Thursday, August 23, 2012

7: Myles Coverdale (ca 1488-1569), Bible translator and bishop

Myles Coverdale (ca 1488-1569) … as seen in ‘The Letters of the Martyrs’: collected and published in 1564; republished in ‘Miles Coverdale’ (London: JF Shaw, 1837), Picture, Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Myles Coverdale (also spelt Miles Coverdale) (ca 1488-1569) was a 16th-century Bible translator who produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English.

He was probably born around 1488 in the parish of Coverham, near Middleham in the Coverdale district in North Yorkshire around 1488. Pearson suggests Coverdale was an assumed name, taken from the area he came from, and was not his original family name.

It is said he studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge University – Foxe says he received the degree BTh (Bachelor of Theology), while Cooper says his degree was BCL (Bachelor of Canon Law), although neither degree is listed by Venn. He was ordained priest in Norwich in 1514 by John Underwood, titular Bishop of Chalcedon, suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Norwich, and the Franciscan Prior of Bromholm, Norfolk.

In 1523, Coverdale entered the convent of Austin Friars in Cambridge, where the prior was Robert Barnes, an early follower of Martin Luther and a future martyr. Barnes probably influenced Coverdale in favour of Reform.

A plaque at Chetwynd Court, King’s College, Cambridge, marking the site of the White House Tavern where Latimer would joined those who discussed Reformation ideas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

From 1521 on, Reformed-minded thinkers at Cambridge were discussing Luther’s writings at the White Horse Inn, which came to be called “Little Germany.”

Those who met at the White Horse Inn included Robert Barnes, as wells as Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury, Hugh Latimer, later Bishop and Oxford martyr, Thomas Bilney, who changed Latimer’s views about the Reformation, Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester, Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury, William Tyndale, Bible translator, Nicholas Shaxton, later Bishop of Salisbury, John Bale, later Bishop of Ossory, and Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible and future Bishop of Exeter.

When Barnes was tried for heresy in 1526, Coverdale assisted in his defence. But soon after the trial, Coverdale left the Austin Friars convent in Cambridge. From 1527, Thomas Cromwell was his friend and protector. By Lent 1528, Coverdale was “going in the habit of a secular priest” in Steeple Bumpstead and other parishes in Essex, devoting himself to full-time preaching against the religious abuses of the day. Before the end of the year, he decided to leave England for continental Europe, although Cooper, Pearson and others say he received the degree Bachelor of Canon Law (BCL) at the University of Cambridge in 1531.

The title page of Coverdale’s Bible, 1535

In 1534, Coverdale translated Campensis’s 1532 Latin paraphrase of the Psalms. On 4 October 1535, he published the first complete English Bible in print, the so-called Coverdale Bible. Earlier, in 1525, William Tyndale had translated the Greek New Testament into English. As Coverdale was not proficient in Hebrew or Greek, he used “five soundry interpreters” in Latin, English and “Douche” or German as source text. He made use of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, following Tyndale’s Antwerp edition of November 1534, and of the Old Testament books translated by Tyndale – the five books of the Pentateuch and Jonah.

The Coverdale Bible was published in Antwerp, partly financed by Jacobus van Meteren. When it was smuggled into England, Coverdale’s translation gained great popularity and eventually was published by English printers. In 1537, his translations were included in the Matthew Bible.

An illuminated copy of The Great Bible in Saint John’s College, Cambridge, printed on parchment and perhaps one of two referred to in a letter from Miles Coverdale and Richard Grafton in Paris to Thomas Cromwell on 23 June 1538 the title page shows Henry VIII presenting a Bible to clerics and laymen; below are Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell

Convinced by Thomas Cromwell of the need for an official English Bible, Henry VIII commissioned Coverdale to revise his translation for this purpose. Coverdale was in Paris in 1538, superintending the printing of the revised translation that would become known as the Great Bible of 1540. That year also saw the publication in London and Paris of editions of a Latin and an English New Testament, in which Coverdale compared the Latin Vulgate with his own English translation.

Henry VIII had a Coverdale Bible put into every English church, chained to a lectern, so that everyone in England would have access to a Bible.

Coverdale returned to England in 1539, and lived briefly in Newbury, Berkshire. However, his friend and protector, Thomas Cromwell, was executed in 1540, and a fearful Coverdale felt compelled to go into exile again, with his new wife, Elizabeth Macheson, who was of Scottish descent. They lived for a time in Tübingen, where he is said to have received his doctorate (DTh).

From 1543 to 1547, he was a pastor and schoolmaster at Bergzabern, now Bad Bergzabem, in the Duchy of Pfalz-Zweibrucken. But this provided little income and he lived in poor circumstances. Back in England, all of Coverdale’s books were condemned on 8 July 1546 and many were burned at Saint Paul’s Cross on 26 September 1546 by the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner.

In March 1548, he was in Frankfurt, when the new English Order of Communion reached him. He immediately translated it into German and Latin and sent a copy to Calvin, whose wife had befriended Coverdale at Strasbourg. However, Calvin does not seem to have approved of it as highly as Coverdale.

When Coverdale returned to England in March 1548, he was well received in the court of Edward VI, and was made the new young king’s chaplain and almoner to the queen dowager, Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife. Coverdale preached the sermon at her funeral in September 1548, and also preached at Sir James Wilford’s funeral in November 1550, and at Lord Wentworth’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in March 1551.

A sermon he preached in Saint Paul’s on the Second Sunday in Lent, 1549, was followed immediately by the pulling down of “the sacrament at the high altar.”

In 1549, he wrote a dedication to Edward VI for a translation of the second volume of Erasmus’s Paraphrases. When Lord Russell was sent to suppress of the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ in Devonshire that year, Coverdale accompanied him as chaplain and preached on the field.

In 1550, he translated Otto Wermüller’s Precious Pearl, for which the preface was written by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, who had derived spiritual comfort from the book while he was prisoner in the Tower of London.

Peter Martyr wrote from Oxford in 1550 to tell Henry Bullinger the news that their “well-acquainted” friend was to be made a bishop and that “nothing could be more convenient and conductive to the reformation of religion, than the advancement of such men to the government of the church.” It was another year, however, before Coverdale became Bishop of Exeter in 1551.

On 14 August 1551, John Vesey was deposed as Bishop of Exeter and Coverdale was named as his successor. He was consecrated in Croydon on 30 August 1551 by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and John Hodgkins, suffragan Bishop of Bedford. At the same service, John Scory was consecrated Bishop of Rochester, and all the bishops, including Coverdale, were robed in surplices and copes.

At his Palace in Exeter on 20 December that year, Coverdale ordained four deacons, and two days later commissioned one of them, Anthony Randall, to expound and preach the Word of God in Latin, or English, in any church, or other decent places, throughout the diocese. Two of the other three deacons he promoted to priesthood in the chapel of his palace.

On 1 January 1552, he ordained, infra domum suam, John Grosse deacon and likewise priest in uno et eodem die. His other ordinations were conducted in his cathedral. On, 3 July 1552, he ordained two deacons; on 24 July, one deacon; and on 22 May 1553, two deacons, one of whom, Thomas Richards, ordained to the priesthood also in uno et eodem die. This abuse was subsequently forbidden in 1603 under Canon 32.

His subsequent manner of life is described by John Hooker, the historian of Exeter, who was knew him: “He preached continually upon every holy-day and did read most commonly twice in the week in some one church or other within this city. He was, after the rate of his livings, a great keeper of hospitality, very sober in diet, godly in life, friendly to the godly, liberal to the poor, and courteous to all men. Void of pride, full of humility, abhorring covetousness and an enemy to all wickedness and wicked men, whose companies he shunned, and whom he would in no wise shroud, or have his house or company. His wife, a most sober, chaste and godly-matron. His house and household, another church in which was exercised all godliness and virtue. No one person being in his house which did not, from time to time, give an account of his faith and religion, and also did live accordingly.”

Yet, as a bishop he sat as a judge in the trial of Von Parris, a Dutch surgeon living in London, who was burned at the stake in April 1551 for his Socinian opinions.

However, Coverdale was not popular in his western diocese. At Queen Mary’s accession in 1553, he was deprived of his see as a married bishop and imprisoned, supposedly for person debts to Queen Mary, and John Veysey was restored as Bishop of Exeter. An Act of Council permitted Coverdale to go to Denmark “with two of his servants, his bagges and baggage, without any unlawfull lette or serche.”

His brother-in-law was chaplain to King Christian II of Denmark, but Coverdale declined an offer from King Christian II of a parish in Denmark, and preferred to preach at Wesel to the numerous English refugees there, until he was invited by Duke Wolfgang to return to Bergzabern. But he never relinquished his episcopal claims and until his death he continued to sign himself Myles Coverdale quondam Exoniensis or Myles Coverdale quondam Exon.

He was in Geneva in December 1558, and is said to have helped to prepare the publication of the Geneva Bible. He may also have been the anonymous translator into English the treatise on the Eucharist Compiled by John Calvine, a man of no less learnyng and literature than godly studye and example of lyvyng; wher unto is added the Order that the churche of Christe in Denmarke, and in many places, countries, and cities of Germany doth use, not onelye at the Holye Supper of the Lorde, but also at the ministration of the blessed Sacramente of Baptisme and Holy Wedlocke.

He returned to England in 1559 after Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne. However, he was not reinstated as Bishop of Exeter, perhaps because of his Puritan scruples about vestments. Clothed in a plain black gown, he assisted at the consecration of Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of Saint Magnus the Martyr … Coverdale was rector from 1564 to 1566, and died in the pulpit (Photograph: Steve Cadman)

His friend the Bishop of London, Edmund Grindal, suggested his name to Cecil as Bishop of Llandaff in 1563, but he declined the invitation. In 1563, he received the degree DD (Doctor of Divinity) at the University of Cambridge by incorporation from Tübingen. In April 1564, he was commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge to admit Bishop Grindal to the same degree.

After surviving an attack of the plague that year, he was appointed by Grindal to the parish of Saint Magnus the Martyr, near London Bridge, where he was the rector from 1564 to 1566.

His wife Elizabeth died in September 1565, and on 7 April 1566 Coverdale married his second wife, Katherine. Five months later, he resigned his parish in September 1566 rather than conform to the Act of Uniformity.

He was too poor to pay the first-fruits, £60.16s.10d., and at length Queen Elizabeth forgave him that debt. He resigned from Saint Magnus the Martyr in the summer of 1566, but continued preaching actively in London, although by then he was in his 70s.

On 20 January 1569, Coverdale died after preaching in the pulpit in Saint Magnus the Martyr Church. He was not expected to preach that day but there was no preacher available, and his biographer John Hooker recalled:

“Certain men of the parish came unto him, and earnestly entreated that considering the multitude was great, and that it was pity they should be disappointed of their expectation, that it would please him to take the place for that time. But he excused his age and the infirmities thereof, and that his memory failed him, his voice scarce to be heard, and he not able to do it, that they would hold him excused. Nevertheless such were their importunate requests that … between two men he was carried up into the pulpit, where God did with his spirit so strengthen him, that he made his last and the best and the most godly sermon that ever he did in all his life. And very shortly after he died, being very honourably buried with the presence of the Duchess of Suffolk, the Earl of Bedford, and many others, honourable and worshipful personages.”

He was buried in the Church of Saint Bartholomew’s by the Exchange. When that church was demolished in 1840 to make way for a new Royal Exchange, his remains were moved to Saint Magnus the Martyr.

Punting on the River Cam or the Backs, behind Clare College, with the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel in the background … Coverdale’s biographers do not say which college he attended and disagree about which degree he received and when (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Coverdale’s legacy

Coverdale has been described as a “pious, conscientious, laborious, generous, and a thoroughly honest and good man”. It could be said that he had a part in the publication of more different editions of England language Bibles in the 1500s than any other person.

His work in translating and editing the Bible place him among the leading scholars of his time. Coverdale’s Bible was the first in which the non-canonical books were left out of the body of the Old Testament and placed by themselves at the end of it under the title Apocripha.

Nor should Coverdale be dismissed as some Biblical literalist or fundamentalist. In his introduction to his translation of the Bible, he wrote:

“It shall greatly help ye to understand the Scriptures if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after. ”

His translation of the Psalter continued to be used for centuries in The Book of Common Prayer, and is the most familiar translation of the psalms. Many musical settings of the psalms make use of Coverdale’s translation.

Coverdale was not as proficient a translator as Tyndale and knew little of the original Hebrew. But he was prodigious – one estimate says he translated or revised on average 2,400 words a day – and he understood the rhythms of the English language, with the beauty of alliteration and repetition. Paul Stanwood says Coverdale was not so much translating the Psalms as providing an English mirror of their sense, repeating whole phrases for emphasis, so that his verse is easy to remember and is hauntingly poetic.

However, as Stephen Neill has pointed out, there are places where Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms makes nonsense. How could “indignation vex him, even as a thing that is raw” (Psalm 58: 8)? Or how does one imagine “the beasts of the people … humbly bring pieces of silver” (Psalm 68: 30)?

Although Coverdale does not appear in the Common Worship Calendar of the Church of England, Coverdale and Tyndale are remembered together on 6 October in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. There is a Coverdale Road and a Miles Coverdale Primary School in London. Coverdale Hall is a fictional college in Durham in Catherine Fox’s first novel, Angels and Men (Hamish Hamilton, 1996).


Almighty God, you planted in the heart of your servants William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale a consuming passion to bring the Scriptures to people in their native tongue, and endowed them with the gift of powerful and graceful expression and with strength to persevere against all obstacles: Reveal to us your saving Word, as we read and study the Scriptures, and hear them calling us to repentance and life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Select bibliography:

Coverdale’s works, most of them translations, number 26 in all. Almost all his works, with his letters, were collected and edited by the Revd George Pearson and published by the Parker Society, Cambridge, in two volumes in 1846.

David Daniell, ‘Coverdale, Miles (1488–1569)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), vol 13, pp 739-747.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, Edward VI and the Protestant ReformationLondon: Allen Lane, 1999).
Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (London: Penguin, 1965).
(Revd) George Pearson Remains of Myles Coverdale, Bishop of Exeter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, for the Parker Society, 1846). Paul Stanwood, ‘The Prayer Book as Literature,’ pp 140-149 in Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck (eds), The Oxford Guide to The Book of Common Prayer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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