Concepts of Godly Order: William Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man
“Concernyng obedyence unto prynces”: The obedience of a Christen man and how Christen rulers ought to governe, where in also (yf thow marke diligently) thou shalt fynde eyes to perceave the crafty conveyaunce of all jugglers (H.L-1-31: 1535 edition)
The image that accompanies this month’s selection is, in truth, an unremarkable example of an early woodcut frontispiece: sliced, squashed, and squeezed to fit the book’s diminutive octavo format (measuring five and a half by four inches). The shop-worn figures that surround the title block fulfil little more than a decorative purpose and can be found in several other texts, Catholic and Protestant, printed in and around Antwerp during this period. However, its bare formatting belies the real significance of William Tyndale’s text because, aside from his English translation of the New Testament (1525), this was the first and most important book of the early English evangelical movement.
First printed by Martin de Keyser in Antwerp in 1528, just over a decade after Martin Luther had nailed his theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg, the Obedience of a Christian Man encapsulates the complicated religious landscape of early sixteenth century Europe. Following in the footsteps of Luther’s own writings it is filled with vitriolic attacks on the Roman Catholic Church, exaltations of vernacular scriptures and discussions of justification by faith. The assorted cherubs, wild men, sea monsters, and other classical motifs depicted in this frontispiece from the 1535 edition situate it neatly into this early sixteenth century context. Tyndale’s text, as the title suggests, attempts to focus the whole of English social and political life through the lens of scriptural wisdom.
The thrust of the text is simple; essentially it is a prolonged attack on the Roman Catholic Church and the pope written in plain English prose. To Tyndale, and many reformers, it was essential to disseminate the whole Bible in the vernacular so that the laity could properly comprehend of their place in the Christian commonwealth and their path to salvation. While this may not seem radical to twenty-first century eyes enlightened by an increasingly ecumenical church, such a suggestion was dangerous in 1520s England where access to the vernacular scriptures had been outlawed since 1408. Because of his efforts to translate the New Testament, Tyndale was already living in exile when the Obedience was published, meaning that it became an in absentia call to arms to English evangelicals hungry for reform.
The text is formed of three principal sections: the first deals with God’s laws of obedience and the degrees of men who are bound to obey these; the second sets out the manner in which those who possess authority should rule; and the third discusses the truths and falsities of the church as evidenced by the scriptures (for example, the scriptural sacraments are true whereas the worshipping of saints is false). The work is then a comprehensive statement of evangelical beliefs; however, despite the radical goals of the book, many of its core ideas and messages fitted neatly into the increasingly anti-papal political climate of Henry VIII’s England.
By the latter 1520s Tyndale could find a receptive audience in many areas of lowland England, not least amongst reform-minded members of the gentry and nobility. Principal amongst these families were the Boleyns, a once minor noble family of west Kent who had enjoyed a meteoric rise to national prominence on the coattails of England’s new queen, Anne Boleyn – herself a patron of Tyndale. Scholars have debated over Anne’s commitment to furthering reform in England, but there is little doubt of her own personal connection to evangelicalism and her collection of printed books included Tyndale’s Obedience and New Testament. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Anne’s copy of the Obedience found its way into King Henry’s hands who took such a liking to its excoriating attack on papal authority that he exclaimed ‘this is a book for me and all kings to read’. While the validity of this tale is circumspect (not least because Henry pursued a campaign to arrest and execute the exiled Tyndale), it is easy to see why a king who was embroiled in a lengthy legal negotiation with Rome might have reacted so enthusiastically to a book which questions: ‘How hath the Pope such temporal authority over king and emperor?’ Indeed, despite his outlaw status within England the arguments at the core of the Obedience fit neatly into the ideological framework of the contemporary Henrician court.
In the first section of the text proper Tyndale outlines the obedience owed to God by all degrees of people. In it Tyndale stresses that every individual is part of a single social structure, set down by God, to which they must be obedient: ‘Let every soule submit himsylfe vnto the auctorite of the hyer powers’. Similar sentiments were omnipresent at court, as seen in the courtier Thomas Elyot’s Boke Named the Governour (1531) that claimed ‘[God] hath set degrees and estates in all his glorious works’. This message of Godly ordained hierarchy and social deference had medieval precedents but became increasingly prevalent during the 1530s as contemporary fears of the destabilising effects of religious discord on social harmony grew. In the wake of the Act of Supremacy (1534) this concept was emphasised in print by a succession of scholars and churchmen, such as the propagandist Richard Morison author of An Exhortation to styrre all Englyshemen where the discussion tends towards disobedience against the king being not only treasonable, but heretical. When, in the prologue of the Obedience Tyndale laments that ‘even so now (as ever) the most parte seke libertie’ he was repeating an long-standing late medieval fear that a society based on avarice would descend into chaos, but Tyndale’s use of plain English, scriptural example, and clever invective to emphasise the point sets his argument apart from its forebears.
There are few artistic flourishes in this early edition of the Obedience; the relatively wide margins were left bare (apart from occasional authorial notes) so that the reader could add notes of his own while consuming the book. The only decorations are occasional, mainly unexceptional, woodcut initials. However, there are a couple of notable exceptions. At the end of the first section is a page headed ‘a digression’ that introduces the sections that sets out how rulers ought to rule. The woodcut initial on this page has been carefully chosen and shows a king in profile wearing a hollow crown and carrying a royal sceptre. Effectively, through this initial, the reader is being introduced to the intended audience of the second section of the text: men of power. Tyndale considered it his duty to ‘declare how the rulers […] ought to rule’. Fathers, landlords, judges, and kings all bore their authority along with an obligation to the Christian commonwealth: ‘Let kynges […] geve them selves all togeder to the wealth of their realmes after the exsample of Christe’.
Despite there being so much in Tyndale’s theology that was attractive to the Henrician regime and the post-Supremacy English Church, he remained an outlawed heretic. This 1535 edition of the text was printed in the same year that Tyndale, who had been living in exile in northern Europe since 1524, was arrested in Antwerp and, despite the intervention of Thomas Cromwell on his behalf, imprisoned at Vilvoorde and burned as a heretic in late 1536. The Obedience was not his first book or his last, but it remains a testament to the principles he so stoically expounded and which came to neatly mirror the religious and political climate of the nation from which he was exiled.
Stuart Palmer: MEMS, University of Kent
Editor: Jayne Wackett
C. Haigh, English Reformations (Oxford, 1993), ch. 3
R. Rex, ‘The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation’, The Historical Journal, 39 (1996), pp. 863-94
G. Bernard, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Religion’, The Historical Journal, 37 (1993), pp. 1-20