In the early sixteen century, there was a time when one of the English establishment’s biggest enemies was an English translator living in the Low Countries. Today, his influence lives on, as English-speakers regularly use phrases created by him – often without even realising it. The following, for example, were all coined by him: ‘knock and it shall be opened unto you’, ’a moment in time’, ‘fashion not yourselves to the world’, ’seek and ye shall find’, ‘ask and it shall be given you’, ’judge not that ye be not judged’, ‘let there be light’, ‘The powers that be’, ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘it came to pass’, ‘the signs of the times’, ‘filthy lucre’, and ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’.
William Tyndale was born near the Welsh border in Gloucester in 1496. As a child, he would have grown up aware of a completely different language being spoken nearby (Welsh), and would have seen that English was just another of many European tongues. Like other children from wealthy families in his era, he learned Latin in school. He then studied at Oxford and Cambridge, where he learned Greek. While living in England, he made the first translation of Isocrates in English.
With three languages at his disposal and an ability to translate, he now began translating the New Testament. This was a task which was strictly forbidden at the time – though that didn’t deter him. While still in England, Tyndale allegedly declared to a learned man who disagreed with him on the need to translate the bible: “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more about scripture than thou dost”
He left England in 1524. The Low Countries were a more hospital environment for reformists. Here, he also learned Hebrew – we still don’t know exactly how he learned it. Very few men in Europe, let alone in England, could speak Hebrew at this time. By doing so, Tyndale had opened up the world of the Old Testament. And he had not only learned the ancient tongue, but mastered it, too. He was surprised to find that it was very compatible with English:
‘…and the properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English word for word, when thou must seek a compass [go round about] in Latin, and yet shall have much work translate it well-favouredly, so that it have the same grace and sweetness, sense and pure understanding with it in the Latin, and as it hath in the Hebrew.’
Between translations, Tyndale also published a series of polemics which aimed to help reform the English church, and encourage it to allow the bible to be published in English. This enraged one of England’s then most powerful men, Thomas More. More detested Tyndale, whom he called ‘a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil’ and ‘a drowsy drudge drinking deep in the devil’s depths’, and wrote long rambling tirades on Tyndale’s work, which Tyndale replied to in short eloquent responses. More never got to meet Tyndale face-to-face, as he surely wanted to (no doubt in circumstances less than comfortable for the latter), as he himself was executed in 1532 for his refusal to accept King VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Tyndale, meanwhile, lived on for another four years, during which time he continued to work diligently on his masterful translations of the books of the Old Testament. However, though by now Henry VIII had broken from Rome, he still hadn’t allowed the bible to be translated into the nation’s mother tongue. Despite this, he did seem to sense that having someone as articulate and intelligent as Tyndale on his side would be worthwhile and so he sent out an emissary, Stephen Vaughan, to make contact with Tyndale in Antwerp.
One day, after months of searching, Vaughan was approached by a stranger in Antwerp, who told him that there was someone who wanted to speak with him. The stranger led Vaughan out through the city gates and into to an open field where Tyndale awaited him. There they spoke, with Vaughan asking Tyndale to return to England and Tyndale stating that he would only do so if the King would allow the bible to be translated into English. Vaughan went away and relayed this message to the king, but received no answer. In his letter, he remarked of his impression of Tyndale: ‘This man is of greater knowledge than the king’s highness doth take him for; which well appeareth by his works. Would God he were in England!’
Tyndale stayed in an ‘English House’ in Antwerp for a number of years, where he continued his work. His translations were smuggled into England via the cloth trade that thrived between the two countries. Perhaps used to the constant threat of agents of his enemies tracking him down in Germany, he let his guard down, and one day befriended a feckless, wealth-hungry exile named Henry Phillips. Philips was actually an enemy of the English crown himself. However, he also hated reformists such as Tyndale. One day, a couple of months after first meeting Tyndale, he led the translator down a narrow alley and into the arms of the Pope’s hidden officers. This trap was both a plot to strike a blow against reformism, and a scheme to make Philips money.
Tyndale was left to wait in jail for 18 months whilst his fate was decided. It was during this time he wrote to friends, not only asking for warm clothes, but for the materials that could allow him to continue his translation:
‘I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with Study.’
Not long after this letter was written, Tyndale was brought to the scaffold where he was strangled to death at the stake before his body was burned. It is said that his last words were: “Lord! Open the king of England’s eyes!” Henry did allow a limited use of the bible in English shortly after Tyndale’s death (‘set forth with the king’s most gracious license’ [my italics]), but it wasn’t until 60 years later that the majority of England had access to the Bible in English, when James I commissioned an edition based largely on Tyndale’s work. So Tyndale’s dying words were granted – though with a different king.