History of the English Bible: The Matthew’s Bible of 1537

This is the fourth in my little series on the History of the English Bible. The Matthew’s Bible is known as the first complete Bible in English from the original languages.  As a categorical statement this needs a lot of qualification, which we will examine here.  The first thing of course, is that the Matthew’s Bible wasn’t by Matthew’s. In fact, that only Thomas Matthews know at this time was a Lutheran fish monger in Antwerp, who perhaps had his name borrowed (probably without his direct knowledge) for the third of the great English Bibles.


Perhaps the most obscure of all of the Seven Bibles is the Matthew’s Bible (1537). From the common name of the Bible; which was a complete fabrication, there was no such person as Thomas Matthews, to whom it was inscribed; to its publishing (the actual publisher of the first edition is unknown) the Matthews Bible is both obscure and important marker in the pathway from Tyndale to the King James.

The pseudonym of Thomas Matthews, was used by John Rogers[1] (1500–55), but why is open to some speculation. The first thing is who was Rodgers? Rogers took his BA from Pembroke Hall at Cambridge in 1526. From 1532–34 he was Rector of Holy Trinity the Less parish in London. It would appear that this was not exactly a front line posting. By 1606 the church was reported to be falling apart and was maintained with scaffolding. The entire parish was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666 and the church, although included in Christopher Wren’s master rebuilding plan of 1670 was never rebuilt. He moved to Antwerp in 1534 to become a chaplain to the English speaking community. English merchants had a significant community in the “free city.” At this time Antwerp was free from direct imperial control and was a commercial and trading center for Europe with several different communities of which the English were prominent.[2] Given the cosmopolitan nature of the city, Antwerp had a very tolerant policy towards religion.

While in Antwerp Rogers became an associate of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale working on Tyndale’s Bible translation. By about 1537 he had renounced his Catholic orders (and Catholicism as a whole) and married a Flemish woman, the neice of Jacob van Meteren, a merchant who had been supporting Tyndale’s work. After Tyndale’s death in 1536 Rogers continued translation work although the exact relationship he had with Coverdale at this time is rather difficult to determine. In 1537 Archbishop Cramner was able to secure a royal license to print a new edition of Coverdale’s Bible. Later in the same year Rogers received a license, against orchestrated by Cramner to print 1500 copies of his Bible. Coverdale had, by this time, been employed by Cromwell and Cramner to supervise the creation of the Bible that Henry VIII had authorized, which would be The Great Bible.

By 1538 Rogers and his wife had moved to Wittenberg where he finished his MA in 1540. During this time he became a good friend of Philip Melanchthon. From 1544–48 he was the pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Meldorf. In 1548 he returned to England, translated Melanchthon’s work Considerations of the Augsburg Interim, into English, became a prebendary (a senior member of the clergy who was supported by a local parish) at St. Paul’s and a lecturer in divinity (theology). Although a Protestant of the Lutheran branch he had also opposed the “radical” Reformation mainly the Anabaptists. Despite an appeal from John Foxe he had refused to assist Joan of Kent (d. 1550) and called her punishment of burning at the stake, “sufficiently mild” for her anabaptist heresy.

However, with the death of Edward VI and Mary I’s assent to the throne in 1553 Rogers was no longer safe. Immediately Rogers preached an inflamatory sermon at Paul’s Cross which affirmed the “true doctrine” that was taught during Edwards’ reign and also had undiplomatic words for the Catholic church. The result was he was arrested, tried at Smithfield and burned at the stake (like Tyndale he had probably been strangled first and his remains were burned). Despite not helping John Foxe in 1550, Foxe still included a brief account of Rogers in his Book of Martyrs and there is an illustration of his being burned.[3] Rogers goes down as the first Protestant martyr to die ins of the five year terror of Queen Mary and her religious (if not more) consort, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

But what of his version of the Bible? The Matthew’s Bible was a revision of Tyndale and an updating of the portions of the Old Testament that Coverdale had done, this time using Hebrew sources, of which Rogers had some facility. However, there is no indication that Rogers actually did any of the translation, except for the Apocryphal Song of Manasses. Daniell speculates that what happened was that when Tyndale was arrested his unpublished translations of the Old Testament from Joshua to Second Chronicles were rescued from the arresting agents by John Rogers. Rogers then got those sections into print in The Matthew’s Bible. Daniel states, that “for the first time moreover, there appeared an English translation of the nine historical books ending at 2 Chronicles made from the Hebrew.”[4] He concludes that “this was the work of Tyndale is now beyond doubt.”[5] The rest of the Old Testament and Apocrypha were Coverdale.

Daniell’s conjecture of how Tyndale’s draft translations for the nine historical books in the OT got into print is certainly possible, and at is the most plausible explanation to account for the Old Testament section. Greenslade acknowledges Tyndale as the translator of the section. He also notes that the entire Bible was “composite version.”[6] The Matthew’s Bible was a mixture of Tyndale’s New Testament, Pentateuch, Joshua thru Second Chronicles; the rest of the OT was Coverdale with “some revision to the middle of Job and only the slightest thereafter.”[7]

Interestingly there are some 2000 notations, mainly on the text. They include many of Tyndale (although the prefaces and more controversial notations were removed), some notations from Coverdale, and some likely from Rogers himself. There were also notations from Luther, Erasmus, Bucer, and other European scholars. This had the effect of making it “from the Hebrew,” as opposed to Coverdale’s Bible, so it appealed to scholars.

The Bible, probably produced in Antwerp, was dedicated to “The King’s Majesty and to Queen Jane” and in the preface it claims to be “purely translated into English by Thomas Matthew.” There are several possible reasons for the false name. It couldn’t be called the “Tyndale” because he was a recently executed heretic and Henry would still not be willing to license a work with Tyndale’s name on it. The common explanation is that Rogers feared for his life and wanted to hide his identity. However, this isn’t entirely plausible since Rogers was in no particular danger and Coverdale was now working on a new English Bible in the open and with the approval of the King and his chief ministers (Cromwell and Cramner). There is also a notation that the king’s Privy Council knew well early on that Matthews was an alias for Rogers.[8] It is more probably that the subterfuge was both known to and approved by Henry, which allowed his to have an English Bible in print (which by now was a high priority) while at the same time not be seen approving of a work by Tyndale.

The Bible in English had now gone from an entirely outlaw affair only a decade earlier (1526) to the point where two English Bibles could claim approval and license for printing and sale by the king himself. The Matthew’s Bible, was a singularly important work, although history would make it obsolete in a brief time. John Rogers was not so much a translator, although he could translate, as an editor. He was able to, at an opportune time, put together a Bible, which was an improvement on the Coverdale. While it was not completely “from the original” in the Old Testament, it was a noticeable improvement over Coverdale’s work from the German, Swiss, and Latin.

Greenslade notes,

There were now [1537] two complete Bibles in circulation, Coverdale’s (1535 and 1537—the quarto claiming to have the king’s license) and the Matthew (1537, 1500 copies printed). The former could not satisfy the scholars, not being made from the originals; the later would offend the conservatives by its notes and its origin, for Tyndale’s share must soon be detected.[9]

It would simply not do to have competing English versions available as this played into the objections of the Catholic and conservative wing of the church that claimed without singular control over the Bible a “free for all” would develop (which of course, in the modern era would be the case). The answer, in the minds of Cromwell and Cramner, and now affirmed by Henry VIII was that an entirely new work be produced. Edited by the ever-dependable Myles Coverdale, the next Bible on the scene would have as it’s name something befitting the king who authorized it, The Great Bible.



[1] Rodgers was the first Protestant martyr (1555) under the persecutions of Queen Mary (1515–58) and Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–58) who were attempting to re-establish the Catholic Church in England after the death of Edward VI. Interestingly, both died within hours of each other on Nov 17, 1558.

[2] Antwerp and it’s enormous port (still one one of the largest in the world) operated much the way Shanghai did prior to World War II as a “treaty port.” It was to the mutual benefit of various nations to keep the port open and operating and keep commerce flowing.

[3] John Foxe (1517–87) wrote the Actes and Monuments in 1563. More popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It went through four editions and contained the largest number of woodcut drawings of any book to that date (60). It was presented as a history of the protestant church, highlighting its persecution by Catholicism (particularly the reign of Mary) in England and Scotland. His work is based in history, that is all the people he discusses did in fact die, often horribly, as martyrs (although the account of King John being poisoned by priests is a stretch); however, Foxe was an apologist and propagandist and his work has to be viewed in that light. His work is largely reliable as a history of those times, if not exaggerated at times for effect, from a protestant viewpoint.

[4] David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 193.

[5] Ibid. Daniell makes reference to his own work in support of this conclusion, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1994), 333–57.

[6] S. L. Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1963), 150.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Daniel, Bible in English, 196.

[9] Greenslade, Cambridge, 150..

A History of the English Bible: The Coverdale Bible of 1535

This is the third in my series on the History of the English Bible.  The Coverdale Bible and it’s originator, Myles Coverdale, are unfortunately not given the recognition today that he deserves. His life was remarkable, especially in terms of longevity, and his work was significant.


The Coverdale Bible of 1535 was produced by Myles Coverdale (1488–1569) and while this version is generally thought to have a relatively minor role in the concatenation to the King James Bible it was, in its own way, a key pivot point.

The text was largely Tyndale’s work (the NT and the Pentateuch and possibly Jonah) with Coverdale completing the Old Testament not done by Tyndale. However, Coverdale did not have facility in Hebrew and the remainder of the OT was largely from Luther’s German Bible, Zwingli’s Swiss Bible, and the Vulgate. The most notable feature of this Bible is that it was the first complete Bible in English. However, Coverdale, like Tyndale, gave the English some new words, generally compounds (following the German style with which he was more familiar), such as: “loving-kindness,” “winebibber,” as well as “tender mercies” and “saving health.” As Daniell notes, he had a “love for variation”[1] in his word choice as he translated.

Myles Coverdale is perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated figure in what I call The Era of the Seven Bibles. Coverdale graduated from Cambridge with his BA in 1513. His emphasis of study was mainly in Canon Law. After Cambridge he was a Friar in the Augustinian Order at Cambridge and was influenced by the new Prior, Robert Barnes (1495–1540). It is appropriate to note here as C. S. Lewis does, that the study of this era and understanding the various Bibles cannot be accomplished apart from the greater history of the era.

The history of the English Bible from Tyndale to the Authorized Version should never for long be separated from that European, and by no means exclusively Protestant, movement of which it made part. No one can write that history without skipping to and fro across national and religious boundaries at every moment.[2]

And so the reader will perhaps indulge me a little as we piece together a brief summary of the people and events of that most tumultuous of times and put Coverdale into his proper setting.

Barnes had studied under Erasmus, received his Doctor of Divinity from Cambridge and was by all accounts a dynamic, if undisciplined preacher. He had adopted some of his humanistic teachings of Erasmus and had leanings towards Luther’s theology. In 1525 he preached what has been called “the first sermon of the English Reformation” at St. Edward’s Church. The result of the sermon was a trial before Cardinal Wolsey preaching a “heterodox sermon.”

At the trial Coverdale served as Barnes’ secretary and part of his “defense team” being the Priory’s expert on Canon Law. His defense was successful for that era. He was given the choice of abjuring (which was to recant and do an act of penance) or to be put to the stake. This was a most lenient sentence and Wolsey balanced the politics of the day. To have found Barnes innocent would be giving official sanction to his sermon (and evangelistic one with a decidedly anti-Rome element where he detailed some of the doctrinal errors of the church) but to have sent him to his death was more than Wolsey (and probably Henry VIII behind the scenes) would want. Barnes, rather wisely, chose to abjure. In 1528 he “escaped” from his house arrest with the Austin Friars in London and made his way to Antwerp and for a while to Wittenberg, where he developed a relationship with Martin Luther.

Barnes became an ally of Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540), Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1532 until his execution in 1540. The importance of Cromwell to the English Reformation cannot be emphasized too strongly. Where Wolsey had failed to obtain the annulment through the papal route, Cromwell engineered the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn by the political one. He had worked through Parliament to officially break the English church away from Rome and recognize the king as the Supreme Head of the English Church (and thereby placing all the church lands in Henry’s hands to dispense to various nobles and those who supported him). In this maneuver he had recalled Barnes to England and sent him as an official emissary to Germany to secure a statement of approval for the divorce from Luther and his emerging movement.

Cromwell had a final grand scheme in place where Henry would marry (most unhappily) Anne of Cleves (1515–57), the second daughter of the Duke of Cleves. In 1536 Henry had married Jane Seymour[3] after the divorce, trial, and execution of Anne Boleyn (which Cromwell had orchestrated at Henry’s direction). Barnes also worked in those negotiations. Cromwell had hope this union with the daughter of an important Germanic (and Lutheran) Duke would help reinvigorate the Reformation in England, which had stalled. The end result though was a thoroughgoing disaster for Cromwell and ultimately Barnes.

Henry’s antipathy towards Martin Luther’s theology and politics were well known; Cromwell, however, apparently under-estimated the severity of that antipathy. Cromwell’s plan was two-fold: (1) Henry’s marriage to the German princess Anne of Cleves; (2) firming the Reformation in England along more Lutheran lines. However, the arrangement was a disaster. Although Anne was of the nobility she had received no formal education, could only read German (he native land) and enjoyed needlework and playing card games and was apparently rather vacuous in conversation. Henry found her both intellectually and physically unattractive and after six months the marriage was annulled (Henry referred to he as his “sister” and she was given a generous pension and estate and would outlive all of Henry’s other wives). Anne had no particularly strong opinions and changed her religion a few times (becoming Catholic during Mary’s reign) and was amiable but disinterested in matters outside her rather narrow abilities.

Cromwell paid the price for the debacle (which had also threatened England relations with several of the German states) he was tried and executed. In carrying out Henry’s wishes Cromwell accumulated a number of powerful enemies along the way. In the moment of his weakness they pounced upon him. Barnes was also caught in the affair, as he, sensing England would soon be fully involved in the Lutheran Reformation had himself become Lutheran. After the passing of the Six Articles in 1540, Barnes was tried for heresy and executed. Henry quickly regretted the decision; Cromwell had been his most loyal, talented, and effective chief minister.

Back now to Myles Coverdale. By 1527 he had left the Priory, apparently shed the garments of the priesthood and was something of an itinerant preacher affirming some of the same theology as the Lollards and now Luther. Itinerant preaching was illegal and the content of his preaching even more so. In 1528 he left England for Antwerp. Early on he became an associate of William Tyndale and assisted him in translation work until Tyndale’s arrest and subsequent execution in 1535.

Coverdale, although his original language skills were lacking, he had what we would call “a good way with words,” as Lewis points out,

Coverdale was probably the one whose choice of a rendering came nearest to being determined by taste. His defects as well as his qualities led to this. Of all the translators he was the least scholarly. Among men like Erasmus, Tyndale, Munster, or the Jesuits at Rheims he shows like a rowing boat among battleships. This gave him a kind of freedom. Unable to judge between rival interpretations, he may often have been guided, half consciously, to select and combine by taste. Fortunately his taste was admirable.[4]

While he retained virtually all of Tyndale in the New Testament he occasionally varied the wording. In some passages he reverted back to “penance” instead of “repentance.” That was perhaps the most controversial of Tyndale’s translation, but he rather dogmatically used the same word in every instance, even when “penance” in it’s proper English meaning was the better choice. Although he didn’t read Hebrew at all (he mainly relied on Luther in the Old Testament) he had a good sense of parallelism in Hebrew poetry. As Greenslade states,

His English style is commonly judged by his Psalms, where it is at its best: abounding in music beautifully phrased. Elsewhere he is generally smoother and more melodious than Tyndale, less given to variation, missing something of his swiftness and native force, but often finding a better phrase.[5]

It might be said of Coverdale that he was a translator of “phrases” rather than words. In the Coverdale Bible there are no controversially worded prefaces or introductions (as with Tyndale) and the first edition is dedicated to “the kings majesty.” Remarkably, his work on the Psalms would not be superseded until the King James Version, and that, in its 1611 rendering, follows Coverdale very closely.

The Coverdale Bible would be printed widely and with the more moderating political climate (as well as the work of Cromwell and Cramner behind the scenes) there wasn’t a enormous outcry against the work. Henry and the Pope were also in the height of their disputes, so there were other issues to distract them.

During Anne Boleyn’s life she, working with Cromwell (when they were still allies), had persuaded Henry to authorize an English Bible in every church. This project had apparently been started in 1536 but not carried out at the time. Henry’s main disagreement with Catholicism had been with the Pope, the church hierarchy, and perhaps more importantly, the syphoning off of English wealth to Rome. Theologically he was much more conservative. As his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (A Defense of the Seven Sacraments) demonstrated, he was well versed in the theological issues and his movement towards a more Protestant theology was much slower. But, he did in 1537 allow for an English Bible to be produced.

About a vernacular Bible he was cautious, but open to persuasion. In 1537 Cromwell would tell Cramner that the king would authorize an English version which the archbishop had just submitted for license ‘until such time that we thei bishops shall set forth a better translation which I think will not be till a day after doomsday.’[6]

The version he is referring to for immediate approval is The Matthews Bible, which is the next installment in the story and the Bible that Cromwell states is in production, would be The Great Bible. Myles Coverdale would be instrumental in the translation and production of both, and he would also be involved at the end of his life for a brief time Matthew Parker’s Bishops Bible.

Coverdale is nearly forgotten today. The Bible that bears his name is often disregarded as insignificant. He is overshadowed by Tyndale (and later the Geneva Bible and King James) and I think suffers in reputation, unjustly, simply because he managed not to be martyred (which is hardly a bad thing). But this is a man who was involved in five of the first seven great English Bibles, and was the key figure in three of them.



[1] David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 181

[2] C. S. Lewis, “The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version,” The Ethel M. Wood Lecture Delivered Before the University of London, 20 March 1950 (London: The Athlone Press, 1950), 8–9.

[3] Jane Seymour (1508–37) was Henry VIII’s third wife. She was the mother of the future king, Edward VI. Unfortunately she died from complications arising from the birth of Edward. Seymour was the only of Henry’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral and is the only one who is buried next to him. Seymour, however served Catholic interests by working to reconcile Mary and ultimately placing her back into the royal succession.

[4] Lewis, “Impact,” p. 11.

[5] S. L. Greenslade (ed) The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1963), 149.

[6] Ibid., 150..