The Life of William Tyndale – Part 12

HIS ARREST AND IMPRISONMENT – by Dr. Herbert Samworth •

 

By the year 1534 William Tyndale could look back with a degree of gratitude and accomplishment. He had finished the translation and printing of the New Testament in 1526 and a second revised edition in 1534. He also began the translation of the Old Testament with the printing of the books of Moses in 1530. In addition, he had translated the book of Jonah.

As we noted in a previous chapter on Tyndale’s life it was during the years in Antwerp, he engaged in a controversy with Sir Thomas More that began with the publishing of More’s A Dialogue Concerning Heresies to which Tyndale replied two years later in An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue. In 1532 and 1533 More replied in a massive book of six parts entitled A Confutation of Sir William Tyndale. This ended the controversy because Tyndale did not reply to More.

In addition to his translation work and controversy with Sir Thomas More, Tyndale wrote brief tracts that served as keys to interpret of the Word of God. It is our thesis that Tyndale in his desire to reach the ploughboy not only determined to give him the Bible in his vernacular language but also to provide helps to its correct interpretation. A Pathway into Scripture and the introductions to the various books found in his translations of the New Testament and the Pentateuch furnished such helps to interpretation.

His one polemical book apart from the controversy with Sir Thomas More entitled The Practice of Prelates did not prove to be helpful. Because he resided in Antwerp and was not in England, there is reason to believe that the writing of the book cost Tyndale the favor of Henry. Although many in England declared themselves in favor of the divorce, Tyndale was adamant that Henry should remain married to Catherine. However, when he wrote that it was not right of the King to divorce his wife, he was expressing his honest conviction from the Word of God. Considering subsequent events, it would have been better for Tyndale to limit his work to that of translation and not to meddle in affairs of the court. Certainly, we would be willing to trade The Practice of Prelates for a complete translation of the Old Testament from the hand of William Tyndale.

Thus, Tyndale in the fall of 1534 could look forward to continuing his work on the translation of God’s Word. There are adequate reasons to believe that he had completed the translation of the historical books from Joshua to II Chronicles in manuscript because John Rogers later would incorporate it in the first edition of the Matthew’s Bible in 1537. Tyndale also had established residence in the Merchant Adventurers’ house in Antwerp and was welcomed into the friendship of Thomas Poyntz the leading representative of that group in the Low Countries. Also, by this time John Rogers had arrived as the Chaplain to the Merchant Adventurers and had been won to the Lord by the testimony of Tyndale himself.

However, all of this changed with the arrival of Henry Phillips in Antwerp in December 1534. Phillips is one of the most contemptible persons in history and that which is known about him places him in the most unfavorable light. A brief outline of his life will give us insight into his character. He was the son of Sir Richard Phillips, a highly placed official in the English government. As an illustration of his status, Sir Richard was invited to be part of the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England at Westminster in 1533.

Apparently, Sir Richard owed a sum of money to an individual who lived in London. He entrusted the money to his son to discharge the debt. However, rather than paying the person the money, it appears that Henry gambled it away. Now he was in serious trouble both with his father and the person to whom the money was owed. That much of his background appears to be accurate, however, subsequent events remain the subject of great debate.

Someone bribed Henry Phillips to go to Antwerp, befriend William Tyndale, and betray him to the officials of the Low Countries. Even to this day there remains controversy as to whom that person was. Suspicion has centered on three persons including Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and John Stokesley who had replaced Cuthbert Tunstall as the Bishop of London when Tunstall had been transferred to the see of Durham.

There does not appear to be any compelling reason to suspect Cromwell in the intrigue simply because it does not appear that he had any motive whatsoever. Later Cromwell would be instrumental in having the Matthew’s Bible licensed for circulation.

In his book God’s Bestseller, author Brian Moynahan marshals a great amount of circumstantial evidence to prove that it was Sir Thomas More who employed Phillips because of his implacable hatred of Tyndale. While Moynahan’s case is impressive, it is true that by this time More was no longer involved in governmental affairs because of his resignation as Lord Chancellor. Indeed because of his steadfast opposition to the King’s divorce and his ecclesiastical break with the Church of Rome, he already was suspected of treason that ultimately would lead him to the scaffold. There are questions as to whether at this time More still retained the influence to carry out such a scheme against Tyndale let alone the question of whether he would resort to such tactics even against a sworn enemy.

A stronger case can be made against John Stokesley. Although Tunstall as Bishop of London had enforced the regulations of the Constitution of Oxford against the possession of the Bible in English, he demonstrated leniency toward suspected heretics. It is a matter of history that no heretic was burned in London during the time of Tunstall. The matter was different under John Stokesley. He was notorious for his opposition to heresy and demonstrated great cruelty toward those who were convicted as heretics. A number of persons were sent to the stake in the early years of his tenure as Bishop of London.

Regardless of who was the person who employed Phillips, it appeared that Phillips first arrived in Antwerp sometime in December 1534. At first his visits to the Merchant Adventurers’ House did not raise any suspicion because it was a natural gathering place for Englishmen. However, Thomas Poyntz did have some misgivings about Phillips, but Tyndale quickly assured Poyntz that he was his friend.

Over the following six months Phillips continue to establish a friendship with Tyndale. Finally, in May 1535 Tyndale asked Phillips to dine with him. Before this Phillips had arranged with the officials of the Low Countries that he would deliver Tyndale into their custody. The rest of the account is soon told. Tyndale was arrested and taken to the Vilvorde Prison located about eight miles north of the city of the modern city of Brussels. He would be imprisoned for the remaining sixteen months of his life. In our next account we will relate the events that occurred during his time of imprisonment.

But what of Henry Phillips? What happened to him? The remainder of his life is shrouded in mystery. Accounts of his activities in the following years have survived but no coherent narrative of events can be pieced together. He was reported both in Paris and Rome. There were also reports that he had enlisted as a soldier and perished in battle. There are letters that he wrote to his parents begging for their forgiveness and restitution. Perhaps it is best that a shroud be placed over the last years of his life. It is tragic that the only reason that he is even remembered or written about today is that he was the traitor that delivered the translator of the English Bible into the hands of his enemies and that he was the direct cause of William Tyndale’s death. It is a tragic legacy that Henry Phillips bequeathed to posterity.

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