God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible--A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayalby Brian Moynahan
The English Bible--the most familiar book in our language--is the product of a man who was exiled, vilified, betrayed, then strangled, then burnt.
William Tyndale left England in 1524 to translate the word of God into English. This was heresy, punishable by death. Sir Thomas More, hailed as a saint and a man for all seasons, considered it his divine duty to/p>
The English Bible--the most familiar book in our language--is the product of a man who was exiled, vilified, betrayed, then strangled, then burnt.
William Tyndale left England in 1524 to translate the word of God into English. This was heresy, punishable by death. Sir Thomas More, hailed as a saint and a man for all seasons, considered it his divine duty to pursue Tyndale. He did so with an obsessive ferocity that, in all probability, led to Tyndale's capture and death.
The words that Tyndale wrote during his desperate exile have a beauty and familiarity that still resonate across the English-speaking world: "Death, where is thy sting?...eat, drink, and be merry...our Father which art in heaven."
His New Testament, which he translated, edited, financed, printed, and smuggled into England in 1526, passed with few changes into subsequent versions of the Bible. So did those books of the Old Testament that he lived to finish.
Brian Moynahan's lucid and meticulously researched biography illuminates Tyndale's life, from his childhood in England, to his death outside Brussels. It chronicles the birth pangs of the Reformation, the wrath of Henry VIII, the sympathy of Anne Boleyn, and the consuming malice of Thomas More. Above all, it reveals the English Bible as a labor of love, for which a man in an age more spiritual than our own willingly gave his life.
"Testifies to his unique influence on what might be called the current English of daily life."-The Times [U.K.]
"A thriller, a history, and a biography all rolled into one"-Irish Times
"A triumph...authoritative, vital, passionate...and superbly able to re-create the mentality of a violent and agonized time." -Evening Standard [U.K.]
"Scrupulously researched, admirably fair-minded, and, above all, extraordinarily readable, Moynahan's biography is a real revelation."-The Scotsman [U.K.]
"With its double agents and whispered conferences in taverns, [God's Bestseller] is almost worthy of LeCarré...artfully paced."-Mail on Sunday [U.K.]
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William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible - A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal
By Brian Moynahan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Brian Moynahan
All rights reserved.
Tidy up his spelling, and in particular transpose 'u' and 'v', so that 'euer' becomes 'ever', and use 'j' for 'i', and the 1520s prose of William Tyndale is instantly familiar.
Those great rolling phrases that boom through the English-speaking mind – 'the laste enemy that shalbe destroyd is deeth', 'blessid are they that mourne for they shalbe comforted', 'though I speke with the tonges of men and angels' – are his. The English Paternoster is his: 'O oure father which arte in heuen, halowed be thy name ...' So is the sadness and rejoicing of the Eucharist: 'this ys my bloude of the newe testamente, which shalbe shedde for many for the forgeuenes of synnes'.
In defying the Constitutions of Oxford, and translating the Bible, Tyndale fathered what is probably the best known and certainly the most quoted work in the English language. A complete analysis of the Authorised Version, known down the generations as 'the AV' or 'the King James', was made in 1998. It shows that Tyndale's words account for 84 per cent of the New Testament, and for 75.8 per cent of the Old Testament books that he translated. The fifty-four divines appointed by James I to produce the final work provided marginal notes and scholarly revisions to Tyndale's existing translation, but the King James itself is, so The Oxford Companion to Literature states, 'practically the version of Tyndale with some admixture from Wycliffe'.
However famous his writing, Tyndale himself is another matter. His work classified him as a heretic. As a result, he was chased and hunted – like Oldcastle, though for much longer – and his need to lie low means that our sightings of him are laced with perhaps, possibly, most probably.
It is in keeping with his life, and terrible death, that we can identify the date of his birth no better than as in or about 1494, at a place said by his contemporaries to be 'about the borders of Wales'.
We arrive at the date by working back from a fixed point, his award as a Bachelor of Arts at Oxford. A better idea of the place comes from the careers of his brothers Edward and John. The Tyndales were prosperous yeomen – Edward became a receiver of crown rents and a person of substance in the county, and John a London merchant – living where the western part of Gloucestershire falls from the Cotswold uplands into the Vale of Berkeley. The farmland of the vale borders the banks of the Severn, with the Welsh hills beyond.
Two houses that survive here have links with the family. Hunt's Court stands outside the village of North Nibley, on a lane that runs up to the ancient Black Horse Inn, beneath the steep pastures and stands of beech and chestnut that tumble from the crest of Nibley Knoll. The house is rendered white, concealing its great age. The lintels in the ground floor rooms reflect its changing fortunes. In hard times, and during the period of the window tax from 1696, doors and windows were bricked up and the recesses used as cupboards, to be reopened as prosperity returned. It is a solid and utilitarian house, built on two sides of a farmyard, and facing old barns of stone patched with concrete breeze blocks. The grounds are now a garden centre with a nursery specialising in roses. A rambler is named for William Tyndale, red, with violet flush and gold stains.
Tyndales lived in the house from early Tudor times until 1784. The original heiress of Hunt's Court, Alice Hunt, married Thomas Tyndale during Henry VII's reign. They had a son, William. The mid-Victorians, the first (and largely the last) generation to wish to honour the man who had brought them the scriptures in English, thought this William to be him. They built a cenotaph 111 feet high on Nibley Knoll, the high point of the escarpment above Hunt's Court, and adorned it with carvings of the milestones in his life: the farewell to the Cotswolds, the betrayal at Antwerp, the martyrdom. The monument was completed at a cost of £1550 in 1866. Each workman was given a fine bound volume of the King James as a keepsake.
This would be a fitting memorial, and a compensation for the centuries of obscurity, had it been in the right place. It was not. Alice and Thomas could not have married before 1505, it was later established, and their son William was found to have been alive fifteen years after the translator had been executed.
The other candidate for our William's birthplace is four or five miles to the west, in the village of Slimbridge, which lies in flat farmland close to a wild fowl sanctuary and the high banks of the Severn. Hurst Farm, a later plain brick-fronted house with flashings above the windows, is on a bend of the road beyond the high-steepled parish church of St John the Baptist. It is still a working farm, with barns, a cattle yard and looseboxes. Edward Tyndale, William's brother, lived at Hurst Farm for many years, and he was buried in the Slimbridge churchyard in 1546.
This prosperous wool and cattle country has a special resonance because its dialect was Tyndale's mother tongue. The Gloucestershire in him is only noticeable now in the odd word that has failed to gel into general English; in 'toot-hill', for example, in Genesis 31, 'and this toot-hill which the Lord seeth', meaning a lookout hill. But he wrote for simple folk, for the ploughboy, he said, and the local sayings and idioms he used have passed through his writing into the language as a whole.
The family used two names, Tyndale and Hutchins, in a wide variety of spellings: Tindale, Tyndal, Hychyn, Hewchyns. A family tradition has it that they came originally from Tyndale in Northumberland, and adopted the name Hutchins to hide their northern origins during the Wars of the Roses. William was born only nine years after Richard III was killed at Bosworth Field and the violent flux of plots and rebellions had ended. One of the battles had been fought at Nibley Green in 1470; the dead were buried in the grounds of the parish church of St Martin, and the victors built a south aisle for the church in thanksgiving.
Henry VII, the new king, was a 'a sad prince, full of thoughts', his eyes 'small and blue, his teeth few, poor and blackish, and his hair thin and white'. Two of his four immediate predecessors had been murdered, one had been killed in battle, and the fourth had been driven in humiliation from his realm in mid-reign; Richard III had murdered, or was suspected of involvement in the murder of his brother, his wife, the king, Henry VI, and two nephews, the little princes who disappeared in the Tower of London in 1483. The dead princes were brothers of Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth of York, and Henry's natural and overriding ambition was to make his new Tudor dynasty stable and long lasting.
Two pretenders challenged him. Lambert Simnel, the son of an Oxford tradesman but put forward as a surviving nephew from the Tower, was proclaimed king in Dublin in 1487, but his forces were defeated in battle at Stoke later in the year. Shortly after William Tyndale was born, another pretender, Perkin Warbeck, claimed to be the Tower's second surviving prince; he was hailed by the Irish earls, and the king of Scotland gave him his cousin in marriage, before he landed in the West Country, failed to make progress, surrendered and was hanged in 1499.
Even after that, the dynasty hung by a single life. Henry VII's sons Arthur and Edmund died young, though only after Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon. The future Henry VIII was left as the only male heir, a fact that, together with his later marriage to Catherine, his brother's widow, was greatly to influence the adult life of William Tyndale and the future of English religion.
* * *
As a boy, Tyndale may have attended the grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge, the nearest large town. The school claims to be the eleventh oldest in England, and survives as Katharine Lady Berkeley's School, though it moved from its old site in the town in the 1950s, and its buildings have been converted into apartments. The town's motto is 'Strong by Stream and Staple', and its water-powered cloth mills flourished from the sixteenth century until they were put out of business in the nineteenth by the more efficient mills in the valleys around Stroud and by the giant works in Yorkshire. Its weekly cloth market flourished in Tyndale's day, attracting many 'tolseys', or 'foreigners', from other parts, who paid a toll to attend it.
Tyndale was an eager and talented child, and he was sent to Magdalen School in Oxford at the age of about twelve, in 1506. A turreted fragment of the school's Grammar Hall still remains; besides this schoolroom, the original building had little more than the chambers of the master and the usher, and a kitchen. Shortly after, he entered Magdalen Hall – then adjacent to Magdalen College but later moved and established as Hertford College – where he began the seven-year course that led to a BA degree.
Most undergraduates were from middling families – the great Thomas Wolsey was the son of an East Anglian butcher – and the nobility had yet to send their sons to Oxford in any numbers. The Tudor beau, with his florid languor, was still a generation distant. In Tyndale's day, students were forbidden to keep sporting dogs, ferrets or hawks for hunting, though some went poaching in the royal forests at Shotover and Woodstock; they were not allowed to gamble or to own dice or playing cards, or to carry arms unless travelling. Taverns and brothels were off limits. For legal amusement, students staged morality plays and pageants, and comedies by Plautus and Aristophanes, and sang and played the lyre and lute.
Board and lodging were cheap. Undergraduates were housed two or three to a chamber, with cubicles or 'studyes' partitioned off for reading, and an individual's room rent was no more than sixpence a year. His share of commons, the basic food and drink bought each week for members of the hall or college, amounted to less than a penny a day. A contemporary wrote of Oxford dinners as a 'penye pece of byefe amongst iiii, hauying a few porage made of the brothe of the same byefe with salte and otemell'. Each student provided his own bedding, knives, spoons, candlesticks, a lantern, a pair of bellows and a coffer for his books.
The chancellor of the university maintained his own court, with powers to deny a student a degree, or to expel, excommunicate or imprison in serious cases. Fines were the most common punishment. They were imposed for climbing in and out of college after the gates were shut, for bringing an unsheathed knife to table, for disorder, drunkenness, gaming and fighting. If blood was shed during a brawl, the fine was doubled. Scholars and fellows sometimes wore distinctive liveries and fur-trimmed cloaks, but undergraduates were required only to wear decent clerical garb, which varied in colour and style and differed little from ordinary dress. It was only later that they were obliged to wear black gowns, as they still do on formal occasions, thus making it possible for the university officers or proctors to distinguish 'town' from 'gown' in brawls.
Some one thousand young scholars attended the colleges, semi-monastic institutions of the regular and secular clergy, and the self-governing halls of the university. A small hall like Magdalen might have no more than twenty students, living in shared chambers with a central hall for meals and disputations. They were up at 5.00 for divine service before the first, 6.00 a.m. lecture. They ate together in commons, with a bell or horn announcing dinner at 10.00 or 11.00 a.m., and supper at 5.00. Before retiring to bed, they chanted the Salve Regina or some such antiphon to the Virgin together. The atmosphere was one of family, as well as church; to this day, colleges refer to themselves as 'domus', or 'house', as in 'house and home'.
Tyndale's schooling gave him a thorough grounding in Latin. Boys learnt to speak and write elementary Latin in the early forms. Classes then progressed from Aesop and Terence in the third form to Horace's epistles and Ovid's Metamorphoses in the seventh, by way of Virgil, Cicero's letters and Caesar's history. In the eighth class, the science of grammar was studied in depth. Verse was rendered into prose, and vice versa, translations were made, and, though Ovid's lascivious De arte amandi was strictly off the menu, Virgil was read out 'voce ben sonora to bring out the majesty of his poetry'.
The Latin diet remained at the university. English had such lowly status that undergraduates were forbidden to speak it within the precincts of the hall, except at feasts and on holidays. It was compulsory for them to use Latin, although French was tolerated as an alternative in some colleges. Tyndale's love of English – 'our mother tongue', he said, 'which doth correspond with scripture better than ever Latin may' – was eccentric. It was spoken by only three million people on their foggy island; and the English themselves largely governed, educated and prayed in Latin. A foreign scholar or cleric, such as Erasmus, lived for several years in England, and followed a lively social and academic life, without speaking any English.
The MA course began with the trivium, the 'liberall artes', a trio of grammar, rhetoric and logic. Tyndale will have read the Rhetoric of Aristotle, Boethius's Topics, Cicero's Nova Rhetorica and some works of Ovid and Priscian. His insight into rhetoric was greatly to influence his prose. The mark of all Tyndale's writing is its brilliant resonance when read aloud. From the trivium, he moved on to the quadrivium, of arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry. Whether Tyndale was musical or not, we do not know, though singing and playing music were a favourite student pastime; but the sense of rhythm and cadence that floods his work shows that he had a sensitive ear. He did not write poetry either and was somewhat sour to colleagues who did, and yet his images and his gift for the mood of words reveal a poetic temperament.
Public teaching was by lecture and disputation. The master took a set text and expounded on its meaning. His students had to provide interpretations and glosses on it, and to launch quaestiones, or investigations, into its aspects. Formal debates and oratory were held on dies disputabilis. In front of the young scholars, or sophisters, masters and bachelors argued on either side of an interpretation or proposition – usually one proponent and two opponents – until the presiding master gave his determination or final judgement.
Oxford was known as the Vineyard of the Lord for its learning and its beauty – 'a place gladsome and fertile, suitable for a habitation of the gods' Wycliffe had written of it – but Tyndale found its teaching sterile and antiquated. He improved himself 'in knowledge of tongues and other liberal arts', laying the basis of his translating genius. He devoted much attention to theology, and, so the Protestant martyrologist John Foxe recorded, 'read privily to certain students and fellows of Magdalen College some parcel of divinity, instructing them in the knowledge and truth of the scriptures'. He found the Oxford theologians, however, to be 'old barking curs ... beating the pulpit with their fists for madness'.
The great enemies in his life – Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and two bishops of London, Cuthbert Tunstall and John Stokesley – were between fifteen and eighteen years older than him. Thomas More, for example, had gone up to Oxford in 1492. They were closer to the swirling anarchy, intrigues and assassinations of the dynastic wars; they were more conservative, more fearful of change than Tyndale. In 1515, while Tyndale was still at Oxford, More was on a diplomatic mission to Antwerp. Here he had begun to write Utopia, his evocation of a magical island of happiness and fair play, where reason and justice reign; but Utopia means a 'non-place', as the name of its great city, Amaurotum, comes from the Greek for 'darkly seen', and for More this ideal was an irony reflecting on the brutishness of reality.
Tyndale's generation had less reason to fear change and disorder. He was restless at Oxford and scornful of the status quo. He found the student to be crushed by tradition and censorship: 'he is sworn that he shall not defame the university, whatsoever he seeth', he said, 'and when he taketh his first degree, he is sworn that he shall hold none opinion condemned by the church; but what such opinions be, that he shall not know.'
Excerpted from God's Bestseller by Brian Moynahan. Copyright © 2002 Brian Moynahan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Brian Moynahan is a former history scholar of Cambridge University. He was a foreign correspondent, and latterly the European editor, of the London Sunday Times. As a foreign correspondent, he reported in the United States from Texas, New York City, Los Angeles, Florida, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. He also spent time with U.S. forces in Vietnam 1964-68 and in the Middle East. He lives in England.
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