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.

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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.

 

NOTES:

[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..