Tyndale’s New Testament was the first to be printed in English. This is one of only three copies surviving from the 3,000 or more printed in 1526 by Peter Schoeffer in the German city of Worms. Tyndale’s translation was pronounced heretical in England, so his Bibles were smuggled into the country in bales of cloth. Those discovered owning them were punished. At first only the books were destroyed, but soon heretics would be burned too – including Tyndale himself in 1536.
William Tyndale was a scholar and theologian who was born in Gloucestershire at the end of the 15th century. Tyndale was educated at Oxford and then at Cambridge. An impressive scholar, fluent in eight languages, he was ordained as a Christian priest in around 1521.
Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire to serve as chaplain and tutor to Sir John Walsh and his family. This work enabled him to continue his study of religious texts. During that time he translated a tract by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutchman whose writings argued for personal faith: a direct relationship between the individual and God, not one mediated and controlled by the Church hierarchy.
When Tyndale shared such controversial views in debate with local clergy, it was just a matter of time before he came to the attention of the Church authorities. He was called to appear at the bishop’s court before William of Malvern, Chancellor of Worcester Diocese (which before 1541 included Gloucestershire (the county of Tyndale’s origin).
Thanks to a lack of witnesses prepared to give evidence, Tyndale escaped punishment. Fearful of continuing grievances, however, he abandoned Gloucestershire for London in 1523. There he sought lodging from the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstal, under whose sponsorship he planned to fulfil his ambition of translating the New Testament into English – a proposition the bishop refused.
Although the Old Testament had first been written in Hebrew and the New Testament in a dialect of Greek and, possibly, Aramaic, the official language of the medieval Church was Latin – the language of the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as its religion during the fourth century.
Christians continued to be governed from Rome by the Pope during medieval times. Church services were conducted in Latin throughout the Christian world, and translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular, in other words the local language anyone could understand, was actively discouraged.
Nonetheless, by Tyndale’s day, vernacular Bibles were available in parts of Europe, where they added fuel to the popular questioning of religious authority initiated by the monk, Martin Luther – a religious crisis known as the Reformation, which resulted in the splitting of Christianity into Catholic and Protestant Churches.
In England, however, under the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford, it was strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into the native tongue. This ban was vigorously enforced by Cardinal Wolsey and the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, in an attempt to prevent the rise of English ‘Lutheranism’. The only authorised version of the Bible was St Jerome’s Latin translation, known as the ‘Vulgate’, made in the fourth century and understood only by highly-educated people.
Tyndale’s mission was to make the Bible accessible to all.
His proposal rejected by the bishop, Tyndale turned to preaching in London. Though spurned by the clergy, he made influential friends among the laity. These included Sir Humphrey Monmouth, who provided Tyndale with shelter as chaplain to his household so he might set about his translation.
It was still, however, a dangerous undertaking. In May of 1524, aided by money from Sir Humphrey and others, Tyndale set sail for Germany where he hoped his secret work could be continued in greater safety. He based his translation on a New Testament in Greek that had recently been complied by Erasmus from several manuscripts older and more authoritative than the Latin Vulgate.
Printing began in Cologne in the summer of 1525, but word of the project soon reached the Dean of Frankfurt. He not only arranged a ban on printing in Cologne but also alerted Cardinal Wolsey to Tyndale’s activities. Tyndale fled with his assistant, William Roy, to Worms, where a pocket-sized edition was the first of two to be completed. By April 1526, Tyndale’s New Testament was being read behind closed doors in England.
Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon hastened the break of the Church in England from the control of Rome and what became known as the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Wolsey was a political casualty. His fall from power ended in arrest for treason in 1530, though his death from a sudden illness cheated the scaffold.
In the years Tyndale spent evading Henry VIII’s spies, he’d begun translating the Old Testament with the financial backing of a few English traders. Now Wolsey was gone, he judged it safe to move to Antwerp in 1534 and live there openly. He was befriended by an Englishman called Henry Philips, who professed an interest in the reformed faith. In fact, he was an agent – either of Henry VIII or the new English Church.
Tyndale was betrayed and imprisoned in Vilvoorde Castle, accused by Henry VIII of spreading sedition in England. Friends sent his books so he could continue his work in prison, but it was never finished. After 500 days, on 6 October 1536, Tyndale was taken from his cell to the castle courtyard. He was strangled and burned at the stake. His last words are said to have been: “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England!”
The hand colouring added to this copy of Tyndale’s New Testament shows it was highly prized by its first owner – a sentiment echoed in 1994 when the British Library bought what it called “the most important printed book in the English language” for a little over a million pounds.
This little book now enriches the British Library's unrivalled collection charting the history of the Bible in English.
The British Library also possesses the only known fragment of the uncompleted edition of Tyndale’s New Testament printed at Cologne in 1525 when the editors had to flee to Worms. This fragment contains 31 leaves, including Tyndale’s Prologue, a woodcut of St Matthew, and chapters i-xxii of his Gospel.
To hear a short curator talk about Tyndale's New Testament please see here.