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A 16th century engraving of William Tyndale, religious radical responsible for the first printing of the Bible into English.

A 16th century engraving of William Tyndale, religious radical responsible for the first printing of the Bible into English.

Renegade, rogue and radical: Martin Luther, King Henry VIII and William Tyndale. Of the three pillars of our Reformation exhibition, the radical Tyndale is the least well-known, yet he has been credited with founding the English Reformation and his legacy still influences us today.

His first print translation of the New Testament into English had profound consequences for England, the reformist movement and the future of Christianity in Europe. Only twelve unique editions of Tyndale’s New Testament were produced during his lifetime (there are also three variants and four questionable dates), six of which are in the collections of the John Rylands Library.

Three copies of the Rylands Library New Testaments came from Mrs Rylands’ own collection; a 1534 edition printed by ‘M. Emperowr’ (R14876) and two other Antwerp editions, printed in 1536 (R5051, R13962). All of these books were in the Library by March 1908, just eight years after its official opening. It appears that at least one of these had remained in Mrs Rylands’ personal collection until this time, emphasising their importance to her personal views, as well as her public initiative.

Photograph of the first page of the Gospel of St Mark showing a woodcut of the Evngelist.

First page of the Gospel of St Mark in a 1536 Antwerp printing (R17689)

With the intention of forming the most extensive Bible collection in Britain, early librarians at the John Rylands managed to purchase three further copies of Tyndale’s New Testament. Two had previously been part of the Amherst Collection which was sold between 1908 and 1909. One of these was a 1535 Martin de Keyser printing, bought by the library in 1913 from the British and Foreign Bible Society (R33166); the other was a further 1536 Antwerp printing, purchased through Bernard Quaritch booksellers in March 1909 (R17689). The sixth Tyndale New Testament in the collection, a 1536 Antwerp edition, was acquired in 1914 (R37634).

As well as these copies, Mrs Rylands acquired two other Tyndale Bible editions from her purchase of the Spencer Collection; a 1534 printing of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and a further copy of the New Testament which claims a 1536 imprint, but scholars believe may be closer to 1549. Mrs Rylands’ own collections then continued to provide Tyndale material for the Library, with the addition of a number of his pamphlets after her death.

The impressive number of Tyndale editions in the John Rylands Library is testament to Mrs Rylands’ own vision, and the shared purpose with the librarians who built the collections. Her Nonconformist Christian views were an important driving force in setting up the Library, although the collections were far broader than her own beliefs. As a radical, printing copies of his illegal writings abroad and smuggling them back into England, Tyndale’s period of work was shortlived: in 1535 he was captured and was executed the following year. This martyrdom was recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and it is this propaganda source which tells us most about Tyndale’s life.

A photograph showing verses in Matthew from the 1536 Antwerp edition.

Tyndale’s translation made his radical views clear: this verse of Matthew he translates as: ‘And I say also unto the[e], that thou art Peter: and upon this rock I wyll bylde my congregacyon’. Later versions of the Bible in English, including the King James Version, would revert to the traditional ‘Church’ instead of ‘congregation’, which implied more equality between believers. (R17689)

From Tyndale’s own writings, it seems that he sympathised with the Lollards, a sect active in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, which had circulated manuscript copies of the Bible in English, fiercely criticised the Church and was then suppressed by Henry IV. While Mrs Rylands may never have been so vocally critical of those in power, she shared one key ideal with William Tyndale: that an English translation of the Bible was essential for people to understand the Christian message, and live a godly life.

Beyond his death, Tyndale had a profound effect upon the English language, his translation stirred up new theological debates and ultimately supported the English break away from Rome with its long term consequences. His translations of both the New and parts of the Old Testament were the basis of succeeding Bible editions in English, including the third authorised edition, known as the King James Version. Editions published during his lifetime are scarce: this may be due to effective destruction of copies by the authorities, but equally owners may have used their copies so much that they simply did not survive. Which makes the existence of six copies in the John Rylands Library all the more remarkable.