John Trevisa and William Tyndale.[1]

Ralph S. Werrell

When I was working on my doctoral dissertation on ‘The Theology of William Tyndale’ I realised that there were certain areas which needed further research. I am at present working on ‘The Roots of Tyndale’s Theology’. Anyone who reads Tyndale’s writings theologically realises that Luther had virtually no influence on Tyndale’s theology. It is also doubtful if the Swiss Reformers made any impact on his thinking. There was a lot of common ground between Erasmus and Tyndale and, although Tyndale was never an Erasmian in his theology, much more work is needed on this aspect of Tyndale’s thinking.

The really strong theological link with the past came from Lollardy. I believe this influence formed his theological thinking before he went to Oxford – but it cannot be proved conclusively. Apart from when he was tutor to the Walsh children, when else in his life would he have had the opportunity to have contact with Lollardy?

Roughly a hundred years before Tyndale was born John Trevisa was chaplain to Thomas, Lord Berkeley, and also Vicar of Berkeley, which is in Gloucestershire close to where Tyndale was born and lived as a child. Trevisa is, like Tyndale, someone we would love to know more about. The things we know of his life raise more questions than they answer, and I can only touch on those which may have had an impact on Tyndale’s life and theology. Tyndale’s opportunity to read Trevisa’s works was probably greatest when he was a child, and there is a possible reference to this in his writings.[2] We know that he knew Trevisa’s translation of Hidgen’s Polychronicon because he mentions it in ‘The Practice of Prelates,’

“Take an ensample of their practice out of their own stories. King Harold exiled or banished Robert archbishop of Canterbury: for what cause, the English Polychronicon specifieth not.”[3]

John Trevisa was a contemporary of John Wycliffe; they were at Queen’s College at Oxford together and were also prebendaries at Westbury-on-Trym at the same time. Both thought the Bible should be translated into English. Caxton wrote that Trevisa had translated Polychronicon together with ‘the byble and Bartylmew de Proprietatibus Rerum’ at the request of Thomas, Lord Berkeley.”[4]

We will now consider ways in which Tyndale’s life and career may have been affected by reading John Trevisa’s translations which he read as a boy. Let us start with Polychronicon, for it is here that we may find the seed of Tyndale’s great calling being sown. In the Dialogue, The Lord had been arguing for an English translation,

“**The clerke.** The latyn is bothe good and fayr. Therfor it nedeth not to haue an Englysshe translacyon.

The lord. This reson is worthy to be plunged in a pludde and lede in powder of leudnes & of shame. It myght well be yt thou makest oonly in myrthe & in game.

The clerke. The reason must stande but it be assoyled.

The lord. A blere eyed man but he were all blynde of wytte myght see the solucion of this reason. And though he were blynde he myghte grope the solucion. But yf his feelyng hym faylled. For yf thus reason were ought worthe / by suche maner arguynge me myght preue yt the thre score and ten Interpretyours & aquyla Symachus Theodocion and Origines were lewdly occupyed whan they translated holy wrytte oute of hebrewe in to grue / and also that Saynte Iherom was lewdly occupyed whan he translated holy wrytte out of hebrewe in to latyn. For the hebrewe is both good and fayr / and Iwrytte by Inspyracion of the holy goost. And alle these for her translacions ben hyely preysed of alle holy chirche. Thenne the forsayd lewde reason is worthy to be powdred / leyed a water & ysoused. Also holy wrytte in latyn is bothe good and fayr. And yet for to make a sermon of holy wryte alle in latyn to men that can Englysshe and noo latyn / it were a lewde dede / for they be neuer the wyser. For the latyn but it be tolde hem in Englysshe what it is to mene. And it may not be tolde in englysshe what the latyn is to mene without translacion out of latyn in to englysshe. Thenne it nedeth to haue an englysshe translacion / and for to kepe it in mynde that it be not foryeten it is better that suche a translacion be made & wryten than sayd & not wryten / and soo this forsayd lewde reason sholde meue no man that hath ony wytte to leue the makynge of Englisshe translacion.

The clerke. A grete dele of these bokes stondeth moche by holy wrytte / by holy doctours / and by phylosophye / thenne these bookes sholde not be translated in to englysshe.

The lord. It is wonder that thou makest soo febell argumentes and haste goon soo longe to scole. Arystotles bokes & other bokes also of logyke & phylosophye were translated out of grue in to latyn. / Also atte prayeng of king Charles Iohan Scot translated denys bokes out of grue in to latyn / & thenne out of latyn in to frensshe / thenne what hath englysshe trespaced that it myght not be translated in to Englysshe. Also kynge Alurede that founded the vniuersyte of Oxenford translated the beste lawes in the Englysshe tonge. And a grete dele of the Psalter out of latyn in to Englysshe. And caused Wyrefryth bysshop of Wyrcetre to translate saynt Gregoryes bokes the Dyalogues out of latyn in to Saxons Also Cedmon of whytby was enspyred of the holy goost and made wonder Poysyes in to englysshe nyghe of all the storyes of holy wrytte. And also holy man Beda translated saynt Iohans gospell out of latyn in to englysshe. Also thou wotest where the Apocalyps is wrytten in the walles and roof of a chappell bothe in latyn and in frensshe. Also the gospell and prophecye and the right fayth of holy chirche muste be taught & preched to englysshe men that can noo latyn. Thenne the gospell & prophecye & the right fayth of holy chirche muste be tolde hem in englysshe / and that is not done but by englysshe translacion for such englysshe prechynge is very translacion & suche englysshe prechynge is good & nedefull thenne englysshe translacion is good and nedeful.[5]

Did Trevisa’s words sow the seed in Tyndale’s heart to translate the Bible into English?

Whilst Luther (who wrote Prologues to the Apocryphal books) and Zwingli and other Continental Reformers quoted from the Apocrypha, William Tyndale did not write any Prologues to the Apocrypha in English, nor make any reference to this in his writings.[6] Here again he may have been influenced by Trevisa who wrote, “Apocrifa is a wrytynge of none auctoryte.”[7]

Although it was normal in the late Middle Ages for the Passover to be referred to as ‘Pasque’ (this can be spelt in a multitude of ways), Trevisa wrote, “Ester hatte pascha in grewe, and is to menynge passio ‘suffringe’.” [8] Also in the Polychronicon he wrote that the Jews “helde the Esterdye in mynde of passage thrugh the reed see”.[9] When we look at Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament we find that he refers to the ‘Passover’ as ‘Easter’: “And Easter, a feast of the Jews, was nigh”.[10]

Here is a further passage from ‘On the Properties of Things’ which has many resonances in Tyndale’s writings especially to his stress on ‘the blood of Christ’

“And this estir of Iewis was figure and bodynge of the estir of cristene men in the whiche estir, by the blood of the clene lambe withouten wemme that took away synnes of the worlde, al that beth ichose beth iquyt ands iraunsoned out of the seruyse of fendis, by the whiche lombe they that beth ichose maketh passage fro fleisch to spiriit and fro the olde man to the newe, and out of the worlde to heuene, out of schadowe to light, out of figures [to] sothenesse, and out of seruage and thraldome to the fredom of blisse of Goddis owen children.”[11]

There are several parallels in that passage from On the Properties of Things to Tyndale’s thinking, but much more work is needed before a possible link between Tyndale and Trevisa can be made. Where in that passage Trevisa writes of “the fredom of blisse of Goddis owen children” we can add one of Trevisa’s additions to Polychronicon

“Yf a man take a childe that is not his / and maketh hym as it were his childe and nourysshed and bryngewth hym up and amytteth hym as is owne childe. … For the childe that is clene out of synne is veryly goddes childe.”[12]

Reading those quotations together there is a closeness to Tyndale’s doctrine of the Christian being a child of God who has been set free from the devil’s bondage and now does not sin, except of frailty.[13]

One of the difficulties, apart from where Trevisa and Tyndale obviously have something in common which we do not find elsewhere, is that we can also find a possible link between the Wycliffites and Tyndale. Another difficulty lies in the fact that the difference between Lollard theology and Tyndale’s is considerable, although we can see that Tyndale has only carried forward Wycliffite doctrine to its logical scriptural conclusion.

There is one further possible influence Trevisa had on Tyndale. Did his translation methods have a bearing on the way Tyndale translated the Bible? I am unable to go beyond stating my gut feeling, but since I am not qualified to examine the evidence, I would be grateful if a philologist with the necessary linguistic skills could enlighten me on this question. I am quite prepared to accept that my gut feeling has no substance behind it. What lies behind my line of thinking is Trevisa’s words relating to his translation work.

“For to make this translacion cleer and pleyn to be knowe and vnderstonde, in som place Y schal sette word vor word and actyue vor actyve and passiue vor passyue arewe ryght as a stondeth withoute changyng of the ordre of wordes. But yn som place Y mot change the rewe and the ordre of wordes and sette the actyue vor the passiue and agenward. And yn som place Y mot sette a reson vor a word to telle what hyt meneth. Bote vor al such chaungyng, the menyng schal stonde and noght be ychanged.”[14]

I realise that this is not parallel with Tyndale’s statement on translation in his Prologue upon the Gospel of St Matthew, but that, and the way Tyndale translated the Bible, may provide some links between the two.

Finally, Tyndale was prepared to allow anyone to improve his translation if they were able to do so,15 and I wonder if he might have been influenced to write this from Trevisa’s words in his translation of Polychronicon, “yf ony man make of these bokes of Cronycles a better englysshe translacion & more proufytable god do him mede.”[16]


[1]This is ongoing research and I hope that more evidence will be found to strengthen the probable links between John Trevisa and William Tyndale. I would be grateful for any comments or suggestions readers might be able to let me have, as I have not completed my research. email:-
[2]Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man, p. 1/149
[3]Tyndale, Practice of Prelates, p. 2/194
[4]Hudson, The Premature Reformation, p. 395. I am grateful to Dr. W.R. Cooper for sending me details about his research into John Trevisa being the translator of the Wyclif Bible.
[5]Trevisa, Dialogus, Polychronicon, Lambeth Palace Library 1495-5
[6]The only exception is his translation of the Old Testament Epistles “after the use of Salisbury” which were taken from the Apocrypha
[7]Trevisa, Polychronicon, p. clxix.
[8]Trevisa, On the Properties of Things, p. 546
[9]Trevisa, Polychronicon, p. lxxxx
[10]Tyndale, New Testament, John ch. 6. p. 140: there are many other places where he translated Passover with Easter.
[11]Trevisa, On the Properties of Things, p. 546f
[12]Trevisa, Polychronicon, p. clxxviii.
[13]Tyndale, Pathway, p. 1/18; Exposition 1 John, p. 2/130f. This thought is also found in many other places in Tyndale’s writings.
[14]Waldron, “Trevisa’s Original Prefaces on Translation: a Critical Edition,” p. 294; in Kennedy, Waldron & Wittig, Medieval English Studies presented to George Kane, 1988.
[15]Tyndale, W.T. unto the Reader, (Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament, p. 3.)
[16]Trevisa, Polychronicon, p. iii.

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