The climax of William Tyndale’s brief life occurred along a narrow alleyway leading to the home of Thomas Poyntz, the Englishman who had been his good patron. It was there, in Antwerp, that Tyndale’s traitor, Henry Philips, had befriended him — in a city friendly both to English merchants and Lutherans.
Now, with Tyndale’s benefactor away on business for a month, and Philips being invited for dinner, the stage was set for the treacherous young man to capture the English Lutheran so hated by Rome.
The alleyway that led to Poyntz’s home (and Tyndale’s lodgings) was too narrow for both men to enter at once, so Tyndale entered first, unaware of the two guards hidden on either side of the entrance to the house. The taller Philips followed behind him and, as recounted by John Foxe, ‘pointed with his finger over Master Tyndale’s head down to him, that the officers who sat at the door might see that it was he whom they should take.’
The translator had thus been betrayed in a manner uncannily similar to that of his Savior. Philips handed Tyndale over to the authorities, who seized his manuscripts and promptly imprisoned him at the well-fortified castle of Vilvoorde, just outside Brussels.
In a single moment, the decade-long flight of William Tyndale was over. Though the officers ‘pitied to see his simplicity when they took him in,’ Tyndale had foreseen his own fate earlier in life:
If they shall burn me, they shall do none other thing than I looked for. There is none other way into the kingdom of life than through persecution and suffering of pain, and of very death after the example of Christ.
Throughout much of sixteenth-century Europe, those who dared to translate the Word of God and thereby unchain it from its Latin coffin, faced the possibility of being burned alive. But the seeds of Lollardy, implanted in English soil a century and a half earlier by John Wycliffe, had come to sprout green shoots that gave fruit in the form of Tyndale’s Bible. For his efforts, the gifted linguist would suffer greatly for the sake of Christ.
Certain details concerning his final year and a half at Vilvoorde are missing in Foxe’s account, as Foxe was unaware of the existence of a poignant letter, penned in William Tyndale’s hand, that was discovered three centuries later in the state archives of Brussels. This letter is the only fragment of Tyndale's original handwriting that we possess, and it evokes deep emotion at the conditions he faced during his imprisonment, even as his captors and a team of lawyers and theologians worked diligently to bring about his destruction.
The letter, translated from Tyndale’s Latin by J. F. Mozley, reads as follows:
I beg your lordship, and that of the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here through the winter, you will request the commissary to have the kindness to send me, from the goods of mine which he has, a warmer cap; for I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh [nasal inflamation], which is much increased in this cell; a warmer coat also, for this which I have is very thin; a piece of cloth too to patch my leggings.
My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt, if he will be good enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth to put on above; he has also warmer night-caps. And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.
But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study. In return may you obtain what you most desire, so only that it be for the salvation of your soul. But if any other decision has been taken concerning me, to be carried out before winter, I will be patient, abiding the will of God, to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ: whose spirit (I pray) may ever direct your heart. Amen
— W. Tindalus
We have here a precious window into the conditions that Tyndale faced, and his frame of mind in reaction to them. This is made all the more intriguing by the simple fact that we will likely never know whether his urgent, yet polite requests were ever answered.
Nevertheless, one may greatly profit from examining the example of this faithful servant of Christ and imitating it, even as we are instructed to do so in the book of Hebrews concerning the saints:
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7)
Picture this brilliant scholar of language, locked up in a dungeon in solitary confinement for well over a year. He is entirely at the mercy of his captors and depends upon their kindness for every meal and physical comfort. We may infer from the dire sound of Tyndale’s letter, that — as winter drew near — such comforts had been denied him, to the point that he had begun to suffer from various ailments.
We note that Tyndale’s request is modest; he does not ask for anything from others, but only for items that had been seized from him — a warmer cap, a warmer coat. The damp Northern European winter cold, unalleviated, must have been unbearable. The onset of early darkness every single afternoon — and with it the prospect of spending another lonely night — would have been enough to drive him to despair.
The godly Christian who is distressed on this earth for a little while by various trials (1 Peter 1:6) is not stoically indifferent to them. He does not seek after them as if they could somehow increase his personal righteousness, after the manner of the monkish asceticism of a young Luther. Neither, however, does he complain about his lot to man or God; he entrusts his soul to a loving Father in whose eyes no sparrow escapes notice (Luke 12:6).
We have in William Tyndale an example of a faithful servant who did not shrink from trying to better his conditions, yet he was nevertheless content to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ, if necessary.
At length, however, we read of the translator’s true desire:
But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.
The desperate conditions in which William Tyndale found himself did not in the least bit temper his soul’s deepest longing — to finish the task God had given him of translating the Bible into the language of the common English folk. Having completed, and revised, his New Testament, Tyndale subsequently taught himself Hebrew and proceeded to translate a large portion of the Old Testament before his work was suddenly and violently halted.
Here at once we see a true pastor’s heart that is greatly concerned for the salvation of all of England. Tyndale’s recognition that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17) meant only one thing for his homeland — it was absolutely imperative that they have the Scriptures in their language.
Ultimately it was this imperative that drove him first to flee his country. It was this understanding that led him to work tirelessly for ten years in constant danger for his life. And it was for this reason that he was made a prisoner for Christ and ultimately paid with his life.
No more fitting closing words may be addressed to us than those of Tyndale himself, taken from a letter written to his beloved friend John Frith, who was likewise burned for his faith:
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated.
For Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow his steps, who did no sin. Hereby have we perceived love that he laid down his life for us: therefore we ought to be able to lay down our lives for the brethren.