The execution of William Tyndale, who translated most of the Old Testament into English, in 1536. ‘It was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, a project at the heart of the Reformation, that opened up the stories of the Hebrew scriptures to ordinary people,’ writes Giles Fraser.
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
William Tyndale was born around 1494 in Gloucestershire and educated at Oxford and Cambridge University where he became a strong supporter of church reform.
He was ordained as a priest in around 1521 and returned to Gloucestershire to serve as a chaplain to a member of the local gentry. Tyndale’s controversial opinions began to attract the attention of the church authorities.
An English Bible
In 1523, Tyndale moved to London with the intention of translating the New Testament into English, an act that was strictly forbidden. He passionately believed that the Bible should determine the practice and doctrine of the Church and that people should be able to read the Bible in their own language.
Tyndale was setting himself against the established Church in England as these sorts of ideas were closely associated with Martin Luther and other controversial Protestant religious reformers.
In 1524, Tyndale left England for Germany with the aid of London merchants. He hoped to continue his translation work in greater safety and sought out the help of Martin Luther at Wittenberg.
Just one year after his English New Testament was completed and printed in Cologne in 1525, copies were being smuggled into England – the first ever Bibles written in the English vernacular.
Tyndale’s work was denounced by authorities of the Roman Catholic Church and Tyndale himself was accused of heresy. He went into hiding and began work on a translation of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into English.
The emissaries of the King Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey were unable to track him down and the location of Tyndale’s hiding place remains a mystery to this day.
Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534 signalled the beginning of the English Reformation, and Tyndale believed it was safe to carry on his work in public.
He moved to Antwerp (in modern Belgium) and began to live more openly.
Soon afterwards Tyndale was betrayed by his friend Henry Phillips. He was arrested for heresy by imperial authorities and imprisoned for over 500 days in Vilvoorde Castle.
On 6 October 1536, Tyndale was tried and convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake.
By this time several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed.It was reported that Tyndale’s last words before his death were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Just three years later Henry VIII published his English “Great Bible” based on Tyndale’s work.
Even though Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament remained unfinished at his death, his work formed the basis of all subsequent English translations of the Bible, including the ‘King James’ version of 1611.