Miles Coverdale

Article from the Encyclopedia Britannica
11th edition (1911)

COVERDALE, MILES (1488?-1569), English translator of the Bible and bishop of Exeter, was born of Yorkshire parents about 1488, studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge, was ordained priest at Norwich in 1514, and then entered the convent of Austin friars at Cambridge. Here he came under the influence of the prior, Robert Barnes, made the acquaintance of Sir Thomas More and of Thomas Cromwell, and began a thorough study of the Scriptures. He was one of those who met at the White Horse tavern to discuss theological questions, and when Barnes was arrested on a charge of heresy, Coverdale went up to London to assist him in drawing up his defence. Soon afterwards he left the convent, assumed the habit of a secular priest, and began to preach against confession and the worship of images. In 1531 he graduated bachelor of canon law at Cambridge, but from 1528 to 1534 he prudently spent most of his time abroad. No corroboration has, however, been found for Foxe's statement that in 1529 he was at Hamburg assisting Tyndale in his translation of the Pentateuch. In 1534 he published two translations of his own, the first Dulichius's Vom alten und newen Gott, and the second a Paraphrase upon the Psalms, and in 1535 he completed his translation of the Bible. The venture seems to have been projected by Jacob van Meteren, who apparently employed Coverdale to do the translation, and Froschover of Zurich to do the printing. No perfect copy is known to exist, and the five or six which alone have title-pages give no name of publisher or place of publication. The volume is dedicated to the king of England, where Convocation at Cranmer's instance had, in December 1534, petitioned for an authorized English version of the Scriptures. As a work of scholarship it does not rank particularly high. Some of the title-pages state that it had been translated out of "Douche" (i.e. German) "and Latyn": and Coverdale mentions that he used five interpreters, which are supposed to have been the Vulgate, the Latin version of Pagninus, Luther's translation, the Zurich version, and Tyndale's Pentateuch and New Testament. There is no definite mention of the original Greek and Hebrew texts; but it has considerable literary merit, many of Coverdale's phrases are retained in the authorized version, and it was the first complete Bible to be printed in English. Two fresh editions were issued in 1537, but none of them received official sanction. Coverdale was, however, employed by Cromwell to assist in the production of the Great Bible of 1539, which was ordered to be placed in all English churches. The work was done at Paris until the French government stopped it, when Coverdale and his colleagues returned to England early in 1539 to complete it. He was also employed in the same year in assisting at the suppression of superstitious usages, but the reaction of 1540 drove him once more abroad. His Bible was prohibited by proclamation in 1542, while Coverdale himself defied the Six Articles by marrying Elizabeth Macheson, sister-in-law to Dr John MacAlpine.

For a time Coverdale lived at Tubingen, where he was created D.D. In 1545 he was pastor and schoolmaster at Bergzabern in the duchy of Pfalz-Zweibrucken. In March 1548 he was at Frankfort, when the new English Order of Communion reached him; he at once translated it into German and Latin and sent a copy to Calvin, whose wife had befriended Coverdale at Strassburg. Calvin, however, does not seem to have approved of it so highly as Coverdale.

Coverdale was already on his way back to England, and in October 1548 he was staying at Windsor Castle, where Cranmer and some other divines, inaccurately called the Windsor Commission, were preparing the First Book of Common Prayer. His first appointment had been as almoner to Queen Catherine Parr, then wife of Lord Seymour; and he preached her funeral sermon in September 1548. He was also chaplain to the young king and took an active part in the reforming measures of his reign. He was one of the most effective preachers of the time. A sermon by him at St Paul's on the second Sunday in Lent, 1549, was immediately followed by the pulling down of "the sacrament at the high altar." A few weeks later he preached at the penance of some Anabaptists, and in January 1550 he was put on a commission to prosecute Anabaptists and all who infringed the Book of Common Prayer. In 1549 he wrote a dedication to Edward for a translation of the second volume of Erasmus's Paraphrases; and in 1550 he translated Otto Wermueller's Precious Pearl, for which Protector Somerset, who had derived spiritual comfort from the book while in the Tower, wrote a preface. He was much in request at funerals: he preached at Sir James Wilford's in November 1550, and at Lord Wentworth's before a great concourse in Westminster Abbey in March 1551.

Perhaps it was his gift of oratory which suggested his appointment as bishop of the refractory men of Devon and Cornwall. He had already, in August 1549, at some risk, gone down with Lord Russell to turn the hearts of the rebels by preaching and persuasion, and two years later he was appointed bishop of Exeter by letters patent, on the compulsory retirement of his predecessor, Veysey, who had reached an almost mythical age. He was an active prelate, and perhaps the vigorous Protestantism of the West in Elizabeth's reign was partly due to his persuasive powers. He sat on the commission for the reform of the canon law, and was in constant attendance during the parliaments of 1552 and 1553. On Mary's accession he was at once deprived on the score of his marriage, and Veysey in spite of his age was restored. Coverdale was called before the privy council on the 1st of September, and required to find sureties; but he was not further molested, and when Christian III. of Denmark at the instance of Coverdale's brother-in-law, MacAlpine, interceded in his favour, he was in February 1555 permitted to leave for Denmark with two servants, and his baggage unsearched; one of these "servants" is said to have been his wife. He declined Christian's offer of a living in Denmark, and preferred to preach at Wesel to the numerous English refugees there, until he was invited by Duke Wolfgang to resume his labours at Bergzabern. He was at Geneva in December 1558, and is said to have participated in the preparation of the Geneva version of the Bible.

In 1559 Coverdale returned to England and resumed his preaching at St Paul's and elsewhere. Clothed in a plain black gown, he assisted at Parker's consecration, in spite of the facts that he had himself been deprived, and did not resume his bishopric, and that his original appointment had been by the uncanonical method of letters patent. Conscientious objections were probably responsible for his non-restoration to the see of Exeter, and his refusal of that of Llandaff in 1563. He objected to vestments, and in his living of St Magnus close to London Bridge, which he received in 1563, he took other liberties with the Act of Uniformity. His bishop, Grindal, was his friend, and his vagaries were overlooked until 1566, when he resigned his living rather than conform. He still preached occasionally, and always drew large audiences. He died in February 1568, and was buried on the 19th in St Bartholomew's behind the Exchange. When this church was pulled down in 1840 to make room for the new Exchange, his remains were removed to St Magnus.

Coverdale's works, most of them translations, number twenty-six in all; nearly all, with his letters, were published in a collected edition by the Parker Soc., 2 vols, 1846. An excellent account is given in the Dictionary of National Biography of his life, with authorities, to which may be added R. W. Dixon's Church History, Bishop and Gasquet's Edward VI. and the Book of Common Prayer; Acts of the Privy Council; Letters and Papers of Henry VIII.; Lit. Rem. of Edward VI. (Roxburghe Club); Whittingham's Brief Discourse of Troubles at Frankfort; Pocock's Troubles connected with the Prayer Book (Camden Soc.).

The paragraphs below are taken from the article "Bible, English"

[Before the death of Tyndale] a complete English Bible was being prepared by Miles Coverdale (q.v.), an Augustinian friar who was afterwards for a few years (1551-1553) bishop of Exeter. As the printing was finished on the 4th of October 1535 it is evident that Coverdale must have been engaged on the preparation of the work for the press at almost as early a date as Tyndale. Foxe states that Coverdale was with Tyndale at Hamburg in 1529, and it is probable that most of his time before 1535 was spent abroad, and that his translation, like that of Tyndale, was done out of England.

In 1877 Henry Stevens, in his catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition, pointed out a statement by a certain Simeon Ruytinck in his life of Emanuel van Meteren, appended to the latter's Nederlandische Historie (1614), that Jacob van Meteren, the father of Emanuel, had manifested great zeal in producing at Antwerp a translation of the Bible into English, and had employed for that purpose a certain learned scholar named Miles Conerdale (sic). In 1884 further evidence was adduced by W. J. C. Moens, who reprinted an affidavit signed by Emanuel van Meteren, 28 May 1609, to the effect that "he was brought to England anno 1550 ... by his father, a furtherer of reformed religion, and he that caused the first Bible at his costes to be Englisshed by Mr Myles Coverdal in Andwarp, the w'h his father, with Mr Edward Whytchurch, printed both in Paris and London" (Registers of the Dutch Reformed Church, Austin Friars, 1884, p. xiv.). Apart from the reference to Whytchurch and the place of printing, this statement agrees with that of Simeon Ruytinck, and it is possible that van Meteren showed his zeal in the matter by undertaking the cost of printing the work as well as that of remunerating the translator. Mr W. Aldis Wright, however, judging from the facts that the name of Whytchurch was introduced, that the places of printing were given as London and Paris, not Antwerp, and lastly that Emanuel van Meteren being born in 1535 could only have derived his knowledge from hearsay, is inclined to think that the Bible in which J. van Meteren was interested "was Matthew's of 1537 or the Great Bible of 1539, and not Coverdale's of 1535" (1)

It is highly probable that the printer of Coverdale's Bible was Christopher Froschouer of Zurich, (2) who printed the edition of 1550, and that the sheets were sent for binding and distribution to James Nicolson, the Southwark printer. (3) This first of all printed English Bibles is a small folio in German black letter, bearing the title: "Biblia, The Bible; that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of Douche (German) and Latyn into Englishe, M.D.XXXV." The volume is provided with woodcuts and initials, the title-page and preliminary matter in the only two remaining copies (British Museum and Holkam Hall) being in the same type as the body of the book. A second issue of the same date, 1535, has the title-page and the preliminary matter in English type, and omits the words "out of Douche and Latyn"; a third issue bears the date 1536. A second edition in folio, "newly oversene and corrected," was printed by Nicolson, with English type, in 1537; and also in the same year, a third edition in quarto. On the title-page of the latter were added the significant words, "set forth with the Kynge's moost gracious licence."

Coverdale, however, was no independent translator. Indeed, he disavows any such claim by stating expressly, in his dedication to the king, "I have with a cleare conscience purely & faythfully translated this out of fyue sundry interpreters, hauyng onely the manyfest trueth of the scripture before myne eyes," and in the Prologue he refers to his indebtedness to "The Douche (German) interpreters: whom (because of theyr synguler gyftes and speciall diligence in The Bible) I haue ben the more glad to folowe for the most parte, accordynge as I was requyred." (4) These "fyue interpreters" Dr Westcott identifies as Luther, the Zürich Bible, the Latin version of Pagninus, the Vulgate, and, in all likelihood, the English translation of Tyndale.

Though not endowed with the strength and originality of mind that characterized Tyndale's work, Coverdale showed great discrimination in the handling and use of his authorities, and moreover a certain delicacy and happy ease in his rendering of the Biblical text, to which we owe not a few of the beautiful expressions of our present Bible. The following extracts from the edition of 1535 may serve as examples of his rendering:-

The first psalme. (i. 1-2.) Blessed is þe man, þe goeth not in the councell of þe ungodly: þe abydeth not in the waye off synners, & sytteth not in þe seate of the scornefull. But delyteth in the lawe of þe Lorde, & exercyseth himself in his lawe both daye and night.

The gospell of S. Mathew. (iii. 1-4.) In those dayes Ihon the Baptyst came and preached in the wildernes of Jury, saynge: Amende youre selues, the kyngdome of heuen is at honde. This is he, of whom it is spoken by the prophet Esay, which sayeth: The voyce of a cryer in þe wyldernes, prepare the Lordes waye, and make his pathes straight. This Ihon had his garment of camels heer, and a lethren gerdell aboute his loynes. Hys meate was locustes and wylde hony.

It should be added that 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.

1. Westcott, History of the English Bible (3rd ed.), revised by W. Aldis Wright (London, 1905), p. 57 note.

2. See Dr Ginsburg's information to Mr Tedder, D.N.B. xii. 365.

3. Cf. H. Stevens, Catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition (1877), p. 88.

4. Remains, Parker Soc., pp. 11 f.