The Tyndale Window, Bristol Baptist College

Bristol Baptist College was designed by the architects George Oatley and George Lawrence as a replacement for the College’s original site down in Stokes Croft. Founded in 1679, it is the oldest Baptist College in the world. It is an impressive building in mock Elizabethan style built of red ‘Old Basing’ bricks with Bath stone facings. It stands in the heart of the University precinct in Clifton, next door to Royal Fort House and has been now fully incorporated into the University of Bristol. Until recently it possessed a unique treasure in the shape of the one and only perfect extant copy, out of a run of at least three thousand, of Tyndale’s 1526 Worms New Testament. During the 1990s this was sold to the British Library for upwards of one million pounds in a sale negotiated by Robert A.Gilbert.

Immediately inside the main entrance to the College is a large stairwell containing an oak Jacobean-style staircase lit by an imposing stained-glass window depicting the life of William Tyndale. This window was presented to the College by Mrs. Edward Robinson in memory of her father, the Reverend Frederick W. Gotch LLD, who was principal of the College from 1868 to 1883. It was unveiled by her nephew, Dr. Gotch’s great-grandson, Philip Napier Robinson, in 1919, the year the College was formally opened on its new site. In the speech she made before the unveiling, Mrs. Robinson said that the subject of the window had been chosen for two reasons: firstly, because of the precious copy of the Tyndale New Testament the College possessed, guarded as a sacred trust by each President in turn, and secondly, in order to commemorate her father’s own contribution to the task of rendering the Bible into English, during the many years in which he had served on the Old Testament Revision Committee, translating the Hebrew text of the Old Testament for the Revised Version published in 1885.

Mrs. Robinson’s nephew, Arnold Wathen Robinson (1888-1955), who was educated at Clifton College and had a long personal and family connection with Bristol, designed the window. He was an Academician of the Royal West of England Academy and a director of the Bristol firm of Joseph Bell & Son, which carried out work for many West Country churches. Especially well known in Bristol are the Civil Defence windows that Arnold Robinson design-ed for Bristol Cathedral, and his Bunyan window in Tyndale Baptist Church.

The Tyndale Window comprises twelve sections, each depicting a scene or symbol relating to Tyndale’s life, and reading from left to right starting at the top. The uppermost four lights portray Tyndale’s life and achievements in terms of symbols.

In the first window is a vine, representing the words of Christ in the Gospel according to St. John, Chapter XV: ‘I am the vine and ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit’.

The second window depicts a city set on a hill and the third a New Testament in English, open at St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus, its pages radiating light. Above these two windows and spanning them like a rainbow, is a scroll that reads: ‘As a city set on a hill cannot be hid so the light of Christ’s gospel cannot be hid as though it pertained to some certain holy persons only’.

The fourth window shows a spray of palm fronds, a symbol of victory, in the side of which can be seen a martyr’s crown.

Window five is a tranquil domestic scene depicting Tyndale in residence as chaplain to Sir John Walsh at the latter’s manor in Old Sodbury, Gloucestershire. Tyndale is shown seated, eagerly conveying to two friends his conviction that even a ploughboy would be able to understand the Bible once it was translated into his native tongue, whilst through the open window behind the three men’s heads can be seen a ploughboy at his work.

Window six pictures Tyndale preaching to the people of Bristol at sunset on College Green, the eastern end of Bristol Cathedral towering up behind him, flanked by trees full of rooks’ nests, a realistic detail still true to the scene of this former Augustinian Abbey’s burial ground when the window was made. A small girl sits on the grass at Tyndale’s feet, listening intently to his words, but the angry red of the sunset sky illuminating the scene seems like a foreboding of the flames that would one day await Tyndale for his radical views.

Window seven shows Tyndale about to board a boat for Germany in 1524, clutching in either hand the manuscripts of his translations. He was being forced into exile by his enemies, never to return to his native land.

Window eight depicts Tyndale standing beside his printer, Peter Schoeffer, in Worms, checking the proofs of his New Testament as they come off the printing press. The first completed version was printed here in 1525.

Window nine moves us back to London where Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, is standing sternly in his pulpit outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, overseeing the burning of copies of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament that had been smuggled into England. A monk is shown hurrying forward carrying so many books in his arms that he has to steady the pile with his chin. The flames of the fire and the expressions on the faces of the onlookers provide an angry and sinister note to this scene of the destruction of God’s word.

Window ten depicts the betrayal of Tyndale by Henry Phillips in May 1535, while he was living at the house of Thomas Pointz in Antwerp. Tyndale stands in a doorway, a look of astonishment on his face, as two soldiers armed with halberds seize his wrists. Behind him, under the porch of the house, looms the figure of Phillips, pointing menacingly at Tyndale in the attitude of Judas Iscariot betraying Christ.

Window eleven portrays Tyndale in his prison cell at Vilvorde, where he spent the last eighteen months of his life. He is shown seated, bent over a desk in a gloomy dungeon, still continuing his great work of translation. Above Tyndale’s head hangs a lantern, its beams radiating forth like a symbol of the light of the Gospel that his words were shedding.

Window twelve evokes the scene of Tyndale’s martyrdom. He is shown naked to the waist and bound to a wooden cross, guarded by armed soldiers. He has already been strangled and is now engulfed in the flames of his pyre, his lifeless head drooping to one side, his face ashen. In the foreground the black-clad executioner stoops to set fire to fresh bundles of faggots, whilst in the background the castle of Vilvorde towers up. Tyndale himself, however, his sufferings finally over, seems to be being carried protectively heavenward by the flames of his pyre, secure now from human wrath and cruelty.

Although the College no longer possesses its Tyndale New Testament, its dramatic and thought-provoking window remains to portray to successive generations of students and visitors to the University the struggles and achievements of this great and courageous West Country man.

Peggy Osborn, University of Bristol, May 2001


My grateful thanks are due to the following people who have assisted me in the preparation of this article: Colin Wadey of Bristol Grammar School; Sarah Whittingham, the Editor of University News, University of Bristol, who kindly referred me to her article on the history and design of Bristol Baptist College in the Autumn 1998 edition of Nonesuch and also to the account of the unveiling of the Tyndale Window; to Dr. Martin Crossley Evans, Warden of Manor Hall, University of Bristol, for his helpful insights and comments on the window; and to Sarah Eley for tracing the obituary of Arnold Robinson in the Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters.

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