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What did William Tyndale do that was so important for ordinary people?
Today, English is an international language. In the 16th century, it was Latin that was used in books. This meant that many books were not available in English, including the Bible. The ordinary people did not speak Latin, so they couldn't read the Bible for themselves, or even understand it when it was read in church.
William Tyndale was born in 1494, near Dursley in Gloucestershire and was educated at Oxford. He found that even the clergy (the preachers in church) did not really understand Bible either. Unlike many church leaders, he believed it was wrong that most people couldn't read or understand the Bible. He boldly told one priest:
"If God spares my life, I will cause a boy that drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do."
People had already tried to translate the Bible into English, but it had been done badly by some who the church had seen as heretics. English language Bibles had been banned since 1408.
When William Tyndale tried to get official permission for his own English Bible it got him into trouble. So in 1524 he left England for Germany, never to return. Soon copies of William Tyndale's Bible were soon being printed and smuggled into England and Scotland, many smuggled in giant bags of flour.
Tyndale also wrote a book saying that it was wrong for King Henry VIII to divorce his wife, and that got him into even more trouble! Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534 saw the beginning of what was known as the English Reformation, and Tyndale believed that this meant it was now safe to carry on his work in public.
He moved to Antwerp, in Belgium, and began to live more openly. However, soon afterward Tyndale was betrayed by his friend Henry Phillips. He was arrested and imprisoned for over 500 days in Vilvoorde Castle. On 6 October 1536, Tyndale was tried and convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake.
By this time, however, several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed. William Tyndale's English translation was made directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts that the Bible was first written in. It was accurate, and beautiful to read.
Today, many modern English translations still use some of the phrases that Tyndale translated. It was reported that Tyndale’s last words before his death were,
"Lord, open the King of England's eyes."
Within the next 80 years, the English King, James I, had commissioned a translation of the whole Bible in English, the King James Version of 1611. Much of the New Testament content was based on Tyndale's work.