The Heretic's Wife

A Novel

Brenda Rickman Vantrease

St. Martin's Griffin


April 1524

William Tyndale patted the breast pocket of his jerkin for the twentieth time since leaving St. Bart's Fair. Still there. But of course it was. Even the pettiest thief among this lot would not risk the stocks to steal a book worth no more than three shillings. It had probably cost no more than ten pence to print, but it was priceless to him.

He strode down the middle of the street to avoid the slime-filled ditches, ignoring the jeers and catcalls from the drunks and painted women who groped each other in the shadowy doorways of Cock's Lane. He kept his head down to avoid direct eye-to-eye contact, and wondered how many of them could read—not the book he carried in his pocket, of course, but in English, in their own language. If he could provide enough cheap copies of an English New Testament to scatter on the refuse-laden street, would some literate, hell-bound soul pick one up and read it? Just one soul!

But not today—and not ever if the Bishop of London who had refused him patronage had his way. William quickened his pace in anticipation of the moment he would be alone in his chamber to compare Erasmus's Greek edition to the Vulgate, the only translation allowed by Rome.

A light rain fell from a leaden sky as he passed Smithfield. Its damp smell carried an odor of butchered meats and fresh blood from London's slaughterhouse. The mist was always thicker here. Close. Smothering. Was it a fancy of overwrought imagination to think it carried the ghosts of long-dead Lollards, martyrs burned in this very field by Wolsey's predecessors simply because they challenged the iron dogma of Church doctrine?

Old wives and children claimed that the ghost of Sir John Oldcastle, a nobleman and a Lollard who disseminated contraband English Bibles, had hung about this place for the last one hundred years. But William knew Sir John had not died here. He had been hanged and then burned less than a mile west, where all traitors were hanged. And yet, the swirling miasma of this place bothered him much, for the memories it evoked—and the persecution it presaged. He'd heard it said that Wolfsee—that was the name William had given Cardinal Wolsey—was not a "man-burner," but he quaked in his soul at the very thought of it. Like a frightened child clinging to a favorite toy, he patted again his breast pocket. The promise of his mind's delight gave him courage as he hurried from that hateful place.

The clamor of bells chased him down Cheapside toward the Steelyard by the Thames where he was to meet his benefactor. He covered his ears—the bells of St. Mary le Bow, the loudest bells in a city of clanging bells, and he had the misfortune to live within earshot.

Damnable peals of vanity!

The same Bong! Bong!—that interrupted his preaching at St. Dunstan's—Bong!—and scattered the wagtails that roosted peaceably outside his chamber window—Bong!—scattered his thoughts, too, as he labored over his translating. He broke into a trot, as if by walking fast he could lessen their clamor.

As he turned into Cousin Lane, he recognized the brawny figure of Humphrey Monmouth, resplendent in the usual fur-trimmed doublet and silk hose that his wife Bessie made him wear, pacing impatiently before the large carved doors of the hall of the Hanseatic merchants. William had no idea why his patron wanted him to meet with a gaggle of wealthy German traders. Their talk of wool and profits was so much babble to him, but he was keenly aware that he owed Humphrey Monmouth the very roof over his head and every morsel of sodden meat and swallow of small beer that slid down his gullet.

The pressure of the Erasmus Greek Gospel stuffed into the too-small aperture of his jerkin pocket beckoned mightily. What good fortune to have found it at the fair. The Greek Gospel, like Erasmus's Latin translation, was not banned because only elite churchmen and scholars, men who embraced the new learning, could read the ancient Greek and Latin, but neither were they widely circulated. He longed to immerse himself in the text, but Monmouth had spotted him and was beckoning urgently.

As William entered the arched gates of the great stone hall with his benefactor, one glance showed him this was a company of wealthy men. Ample light filtered through large glazed windows at one end of the hall, but the torch lights had wastefully been lit in their sconces, their glow picking out the silver threads and jeweled rings and gilt chains of the merchants sitting on wooden benches around the hall's perimeter. Fresh herbs, scattered among the rushes on the floor, spiced the smell that powerful men gave off when engaged in negotiations. One of the merchants looked in their direction and with a thick German accent shouted, "Monmouth! Bring Master Tyndale here."

Startled that they knew his name, William suddenly remembered he was capless and smoothed his hair back with his hands, which, as he was acutely conscious, only accented the knobby expanse of his brow. Monmouth pushed him forward toward the table centered beneath the merchants' coat of arms.

A burly man with a red-gold beard and the assurance of a Viking lord leaned over the table and grasped him by the hand, addressing both him and, judging by the loudness of his voice, the entire gathering. "Monmouth has told us about you, Tyndale, and we are all anxious to hear what you have to say."

William's gaze darted about the hall. All eyes looked in his direction. As conversation muted to a faint murmur, he tried to remember when he had last trimmed his beard or changed his shirt. The bells of St. Mary le Bow ceased their clamoring, and the silence deepened. A pulpit jutted out from one wall—he'd heard the merchants held devotional services here. Were they expecting him to preach? Monmouth was a regular worshipper at St. Dunstan's, but he'd said nothing about William preaching to the merchants. He'd just said, "Come with me to the Hanseatic meeting."

William glanced uncertainly at Monmouth, who was grinning as if he were delighted to find his verbose protégé suddenly wordless, and swallowed hard. "I'm afraid . . . that is . . . I feel unprepared to . . ."

Monmouth laughed. "I didn't bring you here to preach to my brothers, William, but to meet some like-minded souls. We are engaged in the same cause as you. We are a merchants' league, true, but we are also known as the Fellowship of the Christian Brethren and, along with certain Merchant Adventurers abroad, we plan to paper England with cheap printed copies of an English Bible. With your help, we can win England for Martin Luther's reformist cause—" He paused and waved his hand in a sweeping motion to gather in his comrades as he winked. "And we'll make a profit at the same time."

When the merchants' huzzahs and applause had died down, Monmouth continued. "We have a plan . . . and if you sit down and relax—Master of the Table, bring Master Tyndale a cup; he looks parched enough to drink a barrel—we will tell you your part."

William sank onto the velvet cushion of a high-backed chair and made a pretense of sipping his drink as he listened with growing incredulity. The merchants told him how they'd been long engaged in the importing of Martin Luther's writings, and now they had a plan to circumvent Cardinal Wolsey's prohibition on the printing and publishing of English Bibles. Under their proposal, Tyndale would simply do his translating and his printing on the Continent. And the importing and distribution, well, they could see to that: false manifests in legitimate cargo, single sheets of Scripture in a bolt of cloth, a barrel marked flour and filled with Bibles—it was not William's concern.

William looked at Monmouth, whose grin had vanished, the seriousness of his demeanor, like his burly physique, at odds with his fashionable togs. When he spoke his voice was firm.

"This is not without risk to you, William. Wolsey's reach goes way beyond this little island. And there are others. The king's councillor, Thomas More, is dedicated to maintaining the pope's control at any cost. Should you cast your lot with us in this venture, you may incur the wrath of some powerful enemies." He put his hand on William's shoulder. "Do not give your answer in haste."

William merely nodded, trying to show considered thought. If he had heard aright, here was a whole company of patrons offering him what the Bishop of London had refused him—a chance to translate the New Testament into English. It was the commission that his heart profoundly desired. As to powerful enemies, he'd already had his mettle tested when he was tutoring Lord Walsh's children in Little Sodbury. The prelates there had not backed him down with their threats.

A burst of affirmation and encouragement broke out among the men, then settled to a polite murmur, giving him time to consider. Monmouth walked away and engaged the other officers in conversation, his voice low.

What was there to consider? William was hardly able to stifle his exultation. A pox upon the Bishop of London! An image of Cuthbert Tunstall happening upon a Tyndale translation of the New Testament flashed through William's mind. He imagined the bishop finding his translation at a bookshop in Paternoster Row, picking it up gingerly as though he were handling some noxious thing, opening it up with his ring-choked fingers—only to see Tyndale's imprint. What he would give to be there to witness such a moment! Finally, the Bishop of London would see that the scholar he had snubbed had succeeded without him. Pride goeth before a fall, he reminded himself. It was enough that God had provided the way. God and Humphrey Monmouth.

Three days later, William Tyndale left for Germany. In his pocket he carried twenty pounds from the Hanseatic merchants of the London Steelyard, along with Erasmus's Greek New Testament. He would use it and Luther's German Bible to make his own English translation—not to further the humanist cause, not as an exercise in the classics for the "new learning" of the intellectual elite represented by Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, but to do for Englishmen what Luther had done for his countrymen. He'd allotted himself one year—six months to learn the German language and six months to make his English translations. In the land that did not burn Luther, he was sure to gain the freedom to print.

As he boarded ship in Bristol, he patted the pocket of his leather jerkin to feel the bulging outline of the Greek New Testament. When he returned he'd be carrying another in its place, and this one would be in English.

William had forgotten all about the Smithfield ghosts and their warnings.