William Tyndale’s (1494–1536) Poignant Prison Letter

[ABOVE—Tyndale arrested, from William Dallman’s William Tyndale the translator of the English Bible (Concordia, 1905).]

William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, an activity which had been illegal in England since the days of John Wycliffe. For this he was hounded across Europe, and finally captured through treachery. He languished in prison for several months before being strangled and burned.

The following account of his imprisonment, from Demaus’ 1886 biography, includes a poignant letter from Tyndale himself. It demonstrates an aspect of imprisonment that we often forget: the prisoner’s inability to provide for his or her own needs.

Demaus’ Account of Tyndale’s Imprisonment

Of Tyndale’s life during this long imprisonment, Foxe, our sole authority hitherto, has simply recorded that “such was the power of his doctrine and the sincerity of his life, that during the time of his imprisonment, which endured a year and a half [very nearly], it is said, he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household. Also the rest that were with Tyndale conversant in the castle, reported of him that if he were not a good Christian man, they could not tell whom to trust.” To many writers the amount of liberty thus implied seems so incredible, that they have rejected the story as intrinsically improbable: curiously enough, however, we have the means of establishing the probability of Foxe’s statement by evidence which no one will presume to dispute.

William Tyndale, God’s Outlaw, was pursued by the agents of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey. All the while he worked to provide the Bible in English for his fellow countrymen.

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Ensinas, who was imprisoned for heresy a few years later, makes the very singular complaint that he was somewhat interrupted in his labor of compiling prayers from the Book of Psalms, by the number of visitors who were permitted to see and talk with him. From the town of Brussels alone he had upwards of 80 visitors, who discussed with him matters of religion, and who, as he quaintly remarks, were at more liberty to consider those matters in that place, because it was a prison, and therefore free from interruption. And the testimony of Ensinas as to the liberty enjoyed in prison is confirmed by the evidence of official papers preserved among the Archives of Belgium. All prisons were probably not so laxly superintended as the Vrunte, in Brussels, where Ensinas was confined; but there is, it is thus evident, nothing impossible in Foxe’s story, and we are at liberty to believe that the tedium of Tyndale’s imprisonment was relieved by kindly Christian intercourse with those around him, on the matters most deeply interesting to his heart.

To this meagre statement of the Martyrologist, however, we are now able to add, for the first time in this country, information of the highest interest from the pen of Tyndale himself. The admirers of the great translator have long regretted that not a single letter or document of any kind has been ascertained to be in existence, that was unquestionably written with Tyndale’s own hand. The industry of a foreign investigator has at length been successful in discovering an original letter which was written by Tyndale himself, and which at once invests the whole narrative of his imprisonment with that “touch of nature” that appeals irresistibly to human sympathies….The letter, it may be premised, has neither date nor superscription, but there is not the slightest doubt that it was written at Vilvorde in the winter of 1535, and that it was addressed to the Governor of the castle, who was no other than that very Marquis of Bergen-op-Zoom with whom Cromwell had already interceded in Tyndale’s favor.

I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me [by the Council of Brabant]; therefore I entreat your lordship and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here [in Vilvorde] during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of the winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen. — W. Tyndale. [The original is in Latin, the international language]

The picture presented in this letter, of the illustrious martyr, sitting cold and dark and solitary in the damp cells of Vilvorde during the long cheerless nights of winter, and earnestly soliciting the favor of light, and warm clothing, and above all, of books to solace him, must surely have reminded the reader of the great Apostle of the Gentiles sending for his “cloak and his books, but especially the parchments,” to defend him against the damp and the tedium of his gloomy Mamertine dungeon; and it appeals irresistibly to the sympathies of every man who is not utterly destitute of human feelings.