“Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes”

In his last letter, Tyndale asked that he might have “a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold… a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin: a piece of cloth with which to patch my leggings. And I also ask to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.”

Tyndale’s New Testament. Translated by William Tyndale in 1534. Intro. David Daniell. Yale University 1995.

William Tyndale is a hero of the Christian faith and also our language. We live in an age that complacently takes both for granted.

Let it be said clearly every school child in an English speaking country should know the name of William Tyndale.

Living in the reign of Henry VIII, he was there at the start of the Reformation. It was in 1517 Luther nailed his proclamation challenging the Pope’s authority on the church at Wittenberg. An essential angle of the Reformation was making the Bible available to the laity in their own tongues. Up to that time Latin was the official language of the church and only though Latin could Christian truth be mediated in church.

Tyndale, living in exile, did what was rigorously repressed and forbidden in England. He translated the Bible into English: the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek. Around sixteen thousand translations were smuggled in from the continent over the years. This was dangerous work and ultimately Tyndale paid the price. Found guilty of heresy by a court in the Netherlands he was strangled, demonstrating he, and his like, were to be made voiceless.

It was a vain hope. He told a cleric who challenged him: Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost. What Tyndale started could not be held back. The voice could not be silenced.

Ultimately, after his death, his translation was allowed being incorporated in the Great Bible of 1539. It was not so much that the eyes of King Henry VIII had been opened. His marital affairs famously led to his quarrels with the Pope and he became more accepting of Protestant states in Germany so allowing English publications were more a matter of political expediency than principle especially when his chief archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who developed the English Book of Common Prayer, was in approval of the use of English in church.

It is not generally realised how much of the greatly loved Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611 is based on Tyndale’s translation: according to Tombs “80-90percent of the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament remained Tyndale”. This version tends to give a more formal and rhetorical elaboration of Tyndale. Here is the opening verse of Genesis in Tyndale’s translation:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water

Tyndale’s Old Testament Intro by David Daniell 1992

The Authorised Version builds on this, slightly (I think improves it ) but we can see Tyndale’s more direct, less rhetorical syle in operation:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

King James Version of the Bible.

Notice the King James Version elaborates and slightly improves phrases ( “was without form”) and it uses the paratactic form (ie sentences beginning with “And”) which helps give weight to the delivery. Some find the Tyndale’s more direct, less formal style more appealing than the Authorised Version but what cannot be denied is the predominant influence of Tyndale on it and therefore our language for four hundred years

A look at the familiarity of words and phrases brought into the language by Tyndale’s translation makes this clear. I quote from Robert Tombs:

salt of the earth, the fat of the land, the powers that be, let there be light, the spirit is willing, the apple of his eye, a law unto themselves, filthy lucre, as bald as a coot, the straight and narrow, my brother’s keeper, blessed are the peacemakers, let my people go, eat, drink and be merry, flowing with milk and honey, a stranger in a strange land, the flesh pots, thou shalt not kill, love thy neighbour as thyself.

Robert Tombs “The English and Their History” Allen Lane 2014.

Tyndale’s language working through the earlier English translations and then the Authorised Version of the Bible, meant that for four centuries his English has made a unique contribution to the language wherever it is spoken.

David Daniell in his introduction puts it well:

It is commonly said that Luther’s 1522 New Testament gave Germany a language; it ought to be said more clearly that Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament gave to English its first classic prose. Such flexibility, directness, nobility and rhythmic beauty showed what the language could do. There is a fine line from Tyndale to the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest English prose that followed: English, that is, rather than Latinised , prose. The sixteenth century began with debate about the worthiness of English. The later poets under Elizabeth and James-Shakespeare above all-showed that English was a language which could far out -reach Latin in stature but Tyndale and his successors made an English prose which was a more than worthy vehicle for the most serious matter of all.

ibid. Tyndale’s New Testament Tr. William Tyndale. 1534 Intro. David Daniell.

To forget or ignore Tyndale would be a sign that those of us who have inherited his language have forgotten where we have come from.

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