete. So he took the pages he’d salvaged and made his ay to the town of Worms, to finish what he’d begun. This must have been a tremendous moment for Tyndale. The book was being printed. He was on his way to achieving his great ambition. He was derisory about those who tried to stop him. “Who would be so bedlam mad,” he said, “as to keep people in dark ignorance, when they could have access to true light, by reading the word of God?” The first step of Tyndale’s ambition had been realised.

Wuerttemberg State Library, Stuttgart.

Thousands of copies of the New Testament were printed. But, there’s only one complete copy still in existence and I’ve travelled to Stuttgart to see it.

So here it is. The only remaining complete first edition William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament from Greek into English. The only one. Thousands were printed. This is the only complete one. And the first thing you notice is how small it is.

That’s partly because it was forbidden in the country for which it was destined, and this could be hidden away in clothes. It could be carried around surreptitiously, and it had to be, because if you are caught with this Bible, you were liable to be tortured and sometimes executed.

However, it had that powerful effect on the Tudors. And the greater effect was that, once its power spilled into the population, it changed Tudor history, English history and eventually, world history, for ever.

Unmistakable Proses

Tyndale’s name is not on the title page. He didn’t want himself, as it were, to get between the work of God and those it was destined for. But when you read the prose within it, you hear his unmistakable voice in the phrases he chooses to use. “In the beginning was the word. Eat, drink and be merry. Our father, which art in heaven.”

His language is simple and resonant, sentences short. And the phrases are ones that are still on our common tongue. For the ordinary men and women of Tudor England, to read this wasn’t just an education, it was a revelation.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the effect that this translation in English had on the minds of the people who read it. Or, who heard it in Tudor England. It was as if the dark cave of their minds had suddenly been illuminated. And, they had all the story of the new Testament – the characters, the conflicts, the arguments, the difficulties, the nuances.

In conclusion, they were all theirs. Everybody could talk about it. They could discuss God among themselves. Towards the end of his reign, Henry VIII was dismayed that he’d allowed this to happen. “Even a pot boy,” he said, “will have an opinion!” And he was right. And he was fearful of it, because language produced by Tyndale became one of the great instruments which attacked the Tudor and forthcoming dynasties.

On a completely different subject, our previous post was about the incredible work of child carers within the family environment.

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William Tyndale a dangerous man in Tudor England

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