HIS IMPRISONMENT – by Dr. Herbert Samworth •


As we have seen from our previous installment of the life of William Tyndale, he was betrayed and arrested in May 1535. He was taken to the Vilvorde Prison where he would be incarcerated for the remaining months of his life.

What do we know about William Tyndale during these final months of his life? Did he ever reflect on the treachery of Henry Phillips? Did they ever meet face to face during these months? There is reason to believe that Phillips would be a witness to the interrogations of Tyndale, but contemporary reports indicate that he remained hidden and out of sight. There is little reason to believe that a person of the character of Phillips would have the courage to confront Tyndale face to face.

The Vilvorde Prison where Tyndale was held later would be used as a model for the famed Bastille Prison in France. It was razed sometime in the 18th and 19th century so there remains no physical evidence to indicate where Tyndale’s cell was located. In light of a letter that he wrote while in prison, it would be interesting to know if his cell was located underground. Prison life was harsh in those days and contemporary pictures of Tyndale that show him in relative comfort are certainly wide of the mark.

There remains no doubt that the arrest and imprisonment of Tyndale violated the agreement between the Merchant Adventurers and the officials of the Low Countries. Thomas Poyntz proved to be a true friend of Tyndale although his attempts to have Tyndale released ultimately proved to be ineffective. As it turns out, Poyntz himself was accused of heresy by Phillips, was arrested, and only fled when it was apparent that he himself was in danger of being tried for heresy and sent to the stake. Poyntz suffered because of his friendship with Tyndale to the extent that he lost both his property and family. He escaped to England, but his wife and family refused to follow him and remained in Antwerp. There is an amazing contrast between the activities of Thomas Poyntz and Henry Phillips and it is only right to record our gratitude for the efforts that Poyntz made to rescue his friend from the clutches of the officials.

Much mystery surrounds the activities of the English officials. It appears that efforts were made to have Tyndale released into the custody of England. However, that would have meant that he would have been taken to England and undoubtedly placed on trial for heresy. Indeed, there was little that the English officials could have done. The Low Countries were ruled by the Emperor Charles the Fifth and it remains very unlikely that he would have extended any favors toward Henry the Eight who had subjected his Aunt, Catherine of Aragon, to the indignities of a divorce.

So, Tyndale remained in prison while the wheels of the inquisition steadily ground on. However, there are glimpses here and there of his activities that demonstrate the true character of the man.

We read that though his testimony and conduct as a prisoner in Vilvorde, that the warden of the prison and his entire family expressed faith in Christ. Now this is anecdotal testimony, but it does ring true to the character of the man. Their testimony to William Tyndale was that he was a true Christian and if he were not, they would not know how to tell who a genuine Christian might be. This is a reminder of the Apostle Paul who, through his testimony as a prisoner in Rome, the members of the Praetorian Guard came to confess Christ as Savior. Even in the most unlikely of place, the Christian can bear witness to his relationship with the Lord.

There is but one piece of correspondence in Tyndale’s own hand that survives from this period. It is a letter written to the Inspector General of the Lowlands. In the letter, Tyndale asked for three things: his hat from the clothing that had been taken from him because he suffered from a constant cold from the dampness of the prison. He also asked for a lamp because it was wearisome sitting alone in the dark. Finally, he requested his manuscripts, dictionaries, and lexicons so he could continue the work of translating the Word of God. We do not know if he received those items or not. Perhaps out of the compassion as fellow human beings, the hat and lamp were given to him. There was little chance that he would be given the manuscripts to continue the heretical work of translating the Scriptures.

However, the most impressive aspect of the letter was the tone. It was written in a very respectful manner without any self-pity or revenge involved. Tyndale also prayed for the salvation of the one to whom it was addressed. Perhaps it was such actions that caused the interest of the warden to inquire how such a person could respond especially since he was a foreigner and his arrest had been illegal.

Because Tyndale was a notable prisoner, attempts were made to have him recant and return to the faith of the Church. To accomplish this, three professors from the University of Louvain were deputized to examine him. The names of these three persons have come down to us. They were Jacob Latomus, Jan Doye, and Ruard Tapper. Although they are not common names today, they were all Doctors in Divinity and highly regarded theologians.

We are not privy to the records of their examination of William Tyndale, but we can gain an understanding by three books that Jacob Latomus wrote to a friend describing the debates. This evidence comes only from the pen of Latomus, but it is possible to reconstruct the argument from the position of Tyndale. These three books of Latomus were included in Reformation, the Journal of the Tyndale Society, Volume 1, 1996. The Latin original and English translations are given in the Journal. While space does not permit the rehearsal of the entire debate, we can catch a glimpse from a letter of Latomus to his friend Livinus Crucis that forms the introduction to the book. The following gives us the gist of the arguments:

When William Tyndale lay in prison for the Lutheran heresy, he wrote a book on the theme, that faith alone justifies before God. In that book he strove to take away all merit of good works; for as the foundation and the key (as he called it) of the salutary understanding of Holy Writ he started from this premise that God grants us everything freely through Christ, having meanwhile no regard to works.

Latomus goes on to relate to his friend that he wrote three books in response to this statement and other replies of Tyndale. We can recognize that it is a debate over justification by faith or justification by works. Latomus prides himself on taking away the key to Tyndale’s argument and considers himself to have carried away the palm of victory in demonstrating the false position of Tyndale.

It appears that Latomus dealt fairly with Tyndale because he added these words:

…for Tyndale made this request, that he should be able not merely to hear, but to read my opinions. I was unwilling to deny him anything, for although I feared that to him it would be of little good, I hoped that others might gain somewhat from it.

From this we can gain an understanding what took place. During his time in prison, Tyndale committed to paper his position on the doctrine of justification. This was the main matter of dispute. The three Doctors of Divinity conducted an oral examination of Tyndale on this very theme. Following this, Tyndale requested a written copy of Latomus’ position so he could respond to it. Latomus was not willing to deny him this request. As a result, there was an exchange of three documents or position papers by each participant. Tyndale would write and Latomus would respond. As we noted above, Latomus, while he was convinced that he could not shake Tyndale from his position, thought that he had won the debate and that his answers would convince others.

Latomus was correct in that he could not budge Tyndale from his position, but we also come to learn that a mutual respect was established between the participants. The three theologians from Louvain held the upper hand but they came to respect and perhaps even admire William Tyndale. It is reported that at the end of the examinations and although they were unsuccessful in changing Tyndale’s mind, they confessed that William Tyndale was “a good man, a learned man, and a pious man.”

Even his avowed enemies had to make this statement concerning William Tyndale. Perhaps this is the greatest compliment that was ever paid to William Tyndale. Even in his weakest circumstance, he gained the respect of his theological enemies.