The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England – A Review and Rundown

Posted By on June 7, 2013

The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor EnglandHaving studied the history of Christianity at university, I was really looking forward to watching this programme on Bible translator and condemned heretic William Tyndale. As Melvyn Bragg stated, Tyndale is one of the greatest men in English history, yet not many people have even heard of him. This programme set out to put that right. The following rundown is based on notes I took from the programme, so is not my own work.

The introduction set the scene. Viewers were told of Tyndale’s end, his execution in Vilvoorde, Belgium in 1536 when he was tied to a stake and burned to death for translating the Bible into English. This was a man who had immeasurable influence, whose work on translating the Bible resulted in “a Protestant ascendancy that went throughout the world”. He fired the English Reformation and, with William Shakespeare, is the co-creator of the English language as we know it today. He was a “matchless scholar”, a hero, a courageous pioneer who wanted the word of God made accessible to everyone, yet his name has been written out of history.

Bragg then took us back to 1494 and Tyndale’s birth in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire. He was born amongst the “Commons”, the common people of England, in a world which was dominated by religion. The ritual and calendar of the Church dominated people’s lives – people went to mass every Sunday, they confessed and did penance – but the Bible was in Latin and therefore beyond most people’s comprehension. The fact that the common people could not read the Bible gave the Church control and people couldn’t challenge the key concepts of purgatory, penance, pilgrimage and confession, and say that they were not in the Bible. It was illegal to translate the Bible and was heresy.

Tyndale was educated at Oxford University from the ages of 12 to 18, and while he was at Oxford a new king came to the throne: Henry VIII. Henry’s early reign saw the rise of Thomas Wosley, who became Lord Chancellor and then Cardinal, and Thomas More, a devoted Catholic who was to become the most feared heretic hunter in England and Tyndale’s “arch enemy”. It was at Oxford that Tyndale began to reject the ancient and unchallenged approach to the Bible and the way that it was studied by looking at individual verses rather than the Bible as a whole. He was inspired by Erasmus who believed that ancient texts should be studied in their original language and he started preparing a new Greek edition of the New Testament. Tyndale’s eyes were opened by Erasmus’ work but this was a time when it was believed that you should not “mess” with the Bible because it was a sacred text and the word of God.

Bragg then went on to talk about Martin Luther who launched an attack on the Pope in 1517 and who translated the Bible into German. Luther’s work on the Bible led him to radical new beliefs about how to attain eternal life and to the belief that people could be justified by faith, the doctrine of grace. A war of words began, a battle between Luther and the Church, because if Luther was right then there was no need for penance, pilgrimages and other concepts practised by the Church. Henry VIII was awarded the title of Defender of the Faith for publishing a rebuttal of Luther’s teachings and was, at that time, “the Pope’s avenging sword”. This put Tyndale, who was interested in Luther’s teachings, on a collision course with the Tudors.

Bragg then took the viewer to 1522 in Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire and explained that Tyndale was ordained as a priest and worked as tutor and chaplain to the Walsh family. There, he had heated discussions with local clergy due to his “subversive beliefs”. Tyndale was appalled when a clergyman told him “that it would be better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s” because he believed that the whole point was that the Bible contained the word of God rather than rules made by Popes. Tyndale believed that the only way a person could save their soul was to listen to the word of God and to understand it and he was, therefore, determined to translate the Bible so that it could be understood by everyone. He felt that the clergy were unfit to interpret God’s word and that the common people needed to be able to read it for themselves.

Things got difficult in Gloucestershire, so Tyndale travelled to London. It wasn’t the best place to go on search of sponsorship for an English Bible when the city was full of spies and heretic hunters, and Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London and a friend of Thomas More, was not the best person to approach. Tunstall showed Tyndale the door. So, in 1524, Tyndale left London behind and travelled to Germany. As Bragg pointed out, it was an exile that would last until his death and Tyndale would never see England again. Tyndale then appears to have disappeared for a couple of years, going into hiding as he started work on his English New Testament. He then headed to Cologne in 1525 to find a printer. Cologne was known for its printing presses but the local Bishop kept an eye on what was being printed. Tyndale found Peter Quentell’s printing press and got funding from English merchants in the city. Quentell was willing to print Tyndale’s work but a friend of Bishop Tunstall, known as Cochleaus, was in Cologne and heard about Tyndale’s publication from colleagues of Quentell. They told him that 3,000 copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were going to be shipped to England. Quentell’s workshop was raided and Wolsey and Henry VIII were warned to keep an eye out for “pernicious merchandise”, heretical works, coming into England. Bragg states that Tyndale was “derisory” about those who tried to stop him, saying “Who would be so bedlam mad as to keep people in dark ignorance when they could have access to true light by reading the word of God.”

Tyndale managed to salvage some of his work and took it to Worms to get it printed. Although thousands of copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were printed, there is now only one complete copy of it in existence and Bragg went to see it at Wuerttemberg State Library, Stuttgart. It was incredibly small and this was on purpose, so that it could be hidden away, hidden in clothes, because you could be tortured and even executed for owning it. This little book changed Tudor history, English history and world history for ever, and Tyndale didn’t even put his name on the title page because he didn’t want his name to get between the reader and God. Bragg talked about the language Tyndale used in his translation. He kept it “simple and resonant” and used short sentences. Phrases he used are still in our common tongue today – “eat, drink and be merry” and “Our Father which art in Heaven”. The darkness was illuminated by the publication of this book because people could now read God’s word and discuss it. Henry VIII was dismayed by this later on in his reign and commented that even a “pot boy” could now have an opinion. Tyndale’s choice of words was radical and his words actually were an attack on the Church. For “Ecclesia”, he used “Congregation”, the people, instead of “Church”, and for “Presbiterus” he did not use “Priest” but “Elder”. He stripped away and undermined the hierarchy of the Church; the message could no longer be controlled. Bragg also commented that he showed Henry VIII to be a tyrant and hypocrite.

Bragg then explained that in 1526 copies of Tyndale’s translation began to arrive in England and that it was an instant bestseller, even though it cost the equivalent of two and a half weeks of a servant’s wages. Thomas More ordered a raid on a steelyard and arrested four merchants for heresy after texts by Martin Luther were found. On 11th February 1526, the four men were forced to process through the city to St Paul’s where firewood was lashed to their backs and they had to kneel and beg for forgiveness. The firewood was then used to burn the heretical texts. Tyndale’s New Testament was also burned and Bishop Tunstall attacked the translation saying that it contained over 2000 errors and was an untrue translation. But this was God’s word they were burning now and this was a deeply unsettling act to some people. A line, Bragg said, had been crossed.

Tyndale was convinced that the Catholic hierarchy was perverting the word of God and his translation of the Bible was an act of war on the Church. Thomas More knew that Tyndale had to be silenced and he made it his mission to do so. Bragg explained that the feud between the two men began a war of words and generated three quarters of a million words. More’s greatest work against Tyndale was “The Dialogue Concerning Heresies” which explained why More considered Tyndale to be “the most dangerous man in Tudor England”. Bragg then spoke to historian John Guy who explained that More saw Tyndale as a serious threat and he likened the situation to the Soviet Union and America staring at each other across the world in the Cold War. Guy explained that if Tyndale was right about authority then half the institutions across the world would collapse because authority would be based on scripture and not the Catholic Church, it would be a “brave new world”. More’s point was that scripture couldn’t be interpreted by everyone because everyone had different views and this would lead to the collapse of the Church and State, which he saw as working together. More saw Tyndale’s New Testament as an invitation for anarchy.

Bragg then went on to discuss Henry falling in love with Anne Boleyn. He said that Henry met her at Hever Castle [I’m not sure where he got that from] and that Anne was “sexually shrewd and intelligent”, and Protestant [not really the right label]. In 1528 Henry VIII appealed to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, based on a verse from Leviticus, but the Pope refused. Hope came from Tyndale, though. In 1528, in Belgium, Tyndale had published “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and a copy of this work found its way into Henry VIII’s hands. Bragg then discussed this with Nasim Tadghighi (hello Nasim!). Nasim explained that Tyndale had two key points: the supremacy of scripture over any authority, including “the false authority of the Pope”, and the supremacy of King. To Tyndale, God was the highest authority and God appointed Kings so Kings were the highest authority in the land. He wrote about the King being “judge overall and over him is there no judge”. Nasim explained that there is a story that Anne Boleyn gave Henry a copy of this book and that Henry said that this was a book for him and all kings to read. Tyndale’s book confirmed Henry VIII’s divine authority and he welcome that. However, Tyndale also published a book called “The Practice of Prelates” in 1530 in which he discussed the King’s campaign for an annulment. Henry had based his campaign for an annulment of Leviticus but Tyndale pointed out that there were other passages in the Bible that contradicted Leviticus and giving the commandment that a man should marry his brother’s widow, e.g. Deuteronomy. Obviously this wasn’t good news for Henry.

Henry VIII offered Tyndale an appointment at his court and in 1530 Thomas Cromwell sent Stephen Vaughan to Antwerp to meet Tyndale and to lure him back to England. Tyndale did meet Vaughan and after a number of refusals finally told Vaughan that he would return to England, even if he had to endure torture and death, if the King brought out a Bible in English. Henry wouldn’t have it.

In 1531, Henry addressed Parliament and demanded that he be recognised as Sole Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church. He had rejected the Pope but he had not rejected the Catholic faith, he remained a conservative Catholic and was committed to the Bible in Latin. Bragg went on to explain that Tyndale’s war of words with More came to a crescendo at that time. More believed that the Bible needed the filter of the Church’s teaching, whereas Tyndale believed that man was born with a spiritual sense; More wrote of Tyndale “You kiss the arse of Luther, the shit-devil, look, my fingers are smeared with shit when I try to clean your filthy mouth” (nice!) and Tyndale called More a lying papist and said that the Church was of the devil; More felt that the Bible was only parchment compared to the Church, but Tyndale saw the Bible as the word of God… and so on. More started executing Tyndale’s supporters but Tyndale carried on with his mission and began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to English.

With the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, the Protestants gained ground and Thomas More fell and was beheaded for treason on 6th July 1535. He died fearing for the future of the Catholic Church. Heretic hunting began in Antwerp because it was under the control of Emperor Charles V. Tyndale befriended a new arrival, Harry Phillips, who claimed to be an Oxford graduate interested in Reform. However, Phillips was actually colluding with the Imperial Court and he betrayed Tyndale. On 21st May 1535, Phillips visited the English House in Antwerp, where Tyndale was living, and said he had no money, Tyndale offered to take him out for a meal and as they walked down an alley two guard arrested Tyndale. Phillips had acted as Judas. Tyndale was imprisoned in the Castle of Vilvoorde for 14 months and there is a record of him asking for a hat and coat because he was suffering from catarrh. He also requested a lamp, his Hebrew Bible and Hebrew grammar so that he could study. His commitment to making the Bible accessible to all never left him.

Tyndale was executed on 6th October 1536. Cromwell had tried to secure his release, but Anne Boleyn’s execution had led to Henry VIII growing cool towards Protestants. Tyndale was meant to be strangled to death, as an act of mercy, before being burned but unfortunately he was still alive when he was burned. His last words were “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes.” Bragg commented that his refusal to give up his beliefs had led to his destruction but he was successful in taking the Bible away from the elite. By the time of his death, he had translated the New Testament and translated the first five books of the Old Testament. Bragg went on to say that his dying wish was also granted when Henry became the patron of the 1535 English Bible by Miles Coverdale and 8500 Bibles were produced to be put in every church in England. Bragg spoke of Tyndale being one of England’s best kept secrets but that his words and phrases have endured. According to Bragg, 84% of the 1611 King James Bible’s New Testament was actually written by Tyndale and 85% of the first five books of the Old Testament, therefore, his words still echo down the centuries and were the beginning of English as we know it today. Our language is made up of Shakespeare’s words and Tyndale’s idioms, phrases like “rise and shine” and “sign of the times”. Interestingly, these sayings are all monosyllabic and that is because Tyndale believed in saying things simply, he chose the most basic language so that even a humble plough boy could understand it. But his name does not appear on the King James Bible. This is because the translators used Coverdale’s work and Coverdale ripped off Tyndale. Henry VIII wanted no mention of Tyndale on the Coverdale Bible, so no credit was given.

Bragg ended the programme by saying that Tyndale’s purpose was to bring alive the word of God and to save souls and that his work unlocked the English language and gave people “the liberty to think, rather than the duty to believe.”

Don’t forget to watch the second part of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England tonight at 9pm on BBC2, it’s on the Rich this week.

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