It is hard to believe that there could be anything remaining from William Tyndale and his work that has not already been recognised, catalogued, referenced and talked about by scholars the world over. Yet only recently a third 1526 New Testament of his was discovered, and it has, what is more, the title page that the other two copies have always lacked. Much will be said in future about this new discovery, and we can only recommend to the interested reader that he or she look forward to the next (1998) edition of the Reformation journal, where all will be revealed. It promises to be quite a feast. Meanwhile, something else has come to light In recent weeks that may add a little more to our understanding of Tyndale's work and achievements.
In March and April of this year, at the request of David Daniell, I had the opportunity to examine the remaining papers of John Foxe, the martyrologist. These papers are held today in the Harleian and Lansdowne collections of manuscripts at the British Library, and my brief was to look for the two letters which Tyndale wrote to John Frith just before Frith was burned, and for Tyndale's modernisation into Tudor English of the trial of William Thorpe, an early Lollard who was burned as a heretic in the year 1407.
It was hoped that if the letters to Frith had survived, they would be the originals and not copies, and it was known that the copy of Thorpe's trial which Foxe printed, was in Tyndale's own hand, for Foxe himself states as much. Thus, the search was on for three specific items, only one of which would have added greatly to the surprisingly meagre material which survives from Tyndale, for hitherto the only item to have come down to us in his own hand, is the letter that Tyndale wrote from his prison cell at Vilvorde before he himself was burned at the stake.
A Great Disappointment
Alas, the search was fruitless. Although hundreds of papers survive from Foxe's collection, the most important of them, Tyndale's amongst them, were removed long ago, and now it would seem that they are lost forever. The collection that now remains was purchased in the 1690s from Foxe's then aged granddaughter, Alice, by the antiquarian, John Strype, from whose hands they passed to the Earl of Oxford and thus to the British Museum, where they formed the foundation of the modern British Library. They are an invaluable source of information, and there is a sufficient bulk of them remaining to keep generations of scholars fully occupied.
Yet what is lost is greater still. Priceless manuscripts and autographs are missing from the early Middle Ages onwards. What happened to them after John Foxe died, no one knows. They may have been sold off separately, stolen, or even inadvertently destroyed when someone cleared out the family attic one day, though it has to be said that the missing items seem to be missing more by design than chance, for an accidental and random loss would have ensured that some at least of the more important documents had survived. But however it came about, it is an irretrievable loss, and among those missing documents, of course, are Tyndale's letters and his edition of Thorpe's trial. Resting upon the safest assumption that the removal of all these items was deliberate (though perhaps not malicious), it would appear that one item of great importance was overlooked during the selection process. It is a mere fragment of a larger whole, and consists of two paper leaves in an early 16th century hand, but which hand, upon comparison with the Vilvorde letter, turns out to be none other than Tyndale's own!
The Lollard Tracts
It has often been wondered how Tyndale occupied his time in London whilst waiting for permission to translate the New Testament. We know from Foxe that he exercised a preaching ministry at the church of St Dunstan's in the West, but, and this is often overlooked by historians of the Reformation, we know also from Foxe that Tyndale worked into Tudor English several tracts that had come down from the earlier times of the Lollards, whose English was too archaic to be readily understood in the early 16th century. Among the tracts mentioned by Foxe, are the Prayer and Complaint of the Plowman, which Foxe printed in the 1570 edition of his Book of Martyrs, the trial of William Thorpe, and (very probably though Foxe doesn't say so) the testament of faith that appears in Foxe (1563) at the end of Thorpe's trial. All of these passed through Tyndale's expert hands as he translated them from their Middle English.
However, there was another tract which Foxe printed (1563) under the title A Compendious olde Treatise, shewing that we ought to have the scripture in English, which seemingly was originally authored in the late 14th century by Wycliffe's colleague, John Purvey. Foxe makes no mention of Tyndale in connection with the tract, yet the fragment in Tyndale's hand that now lies in the Harleian collection, is intimately related to the Compendious olde Treatise printed by Foxe. There are textual differences between the two, though these are more of arrangement than content, with a few minor additions and omissions here and there. But what made me curious when I first came across the fragment was not so much its content as its title, a title provided by John Strype when he was sorting out his newly acquired collection. He wrote at the head of the fragment's first folio, ‘A Notable discourse for having the Bible in English in the time of Thomas Arundel Abp of Cant.’ It was the name of Thomas Arundel that drew me to the document, because he it was who imprisoned, interrogated and finally burned William Thorpe back in 1407, and knowing the connection between Thorpe and Tyndale compelled a closer look. There was, after all, the possibility that this was another document by Thorpe, with the added and very obvious possibility that Tyndale had modernised it. This hope, though mistaken in an immediate sense, was fortuitous, for though the authorship of the original is attributable to another of Wycliffe's followers (Purvey), it did lead to the comparison of the fragment's calligraphy with that of the Vilvorde letter which we know is in Tyndale's hand. The outcome of that comparison was a positive match. There is not merely a general similarity of style, but such a closeness of fine detail between the two that cannot and never does arise by chance. A person's handwriting is as distinctive as a fingerprint. And that fact, reinforced by a considerable body of circumstantial evidence, points with great authority to the fragment's having been written in Tyndale's own hand. That is not all that the fragment tells us. Indeed, its contents open up whole fields of further investigation. It tells, for example, of a London man named Weryng who had in his keeping at the close of the 14th century a great Bible in English which was already some two hundred years old. It was written in ‘northern speech’, but who, we are forced to ask, was translating the Bible into English in the late 1100s? This is added fare indeed to the hitherto spare diet of pre-Wycliffite translations of the Bible. Yet that is just one of the matters raised by this important, yet unappreciated, fragment. Its subject, the translating of the scriptures into English, was, of course, very close to Tyndale's heart, and it may have been that he hoped its publication would help to sway the mind of Cuthbert Tunstall towards granting him a licence to translate the New Testament.
In the event, the hope proved forlorn, although Tyndale can hardly have dreamt that 450 years later, his tract would enable scholars to peer even deeper into that grandest and most mysterious of events in the history of England and the Bible, the Reformation.
© Bill Cooper