Let me tell you about Tyndale. Who am I? Nobody much. In fact, better if I don’t tell you my name, or else I’ll be in trouble with the authorities again. But to me, Tyndale was one of the greatest men who ever lived.
And now they’ve burned him. Like a log of wood, they’ve burned him.
He studied at Oxford and Cambridge; a brilliant scholar – could speak five languages! His colleagues had naught but praise about him. But when he set about translating the New Testament from Latin to English, for the common people to read, suddenly he was a criminal. Had to flee abroad to carry on his work.
Even across the Narrow Sea they hunted him everywhere, hounded from house to house. Some villain overheard the printers gushing about this new book they were working on: Tyndale’s New Testament. ‘What a revolution this will stir up in England!’ the printers rejoiced, and this eavesdropper thought, Revolution? Here’s news the authorities will want to hear about.
When they raided the printers and broke down the door, only the first ten sheets had been run off, ink barely dry. But William was too quick for them. He’d had those ten sheets rolled up inside his pack, and was already far away across the Low Countries to another city, long before they could ever lay hands on him. A weary pilgrim on the lonesome road, walking through the wilderness like Elijah to the mountain of God. Nourished by his faith.
He was in danger the whole time, hunted every day of every year, always looking over his shoulder. But he pressed on. Two editions were printed finally – one large leather-bound tome for reading aloud in public, one small enough to fit into a man’s pocket, hold in your hands. Anyone’s hands. Yours and mine.
He needed help to distribute them, naturally. European merchants regularly crossed the Channel to and fro, Tyndale’s little printed Bibles hidden among their goods. Bales of linen. Casks of grain. Soon they were selling for just two shillings each in shady corners and at secret back doors. Over six thousand in the country before the bishops even knew what was happening. Everyone wanted one. I wanted one. I don’t ever remember hungering after a thing so much, or prizing anything so dearly as that small brown parcel slipped into my hand one rainy day on Sheep Street.
Thomas More labelled us heathen swine, Satan’s shit. Bishop Tunstall breathes hellfire on us from his lofty Durham pulpit. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, sneers that Tyndale’s Bible is an ignorant smear of blasphemy riddled with errors. Doesn’t matter. What did a few silly errors matter to the likes of us who had always been shut out from understanding, because nobody taught us Latin? Excuses. Just another feeble excuse for them to keep God all to themselves – not share him about. “Pearls trampled under the feet of swine,” all the clever scholars and bishops bleated. We don’t care. Here’s the Word of God in our hands at last, in our own language. God speaks to you as your own mother and father spoke, as your wet nurse: even if you can’t read, others will read it for you, in this loving, close, familiar tongue.
On Tyndale’s title page, where the printer’s name and address should be, are the words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Perhaps someone should have sent More a copy on his last night in the Tower. Imagine his face!
When they couldn’t track down the printing presses, they bought up thousands of finished copies and burned them in great public bonfires. But the more books they burned, the more people whispered, then muttered, then roared: ‘What’s so important about this? What are you hiding from us?’
So King Henry made it illegal to own a Tyndale Bible.
Troopers searched high and low, in bread ovens and mangers and haylofts. Anyone found owning or reading a Bible was thrown in prison for a month. I was one.
A grey Strove Tuesday, 1527. There were five of us – four men and a woman. They dressed us up in penitential robes and gave us candles to carry, bound faggots of wood to our backs. This great parade through the streets to the marketplace. We had to kneel on the cold ground and beg forgiveness from the people for our “crime”. Then we were led three times around a bonfire – had to fuel it with those dry faggots – and they made us throw our Bibles into the flames.
Like throwing in my very heart, I can tell you. I hated myself for doing it. Tyndale had given us this great book and here I was destroying his long years of hard work, apologising for the joy he had freely gifted me. Of course I never meant a word of what I said that day. But I still said it, even so. Like the apostle Peter denying Christ three times, to save his own sorry skin. Beside me, my three brothers-in-crime gazed blankly into the flames. The woman sank to her knees weeping. Behind us preened a smirking monk like a fat grey rat, cross clutched in his pink paws, eyes glittering as the paper shrivelled and crackled.
And now they’ve thrown Tyndale himself into the flames. Do you know his last words, before they strangled him at the stake and set him alight? “Oh Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” That’s what he said.
But they can’t burn everyone, and they’ll never lock us all up. They have prisons enough for bodies, yes. But an idea? It’s impossible to eradicate. They can close down the booksellers, but still there will be books. Let them come looking. We’ll confound them. They uncover one hiding place, we’ll make another. They can keep their old bones, their marble saints and gold shrines, their priests and prayers.
But we have the printing press.
They’ll never stop this floodtide of faith, never suppress Tyndale’s words. No chance. With every passing month the old certainties are steadily chipped away – nowhere in scripture does it mention penances or purgatory, relics or rosary beads. Show us where it says monks or nuns. Is ‘Pope’ in there somewhere? Thought not.
For the Holy Church will never win. The French Inquisition tortures heretics and Emperor Charles has women buried alive; they offer their subjects nothing but pain, punishment and fear. And if there is indeed a God, he would never rejoice at the burnings, beheadings and maimings in his name. He would celebrate the very best we could be, not condone the worst we are. Men, not monsters. The Church offers people only agony, terror and despair. So what, if it has plans for people? Tyndale has dreams for them.
Well, you can burn a man, and you can burn his books. But the truth won’t burn, no more than water or milk. Fifty thousand copies have come into this country since the presses started up again in Belgium, seeping into every English parish. You might as well try and gather up all the sand on England’s beaches as to keep all those books from the people. It can’t be done. Look here, hidden behind this panel in the wall: here’s proof. Take it out. Hold it. Open it. Read it. They’ll never stop up God’s mouth for good – not now He’s able to speak to us face to face, in Tyndale’s English.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
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© 2021 | Tom Burton