William Tyndale, Gloucester's Fame and England's Shame

My talk to you tonight is headed William Tindale - Gloucester's Fame and England's Shame. We are in the right place for appreciating the former and, with humility, we must appreciate the latter. My story will tell you how these things came about.

The life and work of William Tyndale has many facets and we can all approach it in our own, and perhaps, very personal way. In a rather overcrowded life I happen to be the President of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. This doesn't transform me into a wizard translator or, indeed, as Tyndale was, a master of eight languages. Presidents seem to attend endless committee meetings and spend time grousing over the accounts for the year ... However, it does bring one into close contact with a huge variety of people and languages. It stamps firmly on the mind the problems of translation and interpretation; things which many people either take for granted or don't think much about. Do we translate word for word? Do we stretch the meaning beyond this to get full comprehension? The maker of an electric kettle in England assumes that the instructions in Malaysian are clear and concise and no one will get electrocuted in Kuala Lumpur. This is big trust and an enormous responsibility placed on the translator. Likewise words in Hebrew, written several thousand years ago, have got to mean, in English, what they were intended to mean then. I will develop this theme later.

Cardinal Hume once said 'speaking is like prospecting for oil - if you don't strike it rich in ten minutes then stop boring!' I am aware that many of you know quite a lot about William Tyndale but some do not - if I am boring to the former I hope I sun striking oil with the latter. Either way you will hear a very personal account of his life and work.

About forty years ago a three-word expression came into our language for good. On our Desert Island the only available literature was the 'Bible and Shakespeare'. There you have it. The two most quoted works in this country, though not necessarily the best read. And here we are tonight with Tyndale on the doorstep and Shakespeare up the road. How lucky we are. But then we say 'the Bible, what Bible?', and so the story begins.

Today there are nearly two thousand translations of the Bible from Albanian to Zulu by way of a hundred or so African tribal dialects spoken by only a handful of people. In our own language translations began with Early English, Anglo Saxon, and have continued to politically correct and feminine oriented versions. I have a lovely bible, the Glasgow Bible, recently published. That passage about Job's tribulations has a ring about it that makes us reflect. We do not know exactly what language and speech Tyndale had but this passage, the work of a devoted and intelligent churchman, has a resonance.

'I'll gie Job inty your power, then,' says God. 'But mind the rule - ye're no tac kill the man'. Satan smirked tae himself. 'Ah ken how tae deal wi Job noo'. So he strikes doon Job's body wi ugly plooks an bites fae heid tae fit. Whit a state the man wis in! 'It's aw the faut o your God', moaned Job's wife. But still Job disny complain. 'Ye ken when God gies us guid things, were gled o it', he says. 'So when he gies us trouble, we jist hiv tae thole it'

Plooks and biles has a familiar ring. Tyndale talks about a man's 'brain-pan', about 'emerods and scurf' - we are in the same territory.

So today, here in Gloucestershire, we are in the privileged position of considering 'our man' and a book from his hand which not only 'gave us our language' but put English into what it is today - the world's leading language. One billion speakers of English worldwide, 85% of all international telephone calls in English , seventy percent of the world's letters addressed in English. Five hundred years ago things were different. French oriented, latinised English on the one hand and Anglo Saxon and vernacular on the other. You bred sheep and ate mutton, tended the swine and dined on pork. If you were posh you employed the latinate words, top-posh you communicated in Latin altogether and if you were ordinary then the short AngloSaxon words would do. The strength of our wonderful language is that we have this huge choice, solemn words for great occasions and matter of fact words for everyday use. Tyndale knew this well and used it to the full as we shall see.

Let's start at the beginning, five hundred years ago in Gloucestershire.

We do not have any record of the actual date of William Tyndale's birth but we are reasonably certain that it was in 1494 and that he came from a respectably well-to-do family. Tyndales had lived in Gloucestershire for many generations though the name suggests that their origins may have been in the north of England. A Tyndale family lived at Stinchcombe about a mile and a half west of Dursley in a house called Melksham Court and it is here that we can presume that Tyndale was born. The church at North Nibley is thought to be where he was baptised. As you all know the imposing monument to Tyndale, erected in 1866, stands on Nibley Knoll with its commanding view over the Severn valley. Edward Tyndale, probably a brother, lived at Hurts Farm just outside Slimbridge. The name Hutchins came into the Tyndale family at one point and it may have been adopted by the Tyndales who came from the north as a 'safe name' during the Wars of the Roses. However that may be, there are plenty of Hutchins in the Stinchcombe area today.

We must not think of William Tyndale as a country lad making it good in the sophisticated and intellectual world of fifteenth century England. And we must not think of Gloucestershire as a backwater, either, The Tyndales were successful merchants, landowners and people with some local power. Gloucestershire was agricultural and prosperous with large farms and a rich social and cultural life. Trade coursed through the county. From the north down the strip of land east of the River Severn. To the east to London, through Bristol and its port to Ireland, Europe and further afield to Africa.

There was trade, there was bussle and there was intellectual activity. As Professor David Daniell has pointed out, it is curious that the greatest users of the English language have lived on the edges of other cultures and other tongues. Chaucer, an official working in the Port of London spent many hours talking to sailors from far off countries. Shakespeare lived near enough to the edge of Wales to have known the country and language quite well and created affectionate Welsh characters for his plays. The Cotswold trade in sheep, wool and woollen cloth meant a stream of merchants from other countries visiting the county with their languages and ideas. Tyndale's love, and great skill, in language must have stemmed from early youth. Equally his life in the farming community taught him the habits, thoughts, and, especially, the language of those around him. Posterity is hugely in luck.

Let's look for a moment at what this knowledge of local language might mean. Tyndale would be using the speech of the Vale of Berkeley which would be distinctive to the district. That is to say in sound, in the way the words are strung together and in the actual words themselves. Lord Reith had not yet been invented to press BBC English on the entire population or Mid Atlantic TV to finish the job with a flourish of flattened vowels and twangy adjectives ... Local speech was distinctive.

Local speech often imparts wisdom in a memorable, often rhythmic, form. 'A rolling stone gathers no moss' has a lovely feel to it. Many of Tyndale's Bible phrases must have had their genesis in this tradition. 'Be not weary of well doing', 'When two or three are gathered together', 'Seek and ye shall find'. We are in the company of a master wordsmith. The phrases of the 1530s are with us still today.

So here is Tyndale, young and intelligent, steeped in his Gloucestershire culture, attending a local school and meeting a wide range of cultivated people. But we have only a hazy idea of the details of this early life. What we do know is that in 1506 he went up to Magdalen College at Oxford and received a formal training in what were called in those days Quadrium and Trivium - 'Quod and Triv' - as they were known. This would have been a course in Grammar, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. Par for the course for those days and, actually, pretty good for us these days. In addition he studied philosophy as it was taught then, natural, moral and metaphysical with Aristotle to orchestrate the thinking.

He did spend some time at Cambridge but we know less about this.

Thereafter he returned to Gloucestershire and became tutor to Sir Thomas Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. This was, and still is, a typical Cotswold manor house, rambling, stone roofed and walled, looking over to the river Severn and the Welsh hills beyond. Tyndale took Holy Orders, he preached locally with great effect, his duties to the Walsh children were minimal. Life was pretty good.

At what point his thoughts turned to Bible translation we do not know. He was a gifted linguist credited with seven languages. Latin would come naturally to him because that was the common language of Church and Officialdom. Remember, the great Erasmus came to England with not a word of English and got on splendidly with all he met, speaking Latin. Isn't it nice, incidently, that Latin seems to be making a comeback in our schools. Tyndale's Greek was more than excellent and the bedrock of his New Testament skills. He knew Spanish, German, French and clearly sonic others. Best of all he had learned Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. Few, if any, knew Hebrew in England at that time and a Bible translation would have had to have been from St Jerome's Latin 'Vulgate' of the fourth century.

The turning point in his life came with a visit to London to see Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, a significant Greek scholar, and someone whom Tyndale hoped could house him and help with a translation of the New Testament from the Greek. Tunstall would act as a patron to this young man. No such luck. The bishop told him to try elsewhere as he really didn't want to be involved. It was quite clear that the only opportunities lay in the continent of Europe.

Perhaps we might pause at this point and consider where Bible translation was in the 1520s.

In the first centuries of the Christian era we find translation of the Bible more or less keeping pace with the expansion of the Church to new countries. Latin, Armenian, Georgian, Gothic, Ethiop, Slavonic and many obscure languages received the Bible to themselves. But these were all 'Greek' communities. The Latin communities of Western Europe had little enthusiasm for translation and sought to prohibit any in the vernacular. Wyclif translated from Latin, thus a translation of a translation, and was immediately condemned. The Constitution of Oxford in 1408 expressly forbade the translation of any part of the Scripture into English. The Bible in English was not totally unknown, but only in part, in snippets secretly passed from hand to hand.

However in 1499, in Strasburg, a German Bible had appeared. Luther's New Testament came out in September 1522 and by 1524 the Bible could be found in Danish, French, Italian, Spanish (that is Catalan), Czech and Dutch. Luther's Pentateuch, the first vernacular Bible direct from the original Hebrew, appeared in 1523 and his complete Bible, with illustrations by Lucas Cranach, appeared in 1524. But not in England. No complete Bible, the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, had ever been attempted. Nor could it. Little wonder that Bishop Tunstall, although a brilliant Greek scholar, had cold feet.

Tyndale went to Germany in 1524. He moved about and it is not exactly clear where his wanderings took him till we hear of him settled in Cologne. North east Europe had three great trading ports - Hamburg, Antwerp and Cologne. Here were to found many printing houses and English business communities, both helpful to Tyndale. He worked with an assistant, a Friar called William Roye, but the Cologne authorities got wind of them and they only just managed to escape arrest and flee to Worms. This was the start of years of pursuit and persecution. We can only wonder at and admire the courage and tenacity of Tyndale.

In 1526, in Worms, a small hymn-book sized Bible was printed, probably of three or at most six thousand copies. This was Tyndale's New Testament translation.

Suddenly, in phrase after glorious phrase, the English we know and recognise came forth. 'A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid'. 'No man can serve two masters', 'Ask and it shall he given you', 'Knock and it shall be opened unto you' and a hundred other familiar sayings. Here for the first time was a complete New Testament in the English that ordinary people could understand. Tyndale's boast to a cleric that one day 'the boy who drives the plough shall know more of the Bible than do you' was to come true. The English is clear and unambiguous: the language that people spoke; simple and uncomplicated. The book was small enough to be put in the pocket. The ploughboy could sit and read it under a hedge as he munched his bread and cheese at midday.

Three only, copies remain of the 1526 Tyndale New Testament. I was privileged, earlier this year, to visit St Paul's Cathedral Library to see one copy. 'Yes', I said, 'but where, in all these twenty-three thousand volumes, is the Tyndale Bible?', 'on the table just by your right elbow!', came the reply. I had just not noticed it ... it was so unexpectedly small. Conservationalists and librarians will shudder but I did place a finger on this sacred volume - it felt like touching the Holy Grail.

Only very recently has a third copy come to light in Germany. It had been rebound with the date of the binding printed on the cover so was not assumed to be an original 1526 New Testament. It is an exciting thought that there may be others. Alas! not under Gloucestershire hedges I fear ...

So far we have Gloucester's Fame. Now we turn to England's Shame.

Copies of the New Testament were shipped secretly to England, often in bales of cloth or barrels of grain, and readily snapped up by all who came by them. Booksellers and eager readers in London and the south east seized on this remarkable book. So too, did the authorities. Cardinal Wolsey summoned his bishops and the process of burning these Bibles began. 'Many children of iniquity, maintainers of Luther's sect, blinded through extreme wickedness, wandering away from the truth of the Catholic Faith, have craftily translated our English tongue', he stated. He claimed to have found many mistakes in this translation. As we might say now, 'he would do, wouldn't he'.

At this point Bishop Tunstall ordered copies to be piled up outside St Paul's Cathedral and to he burnt - fifty yards from where one of the remaining Tyndale Bibles now rests. Ironic, isn't it?

Tyndale was devastated. He was deeply shocked. Today we feel mortified.

Furthermore, orders were given to Sir John Hackett, the British Ambassador to the Low Countries, to act against printers and booksellers whereby burnings took place in Antwerp and Bergen-op-Zoom. Bishop Wareham was actually buying Tyndale's Bibles in order to place them on the bonfires. But we must remember that Martin Luther's Bible was also at risk in England. Cardinal Wolsey organised a particularly grand occasion when he sat in splendour, surrounded by 36 bishops, abbots and priors, whilst five very penitent Germans set fire to faggots and piled high the offending works of Luther.

By now Tyndale is in Antwerp and well set on his Old Testament translation. Again the phrases so familiar to us come pouring forth from his pen. It is 1525 and he is living with a good friend, Thomas Poyntz, in what was known as the English House. It was peaceful and comfortable, a centre for English traders and, probably, what we might call today, 'a safe house'. Those of you who know and admire Salman Rushdie will know what such persecution must feel like to a writer, even in a safe house.

The first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, are completed and being printed. And here I would like to pause and get to the core of my talk. Why was Tyndale so exceptional? Why is he relevant to us today?

I have already quoted from him words which are familiar to you -- familiar because you know them from the Authorised Version of the Bible. That is because at least eighty percent of the AV is straight out of Tyndale. King James's Bible of 1611 was the work of several dozen scholars. The New International Version of the Bible of 1973 had a fearsome committee structure. Each book was assigned to a team of scholars, next, one of the Immediate Editorial Committee reviewed the work, then this went to one of the General Editorial Committees, then it was looked at by the Committee on Bible Translation who submitted it to a number of stylistic consultants, two of which read every book of the Bible, before showing them to a large number of people, young and old, educated or not, ministers and laymen ... Tyndale did this all by himself!

'Let not your hearts be troubled', says Tyndale and we understand. 'Do not be worried or upset' say some modern versions which sounds trivial. The New International Version, after endless committee meetings, comes out with Tyndale's original phrase, 'let not your hearts be troubled'.

As a translater Tyndale was a 'maximist' -- he wanted everything to come forward. This was not always possible. Ancient Hebrew is obscure. Imagine a book in a dead language where often a word will occur only once in the whole book. There are no cross references to see how it is used elsewhere. You have to guess at it. Tyndale was staunchly courageous.

In the Hebrew. the Ark was made from wood of the Gopher tree -- but no-one knows exactly what that was. Tyndale settles for 'pine'. At least the ploughboy knew what he was talking about. Place names can be interesting. Moregrove and Saltdale sound terribly Gloucestershire! But no matter.

When a thousand words occur only once, fewer than four in five occur less than twenty times, we can see the problem. Naturally modem scholarship and the Dead Sea Scrolls have helped considerably.

At the same time Tyndale found that Hebrew went into English readily and easily. 'The properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the Englsih than with the Latin', he wrote. One reason is the grammatical form known as the construct'. This is the form THE + NOUN + OF + NOUN. Thus 'the beasts of the field', 'the gods of your fathers' have a nice ring about them which 'you father's gods' does not. We do this today when we want to heighten the mood. The Minister of State rather than The State's Minister. In Tyndale monosyllables dominate. Verbs are simple.

'The wise knew not, babes knew' how succinct!

Next we have Tyndale's marvellous sense of rhythm. The narrative moves steadily forward with a vigour that leaves other versions standing.

In the Authorised Version, in the Book of Samuel, King David says to God. 'When the waves of death compassed me, the floods of ungodly men made me afraid, the sorrows of hell compassed me about, the snares of death prevented me'. Tyndale has, 'The waves of death have closed me about, and the floods of Belial have feared me. The cords of hell have compassed me about, and the snares of death hake overtaken me'. Tyndale keeps a run of concrete nouns and concrete verbs in strong simplicity. Waves. floods, cords, snares, and closed about, feared, compassed, overtaken. Open the Tyndale Bible at any page and this simplicity shines forth.

'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased' says the Authorised Version. 'Thou art my dear Son in whom I delight', says Tyndale. The AV suddenly sounds rather flat. Esau sells his birthright for 'a morsel of meat', in the AV. Tyndale has him selling it 'for one breakfast' - does this not sound very modern! 'and all that heard it wondered at those things that were told them of the shepherds. But Mary kept all those sayings and pondered them in her heart'. The juxtaposition of 'wondered' and 'pondered' gives a nice balance. Luther has 'Bewiget', weighed up, the Latin Vulgate has 'conferens', brought together. Ponder, to us seems exactly right.

Whilst monosyllables dominate, Tyndale often reserves the polysyllables for the ends of the sentences. Like this from John 14. 'lest they bid thee again, and make thee recompense' says Tyndale. The AV, 'lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee'. The rhythm is lost.

Yesterday was the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. We read the Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter four, verse seventeen. 'blinded in their understanding, being strangers from the life which is in God', says Tyndale. The Authorised Version says 'having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God ...'. Tyndale is pithy.

A little further on we read 'let not the sun go down on your wrath neither give place to the backbiter' - have a look at the AV ...

In Genesis chapter four Tyndale says, 'Cain was wroth exceedingly and loured', The Authorised Version has 'Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell'.

Clearly one could continue all evening with quotations from Tyndale. I would suggest that you will all get enormous pleasure and satisfaction from reading from Tyndale and comparing it with not only the Authorised Version but with other English Bibles.

Scholarship has advanced and new meanings come forward. What Tyndale calls a 'hedgehog' the Geneva Bible calls a 'rat' and the AV a 'ferret'. Probably we shall never know. Tyndale has 'fritters' which later turn into 'cakes'. He uses 'goggleeyed' and 'perl-eyed', 'fainty' and 'flaggy' which all have a feeling of familiarity though they have long since faded from the dictionaries. Oh! but what about 'mizzling' for 'light rain', that's spot on.

His 'Fortune and Luck' were taken out because they seemed to imply that God was subject to chance. A pity, really.

It is now the spring of 1535 and by May it is all over. Tyndale has been arrested by the authorities in a villainous plot and imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle outside Brussels. The only writing in his hand that we have is a letter from prison asking for wanner clothes and the Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary. 'I suffer greatly from a cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh' he writes, 'and I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark'. Tyndale has courage. He continues his work translating the Old Testament to the last.

We are here today to commemorate the day of his death and to mourn the loss to Gloucestershire, to England and to the World of this greatest of men.

Tyndale was led to execution in Vilworde's square where two great beams of wood had been placed in a cross. 'Lord, open the King of England's eyes' were his last words. A rope was tightened round his neck, he was strangled and, when judged dead, the Procuror General handed a lighted faggot to the executioner who set fire to brushwood, straw and gunpowder around Tyndale.

We are incredible lucky, yes William Tyndale, LUCKY! to have our Bible from you. From your hand came English in all its beauty, came the language of Shakespeare and all that has followed down the past five centuries. Maybe the directness and spontaneity of Tyndale will appeal to the young, the ploughboys and ploughgirls of today, where the AV has not taken root, and 'open their eyes'. Let us hope.

Rowland Whitehead