HIS EXECUTION – by Dr. Herbert Samworth •
Despite the efforts of Latomus, Doyle, and Tapper to have him recent, Tyndale stood firm against their arguments. The only way by which Tyndale could counter their arguments was from his knowledge of Scripture, but in this supreme trial of his life, the Scriptures proved to be more than sufficient.
We are not exactly certain for what period of time the interrogation process continued but it became apparent that Tyndale would not alter his beliefs. As a result there was only one recourse that remained: Tyndale would be executed for the crime of heresy. The Church would not put him to death but turn him over to the state for the actual execution. From the time of the Fourth Lateran Council in AD 1215, it had been decreed that heresy was subject to temporal penalties.
However, there was a difficulty. Tyndale had been ordained as a Priest in the Church of England and under the current laws, a priest could not be put to death for the crime of heresy. Did this mean that William Tyndale would escape the impending punishment? The answer was no because the Church had a ceremony that was called degrading from the priesthood.
Degrading from the priesthood followed a very prescribed procedure. First, the accused would be brought into a room where his accusers would be seated on a raised platform. He would be dressed in the usual garments of a priest. He would be ordered to kneel and the charge of heresy would be read. Then one of the priests would take a knife or piece of glass and scrape his forehead and hands. What was the meaning and purpose of this? In his consecration as priest, Tyndale had been anointed with oil signifying the bestowment of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the scraping of his forehead and hands signaled the removing of the Holy Spirit.
Following this, the wafer and cup of the Holy Eucharist would be placed in his hands. As a consecrated priest, he had the authority to confect the elements of the Eucharist. By the words that he would speak those elements would be transubstantiated into the very body and blood of the Lord. The elements that he held in his hands would then be removed and the adjuration pronounced over him in these words: Thou accursed Judas, thou has conspired with the Jews to betray the Lord, thus we take from thy hands the blessed elements through which the grace of God is mediated to thee.
Finally, the clothing that distinguished him as a priest would be removed and replaced by garments worn by a layman. As a result, he was no longer considered to be a priest but a layman and under the laws of the Church, a layman was subject to the laws of heresy and could be put to death.
Following the ceremony of degrading from the priesthood, the individual would then be taken to the place of execution and the sentence would be carried out.
We have good reason to believe that William Tyndale was degraded from the priesthood in August 1536 but for an unknown reason the sentence was not carried out immediately. Perhaps it was through the on-going efforts of Thomas Ponytz who worked ceaselessly in an effort to rescue him or there may have been hesitation to execute an Englishman, but there is no clear explanation.
Finally, after all avenues had been exhausted, on the sixth of October of 1536, William Tyndale was led out of the Vilvorde Prison to the place of execution. He was chained to the post and the hangman used a rope to strangle him. On the continent, people who were burned at the stake were strangled first before their bodies were burned. In England, the victims were burned alive.
Now came the moment when Tyndale was to die. What was his crime that demanded that his life be forfeited? It was because he desired to give the ploughboy the Scriptures in his own language and the keys to understand it. Undoubtedly, there were other trumped-up charges brought against him to give the veneer of justice such has the denial of the Eucharist or other charges, but the real reason why Tyndale had to die was his conviction that the Scriptures belonged to the people and the people had the right to have them in their own language.
What may have been the thoughts that were going through Tyndale’s mind as he faced the stake? Was he beseeching the Lord to save him from such a death? Was he thinking of Henry VIII and his refusal to intercede on his behalf? Was he thinking of Henry Philips who had befriended him and basely betrayed him? We have no way of telling but we can learn much from the words that he spoke. The character of a person is revealed by their last communications.
We learn from history that Tyndale uttered just seven words and they were in the form of a prayer. Did he pray for rescue? For the endurance to face the trial? No, the prayer was not uttered on his behalf. The words were, “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes!” What was the meaning of these words? In his last moments, William Tyndale was not thinking about himself but about the ploughboy. He was beseeching the Lord that He would open King Henry’s eyes so that the Word of God could be given to the ploughboy. Tyndale had not lived for himself but for the ploughboy so that he could have the Word of God in an understandable format. And it was not just to have the Scriptures but to have the key to understanding them so that the person could come to the knowledge of salvation and have their lives strengthened by the Word of God.
Thus died one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. Was there any mention of his death? Thomas Cromwell’s agent, John Hutton, wrote in December 1536 concerning this, “They speak much of the patient sufferance of Master Tyndale at the time of the execution” and eight years later Roger Ascham, tutor of the future Queen Elizabeth, described of his trip to Vilvorde, “at the town’s end is a notable solemn place of execution, where worthy William Tyndale was un-worthily put to death.”