Miles Coverdale Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Miles Coverdale 1488?-1569?

English translator, religious writer, non-fiction writer, and hymn writer.

A major figure in the development of English vernacular literature, Miles Coverdale was the first to translate the complete text of the Bible into English, finishing his work in 1535. He also translated the Great Bible, printed between 1538 and 1539, which was the first Bible to be authorized by the king. In addition to translating the Bible, Coverdale also produced the first hymnbook in English, Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes Drawen out of the Holy Scripture (1535) and translated many pro-reformation religious writings into English, including tracts by Martin Luther. A deeply religious Protestant reformer, Coverdale held a bishopric in England, but was exiled to Europe several times when political and religious policies turned against the Protestants. Nonetheless, Coverdale's work contributed to the spread of the ideas of reform throughout England and Europe, and the nature and style of his translations set the tone for future English versions of the Bible, including the Authorized Version (or King James Bible), which shows much evidence of Coverdale's influence.

Biographical Information

Though biographical information regarding Coverdale is scarce, most scholars believe that he was born in approximately 1488 in the district of Coverdale in Yorkshire, England. He was educated at the Augustan monastery at Cambridge University, where he studied philosophy and theology. In 1514, Coverdale was ordained as a priest in Norwich. In the late 1520s he is thought to have come under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, the secretary to Cardinal Thomas Wosley. Cromwell encouraged Coverdale's Protestant leanings and would later support some of his translation activities. Because of the pressure Coverdale faced while preaching the ideas of Erasmus and the Reformation to his parishioners, he went into exile on the continent in the late 1520s. By 1529 he was in Germany, helping another English reformer, William Tyndale, translate parts of the Bible. He received his B.A. in Canon Law in 1531, and later completed his D. D., though the date and location of this later education is uncertain.

Arguably his most important translation work was accomplished in 1534-35, when Coverdale translated the whole Bible into English, likely without assistance. He did not use original Hebrew and Greek sources, instead relying on partial English, German, and Latin versions. He dedicated the translation to English King Henry VIII, a decision which might have contributed to Coverdale's translation being allowed to circulate in England, though without official sanction. It is believed that at the same time, he translated the first collection of hymns into English, Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes. Because of the Injunctions of 1538, Bibles in English and Latin were required to be placed in every church in England and made available for public viewing. Coverdale headed the project to create an authorized version of the Bible, using Matthew’s Bible as well as the works of Erasmus and the Vulgate as bases for his work. The Great Bible, as it would come to be called, owing to the large size of paper used, was being printed in Paris in late 1538. Paris was chosen due to the high quality of printing available in that city, as well as the ongoing religious strife in England which made Bible translation there a risky endeavor. Coverdale and his printer, Richard Grafton, had received license from French King Francis I to produce the Bible, but pressures from the Inquisition forced the seizure of all materials in December of 1538. After the intervention of several of Coverdale’s supporters, including that of Cromwell—who had financed a portion of the project—the entirety of the printing operation, including paper, presses and even the printers and translators themselves, were transported to England, where they completed the publication of the Great Bible in April, 1539.

Soon after his return, however, continued religious and political upheaval in England led Coverdale to again fear for his safety and return to Europe. During his second exile, Coverdale's religious beliefs evolved away from Lutheranism and towards Swiss reform doctrines. He married a woman of Scotch descent named Elizabeth Matcheson, and continued to serve as a minister and teacher, as well as continuing his lifelong work of translation. In 1547, Henry VIII died and Edward VI took the throne. After years of uncertain status in his native country, Coverdale returned to England by invitation of King Edward. He was appointed one of the royal chaplains to the king and almoner (Lord Protector) to Catherine Parr, the dowager queen. In 1550, religious tensions forced him to resign his position and he was imprisoned for a short time, during which he began to urge peace and conformity within the reform movement. In 1551 Coverdale was consecrated bishop of Exeter, a position he held until 1553, when King Edward died and Mary I, a Catholic, assumed the English throne in fall 1553. Upon Queen Mary's Ascension, Coverdale was placed under informal house arrest and feared for his life, but the King of Denmark, with whom he had familial connections through his wife, interceded on Coverdale's behalf and he was allowed to leave England for Switzerland. While in exile, he continued his translation work and served as an elder in the Anglican Church in Geneva. In 1559, after Elizabeth I had taken the throne, Coverdale returned to England where he worked for the Duchess of Suffolk as minister and tutor and did some additional preaching. Though it was offered, Coverdale refused to resume his position as Bishop of Exeter because his increasingly puritanical beliefs made him unwilling to wear vestments. By 1564, he was serving as the minister of St. Magnus Martyr by London Bridge and living in poverty. Again because of his Puritan religious convictions, he resigned the post in 1566, but performed services for several Puritan groups before his death, likely on January 20, 1569. Coverdale was buried in St. Bartholomew-by-Exchange, though his remains were later transferred to St. Magnus.

Major Works

Nearly all of Coverdale's significant works are translations of religious texts into English, generally aimed at the common reader of the time. Most of Coverdale's fame is derived from his 1535 translation of the Bible into English. He based his translation on five partial English, German, and Latin versions, and completed most of the work on the first Bible to be published in English without assistance and, some scholars maintain, within a single year. Coverdale was also the editor and one of the main translators of the Great Bible of 1539, which was largely based on the second English-language Bible, the Matthew Bible of 1537. With Ghostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, the first hymnbook published in the English vernacular, Coverdale hoped to introduce singing into English church services. Coverdale also translated a significant number of texts by leaders such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, and Otto Werdmüller, attempting to promote the ideas of the reformation to the English common people. Coverdale also wrote several original works, most prominently, A Confutation of the Treatise of John Standish made agaynst the protestation of R. Barnes in the yeare 1540 (1541), a response to a treatise by John Standish against Coverdale's mentor and friend, Barnes. In the piece, Coverdale defended Barnes and his doctrines against the charges made by Standish. He also stressed the importance of good works. While the majority of Coverdale's works promote conciliation, the Confutation was a very controversial work at the time.

Critical Reception

To many critics, Coverdale's stature as a translator is largely overshadowed by William Tyndale, his contemporary and friend who translated the first English-language New Testament. Coverdale's works of translation were created in an era of political and religious upheaval, and as such it is difficult to determine their reception among his contemporaries. Bible translation itself was a highly controversial issue in Coverdale's day, and it is difficult to assess Coverdale's reputation among contemporary critics in such an environment. More recently, scholars such as Francis Fry and Brooke Foss Westcott have heavily focused on the textual history of the 1535 Bible and the Great Bible, considering how they relate to the tumultuous political and religious situation in which they were produced, and attempting to discern the facts of their publication using clues from the texts. Celia Hughes and George Pearson trace Coverdale's involvement in the church reform movement, examining the texts and textual histories of his works in order to establish his role as a significant voice for the Reformation. The influence of Coverdale on the development of the King James Bible is the primary focus of critics such as Herbert Gordon May and Gerald Hammond, who consider the Coverdale's translation style in relation to later biblical translations. In addition, some scholars such as Robin A. Leaver, have considered the development of Coverdale's hymns, tracing their sources in the psalms and German hymnbooks of the era, and showing their significant influence on later works of English hymnody, most notably The Book of Common Prayer. While to some, the works of Tyndale hold more significance in allowing the English people access to the Bible, others find the fact that Coverdale completed translating the complete Bible without assistance remarkable. In connection with his impressive efforts to provide accessibility to the Bible for the English people, George Pearson maintains that “… the name of Coverdale is one which will be always mentioned with veneration and respect.”