Bryan Moynahan, If God Spare My Life: William Tyndale, the English Bible and Thomas More - A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. Little Brown, 2002, xxv + 422 pp., ISBN 0 316 8609 1 £17.99.

The greatest tribute to the life of William Tyndale is that his biography is so difficult to write. His accomplishments in translating, under almost unimaginably difficult circumstances, so much of the Bible so well and for the first time into early modern English, are, of course, historic. We have the evidence of this in Tyndale’s translations and in their enshrinement in the King James Version, its predecessors, and its successors. But from the major biographical writings of Foxe in the sixteenth century to Demaus three hundred years later, Mozley in 1937, and Daniell’s monumental work of scholarship in 1994 to Moynahan’s present work, it becomes obvious that Tyndale covered his tracks too well for our purposes.

Tyndale hid from Church and State then and continues to let his translations and works of controversy, literally the sum of his life’s work, speak for him. Barring the unlikely finding of a Tyndale diary, we have little else to go on. Certainly, he would have it no other way. Translating Scripture into the vernacular was for Tyndale the key to freeing Englishmen from the real and perceived evils of the Roman Church and giving the common people the true Gospel of salvation, which had been “locked up” by the Church. Of course, it wasn’t that easy: as if self-exile, a decade of life as a fugitive from Continental and English authorities, ecclesiastical and secular, the difficulties of the scholarly work itself with colleagues perhaps even more difficult, and the suffering of cold prison, ended only by strangulation and burning, not of the holy book but of its translator, were easy.

After all this, an imagined but realistic twentieth-century descendant of the ploughboys Tyndale hoped would benefit from his life’s work responds “not regularly, no” when asked if he reads his Bible. Of course, it is in a film, Pulp Fiction, but Tyndale wagered his life’s work and his life on the efficacy of Scripture in the vernacular.

Moynahan re-tells this story well, filling the void of what we do not know about Tyndale’s life by informing and entertaining us on politics, printing and the book trade, indulgences, Wycliffe, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Luther, and Tyndale’s fellow martyrs, foremost among them, of course, Thomas More. (I might suggest to both Daniell and Moynahan that they should light votive candles to St. Thomas for giving them so much to write about in their hagiographies of Tyndale. I should add that I consider Tyndale worthy of sainthood, even apart from his martyrdom, although the appropriate Vatican congregation - a word Tyndale favoured, albeit with a different meaning - might have difficulty finding a miracle. I should also thank Moynahan for informing me that Catholicism is a “mystery” religion. (I knew those nuns at Holy Innocents Grammar School in Flatbush were holding something back from us boys!).

The miracle of William Tyndale is that he was able to accomplish so much so well under such difficult circumstances. (As for mystery, try learning Hebrew, as Tyndale did so well, even with the abundance of grammars and readers available today.) Moynahan is not the first to note that the portrait of William Tyndale that adorns his book’s back cover (and Daniell’s too) is of an imagined scholarly reformer and not of the man who protected his identity almost as well as the best of modern spies. He also makes it clear that neither Tyndale nor More wanted martyrdom. Tyndale had all of northern Europe in which to hide, while More had merely a technicality of law and a king who had grown impatient with technicalities whether they hurt his pocketbook or his efforts, in Tyndale’s words, “to put a little lust into effect” (Exposition of 1 John).

Moynahan writes with a fine sense of humour. For example, his caption to the title page of Tyndale’s revised New Testament of 1534 should bring a smile to the face of any author- reader: “Tyndale was his own publisher, proofreader, editor, distributor and blurb writer. He made more than five thousand changes to the 1526 edition. His description of the content is a gem of the copywriter’s art: ‘Here thou has the newe Testament or covenaunt made wyth vs of God in Christes bloude.’ “ That last sentence sums up Tyndale’s life’s work, but Moynahan strives, entertainingly, to put it all in the context of its time.

There are some surprises: Wolsey is called a “humane and often kindly man”, hardly an opinion Tyndale shared. Moynahan politely translates Tyndale’s “emitteret spiritum per posteriora” (Exposition of 1 John) as he “farted his spirit through his backside”. Granted that Tyndale was also being polite by switching into Latin here, but he clearly describes it as Wolsey’s “shitten death”. Bishop Tunstall, bitterly criticized by Tyndale for not supporting his New Testament translation, suddenly becomes “the humane Tunstall” a few years later. There is a paragraph, just one, on the joy of English Catholicism, “that Tyndale wilfully overlooked”. Balanced reporting, anyone?

Moynahan even says something good about Thomas More. He defends More against Tyndale’s charge of covetousness: “Covetousness blinded the eyes of that gleering fox more and more, and hardened his heart against the truth, with the confidence of his painted poetry, babbling eloquence, and juggling arguments of subtle sophistry . . .” (Exposition upon the v, vi, vii Chapters of Matthew). “This is nonsense,” says Moynahan. “More was not covetous…The young humanist who wrote Utopia had changed into a reactionary, it is true, at least as far as heretics were concerned, but Tyndale was wrong to think that greed had played any part in the process”.

Having made one concession to More, Moynahan then credits the former chancellor with masterminding and financing Tyndale’s arrest from his captivity in the Tower of London: “News of Tyndale’s arrest would clearly have lightened More’s steps to the block.” Shades of the fanatic U.S. Air Force pilot in Doctor Strangelove, gleefully riding a bomb against a Soviet target to set off the nuclear destruction of the world! Just as Tyndale did not charge Thomas More with torturing heretics, he said nothing about More as the one behind his capture.

Moynahan graciously confesses his debt to Daniell and follows him for the most part in his attitude toward More, “Daniell Light” perhaps. His commentary on Tyndale as translator and English stylist, however, simply goes over the same ground as Daniell without adding anything to our appreciation of Tyndale’s achievement.

Moynahan or his publisher also made a disappointing decision not to cite sources, except in a generalized list at the end of the book. There is no excuse, even in so-called popular history, to cheat the scholar or serious amateur of accurate references. Just who was the pamphleteer who said that “divers malefactors have chosen to be hanged than go to Virginia”? Inquiring minds want to know, even if the answer is “anonymous”.

Despite its limitations, If God Spare My Life should bring the story of Tyndale’s life’s work to new readers. None or few would complain about yet another biography of Luther, More, Henry VIII, or Elizabeth I. Doubtless, Moynahan’s work is entertaining. Still, I hope that the next Tyndale biography will wait until there is something new and convincing to be said.

Donald J. Millus, Coastal Carolina University, October 2002.

Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary’s Martyrs. Carroll & Graf 2002 (USA) (First published in the UK by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2001) ISBN 0–7867-0986-3

In late 2001, I went to New York to see Ground Zero. In parts of the city, mourners had posted up handmade obituaries of the dead. The casualties were ordinary folk, husbands and wives, with small children who depended on them. Back in Washington, an office colleague contemptuously informed me “Those New Yorkers—what happened to them on 9/11 was their own damn fault”.

These two traits—blaming the victim, a tide of violence engulfing ordinary citizens—are hallmarks of the story told by Jasper Ridley in “Bloody Mary’s Martyrs”. You could say it’s a shorter, more modern version of the saga recounted by John Foxe in the “Acts and Monuments”. This brevity leads to occasional oversimplifications. One gentleman in the text is described as Nicholas Ridley’s manservant, elsewhere as Hugh Latimer’s (maybe so, but why not clarify?). The Tyndale section is rushed, with no mention of Humphrey Monmouth or Cuthbert Tunstall. Perhaps this is pardonable in a work of popular history with much ground to cover.

“Bloody Mary’s Martyrs” takes us back to a period which Tyndalians already know in broad outline. And despite that familiarity, the era displays a topsyturvy fanaticism which modern conceptual categories seem inadequate to describe. Time and again, heretics would refer to their coming execution as a “marriage” (which, I suppose, is better than describing one’s marriage as an execution).

The martyrs’ personal histories have many features in common. Religious controversies divided many families, as in Christ’s day. Guilt by association divided others (Alice, Crammer’s devout Catholic sister, lost her pension when she sought to intercede with Cardinal Pole on her brother’s behalf ).

Ridley goes into unfamiliar detail about the martyrs’ last days and hours. The prisoners had a complicated relationship with their jailers, who were initially hostile and sometimes stayed that way, while others befriended their charges. Even from behind bars, the burned-to-be were able to sneak letters out to the outside world, sometimes using their valet for this purpose. Prisoners wealthy enough to have manservants were, by a mysterious loophole, permitted to keep them.

As the execution approached, there was a fine supper the night before or a hearty breakfast on the Big Day. Weather forecasting—an issue of pressing concern for the English throughout the centuries—assumed huge importance, for a rainy day meant moist, green faggots (and a slower, more lingering death).

Today, we give little thought to what burning at the stake actually involves. Contemporary woodcuts of execution scenes, in which the flames curl upward as flowers in blossom, encourage us in this self-deception. The author is at hand to jolt us back to reality with tales of savagery from Bloody Mary’s reign, some of which tax belief. One “heretic” is pulled out of the blazing faggots, temporarily reprieved, then reconsigned to the stake a short while afterward (in the interim—small detail!—his legs had been burned off ). And try this:

“Coberley’s death was prolonged and horrible; because of the wind, the fire did not reach his body, but only his left arm. After a while the arm was burned off, and he leaned over the fire, holding his right arm in the flames, hoping that they would reach his body. The blood then began to pour out of his mouth and nose, and he fell into the fire. (…) After a while he rose and stood upright in the fire to the amazement and horror of the spectators. Then he died.”

While most of the executions were held in the South, their effects were felt far and wide, galvanizing the people, and Mary’s heresy hunt functioned as an unintended rural electrification programme for a previously splintered nation. The burnings were even an inspiration for literature, as the closing verses of the contemporary poem “The Register” attest.

“When last of all to take their leave At Canterbury they did consume Who constantly to Christ did cleave. Therefore were fried with fiery fume. But six days after these were put to death God sent us our Elizabeth.”

It is especially important to memorialize the victims today, when revisionist scholarship is downgrading the martyrs’ trailblazing role. Much, of course, is already known about the deaths of Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer and other leading Protestants in the London area. Elsewhere in Britain our information is meagre, sometimes we just have the name (or not even that) of the victim and his or her village. Scholarly detachment is fine as far as it goes, but to avoid a laundry list of executions, I would have welcomed a touch more conjecture about the motivations of the participants.

Take Bishop Edmund Bonner for example (not “Edward” as the index calls him). Ridley does not stint on Bonner’s cruelty, and we hear much about the plump bishop’s legendary techniques of interrogation. Less easy to understand are Bonner’s flashes of leniency and fitful concern for due process. Was Bonner a “good cop” and “bad cop” all rolled into one? Dangerously unstable? Why was Bonner allowed to ply his trade in such an untroubled way while Reginald Pole, by way of contrast, faced death threats on the continent?

Bishop John Hooper had early taken the view that while Mary was a Papist she was the lawful sovereign; he and others like him were to pay for their deference later. Happily, “Bloody Mary’s Martyrs” portrays the gradual (and long-overdue) waning of traditional habits of submission to authority throughout the 1550s.

From our 21st-century vantage point, we can well imagine how Mary’s targets might do everything in their power to evade capture. But alongside daring getaways, what we actually find are instances of extreme recklessness. Some reformers—knowing the consequences—went out of their way to bring themselves to the authorities’ attention. Because punishing heresy was one of the few things that 16th century governments did exceedingly well, such self-exposure was riskier than skydiving. And the martyrs were steadfast till the end. Now, as armchair theologians we can accept isolated acts of bravery, but we do not expect fortitude from all of the victims, every step of the way. Yet that is what the stories show us. The concept that playing for time in this earthly life was worthless if you bought yourself damnation in the next is hard for us to grasp. What made them do it?

Here we come across another of the leitmotifs of martyrology. Some of the prisoners, upon their arrest, were found to have a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament on their person! “John Mandrel could not read or write, but when he heard that Tyndale had translated the Bible into English he bought a copy and carried it around with him; and when he met someone who was literate he asked him to read passages aloud. After a while he had learned large parts of the Bible by heart.” In Tudor history, William Tyndale, even if mentioned in passing or not at all, is always standing behind a nearby pillar with copies of his Bible to distribute.

Unlike our poet in “The Register”, Ridley does not attempt to romanticize the burnings (save for some disposable soapbox oratory in the epilogue). The verb “to burn” is seldom varied. A policy of strict neutrality hardly does the subject justice; but no sooner did I fear we were losing Ridley to the revisionist crowd, than I come across the following choice sentence.*”No one was more active in persecuting the Protestants who distributed the English Bible than Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer, writer and intellectual who was a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert”*. Nasty sadomasochistic pervert? Steady on, Jasper! Even Bonner gets more even-handed treatment than that. And what of More’s finer qualities that we keep hearing about – his education of his daughters, his authorship of Utopia, his friendship with Erasmus, etc., etc.? Oh well, a clear authorial voice is always refreshing.

All readers of this book will have their “favourite” burning anecdote, one that resonates with them in a special way. In amongst the militant self-con- fidence of the persecutors and wide-eyed fanaticism of their quarry, it is initially hard to locate a straightforward human-interest story that meets this requirement. But persevere. The tale of Joan Waste, the blind ropemaker, speaks to me across the centuries.*”Being blind she could not, of course, read herself, but she saved up the money which she made from her ropemaking and bought a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament. (…) She found other people who were prepared to read the Bible to her; in some cases she paid them to do so. She learned long passages from it by heart. (…) Her brother Roger was allowed to take her by the hand and lead her to the stake in the Windmill-pit outside the town of Derby, just as he had always led her everywhere. As she could not see him, he stood beside the fire calling out to her while she was burning, so that she should know that he was there”*. Tyndale’s words strengthened her too.

“Bloody Mary’s Martyrs” is a fitting memorial for these heroes and heroines who faced the supreme punishment with valour and grace.

Neil L. Inglis, Bethesda, Maryland

Judith Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk 1370-1547 Boydell & Brewer, £60 (0-85115-820-X)

Dr Middleton-Stewart provides an important account of how the 52 churches in the Dunwich deanery were built, extended and embellished between the reigns of Edward III and Henry VIII, as the result of testamentary gifts. Among these were Blythborough and Coverhithe, two of the more stately churches in the pre-Reformation deanery.

From the main title alone this may sound like a heavy book; but Dr Middleton- Stewart has a flowing style, and it reads more like a mediaeval detective story. Indeed, the only element missing is what the families thought of their inheritances being spent on the construction of an aisle, the addition of a tower, or the provision of a chalice and paten.

Wandering around the mediaeval churches of East Anglia, I have often wondered, not so much about the architecture, but about those who actually paid to have the church built: those who preferred to give a stained-glass window rather than contribute towards a bay of the nave, or chose to present the parish with an altar missal rather than a set of low-mass vestments. Was there a pecking order that restricted the size of one’s gift to one’s social status? All of this, and more, is addressed in this book.

The book is divided into four parts. Part One examines the religious foundations, the leading families, church life, and the architectural development of the churches in the deanery. Part Two dwells on the doctrine of purgatory, requiem masses, obits, chantries, and parish guilds. Part Three itemises the provision of service books and ornaments for the mass and the altar (the chapter on mass vestments is particularly enthralling); and Part Four covers statuary, relics, stained glass, fonts, and funerary monuments.

There were a number of gems throughout the book. My favourites are an observation about those less able to make financial provisions for their parish church:Those who could paid; those who couldn’t prayed; and one explaining how greater gifts were `not so much keeping up with the Joneses but actually overtaking them.`

However, I am not so sure that I agree with Dr Middleton-Stewart that transubstantiation of the host took place at the moment of its elevation. I think that the holders provided for the incense grains are known as boats and not ships; and the third of the three holy oils is for extreme unction, not exorcism. Though I would not want to go to the scaffold over the issue of censers` suspended from the ceiling`, I rather doubt their use in England during the late mediaeval period, or at any other time, come to that.

But these are just four tiny niggles in what is otherwise a splendid book. Dr Middleton-Stewart’s work should be treated as the companion volume to `The Stripping of the Altars` by Eamon Duffy.

Dr Julian Litten.


This review by Dr J. Litten, chairman of the Church Maintenance Trust, was published in the Church Times on 22 February 2002 and is reprinted here with their kind permission.

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