William Tyndale, born in 1494 in Gloucestershire, could see the potential of printing in bringing accessible translations of the Bible to the common man. He was born 18 years after William Caxton revolutionised the availability of books by bringing the first printing press to England. Tyndale’s life’s work involved translation of New and Old Testaments from texts in Greek and Hebrew. His New Testament was published within his lifetime; his work on the Old Testament remained incomplete, but the King James Bible (originally published in 1611) drew hugely on Tyndale’s work and scholarship.
Tyndale studied at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was enthused by arguments for change and reform in the church. He became a priest in his late twenties and returned to Gloucestershire to start practising his vocation. His views, which some considered radical, led to him deciding to move to London with the aim of translating the New Testament in to readable, accessible English. Tyndale’s views were frowned upon by the English establishment, in large part due to the fact that such ideas were linked to the protestant reformation led by men such as Martin Luther in Germany.
Tyndale found his work unwelcome in England, his efforts to get support through the church spurned. He decided wider Europe, peopled by forward thinking reformers, might offer him a better chance of getting his translations to print and so set sail for Germany in 1524. He was never to return to English shores. His instincts proved good and after a year later the first copies of his New Testament were printed. Due to the political and religious climate of the time in England, copies of Tyndale’s work that did reach his home country could not be read openly and it was said that copies found by the church were burned in London. Tyndale started to work on further revisions of his New Testament whilst turning his main focus to translation of the Old Testament.
Challenging King Henry VIII was not a recipe for long life, yet in 1530 Tyndale’s The Purpose of Prelates used religious and political arguments to challenge Henry’s intention to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Challenging his monarch so openly was the beginning of the end for Tyndale. Henry attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture Tyndale and return him to England to face his version of English law. Although Tyndale avoided arrest for many years he was eventually caught in 1635 and taken to Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. Some time in the following year, suffering one of the many horrific deaths of the time, Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled and burned.
My inspiration for this article came from a stained glass window I came across whilst working at the University of Bristol, in a building that used to house Bristol Baptist College. The window, completed in 1919, dominates the main staircase; it has scenes and symbols which depict the life and times of William Tyndale. They include a picture of Tyndale preaching at sunset at College Green in Bristol – part of Bristol Cathedral can be seen behind him. Other scenes include Tyndales’s departure for Germany and his sojourn in Vilvorde prison. The final scene is a death scene, with Tyndale’s body bound to a cross whilst flames engulf him.
Tyndale New Testament-OE-1526
William Tyndale Bible - In Modern English