Thomas Poyntz: Defender of Tyndale

Brian Buxton

Edited extracts from a review of the efforts of Thomas Poyntz on behalf of William Tyndale in the summer and autumn of 1535 presented at the Tyndale Society’s North Ockendon Study Day Meeting, Saturday 20 March 2004.

Thomas Poyntz portrait

Thomas Poyntz would appear to have been in Antwerp for approaching ten years when he and his family were overtaken by the events surrounding Tyndale’s arrest. Our knowledge of what happened in the following months comes from two basic sources, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs[1] and some surviving manuscripts in the National Archives at Kew and the British Library.

It was in the summer of 1534 that William Tyndale became the house guest of Thomas Poyntz and his family. Thomas was quite explicit about this when he wrote, ‘This man lodged with me three quarters of a year’.[2]

The life and work of the English merchants in Antwerp was centred on the English House and it has generally been assumed that this was where the Poyntz family lived and where they took in Tyndale as a guest. However, Paul Arblaster has recently drawn my attention to a book published in Antwerp in 1954 which explains things differently and makes sense of several puzzling facts and statements, not least that of Poyntz himself stipulating that ‘This man lodged with me three quarters of a year’.

According to this theory not all merchants lived at the English House. There were other approved houses in which some, particularly young merchants, lived.[3] Thomas Poyntz ran such a house. If this is so then he was certainly right to speak of Tyndale having lived in, and been arrested from, his house. This also makes sense of a claim by John Foxe that Poyntz ran a house of English merchants. Most important of all, this helps to explain the degree of involvement of Thomas Poyntz in what followed.

Early in 1535 a man appeared in Antwerp who was to cast a dark shadow over the lives of Tyndale and the Poyntz family, Henry Phillips. Much about Phillips and his activities is still uncertain. It appears clear that he was in desperate financial difficulties and had accepted payment from somebody in England to deliver Tyndale into the hands of the authorities in Brussels, accused of heresy. Foxe tells us that Poyntz was deeply unhappy about Henry Phillips from the start, particularly so after one day when Phillips appeared to be sounding out Poyntz as to whether he might be bribed into helping him. Phillips was calling at Poyntz’s house and conversing at length with Tyndale who was talking openly about his work. Poyntz challenged Tyndale about this man. Tyndale believed that he was genuine, and so Poyntz assumed that a mutual friend had introduced them.

Phillips waited his opportunity. Whatever the technicalities of law it was generally reckoned that an Englishman inside the English house or one of its offshoots would be safe from arrest. The local authorities were reluctant to provoke a diplomatic incident. The merchants were economically important to Antwerp. If Tyndale was to be taken it had to be outside the house. Every spring for several weeks the merchants left Antwerp to attend a trade fair at Bergen op Zoom, a town some distance away. Poyntz went as usual. When he returned it was to find Tyndale gone, his books taken away, and the news that his house guest was now in prison in Brussels. Tyndale, an Englishman, had been arrested under local heresy laws. The position was now quite delicate. The English merchants cannot have been happy at having a guest lured away from one of their houses and then arrested. Foxe suggests that they immediately wrote letters to the authorities in Brussels but the response is unknown.

What is clear is that by August, three or four months after Tyndale’s arrest, no real progress had been made. Tyndale was shut up in prison. Thomas Poyntz could see quite clearly that his former guest would soon be executed. On 25th August his patience expired. He decided to take a personal initiative. He took up his pen and wrote a long letter to his brother John, at North Ockendon in Essex. He pleaded with John to take any action he could to help Tyndale’s position before it was too late.[4]

It is difficult to be certain why Thomas wrote to John rather than direct to the king or Thomas Cromwell. It has often been said that John had served long years at court. Whilst this is possible the evidence seems uncertain, particularly in view of the fact that there was a John in the Poyntz family of Gloucestershire at the same time and that this family had very well recorded court connections. However, a review of Poyntz family links shows, amongst others, links with Kent through the first marriage of John’s wife, Anne, to a John Cheney of Sittingbourne. From his will it is clear that he was close to his near neighbour, and presumably relation, Sir Thomas Cheney of Sheppey. Sir Thomas was one of the longest serving officials of the Tudor court and a man of real significance. Also, one of John’s beneficiaries, the guardian of his son and one of his executors was Sir Christopher Hales who, by the time of Tyndale’s arrest, was Attorney General.[5] In 1535 the great families of Kent were still influential, with one of their number Queen. When Thomas wrote his letter he may have had in mind a range of possible contacts his brother might use on Tyndale’s behalf.

Poyntz recognised the danger of the situation for Tyndale. Whilst he wrote of Tyndale’s death as a ‘great hindrance to the Gospel’, he placed his greatest emphasis in appealing for help on Tyndale as a loyal subject of the English king. He recognised that a plot had been hatched and implemented. He believed those involved represented the conservative religious element in England, those opposed to the royal supremacy of the church, those he calls ‘papists’. He spoke of their making fun of the king. Poyntz seemed to hope that if only Tyndale could be brought to England he and the king might come to some understanding. In this he may have been over optimistic. In any case, for Tyndale to come to England would mean first negotiating his release in Brussels.

The letter would take almost a month to reach North Ockendon. In the meanwhile Poyntz became involved in more official action. Probably in the same week that he wrote his letter to John in Essex, Thomas Cromwell also sat down to write. Amongst his notes is a reminder to ask the king whether he should write letters about Tyndale.[6] This certainly suggests that pressure was still being brought on Tyndale’s behalf from some quarter. Presumably the king’s answer was ‘yes’ as we know that in the next few days Cromwell did indeed write two letters.[7]

Cromwell wrote to two significant figures in the Low Countries, the Marquis of Bergen and the Archbishop of Palermo. We can only guess at the contents. Unfortunately the letters themselves are lost. When the letters arrived at their destination the Marquis of Bergen had left on a diplomatic mission to Denmark. The merchants arranged to send his letter after him by the hand of Thomas Poyntz, seeming to indicate that Poyntz was recognised as having a special involvement with Tyndale. He caught up with the Marquis who gave him a letter for the Archbishop of Palermo asking him to deal with the matter in consultation with the Regent and Council.[8]

The reply to this initiative was then brought from Brussels to England by Thomas Poyntz late in September. Again the contents are unknown to us. He must have arrived within a few days of his brother receiving the letter written in Antwerp in August. John received that letter on the 20th September and the following day he decided to send it on to Thomas Cromwell with a covering note.[9]

On 28th September the royal summer progress ended with ceremonies at Winchester. Professor MacCulloch, in his biography of Thomas Cranmer, has suggested that this progress was aimed particularly at emphasizing the king’s new role as head of the church. If so Thomas’ letter, with its emphasis on Tyndale’s loyalty to the king, could be said to have arrived at the right moment.[10]

Cromwell now had his reply from the authorities in the Low Countries, and he had the letter Thomas Poyntz wrote. He may also now have taken the opportunity to speak personally with Poyntz when the court returned to London. Whilst we can only speculate, it could be that any such discussion touched on the possibility of Poyntz playing a more serious role in resolving the issue than simply being a courier. Certainly when Poyntz returned to Brussels with Cromwell’s reply in late October he was given to understand that Tyndale would be released into his hands. Again this makes more sense if the arrest was from Poyntz’s own house.

Unfortunately Henry Phillips, always listening at an open door, heard of this possibility. Presumably without Tyndale’s conviction he would not get a final payment from his masters in England. Immediately he lodged accusations against Poyntz that he too was a heretic. Some time in November Thomas Poyntz was arrested. The scheme to involve him in a negotiated release of Tyndale nearly proved fatal for him. Phillips’ concern to remove Poyntz suggests that he saw this merchant as pivotal to a resolution of the issue. There is no sign of a queue of other merchants lining up to take his place.

Poyntz was not put in a prison but seems to have been kept in a house with two men to guard him. Here he was interrogated but using delaying tactics he managed to avoid giving answers for some weeks. Once this process was complete he hoped to be allowed his freedom with surety. However, the financial demands for his release increased, and he was also being ordered to pay for the wages and food of his two guards as well as his own board. According to Foxe he expected help from the English merchants at Antwerp but this was not forthcoming.

By February 1536 he realised that he would almost certainly be moved to a proper prison and he had come to believe that his life was in real danger. He decided to make his escape. His gaoler was heavily fined and the other debts were left unpaid - things that were to come back to haunt Poyntz a decade later.

If there was a plan to release Tyndale to Poyntz this idea may have been his own or it may have come from the English merchants, Thomas Cromwell, or the authorities in Brussels. Foxe wrote that one reason he expected help from the merchants was that ‘they brought him into this trouble themselves’. As to Cromwell, he must have agreed to the plan and yet there seems no evidence of any attempt from England to help Poyntz once he was arrested. Three years later he wrote to Cromwell requesting the use of a dissolved religious house to provide accommodation for his family. Perhaps he felt the English authorities owed him something, and he pointedly began that letter: ‘..he trusts his trouble your lordship has in remembrance’.[11]

So as 1536 drew on William Tyndale was executed in Brussels, whilst in London Thomas Poyntz was beginning a twenty-year period which was to be full of great personal difficulties - almost a living martyrdom. Looking back over the events of that summer and autumn we see Thomas Poyntz actively involved in attempts to assist Tyndale’s plight. It is clear from the letter to John that he had a personal regard for Tyndale arising from what he had observed of this man over the nine months of their living under the same roof. He highlights loyalty to the king and service of the gospel. However, he may have also seen it as his duty to be actively involved, particularly if the suggestion is correct that he ran the house in which Tyndale lived. He had accepted a degree of responsibility for Tyndale, probably at the request of Henry Monmouth who may have been Governor of the English House in 1534 and who had been a supporter of Tyndale back in London in earlier years. Poyntz had been dubious about Henry Phillips from the start. When he returned home to find his guest arrested he must have felt a sense of responsibility, even guilt, not to mention anger at what had happened. Throughout the following months he seems to have been the one who was looked to as the key figure amongst the merchants in the diplomatic efforts to free Tyndale and he seems to have accepted that role. In doing so he became involved in a situation which mixed religious, political and diplomatic issues. When he escaped from prison he knew that this was his only hope of life, and yet this in itself raised further problems - not least financial. His entanglement with issues far beyond his control was to overshadow most of the remainder of his life.

For some account of the following years see Thomas Poyntz: Brought Unto Misery For So Godly a Cause Tyndale Society Journal No. 24 April 2003.


[1]Cattley, S.R. ed. The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe (London 1838). All references to Foxe are based on Volume 5 of this edition.
[2]Letter from Thomas Poyntz to John Poyntz 25th August 1535 : British Library Cotton Galba B.x.60.
[3]Oskar De Smet De Englese Natie te Antwerpen in de 16de eeuw (Antwerp 1950-4).
[4]See Note 2.
[5]Will of John Cheney National Archives Public Record Office PROB 11/22 February 1527.
[6]Cromwell’s Remembrance August 1535: Letters & Papers Foreign & Domestic Henry VIII Vol. IX Item 498.
[7]Stephen Vaughan to Thomas Cromwell 4th September 1535: National Archives Public Record Office SP1/96 p.83.
[8]Robert Flegge to Thomas Cromwell 22nd September 1535: British Library Cotton Galba BX.x.62.
[9]John Poyntz to Thomas Cromwell 21st September 1535: National Archives Public Record Office SP1/196/208.
[10]Diarmaid MacCulloch Thomas Cranmer (New Haven & London: Yale University Press 1996) p.138.
[11]Thomas Poyntz to Thomas Cromwell 1539: National Archives Public Record Office SP1/156/105.

Letter written by Thomas Poyntz to his brother John 1535

Transcribed and edited by
Brian Buxton

To my well beloved brother John Poyntz, gentleman, dwelling in North Ockendon, Essex.

At Antwerp, the 25th day of August 1535.

Right well beloved brother, I recommend me unto you and to your wife, trusting in God that you be in good health.

I am writing to you now about what seems to me a great matter concerning the king’s grace. Although I am living here in Antwerp, yet, of the very natural love I have to the country in which I was born, and also because of the obedience which every true subject is bound by the law of God to have to his prince, I am compelled to write about what I perceive might be prejudicial or hurtful to his most noble grace.

This hurt may come about through those who seek to bring their own ends to pass under cover of pretending the king’s honour. They are as thorns under a godly rose. I would say they are very traitors in their hearts. Who they be I name no man, but it may be the papists who have always deceived the world by their craftiness.

letter from Thomas Poyntz to his brother John

Whereas it was said here that the king had granted his gracious letters in favour of one William Tyndale to be summoned to England, who is now in prison and likely to suffer death without the king’s gracious help, it is thought that these letters be stopped.

This man lodged with me for three quarters of a year and was taken from my house by a sergeant of arms and the Procurer General of Brabant, this done by procurement out of England and, I assume, unknown to the king’s grace until done. For I know well if it had pleased his grace to have sent William Tyndale a command to return to England he would not have disobeyed it to have put his life in jeopardy. However, it is assumed that these men feared that the king would have sent for him and, in his abundant goodness, would have listened to him, and that this would have hindered their plans. So they must have persuaded the king or the council that the putting to death of this man would be to the king’s high honour.

If a poor man may boldly reason with them, I think that if they had proper respect for God, their prince or public opinion they should beware of procuring such a thing. When these crafty fellows meet they jest at the king whom they have so clearly deceived. They care not that what they have done may become known, for it be reckoned among their sort as great wisdom. They are past shame. But a poor man that has no promotion, nor looks for none, having no quality but a very natural zeal and fear of God and his prince, would rather live as a beggar all the days of his life, and put himself in danger of death, rather than to live and see those leering curs to have their purpose. Some men see more than they can express in words and they sorrow inwardly until the matter is remedied.

Because this poor man, William Tyndale, stayed in my house three quarters of a year, I know that the king has never a truer hearted subject to his grace this day living. Whatever the king may have been told I am certain that, as this man knows that he is bound by the law of God to obey his prince, he would not do the opposite, even if he would then be made lord of the world. What care these papists for that! Their pomps and high authority have always been upheld by murder and the shedding the blood of innocents, causing princes by one means or another to agree with them. Brother, about eighteen or twenty years ago they at Rome, to magnify the king’s grace in his style, gave him the name ‘Defender of the Faith’. This may be likened to the prophecy of Caiaphas when he said: ‘It is expedient that one man should die for the people that all do not perish’. The prophecy was true, but not as Caiaphas meant it. So those in Rome thought that the king would be a maintainer of their abominations, but God, who sees all things, entered his grace into the right battle. Never has a prince done so nobly since Christ died, in the which I beseech God to give him the victory.

The death of this man, William Tyndale, should be a great hindrance to the gospel, and, to the enemies of it, one of the highest pleasures. If it would please the king’s highness to send for this man so that they could discuss his ideas it may be that the court and council of this country could soon be at another point with the Bishop of Rome.

I think William Tyndale shall shortly be condemned. There are two Englishmen at Louvain that have taken great pains to translate out of English into Latin things they have against him so that the clergy here may understand it, and condemn him - as they have done others for keeping opinions contrary to what they call the orders of the holy church. Brother, the knowledge that I have of this man causes me to write as my conscience binds me, for the king’s grace should have of him at this day as high a treasure as of any one man living. Therefore I desire you that this matter may be solicited to his grace for this man with as good effect as shall lie in you, or by your means to be done. There be not many perfecter men this day living, as God knows who have you in his keeping.

Your brother,

Thomas Poyntz

Manuscript British Library Cotton Galba B.x.60

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