Plaque on York Minster by the Entrance to the Shop
Bible translator, writer and preacher
Miles Coverdale was an important figure in the English Reformation as a Bible translator, writer and preacher. On three separate occasions, fearing imprisonment or worse, he was forced into exile on the continent.
It is thought that Miles was born in Yorkshire but the exact location is unknown. Currently scholars are said to favour his birthplace as being in Richmondshire, probably in Coverdale itself. Nothing is known of his very early years but he studied philosophy and theology in Cambridge, becoming a bachelor of canon law in 1513. The following year he was ordained in Norwich and entered the house of the Augustinian friars in Cambridge. Here he came under the strong influence of the prior, Robert Barnes, who had studied under Erasmus on the continent and had met Martin Luther. Barnes is said to have preached the first sermon of the English Reformation in Cambridge on Christmas Eve 1525. Following this he was arrested as a heretic for preaching Lutheran views and summoned to London to appear before Cardinal Wolsey.
Miles was one of several friars who travelled with Barnes to help with his defence and is said to have acted as his secretary during the trial. Barnes was initially given a light sentence but later, after the Parliament passed the Act of Six Articles in June 1539, an Act abolishing diversity in opinions, Barnes was rearrested and burned at the stake on 30 July 1640. In the meantime, by 1528, Miles had left the Augustinians and was leading a simple life in Essex preaching against transubstantiation and the worship of images.
At this time all reformist views were largely being regarded as heretical and Miles decided to leave England at the end of 1528 and spent the following seven years in Europe, mainly in Antwerp. Here he met William Tyndale and is thought to have helped him greatly in his translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities, arrested and held in prison but Miles continued the work secretly alone and produced the first complete English Bible in print known as the Coverdale Bible. Besides Tyndale’s translations, Miles used Latin, English and German sources as he had not yet sufficient knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. Miles returned to England at the end of 1535, a year before Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in October 1536. Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, already a friend of Miles, pleaded in vain from England for Tyndale’s life to be spared.
In 1534 the Convocation of Canterbury had petitioned Henry VIII for a complete Bible to be printed in English, so Miles dedicated his Coverdale Bible to the king. In 1537 a further English Bible, known as the Matthew Bible, was printed in Antwerp. This incorporated Tyndale’s partial translation of the Old Testament, completed by Miles, and Tyndale’s New Testament. Henry VIII licensed it for general reading but was probably unaware of how much of it was in fact Tyndale’s work. A new Great Bible was proposed and Thomas Cromwell appointed Coverdale to travel to France to superintend its printing, as the presses in Paris were thought superior to those in England. However, a body of English bishops, joined by some French theologians, tried to halt the printing and the Pope issued an edict that the presses should be stopped and copies of any English Bibles burned. Miles managed to rescue some of the sheets and the type which were sent to London where the printing was completed.
Thomas Cromwell continued on a path to reform in England, issuing an edict in 1538 declaring opposition to ‘pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstitions’ and emphasising the importance of God’s word and the need to have a complete Bible in English in every parish church. The printing of the Great Bible was completed in 1539 and other editions were issued in the following two years. However the influence of conservative bishops in England, opposing Cromwell’s reforms, was now having a great effect and, following the passing of the Six Articles, Thomas Cromwell himself was executed on 28 July1540, around the same time as Robert Barnes. Since at least 1827, Cromwell had befriended and protected Miles who had written to Cromwell asking for books to help with further study, so it seemed expedient for Miles to once again go into exile. He and his new wife, Elizabeth, spent the first three years in Strasbourg where Miles translated books from Latin and German and wrote an important statement of his views on reform in a defence of Barnes.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son and successor, Edward, was only nine years old and the religious policy was largely that of his chief ministers in particular his uncle and guardian, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. The move was towards Protestantism and so the prospects looked much better for Miles. He returned to England in March 1548, was welcomed at court and became a royal chaplain. There was a great deal of opposition to the new Book of Common Prayer, particularly in the West Country, when Latin liturgical rites were banned from Whitsuntide 1549. Miles went with the Earl of Bedford as his chaplain to help put down the rebellion and pacify the people. The rebellion was over within two months but Miles remained in Devon doing work which really should have been carried out by the 86-year-old, nonresident Bishop of Exeter. On 14 August 1551 Miles was appointed bishop in his stead. Only two years later the young king Edward VI died of tuberculosis and his half-sister, the Catholic Mary Tudor, became queen.
Almost immediately Coverdale was deprived of his see. He was put under house arrest and kept there for five months until the King of Denmark eventually persuaded Queen Mary to allow him to leave for Copenhagen. A third exile therefore began as Miles and his wife retraced some of his earlier travels through Germany and eventually settled in Geneva in 1558. In November of that year Queen Mary died but Miles remained in Switzerland working on more Biblical translation. He returned to London in 1559. The new queen, Elizabeth I, began her reign by trying to reconcile disparate religious factions but Miles decided not to take up his previous post as Bishop of Exeter. In 1563 he was created Doctor of Divinity from Tubingen in recognition of his work and the following year accepted the living of the city church of St Magnus the Martyr near London Bridge, which he held from 1564-6. During this time his first wife died and within a year he had married his second wife, Katherine. After he resigned from St Magnus, Miles continued to preach, quietly but firmly, the Protestant cause, until his death on 20 January 20 1569 aged 80 in London.
In his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography David Daniell sums up Miles Coverdale’s life:
Miles Coverdale was a man who was loved all his life for that ‘singular uprightness’ recorded on his tomb. He was always in demand as a preacher of the gospel. He was an assiduous bishop. He pressed forward with great work in the face of the complexities and adversities produced by official policies. His gift to posterity has been from his scholarship as a translator; from his steadily developing sense of English rhythms, spoken and sung; and from his incalculable shaping of the nation’s moral and religious sense through the reading aloud in every parish from his ‘bible of the largest size’.
The Coverdale translation of the Psalms has been retained in The Book of Common Prayer, rather than that to be found in the 1611 King James Bible, so his words speak directly to us over a span of almost 500 years. Copies of the Coverdale Psalms can be found in the York Minster Library.
David Daniell, ‘Coverdale, Miles (1488-1569)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (OUP, 2004; online edition, 2009)
Carl R. Trueman, ‘Barnes, Robert (c.1495-1540)’ in Oxford DNB op. cit, (online edition, 2010)
© Dinah Tyszka