The Bible

Edward Hall, from The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York

[Click on image to enlarge] William Tyndale was not the first to translate the Scriptures, but never before had an English Bible appeared in print. This anecdote from Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) reveals traditional methods of censorship, including the burning of books, made suddenly and comically obsolete by the printing press. Yet censorship survived and evolved to meet the challenge; later in the century, Protestant Bishops of London would ban and burn seditious publications with all the zeal of their Catholic predecessors. In 1599, works by Christopher Marlowe, Sir John Davies, Thomas Nashe, and many others were burned outside the Bishop's palace. Only at the beginning of the Civil War in 1642 was censorship briefly allowed to lapse; soon afterward, in spite of John Milton's eloquent plea for a free press in Areopagitica (NAEL 8, 1.1816), it was reintroduced by a triumphant Parliament.

A decade after Tyndale's translations were burned, the translator himself suffered the same fate. He would be followed to the stake by Anne Askew and many other martyrs, Protestant and Catholic. This image of his execution is from John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (better known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs), the great compendium of English Protestant martyrs (NAEL 8, 1.631).

[Buying and Burning Bibles]

Here is to be remembered, that at this present time, William Tyndale had newly translated and imprinted the New Testament in English. And the Bishop of London, not pleased with the translation thereof, debated with himself how he might compass and devise to destroy that false and erroneous translation (as he said). And so it happened that one Augustine Packington, a mercer and merchant of London, and of a great honesty, the same time was in Antwerp, where the Bishop then was, and this Packington was a man that highly favored William Tyndale, but to the Bishop utterly showed himself to the contrary. The Bishop, desirous to have his purpose brought to pass, commoned >> note 1 of the New Testaments, and how gladly he would buy them. Packington, then hearing that he wished for, said unto the Bishop, "My Lord, if it be your pleasure, I can in this matter do more, I dare say, than most of the merchants of England that are here, for I know the Dutchmen and strangers, that have bought them of Tyndale, and have them here to sell, so that if it be your lordship's pleasure to pay for them — for otherwise I cannot come by them, but I must disburse money for them — I will then assure you to have every book of them that is imprinted and is here unsold."

The Bishop, thinking that he had God by the toe, when indeed he had (as after he thought) the Devil by the fist, said, "Gentle Master Packington, do your diligence and get them, and with all my heart I will pay for them, whatsoever they cost you, for the books are erroneous and naught, >> note 2 and I intend surely to destroy them all, and to burn them at Paul's Cross." >> note 3

Augustine Packington came to William Tyndale and said, "William, I know thou art a poor man, and hast a heap of New Testaments, and books by thee, for the which thou hast both endangered thy friends and beggared thyself, and I have now gotten thee a merchant, which with ready money shall dispatch thee of all that thou hast, if you think it so profitable for yourself."

"Who is the merchant?" said Tyndale.

"The Bishop of London," said Packington.

"Oh, that is because he will burn them," said Tyndale.

"Yea, Mary," quod Packington.

"I am the gladder," said Tyndale, "for these two benefits shall come thereof: I shall get money of him for these books, to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out upon the burning of God's word. And the overplus of the money, that shall remain to me, shall make me more studious, to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same once again, and I trust the second will much better like you than ever did the first." And so forward went the bargain, the Bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money.

Afterward when mo >> note 4 New Testaments were imprinted, they came thick and threefold into England. The Bishop of London, hearing that still there were so many New Testaments abroad, sent for Augustine Packington and said unto him, "Sir, how cometh this, that there are so many New Testaments abroad, and you promised and assured me that you had bought all?"

Then said Packington, "I promise you I bought all that then was to be had. But I perceive they have made more since, and it will never be better, as long as they have the letters and stamps. >> note 5 Therefore it were best for your lordship to buy the stamps too, and then are you sure."

The Bishop smiled at him and said, "Well, Packington, well." And so ended this matter.

Shortly after, it fortuned one George Constantine to be apprehended by Sir Thomas More, which then was Lord Chancellor of England, of suspicion of certain heresies. And this Constantine being with More, after diverse examinations of diverse things, among other, Master More said in this wise to Constantine. "Constantine, I would have thee plain with me in one thing that I will ask of thee, and I promise thee I will show thee favor, in all the other things, whereof thou art accused to me. There is beyond the sea Tyndale, Joye, >> note 6 and a great many mo of you. I know they cannot live without help — some sendeth them money and succoureth them, and thyself being one of them, hadst part thereof, and therefore knowest from whence it came. I pray thee, who be they that thus help them?"

"My Lord," quod Constantine, "will you that I shall tell you the truth?"

"Yea, I pray thee," quod my Lord.

"Mary, I will," quod Constantine. "Truly," quod he, "it is the Bishop of London that hath holpen us, for he hath bestowed among us a great deal of money in New Testaments to burn them, and that hath and yet is our only succour and comfort."

"Now by my troth," quod More, "I think even the same, and I said so much to the Bishop, when he went about to buy them."


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