Article abstract: The first translator of the complete and official Bible into English, Coverdale in the late Elizabethan era provided a link between the English Reformation and the first English Puritans.
Miles Coverdale was born about 1488 in Yorkshire, England, probably in the city of York. Little is known about his family or about his early childhood years. He studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge, became a priest at Norwich in 1514 when he was twenty-six, and entered the convent of Augustinian friars at Cambridge. His friend John Bale said that he drank in good learning with a burning thirst.
No authentic portrait of Coverdale exists. One that has traditionally been accepted as a copy of an early sketch of Coverdale shows him as a grim-faced, austere, middle-aged Puritan with anxious brow and a sharply downturned mouth. His friends, however, described him as friendly and upright with a very gentle spirit. These friends were from all areas of society and opinion. Among them were a number of young men who met at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge to discuss the new Lutheran religious reform ideas. Many of England’s earliest Protestants—Robert Barnes, Thomas Bilney, William Roy, George Joye, and John Frith—were in this group. Coverdale’s friends also included Sir Thomas More, a reformer who later died as a martyr because he could not give up his allegiance to the Roman Catholic religion and Thomas Cromwell, a royal minister who became a powerful supporter of Coverdale.
In 1528, when Robert Barnes was arrested for preaching against the luxurious life-style of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s chief minister, Coverdale went to London to help Barnes prepare his defense. The charge was serious and Barnes was forced to recant his Protestant opinions in order to save his life. This experience affected Coverdale deeply. Shortly thereafter, he left the monastery to preach in the English countryside against the Mass, image worship, and confession to a priest. Forced to flee from England to avoid royal persecution, he joined William Tyndale in Hamburg in 1529 to help him translate the Old Testament. At the home of Margaret von Emersen, a well-to-do Lutheran widow, Coverdale and Tyndale spent six or seven months translating the first five books of the Bible. This edition of the Pentateuch was published in 1530 in Antwerp, where Coverdale, preparing for his life’s work, then spent several years working as a proofreader for the printer Martin de Keyser.
In 1534, Coverdale published his first book, an English translation of a Latin paraphrase of the Psalms written by John van Kempen (Campensis). This book was followed in October, 1535, by Coverdale’s English translation of the complete Bible—the first to appear anywhere. The merchant-printer Jacob van Meteren financed and printed this translation, which he had asked Coverdale to undertake.
The fate of this English Bible hung on political events of the time. As an orthodox Roman Catholic, King Henry VIII believed that ordinary people needed the help of the clergy to understand the Bible. By 1534, however, he had separated the English church from the Roman Catholic Church, divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and married Anne Boleyn, whose family was Protestant. Henry promised Anne to have the Bible translated into English and available in the churches. Because the English bishops declared Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s versions to be inaccurate and inadequate, the king asked Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to oversee a new translation.
Cranmer’s first attempt to have the bishops translate the Bible themselves failed, and in 1538, Cromwell asked Coverdale to prepare a new official English Bible. Cromwell chose Coverdale as the most experienced translator of the time and the best scholar available. Coverdale used his own Bible published in Antwerp in 1535, Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch, and the new Matthew Bible translated by John Rogers as the basis for the new edition. He added a flattering dedication to King Henry VIII and omitted prologues and annotations. Cromwell ordered all bishops to have an English Bible conveniently located in each of their churches and to discourage no one from reading it.
King Henry licensed Coverdale and the printer Richard Grafton to provide this official Bible to be published in Paris, where better paper and type and more skilled workmen were to be found. Henry asked and received for the project a Royal License from the French king. Even so, the printers in Paris were harassed, and in December, 1538, the French Inquisitor General halted the printing. Coverdale fled to England, and twenty-five completed Bibles were seized by French church officials. Coverdale and the English printers then exported the necessary type, printers, and paper to London, and in April, 1539, the Great Bible was finally distributed as the official edition to be used in all English churches.
Once again, English politics intervened. Anne Boleyn fell from favor, and Henry’s Protestant wife Jane Seymour died in childbirth. The conservative bishops and Parliament issued the Six Articles in June, 1539, inaugurating a new wave of Protestant persecution. On July 28, 1540, Barnes was burned for his religious beliefs; on July 30, Cromwell himself was beheaded. Coverdale for the second time fled to Strasbourg in Germany with other English Protestants. Nevertheless, churches continued to be required to provide Bibles and by 1541, seven editions had been printed.
Shortly after leaving England, Coverdale married Elizabeth Macheson, whose sister had married Dr. Joannes Macchabaeus MacAlpinus, another religious exile, who was a cleric in the service of the King of Denmark and assisted with the translation of the Bible into Danish. In 1541 or 1542, Coverdale received his own...
(The entire section is 2417 words.)