The history of the English Bible
Myles Coverdale (also spelt Miles Coverdale) (c. 1488 – 20 January 1569) was a 16th-century Bible translator who produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English. He served as Bishop of Exeter from 1551 to 1553. According to a plaque on the wall of York Minster he was believed to have been born in York in or about 1488. He studied at Cambridge (bachelor of canon law 1513), became priest at Norwich in 1514 and entered the convent of Austin friars at Cambridge, where Robert Barnes was prior in 1523 and probably influenced him in favour of Reform. When Barnes was tried for heresy in 1526, Coverdale assisted in his defence and shortly afterward left the Augustinian house and fled to the Continent. Under the influence of Anglo-Italian senior clerks, Barnes would ultimately be burned at the stake in 1540 after the official passage of the Six Articles.
Miles Coverdale’s influences were wide and deep, but he is generally known for being a Bible translator. He was certainly an English Reformer. From 1528 to 1535, he appears to have spent most of his time on the Continent, generally believed to be in Antwerp. Convinced of the need for a vernacular English Bible instead of Latin-saturated services for a largely Latin-illiterate, national Church, something stoutly defended by the Bishops in England (no vernacular services or lections), he published in 1535 the first complete English Bible in print, the so-called Coverdale Bible. To do so was “heresy.” As Coverdale was not proficient in Hebrew or Greek, he used ‘five soundry interpreters’ (i.e. five different versions) in Latin, English and ‘Douche’ (German) as source text. William Tyndale had been arrested in spring 1535 by Imperial Inquisitors, notably, Pierre Dufief, long known as a well-remunerated and energetic “heresy-hunter.” Tyndale languished in prison throughout 1535 and was strangled and burned at the stake in October 1536. Meanwhile, Coverdale was busy furthering Tyndale’s commitment to an English Bible for the 9000 parishes of England. He made use of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament (following Tyndale’s November 1534 Antwerp edition) and of those books which were translated by Tyndale: the Pentateuch, and the book of Jonah. The publication appeared in Antwerp and was partly financed by Jacobus van Meteren. In 1537, his translations were included in the Matthew Bible. However, this 1537 edition did not have the royal license. But, 1537 marked new changes in Henrician policy. In 1538, at the direction of Thomas Cromwell, he was in Paris, superintending the printing of the “Great Bible,” and the same year were published, both in London and Paris, editions of a Latin and an English New Testament, the latter being by Coverdale. Unfortunately, a coalition of English Bishops ran interference against the operation in Paris. The French Inquisitors had the volumes burned. The Pope had issued the edict that the English Bibles be burned and the presses stopped. It was a very complex political situation. That 1538 Bible was a diglot (dual-language) Bible, in which he compared the Latin Vulgate with his own English translation. He also edited the Great Bible (1540). The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, affixed the ever-famous preface to the Great Bible commending widespread use for all Churchmen, a total reversal from the previous Anglo-Italian policies reaching back to the Act of 1401 (De Haeretico Comburdendo), the repressive 1407 Provincial Council of Oxford, and repressive “Constitutions” of Canterbury of 1409—all summarized in the opening and eighth session of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418, condemning Wyclif, Lollards, and vernacular Bibles for the people. While Coverdale was on the Continent working on the Scriptures, a boy in Norwich was burned alive for possessing a single sheet of the English Lord’s Prayer. Under the second Injunctions of Cromwell, a major change was at hand. Henry VIII “ordered” a Coverdale Bible be put into every English Church, chained to a bookstand, so that every citizen would have access to a Bible. This was revolutionary in 1540. A major corner had been turned in English ecclesiastical history.
The irony cannot be missed. Tyndale’s Bibles and books were burned in 1526 in London. Tyndale died a martyr’s death in 1536 and, at the stake, cried, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Some 14 years later, that “Great Bible” (for its size and also gentle rework of Coverdale’s and Tyndale’s works) would be ordered up for the 9000 parishes of England. The contrast could not be starker in this single respect, larger theological issues to the side.
He returned to England in 1539, living briefly in Newbury, but on the execution of Thomas Cromwell (who had been his friend and protector since 1527) in 1540, he was compelled again to go into exile and lived for a time at Tübingen where he received the Doctorate of Divinity, and, between 1543 and 1547, was a pastor and schoolmaster at Bergzabern (now Bad Bergzabern) in the Electorate of the Palatinate, and very poor. During this period, as a Reformed Churchman, he was appalled at Luther’s violent attack on the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper, virtual Ubiquitarianism. Coverdale was Reformed in theology. He began his mastery of Hebrew while employed in the Palatinate, a long-standing deficiency by contrast with William Tyndale, master of eight languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, French, Spanish, Italian and German. Coverdale was competent in Latin, German, Greek and now would learn Hebrew like his earlier mentor.
In March, 1548, Coverdale wrote fellow reformer John Calvin, that he was returning to England by invitation after eight years of exile for his faith. He was well received at the court of the new monarch, Edward VI. He was made king’s chaplain and almoner to the queen dowager, Catherine Parr. In 1551, he became Bishop of Exeter, replacing the 86-year old Vesey. He spent Easter, 1551, with the Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, at Magdalen College, Oxford. He attended Vermigli’s lectures on Romans. Martyr’s called Coverdale a “good and active preacher.” Coverdale was in high demand. But, he was deposed in 1553 after the succession of Queen Mary. The reasons were his heresies and involvements with known Reformers. He saw his vulnerabilities. Time would bear witness as the Anglo-Italian instruments began the repression. He went to Denmark (where his brother-in-law was chaplain to the king), then to Wesel, and finally back to Bergzabern. In 1559, he was again in England, but was not reinstated in his bishopric, perhaps because of puritan scruples about vestments although he was consecrated at Croydon in a surplice and cope. Having suffered long and from afar for so many years, he was not a handy or easy tool in the new settlement. From 1564 to 1566, he was rector of St. Magnus’s, near London Bridge. On 20 January 1569, Coverdale died in London and was buried in St. Bartholomew’s by the Exchange; when that church was demolished in 1840 to make way for the new Royal Exchange, his remains were moved to St. Magnus. [
His legacy was far-reaching and broad, including his English Bible of 1535. It may be an understatement to say that Erasmus, Tyndale, Coverdale, Roy and others laid the foundation for a Reformed Church of England. Further, he was involved with gentle revisions in the Great Bible, retaining much of Tyndale’s original work: the entire Tyndalian New Testament, Pentateuch and historical works were essentially retained; he reworked his original work in the poets and prophets. He left his translation of the Psalter alone. His translation of the Psalter is used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and is the most familiar translation of the psalms for many Anglicans all over the world until revisions occurred in the 1960s. The Coverdale Psalter, however, is often used in the Collegiate and Cathedral Churches. As a consequence, many musical settings of the psalms make use of the Coverdale translation. His translation of the Roman Canon is still used in some Anglican and Anglican Use Roman Catholic churches.
Day of Honor and Remembrance as a Protestant, Reformed Churchman
Coverdale is honoured, together with William Tyndale, with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 6 October. His extensive contacts with English and Continental Reformers was integral to the Edwardean English Reformation: Robert Barnes, John Frith, Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Peter Martyr, Thomas Cranmer, and Hugh Latimer, to mention a few. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament fostered proliferating vernacular Bibles on the Continent and William Tyndale, George Roy and others—at great sacrifice to themselves—joined in that revolutionary stream of activity. Miles Coverdale joined in the translation activity and that stream of Reformers that took England into the modern period with “millions of English Bibles”—a number that probably cannot be calculated. He is remembered by Christians in October.