The First English Bibles in Print (Antwerp, 1526-38)

In 1538, Henry VIII ordered an English Bible to be placed on the lecterns of all English churches. For the first time in history, people from all over England and from all walks of life would hear a single, shared English. This Great Bible was, in fact, a revised edition of the Coverdale Bible of 1535, which, though edited by Miles Coverdale, was largely the product of translation work by William Tyndale. After an education with humanist influences at Oxford, and possibly also at Cambridge, William Tyndale had travelled to Germany and perfected his Greek and Hebrew. He arrived in Antwerp in the late 1520s, and although the Emperor Charles V was staunchly anti-protestant, Tyndale found relative safety here thanks to the protection of the English community and of the city. It was in this atmo-sphere that he was able to translate half the Old Testament from the Hebrew and revise his New Testament translation from the Greek. Unfortunately, Tyndale would be betrayed, arrested, and imprisoned at Vilvoorde Castle (north of Brussels) in 1535. The lack of help from Henry VIII and condemnation by Leuven theologians would lead to his execution in 1536.

His language, however, and many of his ideas, would survive. The English he used became the standard, and we owe to him more English idioms than we do to Shakespeare (examples are ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘Let there be light’, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’). His Lutheran emphasis on the ‘elders of the congregation’ suggested a hierarchy working from the bottom upwards on the basis of election and representation, rather than a top-down hierarchy as suggested by the traditional, deceptively equivalent phrase ‘the priests of the Church’. Most importantly, perhaps, for the gradual preparation of later systems of democracy, Tyndale’s work not only influenced the language itself, but also transformed the relationship of the common people to the Bible, and, through the Bible, to the written word. Tyndale not only gave ordinary people a voice but, in the fulfillment of his promise to ‘teach the ploughboy to know more about the Bible’ than did the prelates of the Church, he also enabled them to bypass Latin on the path to literacy and the power sharing that literacy confers. Not surprisingly, the mother of parliaments would originate in London.

In 1997 I discovered the Antwerp origins of the 1535 Coverdale Bible (described in The Bible as Book: the Reformation, London: The British Library, 2000, pp. 89-102), and as a result it is possible to explore a vast new area of research. We can form a much better idea now of the context of much of Tyndale’s seminal work. In the same town in the same decade (1526-35), the first Dutch and the first French Bible translation in print saw the light of day, as did the first English printed Bible, the Coverdale 1535. My current project is exploring the interaction between the translators of these and other Antwerp Bibles, paying attention also to Jerome’s Latin and Luther’s German Bibles. I am also investigating the political and economic context within which Tyndale worked, as well as the theological debates of the day.

In the cosmopolitan town of Antwerp the spirit of compromise, often enhanced by the need to stimulate trade with the English and other merchant adventurers, often led to religious and political understanding between rival groups. It is significant that the standardized English language, which owes so much to Tyndale, reached genuine international greatness for the first time since Chaucer in the multilingual, multi-cultural and tolerant town that was Antwerp in the 1530s.

It is unfortunate that because of later developments curbing the power of the English merchants and the magistrates in this leading port of Northern Europe, there would, in later decades, be increasing polarization and acrimony between the religious denominations and political factions in the Low Countries. In England, however, something of Tyndale’s spirit of reconciliation would remain and survive. The Tudor miracle of making a nation culminated in the reign of the virgin Queen Elizabeth I, in the course of which that other great wordsmith, William Shakespeare, would develop Tyndale’s English to perfection.

Guido Latré


  1. This is the background information to the Catholic University of Leuven’s Project (1999-2003) which Dr Guido Latré is coordinating. His research collaborators are Dr Paul Arblaster, Andrew Hope and Gergely Juhasz. The principal ob-jective will be the publication of a CD-ROM, centred around St Paul’s letter to the Romans, which was crucial to the Reformation. It will compare translations in several languages used in Tyndale’s Antwerp and will present other context-ual material. The theological implications of Tyndale’s translation work and the development of standard English will receive special attention. This CDROM will feature at a major exhibition sponsored by the Antwerp Town Council, held in the historic Plantin-Moretus printing house (Sept-Dec 2002). It will be launched during the 5th International Tyndale Conference (31 Aug-3 Sept 2002).

  2. Dr Latré’s lecture at the Tyndale Geneva Conference 26-28 October 2001 will be based on this interesting research project.

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