The Death of The Great Reformer of England
And the Spread of the Word of God

FROM 1535 TO OCTOBER 1536


Excerpted from
HISTORY OF THE
REFORMATION IN THE TIME OF CALVIN
by J.H. Merle d’Aubigne

Most of the reformers, Luther, Zuingle, Calvin, Knox, and others have acquired that name by their preachings, their writings, their struggles, and their actions. It is not so with the principal reformer of England: all his activity was concentered in the Holy Scriptures. Tyndale was less prominent than the other instruments of God, who were awakened to upraise the Church. We might say, that knowing the weakness of man, he had retired and hidden himself to allow the Word from Heaven to act by itself. He had studied it, translated it, and sent it over the sea: it must now do its own work. Is it not written: The field is the World, and the seed is the Word? But there is another characteristic, or rather another fact, which distinguishes him from them, and this we have to describe.

While the new adversaries of Henry VIII., Pole and the papistical party, were agitating on the continent, Tyndale, the man whom the king had pursued so long without being able to catch, was in prison at Vilvorde, near Brussels. In vain was he girt around with the thick walls of that huge fortress. Tyndale was free. ‘There is the captivity and bondage,’ he could say, ‘whence Christ delivered us, redeemed and loosed us. His blood, his death, his patience in suffering rebukes and wrongs, his prayers and fastings, his meekness and fulfilling of the uttermost point of the law broke the bonds of Satan, wherein we were so strait bound.’ Thus Tyndale was as truly free at Vilvorde, as Paul had been at Rome. He felt pressed to accomplish a vow made many years before. ‘If God preserves my life,’ he had said, ‘I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope.’ True Christianity shows itself by the attention it gives to Christ’s little ones. It was time for Tyndale to keep his promise. He occupied his prison hours in preparing for the humble dwellers in the Gloucestershire villages and the surrounding counties, an edition of the Bible in which he employed the language and orthography used in that part of England. 

When near his end, he returned lovingly to the familiar speech of his childhood; he wrote in the dialect of the peasantry to save the souls of the peasants, and for the first time put titles to the chapters of the Scripture, in order to make the understanding of it easier to his humbler fellow-countrymen. Two other editions of the New Testament appeared during the first year of his captivity. He did more: he had translated the Old Testament according to the Hebrew text, and was going to see to the printing of it just when Philips betrayed him. The fear that this labor would be lost grieved him even more than his imprisonment: a friend undertook the work he could no longer do himself.

At that time there lived at Antwerp, as chaplain to the English merchants in that city, a young man from the county of Warwick, named Rogers, who had been educated at Cambridge, and was a little more than thirty years old. Rogers was learned, but submissive to the Romish traditions. Tyndale having made his acquaintance, asked him to help in translating the Holy Scriptures, and Rogers caught joyfully at the opportunity of employing his Greek and Hebrew. Close and constant contact with the Word of God gradually effected in him that great transformation, that total renewal of the man which is the object of redemption. ‘I have found the true light in the Gospel,’ he said one day to Tyndale; ‘I now see the filthiness of Rome, and I cast from my shoulders the heavy yoke it had imposed upon me.’ From that hour Tyndale received from Rogers the help which he had formerly received from John Frith, that pious martyr, whose example Rogers was to follow by enduring, the first under Mary, the punishment of fire. 

The Holy Scriptures have been written in English with the blood of martyrs — if we may so speak the blood of Frith, Tyndale, and Rogers: it is a crown of glory for that translation. At the moment of Tyndale’s perfidious arrest, Rogers had fortunately saved the manuscript of the Old Testament, and now resolved to delay the printing no longer. When the news of this reached the Reformer in his cell at Vilvorde, it cast a gleam of light upon his latter days and filled his heart with joy. The whole Bible, — that was the legacy which the dying Tyndale desired to leave to his fellow-countrymen. He took pleasure in his gloomy dungeon in following with his mind’s eye that divine Scripture from city to city and from cottage to cottage; his imagination pictured to him the struggles it would have to go through, and also its victories. ‘The Word of God,’ he said, ‘never was without persecution — no more than the sun can be without his light. By what right doth the pope forbid God to speak in the English tongue? Why should not the Sermons of the Apostles, preached no doubt in the mother-tongue of those who heard them, be now written in the mother-tongue of those who read them?’ Tyndale did not think of proving the divinity of the Bible by learned dissertations. ‘Scripture derives its authority from Him who sent it,’ he said. ‘Would you know the reason why men believe in Scripture? It is Scripture. — It is itself the instrument which outwardly leads men to believe, whilst inwardly, the spirit of God Himself, speaking through Scripture, gives faith to His children.’ 

We do not know for certain in what city Rogers printed the great English folio Bible. Hamburg, Antwerp, Marburg, Lubeck, and even Paris have been named. Extraordinary precautions were required to prevent the persecutors from entering the house where men had the boldness to print the Word of God, and from breaking the printing-presses. Tyndale had the great comfort of knowing that the whole Bible was going to be published, and that prophets, apostles, and Christ himself would speak by it after his death. 

This man, so active, so learned, and so truly great, whose works circulated far and wide with so much power, had at the same time within him a pure and beneficent light the love of God and of man which shed its mild rays on all around him. The depth of his faith, the charm of his conversation, the uprightness of his conduct, touched those who came near him. The jailer liked to bring him his food, in order to talk with him, and his young 
daughter often accompanied him and listened eagerly to the words of the pious Englishman. Tyndale spoke of Jesus Christ; it seemed to him that the riches of the divine Spirit were about to transform Christendom; that the children of God were about to be manifested, and that the Lord was about to gather together his elect. ‘Grace is there, summer is nigh,’ he was wont to say, ‘for the trees blossom.’ In truth, young shoots and even old trees, long barren, flourished within the very walls of the castle. The jailer, his daughter, and other members of their house were converted to the Gospel by Tyndale’s life and doctrine. However dark the machinations of his enemies, they could not obscure the divine light kindled in his heart, and which shone before men. There was an invincible power in this Christian man. Full of hope in the final victory of Jesus Christ, he courageously trampled under foot tribulations, trials, and death itself. He believed in the victory of the Word. ‘I am bound like a malefactor,’ he said, ‘but the Word of God is not bound.’ The bitterness of his last clays was changed into great peace and divine sweetness. His friends did not forget him. Among the English merchants at Antwerp was one whose affection had often reminded him that ‘friendship is the assemblage of every virtue,’ as a wise man of antiquity styles it.

Thomas Poyntz, one of whose ancestors had come over from Normandy with William the Conqueror, had perhaps known the reformer in the house of Lady Walsh, who also belonged to this ancient family. For nearly a year the merchant had entertained the translator of the Scriptures beneath his roof, and a mutual and unlimited confidence was established between them. When Poyntz saw his friend in prison, he resolved to do everything to save him. Poyntz’s elder brother John, who had retired to his estate at North Okendon, in Essex, had accompanied the king in 1520 to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and although no longer at court, he still enjoyed the favor of Henry VIII. Thomas determined to write to John. ‘Right well-beloved brother,’ he said, ‘William Tyndale is in prison, and like to suffer death, unless the king should extend his gracious help to him. He has lain in my house three quarters of a year, and I know that the king has never a truer-hearted subject. When the pope gave his Majesty the title of Defender of the Faith, he prophesied like Caiaphas. The papists thought our prince should be a great maintainer of their abominations; but God has entered his grace into the right battle. The king should know that the death of this man will be one of the highest pleasures to the enemies of the Gospel. If it might please his Majesty to send for this man, it might, by the means thereof, be opened to the court and council of this country (Brabant) that they would be at another point with the bishop of Rome within a short space.’

John lost no time: he succeeded in interesting Cromwell in the reformer’s cause, and on the 10th of September 1535, a messenger arrived in Antwerp with two letters from the vicar-general — one for the marquis of Bergen-op-zoom, and the other for Carondelet, archbishop of Palermo and president of the council of Brabant. Alas! the marquis had started two days before for Germany, whither he was conducting the princess of Denmark. Thomas Poyntz mounted his horse, and caught up the escort about fifteen miles from Maestricht. The marquis hurriedly glanced over Cromwell’s dispatch. ‘I have no leisure to write,’ he said; ‘the princess is making ready to depart.’ ‘I will follow you to the next baiting place,’ answered Tyndale’s indefatigable friend. ‘Be it so,’ replied Bergen-op-zoom.

On arriving at Maestricht, the marquis wrote to Flegge, to Cromwell, and to his friend the archbishop, president of the council of Brabant, and gave the three letters to Poyntz. The latter presented the letters of Cromwell and of the marquis to the president, but the archbishop and the council of Brabant were opposed to Tyndale. Poyntz immediately started for London, and laid the answer of the council before Cromwell, entreating him to insist that Tyndale should be immediately set at liberty, for the danger was great. The answer was delayed a month. Poyntz handed it to the chancery of Brabant, and every day this true and generous friend went to the office to learn the result. ‘Your request will be granted,’ said one of the clerks on the fourth day. Poyntz was transported with joy. Tyndale was saved.

The traitor Philips, however, who had delivered him to his enemies, was then at Louvain. He had run away from Antwerp, knowing that the English merchants were angry with him, and had sold his books with the intent of escaping to Paris. But the Louvain priests, who still needed him, reassured him, and remaining in that stronghold of Romanism, he began to translate into Latin such passages in Tyndale’s writings as he thought best 
calculated to offend the catholics. He was thus occupied when the news of Tyndale’s approaching deliverance filled him and his friends with alarm. What was to be done? He thought the only means of preventing the liberation of the prisoner was to shut up the liberator himself. Philips went straight to the procurator-general. ‘That man, Poyntz,’ he said, ‘is as much a heretic as Tyndale.’ Two sergeants-at-arms were sent to keep watch over Poyntz at his house, and for six days in succession he was examined upon a hundred different articles. At the beginning of February 1536, he learnt that he was about to be sent to prison, and knowing what would follow, he formed a prompt resolution. One night, when the sergeants-at-arms were asleep, he escaped and left the city early, just as the gates were opened. Horsemen were sent in search of him; but as Poyntz knew the country well, he escaped them, got on board a ship, and arrived safe and sound at his brother’s house at North Okendon.

When Tyndale heard of this escape, he knew what it indicated; but he was not overwhelmed, and almost at the foot of the scaffold, he bravely fought many a tough battle. The Louvain doctors undertook to make him abjure his faith, and represented to him that he was condemned by the Church. ‘The authority of Jesus Christ,’ answered Tyndale, ‘is independent of the authority of the Church.’ They called upon him to make submission to the successor of the Apostle Peter. ‘Holy Scripture,’ he said, ‘is the first of
the Apostles, and the ruler in the kingdom of Chrst.’ The Romish doctors ineffectually attacked him in his prison: he showed them that they were entangled in vain traditions and miserable superstitions, and overthrew all their pretences.

During this time Poyntz was working with all his might in England to ward off the blow by which his friend was about to be struck. John assisted Thomas, but all was useless. Henry just at that time was making great efforts to arrest some of his subjects, whom their devotion to the pope had driven out of England. ‘Cover all the roads with spies, in order to catch them,’ he wrote to the German magistrates; but there was not a word about Tyndale. The king cared very little for these evangelicals. His religion consisted in rejecting the Roman pontiff and making himself pope; as for those reformers, let them be burnt in Brabant, it will save him the trouble.

All hope was not, however, lost. They had confidence in the vicegerent, the hammer of the monks. On the 13th of April Vaughan wrote to Cromwell from Antwerp: ‘If you will send me a letter for the privy-council, I can still save Tyndale from the stake; only make haste, for if you are slack about it, it will be too late.’ But there were cases in which Cromwell could do nothing without the king, and Henry was deaf. He had special motives at that time for sacrificing Tyndale: the discontent which broke out in the North of England made him desirous of conciliating the Low Countries. Charles V also, who was vigorously attacked by Francis I, prayed his very good brother (Henry VIII) to unite with him for the public good of Christendom. Queen Mary, regent of the Netherlands, wrote from Brussels to her uncle, entreating him to yield to this prayer, and the king was quite ready to abandon Tyndale to such powerful allies. 

Mary, a woman of upright heart but feeble character, easily yielded to outward impressions, and had at that time bad counselors about her. ‘Those animals (the monks) are all powerful at the Court of Brussels,’ said Erasmus. ‘Mary is only a puppet placed there by our nation; Montigny is the plaything of the Franciscans; the cardinal-archbishop of Liege is a domineering person, and full of violence; and as for the archbishop of Palermo; he is a mere giver of words and nothing else.’

Among such personages, and under their influence, the court was formed, and the trial of the reformer of England began. Tyndale refused to be represented by counsel. ‘I will answer my accusers myself,’ he said. The doctrine for which he was tried was this: ‘The man who throws off the worldly existence which he has lived far from God, and receives by a living faith the complete remission of his sins, which the death of Christ has purchased for him, is introduced by a glorious adoption into the very family of God.’ This was certainly a crime for which a reformer could joyfully suffer. In August 1536, Tyndale appeared before the ecclesiastical court. ‘You are charged,’ said his judges, ‘with having infringed the imperial decree which forbids any one to teach that faith alone justifies.’ The accusation was not without truth. Tyndale’s Unjust[Wicked]Mammon had just appeared in London under the title: Treatise of Justification by Faith only. Every man could read in it the crime with which he was charged.

Tyndale had his reasons when he declared he would defend himself. It was not his own cause that he undertook to defend, but the cause of the Bible; a Brabant lawyer would have supported it very poorly. It was in his heart to proclaim solemnly, before he died, that while all human religions make salvation proceed from the works of man, the divine religion makes it proceed from a work of God. ‘A man, whom the sense of his sins has 
confounded,’ said Tyndale, ‘loses all confidence and joy. The first thing to be done to save him is, therefore, to lighten him of the heavy burden under which his conscience is bowed down. He must believe in the perfect work of Christ which reconciles him completely with God; then he has peace, and Christ imparts to him, by his Spirit, a holy regeneration. — Yes,’ he exclaimed, ‘we believe and are at peace in our consciences, because that God who cannot lie, hath promised to forgive us for Christ’s sake. As a 
child, when his father threateneth him for his fault, hath never rest till he hear the word of mercy and forgiveness of his father’s mouth again; but as soon as he heareth his father say: “Go thy way, do me no more so; I forgive thee this fault!” then is his heart at rest; then runneth he to no man to make intercession for him; neither, though there come any false merchant, saying “What wilt thou give me and I will obtain pardon of thy father for thee,” will he suffer himself to be beguiled. No, he will not buy of a wily fox what his father hath given him freely.’

Tyndale had spoken to the consciences of his hearers, and some of them were beginning to believe that his cause was the cause of the Gospel. ‘Truly,’ exclaimed the procurator-general, as did formerly the centurion near the cross; ‘truly this was a good, learned, and pious man.’ But the priests would not allow so costly a prey to be snatched from them. Tyndale was declared guilty of erroneous, captious, rash, ill-sounding, dangerous, scandalous, and heretical propositions, and was condemned to be solemnly degraded and then handed over to the secular power. They were eager to make him go through the ceremonial, even all the mummeries, used on such occasions: it was too good a case to allow of any curtailment. The reformer was dressed in his sacerdotal robes, the sacred vessels and the Bible were placed in his hands, and he was taken before the bishop. The latter, having been informed of the crime of the accused man, stripped him of the ornaments of his order, took away the Bible from the translator of the Bible; and after a barber had shaved the whole of his head, the bishop declared him deprived of the crown of the priesthood, and expelled, like an undutiful child, from the inheritance of the Lord.

One day would have been sufficient to cut off from this world the man who was its ornament, and those who walked in the darkness of fanaticism waited impatiently for the fatal hour; but the secular power hesitated for awhile, and the reformer stayed nearly two months longer in prison, always full of faith, peace, and joy. ‘Well,’ said those who came near him in the castle of Vilvorde, ‘if that man is not a good Christian, we do not know of one upon earth.’ Religious courage was personified in Tyndale. He had never suffered himself to be stopped by any difficulty, privation, or suffering; he had resolutely followed the call he had received, which was to give England the Word of God. Nothing had terrified him, nothing had dispirited him; with admirable perseverance he had continued his work, and now he was going to give his life for it. Firm in his convictions, he had never sacrificed the least truth to prudence or to fear; firm in his hope, he had never doubted that the labor of his life would bear fruit, for that labor had the promises of God. That pious and intrepid man is one of the noblest examples of Christian heroism.

The faint hope which some of Tyndale’s friends had entertained, on seeing the delay of justice, was soon destroyed. The imperial government prepared at last to complete the wishes of the priests. Friday, the 6th of October, 1536, was the day that terminated the miserable but glorious life of the reformer. The gates of the prison rolled back, a procession crossed the foss and the bridge, under which slept the waters of the Senne, passed the outward walls, and halted without the fortifications. Before leaving the castle, Tyndale, a grateful friend, had intrusted the jailer with a letter intended for Poyntz; the jailer took it himself to Antwerp not long after, but it has not come down to us. On arriving at the scene of punishment, the reformer found a numerous crowd assembled. The government had wished to show the people the punishment of a heretic, but they only witnessed the triumph of a martyr. Tyndale was calm. ‘I call God to record,’ he could say, ‘that I have never altered, against the voice of my conscience, one syllable of his Word. Nor would do this day, if all the pleasures, honors, and riches of the earth might be given me.’ 

The joy of hope filled his heart: yet one painful idea took possession of him. Dying far from his country, abandoned by his king, he felt saddened at the thought of that prince, who had already persecuted so many of God’s servants, and who remained obstinately rebellious against that divine light which everywhere shone around him. Tyndale would not have that soul perish through carelessness. His charity buried all the faults of the monarch: he prayed that those sins might be blotted out from before the face of God; he would have saved Henry VIII at any cost. While the executioner was fastening him to the post, the reformer exclaimed in a loud and suppliant voice: ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!’ They were his last words. Instantly afterwards he was strangled, and flames consumed the martyr’s body. His last cry was wafted to the British isles, and repeated in every assembly of Christians. A great death had crowned a great life. ‘Such,’ says the old chronicler, John Foxe, ‘such is the story of that true servant and martyr of God, William Tyndale, who, for his notable pains and travail, may well be called the Aostle of England in this our later age.

The Bible is Published Throughout the Realm
His fellow-countrymen profited by the work of his life. As early as 1526 more than twenty editions of Tyndale’s New Testament had been circulated over the kingdom, and others had followed them. It was like a mighty river continually bearing new waters to the sea. Did the reformer’s death dry them up suddenly? No. A greater work still was to be accomplished: the entire Bible was ready. But could it be circulated? The king had refused his consent to the circulation of Coverdale’s Bible; would he not do the same with this, and with greater reason? A powerful protector alone could secure the free circulation of Scripture. ‘Richard Grafton, the printer, went to London to ask permission to sell the precious volume, and with the intention of applying to Cranmer.

Would Cranmer protect it? The king and Cromwell had declared against Tyndale, and the primate had looked on: that was too much his custom. His essentially prudent mind, the conviction he felt that he could do no good to the Church unless he kept the place he occupied, and perhaps his love of life, inclined him to yield to his master’s despotic will. So long as Henry VIII. was on the throne of England, Cranmer was (humanly speaking) the only possible reformer. A John the Baptist, a Knox, would have been dashed to pieces at the first shock. The scepter was then an axe; to save the head, it was necessary to bend it. The primate, therefore, bent his head frequently. He hid himself during the royal anger, but when the storm had passed he appeared again. The primate was the victim of an error. He had said that the king ought to command the Church, and every time the tyrant’s order was heard, he appeared to believe that God himself enjoined him to obey. Cranmer was the image of his Church which, under the weight of its greatness and with many weaknesses hidden beneath its robes, has notwithstanding always had within it a mighty principle of truth and life.

Grafton, the printer, had an audience of the archbishop at Forde, in Kent: he presented the martyr’s Bible, and asked him to procure its free circulation. The archbishop took the book, examined it, and was delighted with it. Fidelity, clearness, strength, simplicity, unction all were combined in this admirable translation. Cranmer had much eagerness in proposing what he thought useful. He sent the volume to Cromwell, begging him to present it to his Majesty and obtain permission for it to be sold, ‘until such time that we (the bishops),’ he added, ‘shall put forth a better translation which, I think, will not be till a day after doomsday.’ 

Henry ran over the book: Tyndale’s name was not in it, and the dedication to his Majesty was very well written. The king regarding (and not without reason) Holy Scripture as the most powerful engine to destroy the papal system, and believing that this translation would help him to emancipate England from the Romish domination, came to an unexpected resolution: he authorized the sale and the reading of the Bible throughout the kingdom. Inconsistent and whimsical prince! at one and the same time he published and imposed all over his realm the doctrines of Romanism, and circulated without obstacle the Divine Word that overthrew them! We may well say that the blood of a martyr, precious in the eyes of the Supreme King, opened the gates of England to the Holy Scriptures. Cromwell having informed the archbishop of the royal decision, the latter exclaimed, ‘What you have just done gives me more pleasure than if you had given me a thousand pounds. I doubt not but that hereby such fruit of good knowledge shall ensue, that it shall well appear hereafter, what high and acceptable service you have done unto God and the king, which shall so much redound to your honor that (besides God’s reward) you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same.’

For centuries the English people had been waiting for such a permission, even from before the time of Wycliff; and accordingly the Bible circulated rapidly. The impetuosity with which the living waters rushed forth, carrying with them everything they met in their course, was like the sudden opening of a huge floodgate. This great event, more important than divorces, treaties, and wars, was the conquest of England by the Reformation. ‘It was a wonderful thing to see,’ says an old historian. Whoever possessed the means bought the book and read it or had it read to him by others. Aged persons learnt their letters in order to study the Holy Scriptures of God. In many places there were meetings for reading; poor people dubbed their savings together and purchased a Bible, and then in some remote corner of the church, they modestly formed a circle, and read the Holy Book between them. A crowd of men, women, and young folks, disgusted with the barren pomp of the altars, and with the worship of dumb images, would gather round them to taste the precious promises of the Gospel. God himself spoke under the arched roofs of those old chapels or time-worn cathedrals, where for generations nothing had been heard but masses and litanies. The people wished, instead of the noisy chants of the priests, to hear the voice of Jesus Christ, of Paul and of John, of Peter and of James. The Christianity of the Apostles reappeared in the Church.

But with it came persecution, according to the words of the Master: The brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child. A father exasperated because his son, a mere boy, had taken part in these holy readings, caught him by the hair, and put a cord round his neck to hang him. In all the towns and villages of Tyndale’s country the holy pages were opened, and the delighted readers found therein those treasures of peace and joy which the martyr had known. Many cried out with him, ‘We know that this Word is from God, as we know that fire burns; not because any one has told us, but because a Divine fire consumes our hearts. O the brightness of the face of Moses! O the splendor of the glory of Jesus Christ, which no veil conceals! O the inward power of the Divine word, which compels us, with so much sweetness, to love and to do! O the temple of God within us, in which the Son of God dwells!’ Tyndale had desired to see the world on fire by his Master’s Word, and that fire was kindled.

The general dissemination of the Holy Scriptures forms an important epoch in the Reformation of England. It is like one of those pillars which separate one territory from another. Here, for the moment, we suspend our course, and repose for a brief space ere we turn our steps to other countries.

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