Myles Coverdale

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Myles Coverdale
Bishop of Exeter
Myles Coverdale.jpg
See Exeter
Installed 1551
Term ended 1553
Predecessor John Vesey
Successor John Vesey
Personal details
Born c. 1488
Yorkshire, England
Died 20 January 1569
London, England
Denomination English Church - acknowledging authority of Pope in Rome; subsequently early Anglican reformer

Myles Coverdale, first name also spelt Miles (1488 – 20 January 1569), was an English reformer chiefly known as a Bible translator, preacher and, briefly, Bishop of Exeter.[1] Regarding his probable birth county, Daniell cites Bale, author of a sixteenth century scriptorium, giving it as Yorkshire.[1][note 1] Having studied philosophy and theology in Cambridge, Coverdale became an Augustinian friar and went to the house of his order, also in Cambridge. In 1514 John Underwood, a suffragan bishop and archdeacon of Norfolk, ordained him priest in Norwich. He was at the house of the Augustinians when in about 1520,[1] Robert Barnes returned from Louvain to become its prior. Coverdale produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English.[2] He served as Bishop of Exeter from 1551 to 1553.

Life to end of 1528[edit]

Coverdale studied at Cambridge (bachelor of canon law 1513), became a priest in Norwich in 1514 and entered the house of the Augustinian friars in Cambridge, where Robert Barnes had returned from Louvain to become its prior. This is thought to have been about 1520 - 1525.[1][3] Barnes read aloud to his students from St. Paul's epistles in translation and taught from classical authors.[1] This undoubtedly influenced them towards Reform. In February 1526, Coverdale was part of a group of friars that travelled from Cambridge to London to present the defence of their superior, after Barnes was summoned before Cardinal Wolsey.[1][3] Barnes had been arrested as a heretic after being accused of preaching Lutheran views in St Edward's Church, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. On the 10 June 1539, Parliament passed the Act of Six Articles, marking a turning point in the progress of radical protestantism.[4](pp423–424) Barnes was burned at the stake on 30 July 1540, at Smithfield, along with two other reformers. Also executed that day were three Roman Catholics, who were hanged, drawn and quartered.[3]

Coverdale probably met Thomas Cromwell some time before 1527. A letter survives showing that later, in 1531, he wrote to Cromwell, requesting his guidance on his behaviour and preaching; also stating his need for books.[1] By Lent 1528, he had left the Augustinians and, wearing simple garments, was preaching in Essex against transubstantiation, the worship of images, and the traditional form of confession. At that date, such views were very dangerous, for the future course of the religious revolution that began during the reign of Henry VIII was as yet very uncertain. Reforms, both of the type proposed by the Lollards, and those preached by Luther, were being pursued by a vigorous campaign against heresy.[4](pp379–380) Consequently, towards the end of 1528, Coverdale fled from England to the Continent of Europe.[1]

First exile: 1528[edit]

From 1528 to 1535, Coverdale spent most of his time on continental Europe, mainly in Antwerp. Convinced of the need for a vernacular English Bible, he began work on what became the first complete English Bible in print, named the Coverdale Bible. Not yet proficient in Hebrew or Greek, he used Latin, English and German sources plus the works of William Tyndale who had been arrested in spring 1535 by Imperial Inquisitors. Tyndale languished in prison throughout 1535 and was strangled and burned at the stake in October 1536.

Coverdale's Bible, 1535[edit]

In 1534 Canterbury Convocation petitioned Henry VIII that the whole Bible might be translated into English, and in 1535 Coverdale published this complete Bible dedicated to the King.[5] (ppxxx - to follow) He based his rendering in part on Tyndale's translation of the New Testament (following Tyndale's November 1534 Antwerp edition) and of those books which were translated by Tyndale: the Pentateuch, and the book of Jonah. Other Old Testament Books he translated from the German of Luther and others. His Psalter has remained in use in the Book of Common Prayer version of the Psalms. The publication appeared in Antwerp and was partly financed by Jacobus van Meteren.

Further translations, 1537 - 1539[edit]

In 1537 the Matthew Bible was printed in Antwerp at the expense of R. Grafton and E. Whitchurch who issued it in London.[5](p1058) It comprised Tyndale's Pentateuch; a version of Joshua 2 and Chronicles translated from the Hebrew, probably by Tyndale and not previously published; the remainder of the Old Testament from Coverdale; Tyndale's New Testament from 1535. It was dedicated to Henry VIII who licensed it for general reading. "Thomas Matthew" the supposed editor, was an alias for John Rogers.

The Matthew Bible was theologically controversial.[6] Furthermore it bore evidence of its origin from Tyndale. If Henry VIII had become aware of this, the position of Cromwell and Cranmer would have been precarious. Consequently in 1538 Coverdale was sent to Paris by Cromwell to superintend the printing of the planned "Great Bible". [note 2] François Regnault, who had supplied all English service books from 1519 to 1534, was selected as the printer because his typography was more sumptuous than that available in England.[1] According to Kenyon, the assent of the French king was obtained.[6] In May 1538 printing began. Nevertheless, a coalition of certain English bishops together with French theologians at the Sorbonne interfered with the operations and the Pope issued an edict that the English Bibles should be burned and the presses stopped. Some completed sheets were seized, but Coverdale rescued others, together with the type, transferring them to London.[note 3] Ultimately, the work was completed in London by Grafton and Whitchurch.[note 4]

The same year were published, both in London and Paris, editions of a Latin and an English New Testament, the latter being by Coverdale. This 1538 New Testament was a diglot (dual-language) printing in which Coverdale compared the Latin Vulgate with his own English translation.[7]

An injunction was issued by Cromwell in September 1538, strengthening an earlier one that had been issued but widely ignored in 1536. This second injunction firmly declared opposition to "pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstitions" whilst correspondingly placing heavy emphasis on scripture as "the very lively word of God". Coverdale’s Great Bible was now almost ready for circulation and the injunction called for the use of "one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume" in every English church.[8][9] However at the time insufficient Great Bibles were actually printed in London so an edition of the Matthew Bible that had been re-edited by Coverdale started to be used.[note 5] The laity were also intended to learn other core items of worship in English, including the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.[4](p406)

In February 1539, Coverdale was in Newbury communicating with Thomas Cromwell.[10] The printing of the London edition of the Great Bible was in progress.[1] It was finally published in April of the same year.[11]

John Winchcombe, son of “Jack O'Newbury”, a famous clothier, served as a confidential messenger to Coverdale who was performing an ecclesiastical visitation. Coverdale commended Winchcombe for his true heart towards the King's Highness and in 1540, Henry VIII granted to Winchcombe the manor of Bucklebury, a former demesne of Reading Abbey.[12] Also from Newbury, he reported to Cromwell via Winchcombe about breaches in the king's laws against papism, sought out churches in the district where the sanctity of Becket was still maintained, and arranged to burn primers and other church books which had not been altered to match the king's proceedings. However, in the final years of the decade, the conservative clerics, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, were rapidly recovering their power and influence, opposing Cromwell's policies.[1] On the 28th of June 1539 the Act of Six Articles became law, ending official tolerance of religious reform. Cromwell was executed on 28 July 1540.[8] This was close to the date of the burning of Coverdale's Augustinian mentor Robert Barnes. Cromwell had protected Coverdale since at least 1527 and the latter was obliged to seek refuge again.

Second exile: 1540 - 1547[edit]

In April 1540 there was a second edition of the Great Bible, this time with a prologue by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. For this reason, the Great Bible is sometimes known as Cranmer’s Bible although he had no part in its translation. According to Kenyon,[6] there were seven editions in total, up until the end of 1541, with the later versions including some revisions.

Before leaving England, Coverdale married Elizabeth Macheson (d. 1565), a Scotswoman of noble family who had come to England with her sister and brother-in-law as religious exiles from Scotland.[1] They went first to Strasbourg, where they remained for about three years. He translated books from Latin and German and wrote an important defence of Barnes. This is regarded as his most significant reforming statement apart from his Bible prefaces. He received the degree of DTh from Tübingen and visited Denmark, where he wrote reforming tracts. In Strasbourg he befriended Conrad Hubert, Martin Bucer's secretary and a preacher at the church of St Thomas. Hubert was a native of Bergzabern (now Bad Bergzabern) in the duchy of Palatinate-Zweibrücken. In September 1543, on the recommendation of Hubert, Coverdale became assistant minister in Bergzabern as well as schoolmaster in the town's grammar school. During this period, he opposed Luther's attack on the Reformed view of the Lord's Supper. He also began to learn Hebrew, becoming competent in the language, as had been Tyndale.[1]

Return to England; Bishop of Exeter, 1551-1553[edit]

When he succeeded Henry VIII, [note 6] Edward VI (1547–53) was only 9 years old.[13] (entry title Edward VI) For most of his reign he was being educated, whilst his uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, acted as Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King's Person. Immediately upon receiving these appointments he became Duke of Somerset. Coverdale did not immediately return to England, although the prospects looked better for him. Religious policy followed that of the chief ministers and during Edward's reign this moved towards Protestantism. However in March 1548 he wrote to John Calvin that he was now returning, after eight years of exile for his faith. He was well received at the court of the new monarch. He became a royal chaplain in Windsor, and was appointed almoner to the queen dowager, Catherine Parr.

He spent Easter 1551 in Oxford with the Florentine-born Augustinian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli. At that time, Martyr was Regius Professor of divinity, belonging to Magdalen College.[5](p1267) He had been assisting Cranmer with a revision of the Anglican prayer book.[1] Coverdale attended Martyr's lectures on the Epistle to the Romans and Martyr called him a "a good man who in former years acted as parish minister in Germany" who now "labours greatly in Devon in preaching and explaining the Scriptures". He predicted that Coverdale would become Bishop of Exeter and this took place on the 14th of August 1551 when John Vesey was ejected from his see.[1]

Third exile, 1553–1559[edit]

Edward VI died of tuberculosis on the 6th of July 1553.[13](entry title Edward VI) Shortly before, he had attempted to deter a Roman Catholic revival by switching the succession from Mary daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to Lady Jane Grey. However his settlement of the succession lasted barely a fortnight. After a brief struggle between the opposing factions, Mary was proclaimed Queen of England on the 19th of July. [note 7] The renewed danger to reformers such as Coverdale was obvious.[1] He was summoned almost immediately to appear before the Privy Council and on the 1st of September he was placed under house arrest in Exeter.[note 8] On the 18th of September, he was ejected from his see and Vesey, now ninety and still in Warwickshire, was reinstated. Following an intervention by his brother-in-law, chaplain to the king of Denmark, Coverdale and his wife were permitted to leave for that country. They then went on to Wesel, and finally back to Bergzabern.

London, 1559–1569[edit]

In 1559 Coverdale made his final return to England. He was not reinstated to his bishopric because of Puritan scruples about vestments, although he had been consecrated in Croydon wearing a surplice and cope. From 1564 to 1566, he was rector of St Magnus's near London Bridge. On 20 January 1569, Coverdale died in London and was buried at St Bartholomew's by the Exchange; when that church was demolished in 1840 to make way for the new Royal Exchange, his remains were moved to St Magnus's.


Coverdale's legacy has been far-reaching, especially that of his first complete English Bible of 1535. For the 400th anniversary of the Authorised King James Bible, in 2011, the Church of England issued a resolution, which was endorsed by the General Synod.[14] Starting with the Coverdale Bible, the text included a brief description of the continuing significance of the Authorised King James Bible (1611) and its immediate antecedents:

  • The Coverdale Bible (1535)
  • Matthew’s Bible (1537)
  • The Great Bible (1539)
  • The Geneva Bible (1557 – New Testament, 1560 – whole Bible)
  • The Bishops’ Bible (1568)
  • The Rheims-Douai Bible (1582 – New Testament, 1609–1610 - whole Bible)
  • The Authorised King James Bible (1611)

As indicated above, Coverdale was partially responsible for Matthew's Bible. He produced a diglot New Testament in 1538. He was extensively involved with editing and producing the Great Bible.

His translation of the Psalms is still used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.[5] It is the most familiar translation for many in the Anglican Communion worldwide, particularly those in collegiate and cathedral churches.[15] Hence many musical settings of the psalms also make use of the Coverdale translation. His translation of the Roman Canon is still used in some Anglican and Anglican Use Roman Catholic churches.

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’.

David Daniell, ‘Coverdale, Miles (1488–1569)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2009 accessed 15 February 2015.

Coverdale is honoured, together with William Tyndale, with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 6 October. His extensive contacts with English and Continental Reformers was integral to the development of successive versions of the bible in the English language.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to a bronze plaque on the wall of the former York Minster library, he was believed to have been born in York circa 1488. Anon. "Bronze commemorative plaque on wall of former York Minster Library.". Retrieved 15 February 2015.  However, the exact birth location of York does not appear to be corroborated. An older source (Berkshire History - based on Article of 1903) even suggests his birthplace as Coverdale, a hamlet in North Yorkshire, but neither is this elsewhere substantiated. Daniell says that no details are known of his parentage or early education, so simply Yorkshire is the safest conclusion.
  2. ^ The description ‘Great Bible’ is justified, since it measured 337 mm by 235 mm.
  3. ^ A further detail, possibly apocryphal, is that additional sheets were re-purchased as waste paper from a tradesman to whom they had been sold. Foxe (1563) wrote that they had been proffered as hat linings
  4. ^ A special copy on vellum, with illuminations, was prepared for Cromwell himself, and is now in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge.
  5. ^ Rychard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch finally printed the London large folio edition of the Great Bible in 1539. Coverdale compiled it, based largely on the 1537 Matthew’s Bible, which had been printed in Antwerp from translations by Tyndale and Coverdale.
  6. ^ On the 28th of January 1547
  7. ^ Her reign was dated from the 24th of July.
  8. ^ In November 1553 and April 1554 both Peter Martyr and the king of Denmark refer to him as having been a prisoner.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Daniell, David (2004). "Coverdale, Miles (1488-1569)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 February 2015. 
  2. ^ Anon. "Early Printed Bibles - in English - 1535-1610". British Library – Help for Researchers - Coverdale Bible. The British Library Board. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c Trueman, Carl R. (2004). "Barnes, Robert (c.1495–1540)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 February 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c Duffy, Eamon. (1992). The Stripping of the Altars. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-05342-8. 
  5. ^ a b c d Cross 1st ed., F.L.; Livingstone 3rd. ed., E.A. (2006). Article title: Bible, English versions The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211655-X. 
  6. ^ a b c Kenyon, Sir Frederic G. "The Great Bible (1539 - 1541) - from Dictionary of the Bible". Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1909. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  7. ^ Anon. "English Short Title Catalogue – New Testament, Latin, Coverdale, 1538. Original title - The New Testamen [sic] both in Latin and English after the vulgare texte, which is red in the churche translated and corrected by Myles Couerdale". British Library. British Library Board - Original publishers: Paris :Fraunces Regnault ..., prynted for Richard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch cytezens of London, M.ccccc.xxxviii [1538] in Nouembre. Cum gratia & priuilegio regis. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Leithead, Howard. "Oxford DNB Article: Cromwell,Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  9. ^ Rex, Richard, "The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation", The Historical Journal, V. 39, no. 4, December 1996, pp. 893-4.
  10. ^ King, Richard John. "Berkshire History: Biographies: Miles Coverdale (1488 - 1569)". Berkshire History. David Nash Ford. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  11. ^ Anon. "English Short Title Catalogue – Full View of Record – Uniform title – English Great Bible". British Library. British Library Board - Original publisher Rychard Grafton and Edward Whitchurch, Cum priuilegio ad imprimendum solum, April 1539. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  12. ^ Ed. Ditchfield, P H and Page, W. "'Parishes: Bucklebury.' A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 3, pp291 - 296. Ed. P H Ditchfield and William Page.". British History Online. London: Victoria County History, 1923. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  13. ^ a b Cannon, John (2009). "A Dictionary of British History". Oxford University Press eISBN 9780191726514. 
  14. ^ Anon. "Diocesan Synod Motion - Confidence in The Bible - 11/04/2011". Church of England. Church of England General Synod. Retrieved 28 February 2015. 
  15. ^ Peterson W S and Macys V. "Psalms - The Coverdale translation". Little Gidding: English Spiritual Traditions - 2000. Authors. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 

External links[edit]

Religious titles
Preceded by
John Vesey
Bishop of Exeter
Succeeded by
John Vesey