Miles Coverdale was born in Yorkshire in 1488. Little is known of his early life and the first time he appears in the official record is when he became an ordained priest in Norwich in 1514. Coverdale became an Augustinian friar in Cambridge.
During this period he met Robert Barnes who "became prior of the Austin friars there and initiated a series of reforms which centred on the introduction into the curriculum of such classical Latin authors as Terence, Plautus, and Cicero, and the replacement of scholastic authors with a course on the letters of St Paul." (1)
According to John Foxe through his reading, discussions, and preaching. Barnes became famous for his knowledge of scripture, always preaching against bishops and hypocrites, yet he continued to support the church's idolatry until he was converted by Thomas Bilney to the ideas of Martin Luther. (2)
Robert Barnes had a tremendous influence on Coverdale. John Bale later recalled: "Under the mastership of Robert Barnes he drank in good learning with a burning thirst. He was a young man of friendly and upright nature and very gentle spirit, and when the church of England revived, he was one of the first to make a pure profession of Christ … he gave himself wholly, to propagating the truth of Jesus Christ's gospel and manifesting his glory… The spirit of God … is in some a vehement wind, overturning mountains and rocks, but in him it is a still small voice comforting wavering hearts. His style is charming and gentle, flowing limpidly along: it moves and instructs and delights. (3)
On 24th December 1525, Barnes preached a sermon in St Edward's Church, in which he attacked the corruption of the clergy in general and that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in particular. He was arrested on 5th February 1526. Miles Coverdale helped him prepare his defence. (4) Barnes was taken to London where he appeared before Wolsey and was found guilty. He was made to do public penance by carrying a faggot (a bundle of sticks bound together as fuel) on his back to Paul's Cross. The faggot was a symbol of the flames around the stake. (5) Barnes was sent to Fleet Prison.
It is believed that Coverdale first met Thomas Cromwell in 1527. The following year he left the Augustinians and "going in the habit of a secular priest" and according to David Daniell he "preached in Essex against transubstantiation, the worship of images, and confession to the ear." These were dangerous views and towards the end of 1528 he fled to Antwerp. (6)
In 1528 Robert Barnes was moved to the Austin House in Northampton, where he was kept under close guard. Robert Barnes now staged an elaborate escape to rid himself of the unwanted attention from the authorities. Leaving a suicide note for Wolsey, a pile of clothes on the river-bank, and a letter to the mayor of Northampton, asking him to search the river. Although they did not find a body it was reported all over Europe that Barnes had killed himself." Barnes disguised himself as a pauper and fled to London. He then sailed to Antwerp where he joined up with Miles Coverdale, William Tyndale and John Frith. (7)
The continued export of Tyndale's Bibles into England upset conservatives such as Lord Chancellor Thomas More who insisted that anyone who read and distributed the Bible should suffer a "painful death". (8) In 1530 Henry VIII gave orders that all English Bibles were to be destroyed. People caught distributing the Tyndale Bible in England were burnt at the stake. This attempt to destroy Tyndale's Bible was very successful as only two copies have survived.
Lacey Baldwin Smith accused William Tyndale of sharing More's paranoia: "More and his chief polemical rival, William Tyndale, did not hesitate to indulge in paranoid hyperbole. A conspiratorial approach to human affairs was just as central to Tyndale's thinking as it was to More's... Catholic or Protestant, conservative or reformer, each side depicted the opposition as a small band of evil men and women dressed in the cloak of conspiracy and carrying the dagger of sedition." (9)
William Tyndale was visited secretly in 1531 by Thomas Cromwell's emissary, Stephen Vaughan, who invited him to return to England. "One evening in April 1531 Vaughan met Tyndale in a field outside Antwerp, and afterward wrote to Cromwell a long account of their conversation. Tyndale declared his strong loyalty to the king: he lived in constant poverty and danger to bring the New Testament to the king's subjects. Did the king, Tyndale asked, fear those subjects more than the clergy? Vaughan met Tyndale again in May. Tyndale movingly sent his promise that if the king would grant his people a bare text (of the scriptures, in their language), as even the emperor and other Christian princes had done, whoever made it, then he would write no more and submit himself at the feet of his royal majesty. A third meeting had the same result. Vaughan wrote twice again to Cromwell on Tyndale's behalf, with no effect." (10)
Tyndale feared that he would be arrested if he returned to England. He told Vaughan that he would definitely not be returning while Sir Thomas More was in power. Another reason Tyndale did not return was that he was aware that it would not be long before he was in conflict with the King over the issue of his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Tyndale told Vaughan that he could "not in conscience promote Henry's matrimonial cause". (11)
Lord Chancellor More sent a close friend, Sir Thomas Elyot, to try to arrange the arrest of Tyndale. This ended in failure and the next person to try was Henry Phillips. He had gambled away money entrusted to him by his father to give to someone in London, and had fled abroad. Phillips offered his services to help capture Tyndale. After befriending Tyndale he led him into a trap on 21st May, 1535. (12) Tyndale was taken at once to Pierre Dufief, the Procurer-General, who immediately raided Poyntz's house and took away all Tyndale's property, including his books and papers. Luckily, his work on the Old Testament was being kept by John Rogers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, outside Brussels, where he was kept for the next sixteen months. (13)
At the time of his arrest, William Tyndale had translated the Old Testament only as far as the Book of Chronicles. Miles Coverdale continued with his work and his translation of the entire Bible in English was completed on 4th October 1535. It included sixty-seven woodcut illustrations. The title-page of the first printing, included a picture of King Henry VIII distributing bibles. Coverdale explains that he has "with a clear conscience purely and faithfully translated this out of five sundry interpreters". He did not mention that it was largely based on the work of Tyndale. (14)
While the Bible was being printed, William Tyndale was being tried by seventeen commissioners, led by three chief accusers. At their head was the greatest heresy-hunter in Europe, Jacobus Latomus, from the new Catholic University of Louvain, a long-time opponent of Erasmus as well as of Martin Luther. Tyndale conducted his own defence. He was found guilty but he was not burnt alive, as a mark of his distinction as a scholar, on 6th October, 1536, he was strangled first, and then his body was burnt. John Foxe reports that his last words were "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" (15)
William Tyndale's main enemy, Sir Thomas More, had been executed on 6th July, 1535. Miles Coverdale felt safe enough to return to England. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, were now the key political figures in England. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they promoted, although mainly the work of Tyndale, had the name of Miles Coverdale on the cover. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (16)
Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September, 1538. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (17) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (18)
The arrest and execution of Thomas Cromwell and Robert Barnes in 1540 brought an end to reform and Bishop Stephen Gardiner became the King's major religious adviser. Miles Coverdale now decided to return to the safety of Europe. Coverdale and his wife (Elizabeth Macheson) went to live in Strasbourg. Over the next few years he translated several religious books from Latin and German and wrote an important defence of his martyred friend Barnes. In September 1543 Coverdale became assistant minister of Bergzabern and headmaster of the town school, posts he held for five years. (19)
In January 1547 Edward VI came to the throne and the following year Miles Coverdale returned to London. He became almoner to Catherine Parr who since the death of Henry VIII had married Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who had been appointed Lord Protector. Catherine gave birth to a daughter named Mary on 30th August 1548. After the birth, Catherine developed puerperal fever. Her delirium took a painful form of paranoid ravings about her husband and others around her. Catherine accused the people around her of standing "laughing at my grief". She told the women attending her that her husband did not love her. Thomas Seymour held her hand and replied "sweetheart, I would do you no hurt". Seymour is reported to have lain down beside her, but Catherine asked him to leave because she wanted to have a proper talk with the physician who attended her delivery, but dared not for fear of displeasing him. (20)
The fever eventually went and she was able to dictate her will calmly, revealing that Thomas Seymour was the "great love of her life". Queen Catherine, "sick of body but of good mind", left everything to Seymour, only wishing her possessions "to be a thousand times more in value" than they were. Catherine, thirty-six years old, died on 5th September 1548, six days after the birth of her daughter. (21) Coverdale preached the sermon at her funeral in September 1548 at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. The following month Archbishop Thomas Cranmer arranged for him to become royal chaplain. Coverdale preached at Paul's Cross on the second Sunday in Lent 1549, again on Low Sunday, and again on Whit Monday.
Miles Coverdale was an opponent of Anabaptism and did not protest against the burning of Joan Bocher was burnt at Smithfield on 2nd May 1550. "She died still upbraiding those attempting to convert her, and maintaining that just as in time they had come to her views on the sacrament of the altar, so they would see she had been right about the person of Christ. She also asserted that there were a thousand Anabaptists living in the diocese of London." (22)
Coverdale a member of the commission appointed in January 1551 to deal with Anabaptism and other heresy. He sat as judge alongside Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley at the trial of George van Parris, a Flemish Anabaptist denounced for Arian views: he knew no English, so Coverdale acted as interpreter. He was examined on his views, and most especially the belief that "God the Father is only God, and that Christ is not very God". His refusal to recant sealed his fate, and he was condemned for Arianism on 7th April. Parris was burnt alive on 25th April 1551. (23)
On 30th August 1551, Miles Coverdale was appointed Bishop of Exeter. It was reported that "Coverdale 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". However, he was unpopular with Catholics and it was claimed that there were attempts to poison him. (24)
King Edward VI died on 6th July 1553. It was not long before Coverdale found himself summoned to appear before the Privy Council. Queen Mary purged the Church hierarchy of Protestants. Coverdale was imprisoned and some of his closest friends, John Rogers, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burnt at the stake. (25) Coverdale was also in danger that the same thing would happen to him but he was helped by his case being taken up by King Christian III of Denmark. Queen Mary eventually agreed that Coverdale should be released in February, 1555, and allowed "to pass from hence towards Denmark with two of his servants, his bags and baggages". (26)
The Coverdale family only spent a short time in Copenhagen before moving on to Frankfurt. In August 1557 Coverdale, his wife and two children, settled in Switzerland, arriving at Aarau on 11th August 1557. A little over a year later, on 24th October 1558, he was given permission to live in Geneva. (27) During this period he worked with others on what became known as the Geneva Bible. (28)
Miles Coverdale returned to England after the death of Queen Mary. Now aged seventy-two he rejected the offer of taking up his old position as Bishop of Exeter. He did attend the consecration of Archbishop Matthew Parker in the chapel of Lambeth Palace on 17th December 1559. After the death of his wife, Elizabeth Coverdale, in September 1565, he married his second wife, Katherine, on 7th April 1566.
Miles Coverdale died on 20th January 1569.
Miles Coverdale, working alone in Antwerp, was the first to translate and print the entire Bible in English. Coverdale's Bible, the printing of which was finished on 4 October 1535, is properly revered for the achievement it is. For this handsome volume, soon reprinted in England by James Nicolson in Southwark, he modified Tyndale's New Testaments. After Tyndale's Pentateuch of 1530, however, only a handful of individual Old Testament books had been printed in English: in 1530 Martin de Keyser had printed George Joye's translations of the Psalms from Bucer's Latin version, his Isaiah in 1531, and his Jeremiah and Lamentations in 1534; and in 1534 T. Godfray had printed Joye's Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; none were from the Hebrew. Admittedly Coverdale himself was not translating from the Hebrew, as he made clear on his title-page. Yet he gave the people of England what so many wanted: the whole Bible printed in their own language. All the reformers across Europe insisted that the scriptures had to be taken whole, not in measured droplets.