During the turbulent years of the Tudors in England the country swung from being Protestant to Roman Catholic. There were Christians on both sides who refused to deny their faith and consequently suffered martyrdom. This is not a glorious period of history for the Church in Britain, but there were many true believers who were prepared to die for Christ.
Henry VIII was a larger than life character who was desperate for a son to establish his dynasty. This had repercussions for Christianity in Britain, because when the Pope refused his request for a divorce, he declared himself head of the Church of England and broke with Rome. The monasteries where shut down and plundered and officially Great Britain became Protestant.
This table illustrates the sad tale of martyrdom that followed the beliefs of the monarchs and their mothers. During the reign of Elizabeth I non-Conformists were tolerated, although Roman Catholics were suspect as the Pope did not recognise Elizabeth as legitimate.
My mother told me that my Great Aunt used to read Foxes Book of Martyrs to her when she was little and it gave her nightmares. Reading it I can see why, but I am still going to quote from it. One martyrdom stands out. Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary in October 1555. Just before the burning, Latimer said
Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.
I respect and value all the Christians who refused to deny their faith and their Lord, whatever their denomination. We don't have space to look at each one, and so in this article, we are going to focus on one martyr, someone who has enduring significance for the English-speaking world.
William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire at the end of the fifteenth century. He studied at Oxford University and was a gifted linguist. In 1521 he became a tutor for a family in Gloucestershire, where he met many intellectuals who were invited for meals with his employer.
He had an argument with one clergyman, who said, allegedly,
'We were better without God's laws
than the Pope's.'
I defy the Pope and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.
Tyndale left for London in 1523, seeking patronage from Bishop Tunstall, as he wished to translate the Bible into English. After a frustrating few years in London he left for the continent, moving around cities in Germany and the Netherlands.
The New Testament in English was published in Cologne, Worms and Antwerp and smuggled into England and Scotland. This was the first English version to be translated directly from Hebrew and Greek texts and to be printed on a printing press.
However Bishop Tunstall had the bibles publicly burnt and warned booksellers not to sell them, claiming there were 1000 heresies in it. A man named Packington arranged to buy up all the books for the bishop, so that they couldn't be sold. Naturally this just help fund the next printing of the Scriptures.
Tyndale wrote that he never intentionally altered or misrepresented any of the bible, but that he tried to 'interpret the sense of the scripture and the meaning of the spirit.' He was happy to revise the translation if needed.
Cardinal Wolsey condemned Tyndale as a heretic in 1529. In 1530 Tyndale wrote a book condemning the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that it was unscriptural. Naturally the king also wanted him executed.
Tyndale was safely lodging with an English merchant in Protestant Antwerp, but in 1535 he was befriended by an Englishman called Henry Phillips, who betrayed him. He was abducted outside his lodgings and taken to a castle near Brussels, a neighbouring territory, which was part of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
The court found him guilty of heresy and in October 1536 he was strangled at the stake and his body was burned. Before being executed he cried out in a loud voice:
Lord! Open the King of England's eyes.
Thomas Tallis wrote this in 1565.
Tyndale coined familiar phrases such as:
my brother's keeper
the signs of the times
it came to pass
the powers that be
live, move and have our being
let there be light
a law unto themselves
Many of us know the Authorised Version of the bible, which was translated by committee. However over 80 % of the New Testament comes from Tyndale's version. It is hard to overestimate the influence of Tyndale's translation of the Bible on the English-speaking world.
I believe that Christ Jesus honours everyone who has been prepared to die rather than deny their faith in him, whatever their denomination.
- I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying,
How long, O Lord, holy and true, doest thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?
And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants and their brethren that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
Revelation 6 v 9 - 11 AV