In addition to the account of Tyndale's life and work immediately below, at the foot of this page there is a Timeline of the important moments in his life.
William Tyndale's Early Life
Much obscurity surrounds the family background and early life of William Tyndale. The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall said that he came from 'about the borders of Wales' which is far from being a precise location. The many who have researched William's family over the years have favoured the idea that he came from Gloucestershire. The village of Stinchcombe was home to various people using the Hychyns and Tyndale names which makes it seems likely that his roots were there. In the registers the University of Oxford, and when ordained to the various orders of ministry, he used the name Hychyns, and later sometimes gave this as an alternative to Tyndale. In the ordination registers he seems to be linked with the Hereford diocese, in which Gloucestershire west of the Severn then lay. It may be the case that he came of a family that had members on both sides of the river.
Right: The Tyndale Monument (1866), North Nibley, Gloucestershire.
(More about the Tyndale Monument can be found on the
North Nibley website at www.northnibley.org.uk )
Tyndale's date of birth is unknown but is likely to have been in the period 1491-1494. At some point in the first decade of the sixteenth century he went to study at Oxford, at Magdalen Hall which later evolved into the present Hertford College. He is recorded as receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1512. Three years later he was both ordained priest in London and awarded his Master of Arts degree at Oxford. The next few years are something of a mystery.
The fact of his being ordained in London might suggest that he had been offered a post there, or at least was seeking one. If so there does not seem to be any record surviving of such an appointment. Possibly he was the William Tyndale who is recorded in these years as a chantry priest in Gloucestershire, first at Frampton on Severn and then at Breadstone. According to the register of the Bishop of Worcester this man was dead by 1523 but this could be a clerical error or these references could be to two separate individuals. John Foxe (1517-1587) in his Acts and Monuments, commonly called the Book of Martyrs, placed him at Cambridge for several years. Again this is possible but seemingly unrecorded in the university archives.
Foxe did manage to obtain a fairly detailed account of the years of Tyndale's life from 1522 to 1524. Foxe tells that he was employed by a Gloucestershire man, Sir John Walsh, at his home of Little Sodbury Manor. Walsh was a notable local figure with several young children, the eldest probably no more than four years of age, to whom it is said Tyndale acted as tutor. The role was probably no onerous task and was a way in which the young man could carry on his studies. In this period many scholars who did not hold university appointments looked to well off patrons to give them material support. John Walsh was just the first of several patrons Tyndale was to attract over the following years. It may be that he was known to, or introduced to, Sir John through his Gloucestershire background and contacts, possibly through a brother Edward who was a significant figure in the area.
When Tyndale was ordained in 1515 it is most unlikely that he foresaw the dramas that were to shake the very foundations of the church in the coming decades. The name of the German Augustinian friar Martin Luther had yet to become a term of abuse, applied indiscriminately to those the church came to consider as heretics and to be thrown at Tyndale in later years. However, by the time he was settled into his life at Little Sodbury the new 'heretical' ideas about theology and worship were circulating in Europe and in England. In 1521 Cardinal Wolsey attended at St. Paul's Cross, by the cathedral in the heart of London, and with great ceremony presided over a burning of Luther's writings. In the same year the king wrote against Luther for which he was to receive from Pope Leo X the title Defender of the Faith.
It is unclear at what point William Tyndale began to find his own thinking moving away in certain respects from the tradition of the church, nor do we know when he conceived the great vision of an English Bible. Certainly whilst he was at Little Sodbury, if not before, Tyndale was of the belief that the scriptures must be made available to the English people in their own language. At this point the Bible was read in church in Latin, the scholarly and ecclesiastical language of Europe, so meaning nothing to the average worshipper. Tyndale's single-minded pursuit of his objective determined so much of the remainder of his life. When he found himself in conflict with churchmen in Gloucestershire he decided upon a move to London in the hope that the bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, would give him a position in his household to replace the patronage of John Walsh and so allow him to begin the translation of which he dreamed.
In this hope he was to be disappointed. However, shortly after arriving in London in 1523 he was approached by a London merchant who had heard him preach and who was obviously impressed by what he heard. Humphrey Monmouth gave Tyndale board and lodging in his house where the young scholar continued his studies 'lyke a good priest, studying bothe nyght and day'. Later Monmouth was to fall under suspicion as a result of his taking William Tyndale into his house for those six months.
Now in London Tyndale was in a good position to assess whether he might hope for any support in his work towards a Bible in English. As the months passed it became increasingly clear to him that the official attitude in England was, at the best, indifferent to such a project. The association of a Bible in the vulgar tongue with John Wyclif back in the fourteenth century and his followers, the Lollards, who were regarded as heretics, made for a more negative attitude towards translation in England than was commonly the case in mainland Europe. In 1524 Tyndale decided that pursuit of his goal might be best undertaken abroad and so he left London with a little financial backing from Monmouth and other sympathetic merchants.
His Translations and Writings
Over the next ten years Tyndale moved from place to place according to where the needs of his work or security demanded. He may have spent a period at Wittenburg with Martin Luther. By 1525 he had completed his translation of the New Testament and was in Cologne supervising its printing. In an essentially Catholic city this was a dangerous enterprise. It is reckoned that careless talk in the print shop gave the game away. Tyndale took what was already printed and fled to Worms. The few pages that had been printed were mainly the gospel of St. Matthew and are known as the 'Cologne fragment'.
It was in Worms in 1526 that the complete text of the New Testament was printed, the first New Testament in English to be mass produced using the printing press rather than being laboriously hand written.
The leading Tyndalian scholar, and founder of The Tyndale Society, the late Professor David Daniell repeatedly drew attention to the features of Tyndale's work that make it so much more than just a translation of the New Testament into English, so important though that was in making the Bible accessible. In order to do this work Tyndale learnt Greek so that he could translate from the original language. He also used the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome and the German translation by Martin Luther but essentially his work is based on the original text in so far as Erasmus had been able to compile this. Further significance of this translation lies in it showing the possibility of using the English language for a book of significance, rather than Latin or French as had been the custom. Tyndale's direct English makes his translation very readable even today and he added many words and phrases to the developing English language.
By now Tyndale was also writing a series of works both outlining his criticisms of the church as he found it and expounding his theological position. Though influenced in some respects by the teachings of Martin Luther he was no slavish Lutheran, even though that term has often been applied to him from the sixteenth century to the present day. In addition he had somehow managed to learn Hebrew and was working on translating the Old Testament with the aim of publishing a complete Bible in the English tongue.
In these years it is not always clear where he was living and working. He certainly spent some time in Antwerp but at other periods his whereabouts are unknown. Once his New Testaments began to enter England, William Tyndale was no longer an obscure scholar. He was now of concern to the authorities. His translation was burnt at St. Paul's Cross, as Luther's writings had been five years earlier. Attempts were made to persuade him to return to England, whether so that the king might use his talents or simply burn him is not always clear. Tyndale suspected the latter and so was wary of doing the king's command. He always maintained that he was loyal to the king but suspected that if he returned the bishops would persuade Henry to treat him badly. He also wanted from Henry an assurance that the king would allow the Bible in English.
Tyndale well knew the dangers of returning. He was engaged in a fierce written dialogue with Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor and pursuer of heretics, who made his views of Tyndale's theology very clear. In England men who were sympathetic to Tyndale's ideas, who were involved in book smuggling and distribution, and some of whom had been with him on the Continent, were being burnt at Smithfield. Even his old patron Humphrey Monmouth was taken in for questioning about his support of Tyndale. To be associated with Tyndale or his writings was now dangerous. No wonder that the man himself thought it wisest to remain 'in the parts beyond the seas'.
From late 1529 Tyndale was back in Antwerp. From here the following year the first part of his Old Testament translation from the Hebrew began to be taken into England, the five books of the Pentateuch, the only part of the Old Testament to be published in his lifetime.
His Last Months of Freedom
With both his translations and other writings William Tyndale was now the most significant Englishman in the movement we know as the Reformation. In the summer of 1534 he took up lodgings in Antwerp with Thomas Poyntz, an English merchant, and his wife Anna.
William Tyndale had long been asked for a second, corrected and improved, edition of his New Testament. In the summer of 1534 his former assistant George Joye edited a new edition as Tyndale himself seemed to have taken little action in the matter. This infuriated Tyndale. Joye had not consulted him and had not made clear his own responsibility for changes to the text. These changes Tyndale believed to be quite inaccurate. He set to work to produce his own revision. He needed somewhere safe and quiet to get on with this task as a matter of urgency and this place was to be in the household of Thomas Poyntz.
It should have been a relatively safe place for him. Whatever the heresy laws in force in Antwerp, it was in general a much more relaxed city in this regard than in many other parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The authorities were particularly likely to be lenient with English merchants in view of their economic value to the city. So long as Tyndale remained in a house linked with the English merchant community he was unlikely to be troubled.
There is no record of where he had been living previously. Possibly he had been at the main English House. It seems likely that the governor of The English House at this moment was Humphrey Monmouth who had given support to Tyndale back in London in 1523 and 1524. If this is correct it is possible that Tyndale had been a guest in the English House and that when Monmouth's term of duty expired in July 1534, and he was no longer in such regular contact with Antwerp, he looked for someone to take over the role of Tyndale's host. The new governor, or other merchants, may have been less happy at having such a known heretic in their midst.
Tyndale was described as being at this time 'a man very frugal and spare of body, an earnest labourer in the setting forth of the scriptures of God'. Once settled in the Poyntz household he would have been concentrating on the revised New Testament which was finally published in November 1534. This translation has been described by David Daniell as 'the glory of his life's work'. Once this was completed Tyndale would have turned back to continue his translation from Hebrew of the Old Testament books. Much had already been done but much remained to do.
According to John Foxe he was in the habit of giving over two days a week to visiting and assisting both religious refugees from England and the local poor. The other activity, described in the same source, seems very probable. 'When the Sunday came, then went he to some one merchants' chamber or other, whither came many other merchants, and unto them would he read some one parcel of scripture : the which proceeded so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently from him … that it was a heavenly comfort and joy to the audience to hear him read the scriptures; likewise, after dinner, he spent an hour in the same manner'.
His Betrayal and Death
The future for which William Tyndale no doubt hoped at this time was a lifetime of study, translating, revising, writing, and preaching and this expectation might have been but for the arrival of the mysterious figure of Henry Phillips.
Foxe's account of the events associated with Henry Phillips makes clear that his sudden appearance was unexplained and, to a large extent, remained so when Foxe was collecting material for his book some twenty and more years later. This suggests that his source, Thomas Poyntz, was never able to made full sense of Phillips, although he probably had more opportunity than anybody to observe the man and his actions. That Phillips engineered the arrest of Tyndale, and later of Poyntz, is clear. On the other hand his motives and means, and whether he acted alone or with others, are matters which have yet to be explained.
In December 1534 this young Englishman is recorded as having matriculated at the University of Leuven, well known for attracting Englishmen of a religiously conservative disposition.
By now Tyndale was living with the Poyntz family and, if Foxe is correct, he brought Phillips to the house after having met him at the homes of various other merchants to which he had been invited to dine. As well as sharing some meals with the Poyntz family it appears that on occasion he may have stayed overnight. He impressed Tyndale but not Poyntz.
In the spring of 1535 Phillips engineered the arrest of Tyndale from the Poyntz's house and his incarceration in Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. Despite the strenuous efforts of Thomas Poyntz, in particular, Tyndale languished in that prison until he was taken out, strangled and burned, in the autumn of 1536.
© Brian Buxton 2013
[For Tyndale in John Foxe see John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1563 & 1570 editions) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: www.johnfoxe.org.]
When William Tyndale was in Gloucestershire and talking with local priests,
he is supposed to have said that if God gave him a good number more years of life
he would make sure that the ploughboy understood the Bible better than they did.
William Tyndale : A Timeline
Important Moments in his Life
- 1491 - 1494
- His exact date of birth is unknown. Most likely he was born in Gloucestershire, probably from a family living in or near Stinchcombe.
- He was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) after studying for several years at Magdalen Hall, Oxford (later to become Hertford College).
- He was ordained a sub-deacon by the Bishop of Hereford. Being ordained a sub-deacon was one of several stages towards becoming a priest.
- In London he was ordained as a deacon and then as a priest. In the same year he was awarded the degree of Master of Arts (M.A.) by Oxford University.
- 1516 - 1522
- Little is known for certain about his life in these years. He may have spent some time at Cambridge University. Also he may have worked as a priest in Gloucestershire at Frampton on Severn and Breadstone.
- 1522 - 1523
- For some months he acted as tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh who lived at Little Sodbury Manor in Gloucestershire. By now it seems likely that he had decided to translate the Bible into English. At this period the Bible was only available in Latin so that it meant little to most people when read in church.
- He went to London in the hope that the bishop of London would support his plan for a Bible in English. He was to be disappointed in this hope. The English authorities did not want the Bible in English. They feared that if people could understand it they might start challenging the teaching of the church.
- He left England to work on the mainland of Europe, hoping for more support there.
- At Cologne he completed his translation of the New Testament. He translated from the Greek in which the New Testament had originally been written. Printing began but it seemed likely that he would be arrested and so he fled to Worms.
- At Worms the complete edition of the New Testament was published. It began to be smuggled into England. The bishop of London had copies collected up and burned by St. Paul's Cathedral.
- 1527 - 1533
- He wrote a number of books. Some criticised teachings of the church. Others were about books of the Bible. He learned Hebrew, a difficult language, in which the Old Testament was written. He then translated the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy (known as the Pentateuch), and made a translation of the Book of Jonah. It seems likely that he also translated some of the historical books of the Old Testament.
- In Antwerp he went to live with an English merchant, Thomas Poyntz, and there he completed a revised version of his translation of the New Testament.
- In the spring of 1535 he was betrayed to the authorities by a young English student, Henry Phillips. He was arrested and taken to Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. He was charged with heresy, teaching things with which the leaders of the church disagreed.
- After eighteen months in prison he was taken out to be executed. He was first strangled and then burned. He is supposed to have called out a prayer : 'Lord, open the king of England's eyes', meaning that the king should allow a Bible in English.