On a May morning in 1535, a charming, feckless and very dangerous young man named Harry Phillips called on the scholar William Tyndale in his lodgings at the English House in Antwerp. Tyndale had been a fugitive from England for 11 years. He was a Bible translator, then a perilous calling, punishable by the stake. He had already written, copy-edited, financed, designed and published the first New Testament to be printed in English. His testaments were illegal - copies were burnt and their readers charged with heresy - and Tyndale arranged for them to be smuggled into England. His translation had reached Chronicles II when Phillips visited him. Young Harry intended to make sure he got no further. He had been well paid to arrange for Tyndale's arrest and eventual execution, and he had a small posse of men concealed in the lane outside the English House.
One of the greatest betrayals in English history was under way. The destruction of William Tyndale was a tragedy for the English language, and an act of the deepest malice - not by Phillips, for whom treachery was a livelihood, but by the man who paid him his pieces of silver.
The details of Tyndale's life and terrible death may now be largely forgotten. But the phrases he lived to complete - "Love thyne neghbour as thyself... Iudge not that ye be not iudge... In the begynnynge god created heuene and erth... The spirite is willynge but the flesshe is weeke" - still boom through the English-speaking mind.
Forty years before Shakespeare was born, Tyndale proved that "our rude Englysshe tonge" was capable of rendering every nuance and subtlety of the New Testament, and the blood-and-thunder and poetry of the Old. He wrote - his own phrase is the aptest - "with the tunge of men and angels". He brought grace and rhythm to plain words, Anglo-Saxon for preference over French and Latin, to sustain a lyrical beauty in the new language of English. Read this passage, and see it; better, read it out loud, as people then did, and hear it: "Love suffreth longe and is corteous. Love envieth nott... swelleth not, dealeth not dishonestly, seketh not her awne... beleveth all thynges, hopeth all thynges, endureth in all thynges. Though that prophesyinge fayle, other tonges shall cease, or knowledge vanysshe away: yet love falleth never awaye." This was the finest English prose yet written.The English House was Tyndale's first fixed address in the years he had spent in hiding on the Continent. For the first time, he felt that he might survive; fatally, as it transpired, he was confident enough to let his anonymity slip.
Born in about 1494 where Gloucestershire falls from the Cotswold uplands into the Vale of Berkeley, he graduated in "liberall artes"at Oxford, then spent some time at Cambridge, where he became a Lutheran, a member of what his enemy, Sir Thomas More, called the "new false sect of our evangellycall Englysshe heretykes"; the word "Protestant" was not yet coined.
In 1522 he became tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh, who lived at Little Sodbury Manor, a rambling house of soft grey stone and mullioned windows that still stands amid lawns and ancient yews near Chipping Sodbury, in Gloucestershire. Tyndale found the local clergy so corrupt and foolish that "it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth, except ye scripture were playnly layde before their eyes in their mother tongue". He vowed that "if God spare my life", he would translate the Bible into English so the poorest ploughboy could hear God's word.
The "causes that moved me to translate", Tyndale wrote later, were so simple that he "supposed it superfluous" to explain them. "For who is so blind to ask why light should be showed to them that walk in darkness, where they cannot but stumble?" And "who is so bedlam mad to affirm that good is the natural cause of evil, and darkness to proceed out of light?" But this was heresy. The church recognised only the Latin Vulgate Bible, and it wished the scriptures to remain the dusty monopoly of the clergy, a priestly text safely locked away in a dead language. The translation of any part of it into English was condemned as heretical by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1408. The penalty, established by act of parliament, was "to be burnt that such punishment may strike fear to the minds of others". The success of Martin Luther's German Bible in spreading Lutheran ideas meant that, particularly during the chancellorship of the Catholic loyalist Sir Thomas More, they were pursued with more vigour - More used the word "sharpness"- than ever. Tyndale was forced to write abroad. He sailed for Germany and the Low Countries in 1524, never to return. The English authorities were alerted after the first copies of his New Testament were smuggled into London and the creeks of the Essex and Suffolk coasts in 1526.
Offending copies, paperback-sized and selling for around 3 shillings (15p), were ceremoniously burnt outside St Paul's in London. Those found with them were made to ride in penitential processions, seated backwards on donkeys, and wearing pasteboard mitres to which pages from the forbidden books were pinned. Symbolic faggots of wood were tied to their backs. They had to hurl these into the bonfire of books, as a reminder of what would happen to them at the Smithfield stake if they reverted to Bible-reading.
On the Continent, English agents hunted for Tyndale. Friars disguised as laymen, a turncoat merchant, a stationer, a mercenary German senator, were commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII and Thomas More to search for him among expatriates in the Low Countries and the booksellers at the Frankfurt fair.
He was shipwrecked on the Dutch coast. He lost his manuscripts of the Books of Moses, and had to retranslate them. Drunken printers in Cologne alerted an informer when the first printing of his New Testament had progressed no further than Matthew's gospel. Tyndale had to abort his print run and flee up the Rhine. His dearest friend was burnt at Smithfield. Yet he fizzed with wit and energy. He had the Tudor love of puns. Wolsey became Wolfsee, the wolf among the flock, and bishops were "bishaps" - half-men, half-mishaps. He had Tudor vulgarity, too, reminding bishops that "to preache is theyre dutie onlye and nott to offer theyre feet to be kyssed or testicles to be groped".
His fieldcraft was - necessarily - superb. He allowed no likeness of himself to be drawn. He used false colophons on his works, ascribing them to fictitious printers. His Book of Genesis claimed to be "Emprented at Marlborow in the lande of Hesse by me Hans Luft"; in fact, it was the work of a printer named van Hoochstraten in Antwerp.
We know of no certain place where Tyndale stayed. Yet he wrote expositions, prefaces, prologues and theological works as well as biblical translations. He was the most published writer in English. Sir Thomas Elyot, ambassador at the court in Brussels, commissioned by London to arrest him, paid agents to loiter round print shops. "Tyndale is in wit movable," he admitted; "hearing of the king's diligence in the apprehension of him, he withdraweth him into such places where he thinketh to be farthest out of danger." More, venomous at his failure to seize Tyndale, described him to Erasmus as "a fellow Englishman, who is nowhere and yet everywhere".
By 1535, he was safer - or so it seemed - than at any other time in his exile. He had recently turned 40, and he looked forward to completing his life's work by translating the outstanding books of the Old Testament in the English House. It was a large, gabled residence, a gift from the city fathers to the English expatriates, close to the Antwerp waterfront. Members of the house enjoyed legal rights and, informally at least, were immune from arrest while within its walls.
The imperial authorities - the Low Countries were a possession of the Emperor Charles V - had no cause to act against him. He wrote exclusively in English, for an English audience. The danger from England was evaporating in concert with the rapid improvement in the lot of his fellow evangelicals. Thomas Cromwell, sympathetic to the reformers and personally well disposed to Tyndale, was in the political ascendant. Henry VIII was at last married to Anne Boleyn. The king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been annulled, to the disapproval of the pope and the anger of the Emperor Charles V, Catherine's nephew, by the accommodating and pro-reform archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The new queen promoted evangelicals among her chaplains and owned a copy of Tyndale's New Testament. The book remained banned, but it seemed only a matter of time before the king would license the publication of an English Bible.
Above all, Tyndale seemed safe from More, who had written that he wished for no more than to "fynde hym with an hote fyrebronde burnynge at hys bakke, that all the water in the world wyll neuer be able to quenche". Now it was More who found himself in mortal danger. A papal loyalist to the last, he had resigned as chancellor in 1532, in despair over the submission of the clergy to the king. Two years later, as the English Reformation continued to unroll, More had refused to swear the oath of succession, which stipulated that the marriage of Henry and Anne was lawful. On May 21, 1535, the day that Phillips set aside to call on William Tyndale, More was in the Tower of London. He had a little over six weeks to live.Tyndale's guard was down, and Antwerp was not a safe haven. Heresy was a universal crime, in which the accused's nationality was irrelevant. The English had sought to have Tyndale deported for trial in London, but he could equally well be arrested and sentenced in the Low Countries.
Harry Phillips was perfectly chosen to find Tyndale and win his confidence. He was also able to stir the imperial authorities, through bribery and petition, into turning on the translator. He was in his mid-twenties. His father was an MP and the customer (customs officer) of the port of Poole in Dorset.He had grace and presence, a "comely fellow like as he had been a gentleman". He posed among the English expatriates as an evangelical, and was soon in contact with Tyndale. Both had a West Country background, both had been at Oxford. Phillips's flair for languages and love of literature coincided with Tyndale's own interests. Tyndale said he found him "an honest man, handsomely learned and very conformable"- the expression evangelicals used to describe those who conformed to their own beliefs. He allowed him to see his books "and other secrets of his study".
At some stage late in 1534, Phillips had come into a considerable amount of money. He left England for the Low Countries and enrolled in the university of Louvain on December 14, 1534. Louvain, and its university, were enthusiastically Catholic. Had Tyndale known his young friend had connections with Louvain, he would have dropped him. But he did not know. Neither did he know that Phillips had visited the imperial court at Brussels, establishing contact with the procurer-general and the imperial attorney.
When he called on Tyndale on May 21, the latter invited him to dine with him: "You shall go with me, and be my guest, where you shall be welcome." As they left the safety of the English House, Phillips insisted with a great show of courtesy that Tyndale lead the way. He pointed at him to identify him to the imperial officers he had brought with him from Brussels. The arrest was quiet and easy. The officers said later that they "pitied to see his simplicity when they took him".
The prisoner was held in the castle of Vilvoorde, the main state prison a few miles north of Brussels, a dank place with a moat fed by the turbid green waters of the River Zenne. The investigation of a suspect heretic, particularly one as distinguished as Tyndale, was a lengthy affair. Months passed in interrogations. Phillips was active, "following the suit against Master Tyndale", at hand if needed, translating passages of Tyndale's writing from English into Latin for the heresy commissioners, who had no English. These left no doubt that, in terms of Catholic orthodoxy, Tyndale was a heretic.On July 6, 1535, Sir Thomas More, whose devotion to the old religion matched Tyndale's rapture with the new, was beheaded in London. Tyndale was still alive in May 1536 when Anne Boleyn, who had done much for English evangelicals, was beheaded on Tower Green after failing to provide Henry VIII with a male heir.
In his last surviving words, Tyndale asked for a warm cap, "for I suffer greatly from cold in the head", and for cloth to patch his leggings; he asked to be allowed a lamp, for "it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark"; but "most of all, I beg and beseech... that the commissary will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary..."
He was found guilty in the first days of August 1536. The sentence was carried out in Vilvoorde early in October, probably before noon on October 6. After refusing a final opportunity to repent, he was securely bound to a stake by iron chains. Since he had not been proven to be a relapsed heretic, he qualified for the mercy of being strangled in the moments before the fire was lit. It appears that the executioner bungled his work, however, and that he was still alive as the flames engulfed him. "They speak much of the patient suffering of Master Tyndale at the time of his death," one of Cromwell's agents reported.
The betrayal was well constructed, carefully carried out and expensive. Phillips was penniless before he came to Antwerp, and he was soon penniless again. Somebody paid him to betray Tyndale, and whoever that person was, he soon disappeared from Phillips's life.This was not the start of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. No other English reformer was touched. Someone so hated Tyndale that he commissioned Phillips to have him seized, and to use "all diligent endeavour" to ensure that he was tried and burnt. This person was skilled in intelligence-gathering and in the recruitment and use of agents. He was subtle at laying his snares: Phillips was perfectly equipped to acquire the victim's trust. He needed to bribe officials, and he boasted of being "well moneyed". The paymaster wished to destroy Tyndale for his heresy; we know of nothing else, no love affairs, no money troubles, that could have been a motive. He did not wish to have Tyndale murdered, a far easier proposition, but burnt. He wanted the old religion to be seen to triumph over the new, through Tyndale's trial and public execution.
Finally, we know that this person was English-based. Cromwell asked his godson, Thomas Tebold, who was travelling in the Low Countries, to look into the affair. Tebold met Phillips in Louvain, and Phillips made it clear that he had been "commissioned" in England and not locally. The authorities in England no longer had any desire to harm Tyndale. On the contrary, Cranmer and Cromwell, respectively the senior officials of church and state, were shocked by the arrest and tried hard to secure Tyndale's release.
Who, then? A single figure matches every attribute: Thomas More. His hatred of Tyndale is insatiable, galloping, morbific. Page after page of the definitive Yale edition of the complete works of St Thomas More is wet with this malice. The qualities that made his friend Erasmus dub More a man for all seasons - the temperate lawyer, the humanist author of Utopia, the loving father, the courtly servant of the king - evaporate in its face.In 1528, More began writing A Dialogue Concerning Heresies. Wags dubbed it Concerning Tyndale, for he was its central figure, a "beste oute of whose brutyshe bestely mouth cometh a fylthy fome", a man so crammed with pus and evil that "it is more than a mervelle that the skin cane holde together". It was right, More said, to "prohybyte the scrypture of god to be suffered in englysshe tonge amonge the peoples handes"; Tyndale's translation of the gospels had turned "all hony into posyn".
This was the opening salvo in a literary feud that was to consume some 750,000 words, as many as the Bible itself. Tyndale replied with An Answere unto Sir Thomas Mores dialoge. More countered with his Confutation of Tyndale's Answer. By day, he laboured to govern England. At night, "by candellyght whyle he were halfe a slepe", he sat up into the small hours in his house at Chelsea to buffet Tyndale with a storm of ink.
Physically, though, Tyndale danced abroad beyond More's reach. More interrogated people who had been in Antwerp, and asked them "all things belonging to Tyndale, where and with whom he hosted, where stood the house, what was his stature, in what apparel he went, what resort he has". But - before Tyndale felt safe enough to move into the English House - More's quarry remained too well hidden to be winkled out.
(to be continued with Part II)…
This article appeared as a review in the Sunday Times Magazine 19.05-02. The book ‘If God Spare My Life’, by Brian Moynahan, is published by Little, Brown on May 30, price £17.99