On this day in Tudor history, 2nd October 1528, in the reign of King Henry VIII, reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale’s book “The Obedience of a Christian Man” was published in Antwerp.
Anne Boleyn owned a copy of this book and, when it ended up in the king’s hands, it became a catalyst of the English Reformation.
How did the king end up reading a heretical book? Why did he proclaim, “This Book is for me and all Kings to read”, and how did it set Henry VIII on his path to the break with Rome?
Today’s “on this day” talk is based on an article I wrote for the Anne Boleyn Files website a few years ago on Anne Boleyn and William Tyndale.
On this day in Tudor history, 2nd October 1528, reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale’s book ““The Obedience of a Christen man, and how Christen rulers ought to govern, wherein also (if thou mark diligently) thou shalt find eyes to perceive the crafty convience of all jugglers”, more commonly known as “The Obedience of a Christian Man”, was published in Antwerp. It is an important book in the story of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII because it is thought that it was this book that helped the king realise that rulers were accountable only to God, and not to the Pope.
17th century historian John Strype and George Wyatt, grandson of poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt the Elder, tell the same story about how this heretical book found its way into the hands of King Henry VIII. According to them, in around 1529 Anne Boleyn lent Tyndale’s book to Anne Gainsford, one of her ladies. Anne Gainsford’s suitor, George Zouch, “plucked” it from his sweetheart and then it got confiscated from him by Dr Richard Sampson, Dean of the Chapel Royal, who saw Zouch reading it in the chapel.
Sampson, along with other clergyman, had been commanded by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to keep an eye out for heretical books, so he took the book straight to Wolsey. In the meantime, Anne Boleyn had asked her lady if she could have the book back. Her lady was distraught that she could not give the book back to her mistress, but Anne was not angry or upset, she simply commented, “Well, it shall be the dearest Book that ever the Dean or Cardinal took away.” Anne then went to her sweetheart, the king, to ask him to intervene with Wolsey to get the book returned. When the book was returned to her, Anne took it to the king and “besought his Grace most tenderly to read it.” Wyatt writes of how she had marked matters “worthy of the King’s knowledge” with her fingernail and Strype describes how the King was “delighted” with the book and remarked that “This Book is for me and all Kings to read.”
Strype goes on to say:
“And in a little Time the King by the Help of this virtuous Lady, by the Means aforefaid, had his Eyes opened to the Truth, to search the Truth, to advance God’s Religion and Glory, to abhor the Pope’s Doctrine, his Lies, his Pomp and Pride, to deliver his Subjects out of the Egyptian Darkness, the Babylonian Bonds, that the Pope had brought him and his Subjects under. And so contemning the Threats of all the World, the Power of Princes, Rebellions of his Subjects at Home, and the raging of so many and mighty Potentates abroad; set forward a Reformation in Religion, beginning with the Triple Crowned Head at first, and so came down to the Members, Bishops, Abbots, Priors, and such like.”
Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man was instrumental in helping Henry VIII see how he could have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, while also limiting the power of the papacy in England. The steps Henry VIII took as a result of reading “Obedience” sparked off the English Reformation.
However, Tyndale’s message regarding how “God has appointed the kings, princes, and other secular leaders as his representatives on earth” – and kings, therefore, being the highest authority in the land – and his challenge of the Pope’s ” temporal authority over king and emperor” was just one small part of the book. Other subjects included:
- The supremacy of God’s word over everything else
- The importance of God’s word being made available to the laity in English
- The importance of teaching scripture rather than focusing on ecclesiastical law
- Instructions for how to live and what “obedience” means in daily life
- The abuses of the Church
Although Tyndale’s book was so helpful to the king, he ended up being executed as a heretic in October 1536, after incurring the wrath of Henry VIII with the publication of another book, “The Practyse of Prelates”, in which he opposed Henry VIII’s planned annulment from Catherine of Aragon. So, one of his books helped the king and another was Tyndale’s undoing.