The Bristol 1526 Tyndale Testament - its Origin and its History

Morris West

On 13 July 1782 Andrew Gifford, minister of the Baptist Chapel in Eagle Street, London and sub-librarian of the British Museum, made a will in the following terms:

Whereas I have been earnestly requested not to destroy my manuscripts as I thought, I hereby desire that the said Messrs Ryland and Robinson will look over them and preserve those which they shall think proper (and destroy the rest) which I hereby give and bequeath to the Society of Baptists of Bristol together with my books, library, pictures and also my curiosities, natural history and the rest of my museum. I hereby give to the aforesaid Baptist Academy or Museum at Bristol.[1]

Andrew Gifford preached his final sermon on 2 June 1784 at the age of eighty-four. He was in very great weakness and before the month was out he had died. He was buried in Bunhill Fields early on the morning of 2 July.

The Bristol Baptist Academy report for 1784 records that the terms of the will had been followed and a vast collection of books and curiosities had arrived in Bristol. The whole collection was valued then at over 1,000 but in the 210 years since it may be said that the actual financial benefit to the Bristol Baptist College must be recorded as well over a thousand times that eighteenth-century valuation.

Gifford's intention in such a generous bequest was to advance educational facilities for Baptist ministers. The Bristol Baptist College dates its foundation as 1679 and is the oldest surviving Free Church college in the world. In 1770 it had been further developed as the Bristol Education Society, the foundation deed of which makes the case for an educated ministry in these words:

The importance of a liberal education more especially to candidates for the Christian Ministry is so exceedingly obvious that one might almost think it impossible any considerate, intelligent person should fail to be convinced of it. Yet, as is well known, there are some very worthy people who from a mistaken view of things not only call in question the importance of such education but even seem to imagine it rather prejudicial than useful.[2]

The intent of the Society was that churches might be more effectually supplied 'with a succession of able and evangelical ministers'. Gifford had himself in 1780 made a gift of 100 to the College in order that, so the college report says:

There may be erected over the library a new room for a museum which room is 30' x 14' x 18' and is designed to be the repository of the valuable library, pictures and busts of the generous founder of it as well as such other articles as may be added to the collection by the friends and benefactors of the institution.[3]

It was into this new room that there arrived late in 1784 Gifford's remarkable bequest. It consisted first, of a natural history collection, of mosses, seaweed, fossils and rocks. Secondly, there came the remnant of his coin collection, for Gifford was an expert numismatist. Indeed, an eighteenth-century learned volume of coins in the British Library contains numerous handwritten notes signed A.G., or Andrew Gifford.[4] The main part of Gifford's coin collection was later purchased by George II. Thirdly, and most importantly, his collection of manuscripts and books, including many Bibles, arrived at Bristol. The manuscripts included four Vulgates, an illuminated Psalter and a fifteenth-century French Book of Hours. The printed works included four Caxtons. Of particular value was a second edition of The Mirror of the World with its original leather binding. The most extraordinary of all of the bequests in the collection were the printed Bibles. These included a first edition of a Tyndale 1526 New Testament, Tyndale's 1530 Pentateuch, his 1534 New Testament, Coverdale's Bible of 1535, a first edition of the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Douai version and two Authorized Versions from 1611, one a so-called He Bible and the other a so-called She Bible. Gifford's skill as a collector of books was remarkable. No doubt his link with the British Museum kept him informed of sales. We have a record of one such sale namely that of

the curiosities and truly valuable library of the late James West Esquire, President of the Royal Society, deceased ... sold by auction by Messrs Langford at Mr West's late dwelling house in King Street, Covent Garden on Monday 29th March 1773 and the 23 following days (Sundays excepted) to begin each day precisely at half past eleven.[5]

There were 4,653 lots in the sale by auction and they realised 2,927 1 s. 0 d. A. S Langley, writing in 1921, records that he has before him a copy of this catalogue, which. contains in red ink the price given for each lot. Dr Gifford attended on three different days and made thirteen purchases at the total cost of 7 13 s. 6 d., including 2 4 s. 0 d. for Tyndale's 1534 New Testament and I guinea for a 1546 New Testament published by Grafton.[6] If it be asked how Gifford could afford to indulge his love and skill as a collector the answer is certainly not by his stipend from the Eagle Street Baptist Church, nor. one suspects, from whatever the British Museum paid him. There is strong evidence to suggest that his second wife, aptly named Grace, brought with her into the marriage what was then a considerable fortune of about 6,000.

Interestingly enough, the dispersal of Gifford's benefaction by the college in Bristol began within a few years of his death, when duplicates of books already in the college library were gifted to the Baptist College, Rhode Island. The chief founder of this college was a former Bristol student, Morgan Edwards. It was that original Baptist College at Rhode Island which has now developed into the modern Brown University.[7]

Clearly, the outstanding printed book in Gifford's benefaction was the 1526 Tyndale published in Worms. It is a complete copy — apart from the title page — and is illuminated throughout. Its present binding is almost certainly eighteenth-century. On the inside front page there is a handwritten comment, probably eighteenth-century, which says: 'For prooff of its being a 1st edition see a note at the end of his Address to the Reeder, wherein he writes "This is the fyrst tyme".'

Tyndale's actual quotation from the Address to the Reader says:

Of a pure intent, singularly and faithfully I have interpreted it as far forth as God gave me the gift of knowledge and understanding that the rudeness of the work now at the first time offend them not but that they consider that I had no man to counterfeit neither was helped with English of any that had interpreted the same or such like thing in the Scripture before time...

The pre-history of this copy we cannot trace back beyond the first half of the eighteenth century. Of course we may speculate on its survival, but we can only guess.[8] Experts suggest that the illumination dates from the sixteenth century. If this be so, it may be that the Gifford copy belonged to an English merchant living on the Continent who was sympathetic to Protestantism and who bought it for his own use and arranged for it to be illuminated. It could then have come to England in a later decade of the sixteenth century.

That we are on surer ground by the third decade of the eighteenth century is evidenced from two sources. First in the Bristol Tyndale Bible itself, there is a newspaper cutting from May 1760 attached inside the front cover which reads as follows:

On Tuesday evening at Mr Langford's sale of Mr Ames' books a copy of the translation of the New Testament by Tyndale and supposed to be the only one remaining which escaped the flames was sold for 14 guineas and a half. This very book was picked up by one of the late Lord Oxford's collectors and was esteemed so valuable a purchase by his Lordship that he settled 20 per annum for life upon the person who procured it: his Lordship's library being afterwards purchased by Mr Osborne of Grays Inn, he marked it at 15s for which price Mr Ames bought it.

A further inscription in the Bristol Tyndale reads thus:

NB This choice book was purchased at Mr Langford's sale on 13th May 1760 by Mr John White and upon 13th May 1776 1 sold it to Dr Gifford for 20 guineas which was the price paid for it by the Lord Oxford. Signed Jn. White.

The second source is a letter from Mr Ames to Mr George Ballard dated Wapping, 30 June 1743. Mr Ames writes:

I cannot forbear telling you of my good success in buying at Lord Oxford's sale a Phoenix of the whole library I mean the first English Testament that ever was printed in the year 1526. It has been thought that no perfect one was left from the flames. My Lord was so pleased in being in possession of it that he gave the person (Mr John Murrey) he had it of 10 guineas and settled an annuity of 20 a year for life.[9]

Incidentally, it is said of Joseph Ames that he had a propensity for tearing out the title pages of his books, and this could account for the missing title page of Gifford's Tyndale.[10] It is possible that he wrote the inside cover note which points to the Address to the Reader as evidence for it being a first edition — having first removed the title page.

Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford was of course a highly significant collector of books and manuscripts and added to his father's (Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford) collection of books — the Harleian Collection. The 1st Earl of Oxford was known to spend large sums on the binding of his books. His son Edward was known to be generous to a fault. This may be seen perhaps in the rewarding of Mr Murrey so generously for the purchase of the book. It is possible, also, that the Tyndale was therefore rebound whilst in the possession of the Oxfords.

When the 2nd Earl of Oxford died in 1741, his books were sold by auction in March 1742 and presumably were bought by Thomas Osborne. While Ames claims he bought it at Lord Oxford's sale, our other source suggests that in fact he bought it from Osborne. The explanation presumably is that it was Osborne who sold Oxford's collection of books anyway.

Thus a known chronology for the Bristol Tyndale is:

?1730s: Murrey buys the Tyndale from an unknown vendor on behalf of Lord Oxford

March 1742: Osborne purchases it from the Oxford sale 1743: Ames purchases it for 15s.

13 May 1760: John White purchases it at the sale of Ames's books for 15 4 s. 6 d.

13 May 1776: White sells it for 20 guineas to Gifford

Autumn 1784: the Tyndale comes with the Gifford bequest to Bristol Baptist College

21 April 1994: a sale is agreed between the Bristol Baptist College and the British Library

In the judgement of the Bristol College Committee, such a sale to the British Library was entirely within the intent and wishes of Andrew Gifford. He was an honoured and willing servant of the British Museum. What is more, the sale enhances still further the work of educating men and women for the Christian ministry which was so dear to Gifford's heart. Finally, its presence in the British Library will enable the beauty and tradition of the Tyndale 1526 Testament with its illumination to be shared openly in perpetuity. Truly it may be said of Tyndale, as he himself translates in Hebrews 11: 'He being dead, yet speaketh.'


[1]L.G. Champion, Farthing Rushlight (Carey Kingsgate Press, 1961), p. 89.
[2]Printed first in Annual Account of the Bristol Education Society for 1770 (W. Brine, Wine Street, Bristol). Reprinted in N. S. Moon, Education for Ministry: Bristol Baptist College 1679-1979 (Bristol Baptist College, 1979), Appendix A, p. 129.
[3]An account of the Bristol Education Society for 1780 (Bristol, 1781), p. 5.
[4]Martin Folkes, A Table of English Silver Coins from the Norman Conquest to the Present Time (printed for the Society of Antiquaries, 1745) is the book in question. See L. G. Champion, op. cit., p. 92, n. 10, for fuller details. Champion also gives fuller details of Gifford's various interests on p. 85ff.
[5]A.S. Langley, 'Andrew Gifford's Gifts to Bristol', Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society, VII (1921), pp. 240-43.
[6]Ibid., p. 241.
[7]There is some evidence to suggest that at one time Gifford had intended to leave the whole of his library to Rhode Island College — at least so Morgan Edwards thought. See Hywel Davies, 'The American Revolution and the Baptist Atlantic', Baptist Quarterly, 36, No. 3 (July 1995), pp. 132-49, esp. 140-41.
[8]An oral tradition associated with the Bristol Tyndale suggests that it once belonged to Anne Boleyn, who was thought to have some sympathy with Protestantism, and that she arranged for its illumination. The present writer is unaware of any firm evidence for this tradition.
[9]Letter quoted in Henry Cotton, A List of Editions of the Bible and parts thereof (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1821), p. 1.
[10]DNB, Joseph Ames (1689-1759).

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