27th November, 2011
Miles (or Myles) Coverdale is celebrated as the first person to publish a complete Bible in English, a work known as the Coverdale Bible.
While he is believed to have been born in Coverdale, Yorkshire, in England, around 1488, nothing is known of Coverdale's parentage or early education. But it is known that he was ordained a priest at Norwich in 1514 after which he became an Augustinian friar and entered their community at Cambridge.
The prior, Robert Barnes, was sympathetic to the ideas of church reform which were then circulating – these ideas apparently had a significant role in helping to shape Coverdale’s own views, so much so, that when Barnes was tried for heresy in 1526, Coverdale assisted in his defence.
MILES COVERDALE as seen in 'The Letters of the Martyrs': collected and published in 1564; republished in 'Miles Coverdale'; London : J.F. Shaw; 1837
Returning to study at Cambridge where he gained a degree, Coverdale was noted for his passion for learning and increasingly became attracted to reformist ideas. In early 1528, he left the monastery to devote himself to preaching but having publicly questioned notions such as transubstantiation and the worship of images, he quickly attracted the ire of church authorities and, toward the end of that year, was forced to flee to the European continent.
Coverdale’s whereabouts over the next few years remain a matter of speculation - some believe he worked with William Tyndale in translating the Pentateuch – but by 1534 he is known to have been in Antwerp in what is now Belgium and to have commenced work on an English translation of the entire Bible.
Known as the Coverdale Bible, it was first printed in Antwerp the following year. Coverdale, who wasn’t proficient in either Hebrew or Greek, had drawn on William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament as well as Old Testament books Tyndale had translated and other sources including Martin Luther, the Latin Vulgate, the Zurich Bible and a Latin translation of Hebrew by scholar Xanthus Pagninus.
Returning to England in 1535, Coverdale was, with the backing of Coverdale’s friend, Thomas Cromwell, secretary to King Henry VIII, among those commissioned to work on a new Bible, to be known as the Great Bible, which was a revision of a 1537 English Bible known as Matthew’s Bible (a work which included Tyndale’s New Testament and both Tyndale and Coverdale’s work on the Old Testament).
The new Bible was to be printed in Paris and while printing started in May 1538, it wasn’t completed until the following year due to opposition from the Inquisition and English bishops.
Coverdale, who had returned to England from Paris and who had in 1538 published a dual language Bible (being in Latin and English), was soon forced back into exile as conservative churchman gained the upper hand in England (he had apparently married Scotswoman Elizabeth Macheson before doing so).
He headed back to the European continent, this time to Germany – initially Strasbourg and later Bergzabern where he worked as a pastor and schoolmaster and continuing to translate religious texts from Latin and German into English.
In England, meanwhile, both his former prior Robert Barnes and his friend Thomas Cromwell were executed in July, 1540 - events which meant Coverdale wouldn’t be able to consider returning for some time. This was underlined as late as September 1546 when, on 26th September, his books were burnt at St Paul’s Cross in London.
It was only after the death of King Henry VIII on 27th January, 1547, that Coverdale was eventually able to return to England. He did so in March the following year and was well received by the new young king, Edward VI, becoming in the following months both almoner to the Queen Dowager, Catherine Parr, and a royal chaplain. His star continued to rise and in 1551, he was anointed Bishop of Exeter.
Coverdale’s good fortune was not to last however and following the death of Edward and subsequent accession of "Bloody" Queen Mary to the throne in 1553, he was apparently placed under house arrest in Exeter and deposed (although it was claimed this was due to his debts).
Either way, following the intervention of the King of Denmark whom he’d met during his earlier periods of exile, Coverdale was released and once again left England for Europe, this time for Denmark. But he remained there only for a short time before eventually returning to his old job in Germany before, two years later moving to Switzerland.
Coverdale finally returned to England in 1559 but was not reinstated in his bishopric – instead, in 1564 he took up the position of rector of St Magnus the Martyr Church near London Bridge, a position he held until 1566. His wife Elizabeth, meanwhile, had died in 1565 and he had married his second wife Katherine in 1566.
Coverdale died in London on 20th January, 1569, and was buried in St Bartholomew by the Exchange (his remains were later moved to the St Magnus’ when the church was demolished in 1840).
SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:
• David Daniel, 'Miles Coverdale', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
• Britain Express, 'The Coverdale Bible 1535'
October 4, 1535, 'Coverdale Finished English Language Bible',
'Myles Coverdale', Wikipedia
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