Heretic and Hero; William Tyndale's Efforts to Translate the Bible into English Resulted in His Being Martyred, Garrotted and Burned as a Heretic

Article excerpt

Byline: ADAM NICHOLSON

WILLIAM Tyndale, in a smaller and subsidiary way, is as extraordinary a figure as his hero and mentor Martin Luther.

Both men reshaped the languages they spoke, both introduced the scriptures to their peoples against the most violent opposition of state and church, both changed the world in which they lived and both suffered for the cause to which they had devoted their lives, Luther gripped by agonising stomach cramps after years of strain and struggle, Tyndale martyred, garrotted and then burned, as a heretic in Catholic Flanders.

Brian Moynahan's biography of this difficult, aggressive, unworldly and monomaniacal man is a triumph.

There have been lives of Tyndale before - hagiographical in the 19th century, speculative in the Thirties, richly analytical in David Daniell's 1994 biography - but Moynahan (both historian and journalist) tells the complex story as none of the others quite have: authoritative, vital, passionate, closely attentive to the sources and superbly able to recreate the mentality of a violent and agonised time.

He rekindles an astonishingly tangible sense of the reality of 1520s Europe, is marvellous on the smugglers' geography of the Narrow Sea between England and the Flemish coast, on the intertwisted realities of Protestantism and the printing and IF GOD SPARE MY LIFE: William Tyndale, the English Bible and Sir Thomas More - A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal by Brian Moynahan (Little, Brown, pound sterling17.99) ADAM NICOLSON book business, and on the radical proselytising urgency and excitement of an accessible Bible coming to an English people hungry for it.

It is the story of a hero, a man who comes under the influence of new Lutheran ideas, who conceives of translating the Bible into English, needs to escape to the Continent to do so, lives an underground dissident life, producing samizdat versions of the word of God on a string of small presses in a sequence of German cities, scarcely appearing in the light of day, pursued by the English government and its agents and considered the arch-heretic by one man above all others - Sir Thomas More.

Moynahan pits the two of them - the polar opposites of the English Reformation - against each other. Rich, powerful, brilliant, well-connected, vituperative, aggressive More pursues poor, invisible, desperate, hunted (and equally vituperative and aggressive) Tyndale.

Both end up, within months of each other, as martyrs on either flank of the great Reformation divide. It has the makings of a marvellous film, in which the man for all seasons will appear in his true light as the Beria of 16th century England, Tyndale as the Vaclav Havel of the English Reformation. …

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