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Is World Book Day's 'most dangerous' book here at St Paul's?

To mark World Book Day (5 March) we tell the story of one of the most controversial and 'dangerous' books in history, a copy of which remarkably survives at St Paul's.


One very small book housed within the library of St Paul’s continues to exert its influence on us, almost 500 years since its contents were almost wiped from existence by the combined might of the King of England, Pope and Holy Roman Emperor in the churchyard outside the Cathedral.

Measuring just inches, the Cathedral’s first edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament, the first ever holy book printed in English, is one of just three copies that remain in the world today.
 
William Tyndale was a man who dared to dare. At a time when King Henry VIII's rule over England was absolute, he took on the might of the monarch to take the Bible and translate it. In 1526 Tyndale's publication of his New Testament opened up for the first time the whole of the New Testament in English and helped to bring continental Reformation ideals to the people of England. 
 
By writing the Bible in English, Tyndale was giving all people, 'from princes to ploughboys', the chance to experience first-hand the word of God. This empowerment of ‘Everyman’ threatened the tight rule of those in power, who set about tacking down both the book and its author.
 
Tyndale wrote that the Church authorities banned translations of the Bible in order "to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine...and to exalt their own honour...above God himself."
 
Inspired to get the Bible into the hands of the people, Tyndale had to travel to Cologne to start printing. Betrayed, he was forced to move on to Worms and from there copies were smuggled in to England. The Bishop of London sent out a prohibition, burning copies in a grand gesture at St Paul’s on 27 October 1526 and a Canon of the Cathedral was responsible for planning Tyndale’s eventual arrest in Antwerp.
 
Although Tyndale was captured and executed and his book mercilessly burned, the power of his words lived on. Within his tiny book are words and phrases which have gone on to influence the world, and continue to do so. Roughly eighty percent of the King James New Testament used today is Tyndale’s work.
 
Phrases from this book are today commonplace: “under the sun”, “signs of the times”, “let there be light”, “my brother’s keeper”, “lick the dust”, “fall flat on his face”, “the land of the living”, “pour out one’s heart”, “the apple of his eye”, “fleshpots”, “go the extra mile”, “the parting of the ways”, broken-hearted", "eat drink and be merry", "flowing with milk and honey". 
 
In spite of the efforts to hunt down and destroy all copies in existence, three survive to this day. The St Paul's copy seems particularly defiant as it is now kept on the site where the others were destroyed. 
 

A fascinating BBC documentary about William Tyndale, presented by Lord Bragg, is still available to watch on iPlayer.