To Suppress the Bible
In the year 1538 Henry VIII issued a proclamation ordering "one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English" to be placed in every church in England. The proclamation further ordered the clergy to place the Bible "in some convenient place whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it..."

The fact that Henry VIII defied the Pope for a divorce and so sanctioned the Protestant revolt was not a cause of the Reformation, but an accident that placed the Crown on the side of the reformers earlier than might otherwise have happened. The Reformation would have taken place if Henry had never lived or never lusted after Anne Boleyn. The spirit of Protestantism was abroad and in England had been strong ever since John Wyclif and his Lollards fought the abuses of the Roman Church in the fourteenth century. Wyclif himself and his disciples had translated the entire Bible from the Vulgate in the 1380s. One hundred and seventy manuscript copies of the Wyclif Bible have survived. Many more must once have existed, for many were probably destroyed when the Lollards were being persecuted as heretics. Even possession of the vernacular Bible at that time could be used as evidence of the crime of heresy.

When Tyndale began his work in the 1520s unauthorized translation of the Bible was still a punishable act, for Henry VIII had not yet broken with Rome. It was, then, in exile that the true begetter of the English Bible went to work in a little garret room in Cologne, with Hebrew and Greek grammars open on the candle-lit table. The Wyklifites, working from the Latin Vulgate, had produced a translation of a translation; but Tyndale, who knew Greek and some Hebrew, worked from the original languages. Nor did he have any recourse to the Wyclif Bible: he began afresh. As he explicitly states in his Epistle to the Reader prefacing his New Testament,

    I had no man to counterfit nether was holpe with Englysshe of any that had interpreted the same or such lyke thynge in the Scripture before tyme.

Tyndale began with the New Testament, and his finished translation was printed in Germany and smuggled into England in 1526. Of some six thousand copies only three have survived into our time, for severe measures were taken to suppress it. In fact, the bishops' anxiety to buy up the copies in order to destroy them provided Tyndale with a steady income while he went to work on the Old Testament. 'Truly,' quod he,

    it is the Lord Bishop of London that hath holpen us; for he hath bestowed among us a great deal of money in New Testaments to burn them, and that hath been and yet is our only succour and comfort.

Four years after the first appearance of Tyndale's translation the Bishop's efforts had so far failed to suppress it that he found it necessary to stage a public burning of the book in St. Paul's churchyard. In that year, 1530, Tyndale finished his translation of the Pentateuch, which was printed at Marburg and sent on its way to eager hands in England by the busy agents across the Channel.

Meanwhile on the political front, under the masterly engineering of Thomas Cromwell, events were gradually being pushed toward the final break with Rome. After Cardinal Wolsey --- who would or could not give Henry what he wanted --- was executed in 1530, Cromwell's rise began. Within a short time, he gave his sovereign a new wife and a new title. The marriage with Anne was performed in 1533, the submission of the clergy to the King followed by act of Parliament in 1534, and in 1535 the Act of Supremacy confirming Henry as "Supreme Head of the Church of England."

At once efforts were made to provide an official English Bible. Tyndale's work could not be recognized, because his barbed marginal comments pointing out how the original meanings had been twisted in the Vulgate to suit Catholic doctrine had already made it too controversial. The clergy petitioned the King in 1534 for a new translation. This was met by the so-called Matthew Bible, which was really a composite of Tyndale's translation, as far as it had gone, and Miles Coverdale's work, which took up the Old Testament where Tyndale left off. Brought to England in printed sheets and issued in 1535-36, it was revised and reprinted under the direction of Archbishop Cranmer in 1538-39, the first complete authorized English Bible printed in England. Known as Cranmer's Bible or the Great Bible, this was the book that figured in the King's proclamation of 1538.

While this was happening Tyndale, the gallant, devoted, stubborn scholar, the "apostle to England" as Foxe called him, was burned for his share in unchaining the Scriptures. His death was not at the hands of the English, but ironically enough, it was the result of the English Church's having now come around to his position. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in whose dominions the English translators had done their work, sent Tyndale to the stake as a representative of the now heretical Church of England, which dared to secede from Rome. For another irony, Tyndale's execution followed by only a few months that of his great opponent, Sir Thomas More, who laid his head on the block in England for refusing to acknowledge the King as Supreme Head of the Church...

Henry himself was a Protestant only up to the point of getting rid of the Pope, not in doctrinal matters. He allowed a translation of the Bible only because the English Bible would be a symbol of the displacement of papal authority by his own. He regard himself more or less as pope in England and was as anxious to subdue doctrinal rebellion as if he had been pope in Rome. In fact, in 1540 he burned three Lutherans for heresy at Smithfield on the same day he executed three papists for treason. Luther commented on this occasion: "What Squire Harry wills must be an article of faith for Englishmen for life or death."

But the dam had been breached, and even Squire Harry could not stem the flood. Despite the proclamations warning his subjects to use the book "humbly and reverantly," to read it only in a quiet voice and not to go disputing and arguing over its puzzling passages in alehouses, "nor having thereof any open reasoning in your open Tavernes," the people, at last given access to the Scriptures in their own tongue, were consumed with excitement and interest. They clustered around the huge folio volumes chained to every pulpit and listened avidly to whoever could read them aloud, as men today listen to the World Series results. In St. Paul's, where six Bibles had been fastened to "divers pillars, fixed unto the same with chains for all men to read in them that would," the scenes of enthusiasm appalled the authorities...

An act of Parliament followed, expressly forbidding unauthorized persons to read the Bible aloud. It stipulated that noblemen and gentlemen householders might have the Bible read aloud quietly to their families; that noblewomen, gentlewomen, and merchant householders could read it privately but not aloud to others; but that people of the "lower sort" --- women, artificers, prentices, and others under the degree of yeomen --- were forbidden to read it privately or openly unless the King, seeing their lives were amended by the practise, gave them special liberty to do so.

There was about as much chance of enforcing this act as of enforcing Prohibition. Not that the population as a whole became Bible readers overnight. But enough convinced Protestants, or Lutherans as they were called then, made free and individual access to the Scriptures a basic article of faith to nullify Henry's attempt at suppression. Especially during the Catholic reaction under Mary, in whose reign the Bible was torn out of the churches and proscribed, it acquired the extra life that always attaches to words that tyrants have endeavored to stifle.

As the "good Doctor Taylor" went to the stake he called to the people who had been his parishioners:

    Good people! I have taught you nothing but God's holy word and those lessons that I have taken out of God's blessed book, the Holy Bible; and I am come hither this day to seal it with my blood.

In that flaming year, 1555, sixty-seven Protestants were publicly burned in Mary's vain attempt to enforce the resubmission to Rome. Some, like Rowland Taylor, died in unswerving loyalty to their principles, some like (Archbishop) Cranmer recanting previous recantations. But all through the manner of their death were to live on as heroes and martyrs. Bishop Latimer's last words at the stake signalized Mary's failure: "We shall this day, by God's grace, light in England such a candle as I trust shall never be put out."

--- Condensed from
Bible and Sword
Barbara Tuchman
©1956 New York University Press
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH