While Luther worked on translating the Bible into German, Tyndale sought permission from the bishop of London to translate the New Testament into English. The bishop denied his request—such translations were illegal. The priest and Oxford-trained scholar—who spoke seven languages and was well-versed in Hebrew and Greek—traveled to Germany. There Tyndale published in 1526 his New Testament, the first English translation taken directly from the Greek and Hebrew. Smugglers promptly carried copies back to England, where church authorities began buying them up to keep them out of circulation—fueling, in effect, Tyndale’s ongoing work.
Undeterred by threats against him, the English Reformer began translation work on the Old Testament as the backlash from Catholic authorities—and public burnings of his New Testaments—increased. Tyndale only added to his troubles when he wrote a pamphlet in 1530 (The Practyse of Prelates) opposing King Henry VIII’s planned annulment from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.
By this time Tyndale had moved to Antwerp, where he found safe haven in the home of an English merchant. Antwerp was one of the largest cities in Europe, a thriving port, the center of Europe’s diamond trade, and home to the largest printers. Tyndale continued his Bible translation work there, and with his merchant friend’s help began smuggling Bibles back to England in quantity, hiding them in bales of cotton or barrels of food.
The Reformation well underway, Tyndale spent time not only at his books, but also serving English refugees, plus the poor living on Antwerp’s streets: “My part be not in Christ if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach.” He dined often in merchant homes, too, which led eventually to his undoing. Henry Phillips became a frequent guest at those dinners, an English ne’er-do-well Tyndale took into his confidence. In May 1535, Phillips led Tyndale out of his safe house to a waiting band of soldiers, who took him into custody. They delivered him to the Vilvoorde Castle, the state prison for the Low Countries, where he was jailed on charges of heresy.
A letter to the governor of Vilvoorde Castle in the winter of 1535 is the only known writing in Tyndale’s hand. “I suffer extremely from cold in the head,” he wrote, asking for a cap, a coat, and a patch to cover frayed leggings. “But above all,” he said, “kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.”
Tyndale pursued his translation work until his trial in 1536. He was found guilty of heresy and hauled to the stake outside Vilvoorde Castle. Executioners bound him with an iron chain and rope around his neck. They strangled him before lighting a torch and setting fire to wood that burned his body.