Keith Hunt - Coverdale and Matthew Bible - Page Four   Restitution of All Things

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Coverdale and the Matthew Bible

The English Bible moves on!

                        TOWARDS AN ENGLISH BIBLE #4

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Indelible ink

     The difficulties of life on the run were not the only
pressures on Tyndale. He also had the pressure of his exacting
translation work. "Scripture derives its authority from him who
sent it," he stated, and he never deviated from this conviction
that he was translating the inspired Word of God. Such a task
demanded the utmost care, no matter how adverse the conditions.
Foxe reports that Tyndale would say: "I call God to record 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, honours, and riches of the earth might be given me."
     A further pressure was the burden to complete his task. When
he had translated the Pentateuch, he traveled from Antwerp to
Hamburg by ship. On the voyage, a fierce storm wrecked the ship
and everything was lost, including his precious manuscripts and
his money. He had lost many hours' work. When he eventually
arrived in Hamburg, Miles Coverdale met him there, and between
April and December 1529 they worked together on the translation
of the five books of Moses. Early in 1530, the first publication
of Tyndale's Pentateuch came off the presses. By the time of his
capture, he had finished translating up to 2 Chronicles and the
book of Jonah. He was never able to complete the rest of the Old
Testament, but, inspired by his vision, others completed it on
his behalf.
     It might be assumed that a man of such indomitable
commitment would have no time for anything else, but Tyndale
wrote other books dealing with the issues of the Reformation. In
1528 he wrote two which were to become standards for the reform
movement. The first was The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, and the
second was The Obedience of a Christian Man. These two books
defended two significant principles: the authority of the Bible
in the church, and the supremacy of the king in the state. They
were followed two years later by another publication, The
Practice of Prelates, which was a strong indictment against the
Roman Catholic Church and the divorce of Henry VIII. These became
well known and influential in England. A martyr named Tewkesbury
was put to the body rack at the Tower of London because he
refused to renounce the teaching in Wicked Mammon. He testified
that this book had introduced him to Christ.

     1529 was the year of one of Tyndale's most famous
controversies. Thomas More had written his Dialogue of Sir Thomas
More, touching the Pestilent Sect of Luther and Tyndale, and as
More was considered the leading English defender of the Church of
Rome, Tyndale picked up his pen to reply. The dispute which
followed dealt with all the arguments for and against the
Reformation, and centered on whether the church or Scripture held
the higher authority. C. S. Lewis described the debate as a
"great Platonic dialogue, perhaps the best specimen of that form
ever produced in English." Some of Tyndale's strongest critics
complimented him on his skill, and Erasmus, one of More's closest
friends, wrote to Tunstall, the Bishop of London, admitting, "I
cannot heartily congratulate More."
     Tyndale found refuge for some time in the city of Antwerp,
where he may have stayed at the home of Thomas Poyntz, a relative
of Mrs Walsh from Little Sodbury Manor. Here he worked on his
translations, and edited his previous publications. He was unable
to stay and supervise a new edition of his New Testament, which
was published in 1534, "full of printing errors." He returned in
1535 to the same home, where he met Henry Phillips, a man to whom
the family had shown much kindness, and who professed to be a
student of the new faith. It was Phillips who betrayed the
identity of the reformer. He borrowed forty shillings from
Tyndale and, going out to dine, pointed him out to the men lying
in wait. On May 24, 1535, Tyndale was captured and taken to the
impregnable Vilvorde Castle near Brussels, in Belgium.
When he was tried, Tyndale rejected the offer of counsel. He
deemed his judges to be both prejudiced and bitter, and felt that
the outcome was already decided. His counsel would merely have
argued over issues of no real consequence, but he himself could
bear witness to the truth of the gospel. He did not want to
defend himself, but he did want to defend his Bible. He was found
guilty of sacrilege, dressed in his sacerdotal robes and brought
before the bishop. The bishop pronounced him excommunicated, had
the official robes taken from him, and had a barber shave his
head; then he was taken back to his cell.
     Bibles imported from Europe are burned at the bishop's

     It was not until September or October 1536 that his
executioners brought him out to be killed. They chained him to a
pillar with two holes in it, through which they threaded a piece
of wire in order that, according to his sentence, he might be
strangled as well as burned. Tyndale showed no fear, regret or
hesitation. When the executioner was attaching the wire around
his throat, he made his last recorded comment. It was a prayer:
"Lord, open the king of England's eyes."
     They strangled his voice. They burned his hands. They
ravaged and destroyed his property, burning every Bible they
could find. But their efforts to silence him failed. Though only
one copy of the first edition of his New Testament survived the
biblical holocaust, his commitment inspired thousands, his
priorities gave guidance to the movement, and his translation
influenced nearly every succeeding translation of the Bible.

(Another mighty hand in the hand of the Lord had to suffer death
for the glory of God; for the truth of God; for the writing of
the English Bible, so the common people could have it, read it,
find in it the wonder of the truths of God, and so in time, God's
time, the restitution of all things could be accomplished; a
people prepared to stand on the Bible alone for the faith once
delivered to the saints - Keith Hunt)

The Bishop of Exeter

     Another young man who came through that unique Bible study
group at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge was Miles Coverdale. He
was born in Yorkshire in 1488, was ordained priest at Norwich in
1514, and entered the convent of Augustinian friars at Cambridge,
where he studied philosophy and theology. While there he made the
acquaintance of Sir Thomas More, and in More's home he met Thomas
Cromwell, the future Chancellor of England. The prior of his
abbey was Robert Barnes, who was converted under the ministry of
Thomas Bilney. Barnes introduced Coverdale to the study of the
scriptures, and this eventually led him to participate in the
disputes at the White Horse Inn. When his prior was arrested, and
placed on trial in London, Coverdale went to give him legal

     Coverdale later left the friary, abandoning his vows to
become an itinerant preacher. He traveled considerably,
especially on the continent. He was in Hamburg in 1529, where, as
we have seen, he aided Tyndale in his translation of the
Pentateuch, though it is difficult to know what assistance he
gave, since as far as we can tell he had no knowledge of the
Hebrew language. At the same time, he started his own writing
career. Most of his twenty-six publications were English
translations of reformed writers.
     Jacob van Meteren, an Antwerp merchant, hired him to produce
an English translation of the Bible, a task he completed in 1535.
When his fellow clergy argued for the retention of the Scriptures
in Latin, he said: "No, the Holy Ghost is as much the author of
it in Hebrew, Greek, French, Dutch, and English, as in Latin."
The first edition of this, the first Bible to be printed in
English, appeared on October 4, 1535. There are no complete
copies in existence, and on the five or six fragments which have
a title page there is no indication of the publisher or the place
of its publication. In order to make his translation more
acceptable in England, Coverdale dedicated it to the king and to
"his dearest just wife, and most virtuous princess, Queen Anne."
But when Anne was disgraced and executed a few months later, this
dedication became a liability.
     In December 1534, Coverdale had attended a Convocation
called by Archbishop Cranmer, which petitioned for an authorized
translation of the scriptures in English. Coverdale now wanted to
have his edition authorized, but this attempt failed. The version
was not even particularly scholarly. Some of the title pages
state that it was translated out of German and Latin but
Coverdale admitted to using five translationstwo Latin, two
German (Luther's and the Zurich Bible), and Tyndale's New
Testament and Pentateuch. Two fresh editions appeared in 1537,
but none received official approval; in fact, in 1542
CoverdaleI's Bible was placed on a list of banned books.
Coverdale was in Geneva in December 1538, and participated in the
preparation of the Geneva Bible. But his greatest accomplishment
in the history of the English Bible was yet ahead of him. This
came in 1539 when Thomas Cromwell commissioned him to edit the
Matthew Bible, giving England its greatest authorized version of
Henry's reign.

     Apart from his work on the Bible, Coverdale contributed to
the reform movement by offering support and help in many ways.
First, though the Six Articles condemned marriage among priests,
Coverdale defied this law by openly marrying Elizabeth Machson.
Second, he was staying at Windsor Castle in October 1548 when
Cranmer was drawing up the First Book of Common Prayer, and he
helped in that task. Third, he was active in many of the
reforming measures of the reign of Edward VI. Fourth, as Bishop
of Exeter, a position he held from 1551 to 1553, he was in
constant attendance at the Parliaments. Fifth, he was an
aggressive persecutor of the anabaptist movement, which at that
time was considered detrimental to the reformers' cause. Finally,
and most important, he was an exceptionally gifted preacher. (On
one significant occasion, he preached at St Paul's on the second
Sunday of Lent to mark the ceremonial abolition of multiple
altars and masses, and his sermon was immediately followed by the
pulling down of the high altar.)
     Coverdale lost his bishopric when Mary came to the throne in
1553. He was required to stand before the Privy Council but was
spared burning by the intercession in his favor of Christian III
of Denmark, and was allowed to go to the continent "with two of
his servants" (one of whom was his wife!). He returned to England
when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558 and ministered in the
area of London Bridge, always attracting large crowds. He died in
February 1568, and is buried in the graveyard at St Magnus

(Some light given to Coverdale, much light not given. God brings
light to whom He will and the amount of light that they will have
- Keith Hunt)

Mary's first victim

     While it is contended by some that "Matthew" was merely a
harmless pen name attached to a Bible translation, it would be
more accurate to say that the name was used in a deliberate
attempt to deceive the authorities, and get the book distributed
on the black market. While Tyndale also broke the law by
distributing an undercover Bible, he did not use a false name.
The Matthew Bible, as it came to be known, is directly traced to
John Rogers.
     Rogers was born near the city of Birmingham about the year
1500. He was educated at Pembroke Hall, in Cambridge, and in 1526
graduated with a B.A. degree, apparently unmoved by the spiritual
stirring which affected the university during his student days.
In 1532 he became rector of Holy Trinity, Queenhithe, in London.
Two years later, he accepted the post of chaplain to the English
merchants who traded in Antwerp. It was there that he came into
contact with William Tyndale.
     Tyndale had a profound effect upon Rogers, though their
friendship was very brief. The change in Rogers' life was
evidenced by his desertion of the Catholic Church; by his
marriage to a woman from Antwerp; and by the fact that Tyndale
trusted him so implicitly that he left all his unpublished
translations in his possession for safe keeping. Tyndale had
already translated the Old Testament as far as 2 Chronicles, but
nothing had been published since the Pentateuch. The translation
had to be finished and the complete Bible published.
     It is questionable whether John Rogers knew enough Hebrew to
complete the translating work. The similarity of the second half
of the Old Testament to that of Coverdale's Bible seems to
indicate that Coverdale helped to supervise the finishing of the
Old Testament. It seems there was a deliberate subterfuge, and
that Tyndale's translation was edited in order to conceal the
source. The completed Bible, under the pseudonym of Thomas
Matthew, was published in 1537, just one year after Tyndale's
     The manuscripts were given for publication to Richard
Grafton, a merchant in Antwerp who felt constrained to go to
England and present a copy to Cranmer, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, in an effort to get approval for an English
publication. Cranmer examined the book and was greatly impressed,
but he felt he was not the best person to obtain the king's
approval. He therefore asked Thomas Cromwell to submit it and
obtain permission from Henry VIII. The permission he was asking
for was temporary: it was to be only until a better translation
could be produced by the bishops - which, suggested Cranmer,
"will not be till a day after domesday." The king took the book
and looked through it. At the end of Malachi, Rogers had etched
the initials W.T., standing for William Tyndale. The letters were
large enough to cover half the page, but either the King's
fingers skipped the page, or he did not look at the initials
properly, or his mind was too dull to interpret their
significance; as far as he could see, Tyndale's name was not
associated with the new Bible. The book had a pleasant dedication
to His Majesty, and Henry thought that it might be a useful
implement to weaken the grip of Rome on England. He handed it
back to Cromwell and granted permission, provided Cromwell could
get Cranmer's approval! Cromwell had succeeded, and an edition of
1,500 copies was sold in England as the first "authorized"
version. According to its title page, it was published "by the
king's most gracious licence."

     This was a red-letter day in the history of the English
Bible. Though the Matthew Bible was not to survive for long, it
paved the way for later editions and translations. It succeeded
where Coverdale's had failed, in obtaining the king's
     For several years Rogers was the pastor of a Protestant
congregation in Wittenberg, returning to England in 1548. In 1550
he ministered at two churches in London, and the following year
he was made a preben dary of St Paul's. After a brief examination
of his gifts, he was made a lecturer in divinity.
     When Mary became sovereign, many of the leaders of the
Reformation fled to the continent, but Rogers was obstinate,
determined and a fully committed reformer. On July 27, 1553, he
preached at St Paul's on "the true doctrine taught in King
Edward's days" and warned his congregation against any going back
to "pestilent Popery." Ten days later he was placed under house
     In January 1554, Bonner, the new Bishop of London, sent
Rogers to Newgate, where he was imprisoned with John Hooper and
John Bradford. He was confined in Newgate for twelve months until
January 22, 1555, and then was brought to the home of Gardiner,
the notorious persecutor of the reformers. Six days later he had
to face a commission appointed by Cardinal Pole, at which
Gardiner sentenced him to death for denying the Christian
character of the Church of Rome and refusing to accept that the
elements at the Lord's Supper turned into the actual body and
blood of Christ. Six days later, on February 4, 1555, he was
taken to Smithfield and was burned to death, the first Christian
martyr during the reign of Mary. His fellow prisoner, Bradford,
said "he broke the ice valiantly."

Chains of freedom

     The Matthew Bible, which was growing in popularity, had many
strongly anti-Catholic footnotes. Since the edition had official
approval, these were something of an embarrassment to Cromwell
when he was handling delicate foreign affairs involving Catholic
countries. Cromwell therefore decided that another Bible must
replace the Matthew version.
     Having obtained the king's permission, Cromwell commissioned
Coverdale and the publisher Richard Grafton to revise the Matthew
text and eliminate the footnotes. To speed the operation and
improve the quality of production, Cromwell arrannged for it to
be printed in Paris, where there was finer paper and a superior
printing press. Charles I of France agreed, since it would be in
a language his people did not understand and would immediately be
shipped out of France. At the end of spring, 1538, Coverdale and
his assistant arrived in Paris, selecting Francois Regnault as
     On December 13 Coverdale and Grafton, who were worried about
a resurgence in the activities of the Inquisition, persuaded the
English ambassador, Bonner, to take most of the completed pages
to Cromwell. Whether because of the Inquisition or because
Charles had changed his mind, work stopped, and four days later
the revisers had to flee for their lives. The pages they had to
leave behind were condemned to be burned in the Place Maulbert.
However, a haberdasher who was an English agent bought some on
the pretext that he needed the paper to stuff his hats, and other
agents, working at night in cloak and dagger style, stole the
presses and all the type and even the printers, and transported
them all to London. In April 1539 the whole Bible was finished,
and the editors added the words: "To the Lord the achievement is

     Because the work was undertaken under royal patronage, there
was no dedication. The 9 x 15 - inch pages had no footnotes. The
title page was a wood engraving, artistically created by Holbein,
which eloquently told the story of royal supremacy. The Bible was
given to the public not by the church but by the king, and was
distributed through the priests to the people.

     The title page reads: "The Byble in Englyshe, that is to
saye the content of all the Holy Scrypture, bothe of ye Olde and
Newe Testament, truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue
and Greke Textes, by ye dylygent studye of dyuerse excellent
learned men, expert in theforsayde tongues. Prynted by Rychard
Graftoni & Edward Whitchurch ... 1539." 

     Within two years, 20,000 copies had been sold (rendering
obsolete another version of the Matthew Bible with softened
footnotes, which the Oxford scholar Richard Taverner had
published in 1539). Cranmer passed the verdict that it contained
"no heresies," and a royal declaration commanded it to be bought
by every parish church in the land and made accessible on a
reading desk for the public to read at any time. Readers had to
be provided for those who could not read it themselves. Bible
reading, which had once been forbidden, then silently tolerated,
then licensed, was now commanded, and for this we are indebted to
Thomas Cromwell.

     Because of its bulk, the new Bible came to be known as the
Great Bible. It is also sometimes called the Chained Bible,
because copies were chained to the reading desks, or Cranmer's
Bible, because of an elaborate preface which Cranmer added to the
second edition in 1540. By the end of 1541 there were no fewer
than seven editions.
     Based as it was on the Matthew Bible, which in turn had been
based on Tyndale, this stands as Tyndale's memorial. The Great
Bible remained the English Bible for twenty years. Tyndale had
burned to ashes in a foreign land, but the Great Bible was in
every respect the fruit of his labor and the memorial of his


To be continued

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