‘William Tyndale: the Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England’ Documentary Notes


William Tyndale
William Tyndale

William Tyndale – executed 1536 by burning

Immeasurable, translation of the Bible fuelled a protestant reformation

One of the co-creators of the modern English language (with Shakespeare)

Written out of history = savage truths about people who dominated Tudor England like Henry VIII (hypocrite, bully, tyrant)

One of the greatest men in English history

Courageous pioneer who wanted to see the word of God accessible to everyone – seen as an act of revolution to rip apart the status quo

Burning of heretics and sympathisers

Hounded out of his own country and spent most of his adult life on the run

1494 Gloucestershire Tyndale born

Parents were cloth traders (centre of the wool industry), brother called Edward

Hope of something more

Dominated by religion – Roman Catholic country, seek salvation

Latin beyond most people’s comprehension = couldn’t understand the Bible for themselves, useful for the nobles and royals as it gave them control

Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.

Henry VIII determined to keep his grip on the country

Church needed Latin to maintain structure and power – hierarchy etc not in the Bible

16th century = even to attempt translation of the Bible was heresy and punishable by death

1506 Oxford, Tyndale began his education, finest education available at the time

Henry VIII surrounded himself with men like Thomas Wolsey (formerly educated in Oxford) and Thomas More who hunted heretics

Tyndale’s passion for language flourished at Oxford

No new approach to studying the Bible – little sense of the whole, focus on small passages, no intrusions from heretics

Tyndale began to reject the traditional Bible

New ideas from the continent = Erasmus (to get to the central idea you had to read a text in its original language, Greek for the Bible)

Tyndale translated the New Testament into Greek

Dangerous to undermine the word of God

Tyndale also began to hear talk of Martin Luther who attacked the power of the Pope, and translated the Bible into German

New beliefs struck at the heart of the Catholic Church – justification by faith

No mediator needed between people and god

Souls were at stake – no need for church structure like confession and penance

Luther’s ideas triggered revolution and ushered in the reformation

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach 1528.
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach 1528.

Luther made Henry VIII famous – wrote a rebuttal and named Defender of the Faith; Henry acted against the heretic Lutherans

1522 Gloucestershire, Tyndale ordained as a priest

Immediately began to cause a stir with heated discussions with local clergy over the Bible

Only way to save your soul was to listen to the word of god and understand it

Tyndale laid bare his life’s ambition = to translate the Bible into English, denounced the Pope and the laws devised by him

Illiterate, common people could read the Bible

Catholic clergy unfit to transmit the word of god

Local clergy turned against Tyndale – rumours spread that he was a heretic so he fled to London

1523 London was a centre for heretic-hunters

Whispers of Lutheranism were punished with torture and sometimes death – Tyndale pushed ahead anyway and went to see Bishop Tunstall, Bishop of London

Tunstall was a traditional Catholic and friend of Thomas More, so rejected Tyndale

1524 Tyndale left London – he knew he wouldn’t achieve his aims in London, self-imposed exile

Would never see England again

Tyndale became a hunted man and headed for Germany, the home of Martin Luther

This journey ultimately led to chaos and revolution in England, and almost destroyed the entire Tudor dynasty

Hamburg, Wittenberg and learnt German

Tyndale's Bible
Tyndale’s Bible

He immediately started work on his translation of the Bible into English

Once written, he needed to find someone to print it, but much heretical printing was punishable by death = found a printer in Cologne

Tyndale’s plan was interrupted – one of Tunstall’s friends was in Cologne and commissioned the same printer

3000 copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were to be shipped to England

When the workshop was raided, Tyndale had already fled and the books were on the way to England

Tyndale headed for Worms to finish his writing and printing

Tyndale believed that no one would stop him because they wanted to read the true word of god

Thousands of copies printed, but only one complete copy still in existence – printed small so that it could easily be hidden in clothes and rooms

Changed Tudor / English / World history forever

Tyndale’s name doesn’t appear on the frontispiece as he didn’t want his name to get between the people and god’s word

Reading the bible themselves was a revelation = minds illuminated

Henry VIII was dismayed that he allowed it to happen, believed that even the potboy would have an opinion on the Bible and god’s word

Attack on Catholic Tudor England

Translated words differently e.g. ecclesiaie translated to congregation rather than church

Church is a hierarchy, congregation the people

Tyndale undermined the basis of the Catholic hierarchy and messages could no longer be controlled – destabilises England

London Map 16th Century
London Map 16th Century

1526 London – Tyndale’s translation arrived in London, smuggled in on the Thames

Hidden in bottles or pails or fabrics

Immediate bestseller, even though it was expensive to buy

Incendiary for the Tudor monarchy = front line of opposition was Wolsey, More and Tunstall, turned on those spreading the ideas of Tyndale and Luther

More made an armed raid on the headquarters of the German traders

Four of them forced to process through the city to St Paul’s with firewood lashed to their backs then kneel and beg for forgiveness

Bishop of Rochester gave a furious sermon then Luther’s books were burned

Translations ordered to be destroyed

Tunstall claimed Tyndale’s New Testament had over 2000 mistakes in translation

People used to gather in front of St Paul’s to hear the word of god – Tunstall burned Tyndale’s New Testament in front of St Paul’s

People saw it as an act of violence that went too far – burning word of god

“Deeply unsettling act … a line had been crossed”

Tyndale’s work took on a new edge – Catholic hierarchy was perverting the will of god, began to attack the clergy

Thomas More by Hans Holbein.
Thomas More by Hans Holbein.

Thomas More was determined to silence Tyndale

1528 Chelsea, More devoted to stamping out heresy

The Dialogue Concerning Heresies by Thomas More = conversation about what to believe in troubled times, More tries to convert Tyndale through a fictional account

If Tyndale was right, then hierarchies collapsed

Different people interpreted scripture in different ways – no uniformity of belief, collapse not only of church, but of state

Church and state should work together

Tyndale’s New Testament was “an invitation for anarchy”

More “I will follow him to the world’s end”

Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn – would decide the fate of More and Tyndale

Katherine of Aragon failed to produce a male heir and was Catholic, whereas Anne Boleyn was protestant

Leviticus = no man may marry his brother’s widow

Pope refused Henry’s claim, and appeared to have nowhere to turn

Help came from Tyndale in Antwerp, Belgium, 1528 – The Obedience of a Christian Man, enforce the supremacy of scripture and supremacy of kings

God highest authority and god appoints kings

Kings rule over their country, and are not ruled over by anyone, including Popes

“This is a book for me and all kings to read”

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Not known how he got hold of it – Anne Boleyn?

Tyndale published The Practice of Prelates 1530 = Tyndale brings forward other parts of the Bible, notably Deutronomy, that says a man should marry his brother’s wife

Within weeks, Henry tried to appoint Tyndale to his court with all things forgiven

Thomas Cromwell sends an agent (Stephen Vaughan) to meet Tyndale and lure him back – Tyndale breaks his cover for the first time in six years

They meet a number of times and Tyndale refuses to return

Tyndale proposes a deal – he would come back provided that King Henry VIII brought out a Bible in English, even if it meant torture and death

Outweighed concerns for his own safety, but Henry refused

1531 Henry VIII addressed parliament and demanded that he become supreme head of the Church of England – rejected papal authority

Remained theologically Catholic, apart from the authority of the pope

Still committed to the Bible in Latin – Tyndale’s position not improved

Tyndale vs. More repeated clashes in writing = More believed in church teachings and priests, but Tyndale thought the people could make their own decisions

Tyndale was against anything that wasn’t mentioned in the Bible

For Tyndale Bible was the root to salvation, but for More it was the church that was the centre

More interrogated Tyndale’s supporters and executed them

Tyndale still committed, even with the executions of his friends and supporters

Tyndale than published the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew

1533 Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn with his marriage to Katherine declared null and void = protestants gained ground and More and the Catholics fell from grace

1535 More arrested for treason and sentenced to death

Severed head boiled until black and displayed on London Bridge

Tyndale’s impending death – about to meet his own end just after More

New threat to Tyndale – not from the Tudors, but from the Pope, as Antwerp was under the power of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

People demanded it be purged of heretics

Tyndale befriended Harry Philips = new arrival from England, but question over his position

Philips was a strict Catholic, and colluding with the court in Brussels to have Tyndale arrested, Philips took Tyndale out to dinner, but on the way Tyndale was arrested

Tyndale taken to the state prison outside Antwerp with 16 months left to live

Even in prison, Tyndale asked his gaolers if he could have his Hebrew Bible

6th October 1536 Tyndale led to his execution, had been accused of heresy, and lost all hope with the execution of Anne Boleyn

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

Cromwell tried to secure his release but Henry VIII turned back to Catholicism

Mercy = strangled Tyndale before burning him, but the strangling didn’t work, and Tyndale was silent as his body burned

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”

Tyndale stuck to his beliefs, when others put theirs aside to survive

Liberated the language and the word of god

1535 English Bible appeared in England, attributed to Miles Coverdale, and pushed for by Thomas Cromwell, accepted by Henry VIII

1538 English Bible to be placed in every church

Tyndale’s name has largely disappeared “one of England’s best-kept secrets”

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