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Miles Coverdale

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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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 15 3 1 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 and 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-Zweibriicken. 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 peached 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 15 51.

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 Dict. Nat. Biog. 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 PrayerBook (Camden Soc.). (A. F. P.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Miles Coverdale'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica.​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​m/miles-coverdale.html. 1910.