On a sunny, chilly April Saturday, 25 members and friends of the Tyndale Society found their way to the isolated village of Kirtling, near Newmarket, approaching the church through lanes banked with wild cowslips. Cambridgeshire countryside in spring alone would have made the visit memorable, but the ancient church has been selected by Simon Jenkins as one of ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’. One enters it through a fine Norman doorway: the light, airy church has an impressive array of hatchments of the North family, various memorials and roof bosses, and two Tudor tombchests — the older, classical one is that of Edward, 1st Lord North (died 1564), while
that of his son, Roger, Elizabethan diplomat (died 1606), has a flamboyant 6-poster canopy whose columns are carved in arabesque spirals with a ferocious dragon supporting the feet of the effigy.
Although there is evidence of different styles of architecture coinciding with different styles of worship, there was a sense of continuity leading to active services today.
Mary Clow, a descendant of the North family, welcomed us, explaining that the connection with William Tyndale was that he and Edward North were contemporaries, born at the end of the l5th century: North, a lawyer, was active in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, thus promoting freedom of thought, while
Tyndale, a linguist, translated the Bible into English, making it accessible to the common man — a shared love of literature inspired their aim to educate. But whereas Tyndale suffered martyrdom, Edward North survived to the reign of Elizabeth I, and his family has contributed to the richness of English literature.
The opening lecture, entitled ‘The Norths in the 16th Century’, was given by Sir John Guinness who described how the castle, built by Edward North in red Tudor brick and where he entertained Elizabeth I, had been demolished after a fire in the 18th century, so that only the impressive gatehouse, Kirtling Towers, remains to give some indication of its magnificence. Fortunes were made (and lost) in the 16th century, and the Norths rose from being farmers to haberdashers, and through Edward North, a lawyer, to a family of statesmen, lawyers and poets. Edward was knighted in 1542, was M.P. for Cambridge, 1542-52, and eventually Lord Lieutenant. Although he had supported Lady Jane Grey, he was created Baron North of Kirtling by Mary Tudor; he died in 1564. His son, Roger, held high office under Elizabeth I, being a Privy Councillor and Treasurer to her household, dying in 1606. His brother, Thomas, was a linguist and soldier, translating ‘Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans’ into English (Shakespeare’s “Roman plays” were based on this): The first edition was dedicated to Mary Tudor, but the second to Elizabeth I, and a copy of this was brought by Sir John (1591 — Imprinted at London by Richard Field for Bonham Norton — Dedicated to Elizabeth I by Thomas North).
The following lecture, which is printed in full elsewhere in this Journal, was by Professor David Daniell on ‘No Tyndale, No Shakespeare’; he stressed the importance of Plutarch’s history as it emphasized the moral character of men apart from just the events in which they were involved. Tyndale’s Bible contributed to the rich culture of 16th century life, overcoming ignorance and prejudice, so that the playwright could address the minds of people. The Bible in English was learned by heart, and illiterate men quoted it in their defence, when persecuted. Professor Daniell gave many examples of Shakespeare’s familiarity with the English Bible, attributing to this his power to speak to the heart of his audience.
After tea, we examined the tombs in more detail and then toured the adjacent gardens to view Kirtling Towers: the Tudor brick of Edward’s Gatehouse glowed in the bright afternoon sunshine accentuating the diaper pattern and the modern wings, using handmade bricks, blended well with the original. The owner, Lady Fairhaven, had kindly arranged for the garden-designer to accompany us, so we saw the memorial garden, bounded by the moat, full of daffodils, narcissi, tulips and fritillaries growing in the grass. One quarter of the moat was dry and the banks were covered by ancient varieties of daffodils undisturbed since Tudor times; also under a 1arge ‘skeleton’ copper beech tree, unique yellow Tudor tulips were flourishing.
The afternoon combined beauty of nature, language and architecture, and we felt William Tyndale would have approved of our seeing the God of Creation in His works and words.