On this day in 1535 the first complete English Bible was printed, using translations by William Tyndale and his disciple, Miles Coverdale. Only Coverdale saw the first copies roll off the press in Europe: having been run to ground by those who opposed his Bible and his example, Tyndale was in confinement, on his way to the sort of death he had, for a decade, expected and resourcefully dodged. And almost dodged again: his day at the stake -- Oct. 6, 1536 -- came less than a year before his Bible was legally for sale in England, "set forth with the king's most gracious license."
On dramatic grounds alone, Tyndale's story is a compelling one, especially as told recently in Brian Moynahan's God's Bestseller (St. Martin's Press, 2002). In the spirit of its title, God's Bestseller has been reviewed as a "a thriller, a history and a biography rolled into one," a book "almost worthy of LeCarré." It not only places the relatively unknown and thoroughly outcast Tyndale against the larger Reformation story -- Henry VIII's two-step with Anne Boleyn and the Church, the jockeying and unseating of Sir Thomas More, the impact of the printing press -- but builds a spy-chase 'whodunit' around Tyndale's capture and untimely death.
Like Wyclif before him, Tyndale did not particularly mind that his mission to bring the Bible within reach of every "boye that dryveth the plough" was a capital offense. His self-exile in Europe -- a decade of evasion and relocation, often in disguise and under an alias -- was an attempt to buy time, and get a pocket-size English Bible in print, whatever the cost. Cologne, Tyndale's first stop, had almost twice as many printers as the dozen in the whole of England. Though the first printer-martyr was executed in Europe not long after Tyndale arrived in 1524, there were many willing to take an illegal tract, and a full purse, from Protestants eager for a voice. By early 1526 Tyndale had his translation of the New Testament published, at his own cost. It and pirate editions circulated well enough, and far enough, that by the summer of 1528 there was an English warrant out for the supposed heretic-author of this "pestiferous and most pernicious poison." For the next seven years, as he worked on revising his New Testament and completing his translation of the Old, Tyndale stayed one step ahead of all the lawmen, spies, bounty-hunters and double-dealers. Why he so easily fell into the Judas-trap of a young, shadowy man named Harry Phillips is the question that propels the last part of Moynahan's book.
The usual approach to Sir Thomas More plays up his principled stand against Henry VIII, his humanism, and his Utopia. In God's Bestseller, he is an enthusiastic and relentless heretic-burner, one who regarded Tyndale as the worst "hell-hound in the kennel of the devil," his writings "a filthy foam of blasphemies" from "a brutish beastly mouth." There is no doubt that Tyndale could rant, and that his pamphlets and glosses waved a red flag before every papal bull. But he doubly-despised people like More on principle: as eminent Catholics they propped up a corrupt Church, and as learned scholars they spoiled the Bible. "Twenty doctors expound one text twenty ways, as children make descant upon plain song," until in the end there is only "anagogical and chopologicall sense." Tyndale the translator had his eye on the poetry and his narrative imperative: "Cleave unto the texte and the playne storye." And Tyndale the polemicist had no doubt that the reason the Church wanted a Latin Bible in their pocket rather than an English one in the plough-boy's "is not for love of your souls, which they care for as a fox doth for the geese."
Tyndale and More (and Boleyn) were killed within fifteen tumultuous months of each other. More's Utopia has classroom fame, but Tyndale has been immortalized in the King James Authorized Bible, which kept over eighty percent of his translation. It might have amused Tyndale to see that More, canonized in 1935, was made patron saint of politicians in 2000. It surely must have amused him, in his day, if he saw one pirate edition of his New Testament which, claimed its cheeky, cautious printer, was "Printed in Utopia."
The illustration above is one of Barry Moser's wood engravings for his Pennyroyal Caxton Bible.