A Very London Thanksgiving Podcast

Title’s self-explanatory. Here’s David making lots of London-Thanksgiving-historical-linguistic-“place” connections.


London calling. David here. 

It’s Thanksgiving. So of course we’re going to do some Londoning. 

Call it panning for some London gold. 

The word “Thanksgiving” is our pan. Some London places, those are the waters in which we’re panning for gold. For London gold.

Start with our pan. With the word itself. “Thanksgiving”

I wanted to find out a bit more about the word “Thanksgiving.” Well, “seek and ye shall find.”

Turns out the word “Thanksgiving” predates the event it’s now synonymous with by nearly a century. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the great translator of the bible and religious reformer William Tyndale gave us the word. That was in 1533. Eighty-eight years before that “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. And for the record, just three years before something Tyndale won’t have given thanks for: his execution. 


Seek and ye shall find indeed. You don’t have to seek very much to find Tyndale’s statue. It’s right there in Whitehall Gardens on Victoria Embankment. 

But here’s the thing, that statue – and its location – is a red herring.

Forget Victoria Embankment. Forget Whitehall Gardens. Remember, we’re Londoning, we’re panning for London gold, so we have to head east. Have to quit Westminster – because that’s where Whitehall Gardens is – and get into London proper. Well, just over the border into London. Into Alsatia, as it was known. Or Extramural London if you prefer. Or Farringdon Ward Without if you prefer. Can you hear it? Hope so because if you’re not hearing it you won’t be seeing it. 

To see London, you have to hear it. So, Extramural London. A mural is a painting on wall. Boil the word down still further you get murus, the Latin word for wall. And extra, well, it’s cognate with the word exit. Ex is the Latin word for out. (The other half of the word exit –it – is from the Latin ire, meaning to go. Ire becomes it. Marry it to ex and you’ve got our English word exit: To go out.) And hey presto, extramural London means, the London outside the wall. Remember, the Romans built a wall round London. The western boundary of Roman London was the Fleet River. New Bridge Street – leading on to Blackfriars Bridge – runs along the line of the Fleet River. The Roman Wall ran along the left bank of the Fleet River. Come the Normans, London grows, expands. It bursts its Roman boundaries. In a westerly direction it leaps the wall and the Fleet River and expands along what is today Fleet Street. So that bit of London was outside the wall. It was extramural London. The ward was Farringdon Without. Without what? Without the wall, outside the wall. And finally, my favourite, that area also came to be known as Alsatia. After that Alsace Lorraine part of the Continent. Where France meets Germany. An area that historically has caused a lot of trouble. Same goes for little Alsatia here in London. Understandable though, because it’s always been home to troublemakers: lawyers at one end of Fleet Street, journalists at the other end. 

And I’m particularly interested – for our purposes here, this Thanksgiving Day – in the two churches that bookend Fleet Street: St. Dunstan in the West and St. Brides. 

St. Dunstan’s because of its William Tyndale connections.

William Tyndale was born and grew up in God’s Gloucestershire, a county historically known for biblical preaching. 1494 was the year of his birth, just a couple of years after Columbus made landfall in the Americas, as they say these days. His family was prosperous. They were landowners and wool merchants. He was an exceptionally bright boy. Learned good Latin at a local grammar school. Over the course of his short life he mastered seven languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, Spanish and French and his native English. Went to Magdalen College Oxford. There’s an important connection there – Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist and biblical translator had been at Magdalen just a few years before. And then at Cambridge. And right on cue came his, Erasmus’s new Latin translation of the New Testament, with the original Greek alongside. And the young Tyndale was on his way. He’d found his calling. Translate the bible into English. Something that had never been done. 

But it wasn’t just that it had never been done. It was something that wasn’t allowed. Going down that path laid you open to the charge of heresy – and that could cost you your life.

Reform was of course in the air. That German firebrand Martin Luther was causing no end of trouble. Understandably so because Rome, popery, the established church was rotten to the core. Rotten to the core and extremely powerful. And determined to see off its enemies.

It was all heady stuff for a very bright, fiercely committed young man. 

There’s a famous biographical anecdote about young Tyndale meeting up with an old doctor of divinity who warned him that “the pope is the very anti-Christ and that if he continued to preach the scriptures “it will cost you your life.”

Tynedale’s reply: “I defy the Pope and all his laws…if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”

That’s a determined and brave young man. A determined and brave young man who came to London in search of permission to print what he was producing: an English translation of the New Testament.

With the aid of a letter of introduction he called on the Bishop of London. And got nowhere.

Tyndale lectured at St. Dunstan’s in the West for about a year. Indeed, the church boasts a sculpture of Tyndale’s head. 

Every time I look at that sculpture – look at William Tyndale’s head – I have one of those London “double vision” moments. In short, I simultaneously find myself thinking about Sir Thomas More’s chopped off head. It and the rest of Sir Thomas More going their separate ways just a few hundred yards east of here on Tower Hill that day in 1535. And it’s not just that William Tyndale and Sir Thomas were both executed and are connected historically. It’s also that they’re indissolubly linked by the name St. Dunstan’s. I’m at St. Dunstan’s in London looking at the head of William Tyndale and in one bound my mind is at St. Dunstan’s in Canterbury, where there’s a Sir Thomas More window and a stone marking the final resting place in the Roper vault of Sir Thomas More’s head. The historical point being that three short years after Tyndale’s time at St Dunstan’s Thomas More was given permission by that same Bishop of London to read heretical books in English in order to attack Tyndale. More was determined to crush heretics, if need be by fire. More vilified Tyndale as worse than Luther, described him as “a hell hound in the kennel of the devil”, said Tyndale was “discharging a filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth.”

In the event, turn and turn about – More’s religious convictions would in a matter of a few short years do for him. He was beheaded a year before Tyndale was executed.

Two more St. Dunstan’s connections – appropriate connections on this day of days. 1. Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland is buried in St. Dunstans. And 2., ST Dunstan’s location, it’s right at the western edge of London. Parts of that neighbourhood were desperately poor. A place of outcasts. And that’s where William Tyndale touched down in London. After all, Tyndale was on the side of poor people, of working people. He wanted a bible that could speak to outcasts, a bible that was for every ploughboy in the land. Now there’s no question but the pilgrims – those pilgrims having that first Thanksgiving 400 years ago today – were, after a fashion, outsiders, outcasts. And what’s their itinerary before they finally get to Plymouth Rock? They spend time in Holland. Spend time there because they’re left alone there. They’re not persecuted there. They spend time not all that far from the safe Lutheran city of Worms and then Antwerp, where William Tyndale went when he realised “to translate the New Testament, there was no place in all England.”

No place to translate in England – but an England that was hungry for that translation. Tyndale’s New Testament was smuggled by the hundreds into England. In bales of cloth. 

And how did Tyndale’s life end? He was betrayed. His life, so he told an English emissary in 1531, was one of poverty, exile, absence from friends, hunger, thirst, cold, and ‘the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed’—all, and more, endured because I ‘hoped with my labours to do honour to God’.

It was almost a kind of Anne Frank existence, staying in the house of a sympathiser. Tyndale was the most wanted man in Christendom. Capturing and executing him would, so his powerful opponents believed, put an end to heresy in England.

He was tricked into leaving the safe house one day. He was seized in a nearby alleyway. 

The long arm of the state – the Holy Roman Empire – could hardly have been more terrifying. Terrifying. And Kafkaesque.

Sixteen months he was locked up. There’s one word and one word only for what happened to him: inquisition. First by the procurer-general. A 16th-century bounty hunter. One Pierre Dufief. A man widely known throughout the Low Countries for his cruelty. His zeal for hunting down heretics was fuelled by the fact that he was given a proportion of the confiscated property of his victims, and a large fee.

At one point that first winter Tyndale wrote to the equivalent of a prison visitor, asking him to ask the procurer-general, Dufief—to let him have some of his own warmer clothing which Dufief had confiscated; 

What he Tyndale was wearing on his back was worn out, and he was suffering from a perpetual cold and catarrh. Tyndale added: ‘And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.

William Tyndale was condemned as a heretic in August 1536 and executed two months later. In an open space outside Vilorde Castle.

A crowd was summoned. A stake, brushwood and logs were prepared. A chain was placed round his neck. His last words, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” They strangled him first. Strangled him to death. And then his body was burnt. That last mercy – not burning him alive – was a mark of his distinction as a scholar. 

And Tyndale’s legacy – in addition to the word Thanksgiving – he gave shape to the English we speak.

I\d say we can double down here. We can give thanks for Tyndale giving us the word Thanksgiving. But we can also give thanks for what he did to the language we speak. 

Think of the following 13 English phrases – wonderful, familiar phrases, phrases we all use – think of them as flecks of gold in our pan. Or, if you prefer, think of each of them as a dish at our Thanksgiving feast. They all came from 

William Tyndale. His translation of the New Testament. Here they are, here are the 13.

  • my brother’s keeper
  • a moment in time
  • seek and ye shall find
  • ask and it shall be given you
  • judge not that ye be not judged
  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • the salt of the earth
  • a law unto themselves
  • it came to pass
  • the signs of the times
  • filthy lucre
  • the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

Here’s how Tyndale’s biographer David Daniell puts it:

The great change that came over England from 1526, the ability of every ordinary man, woman, and child to read and hear the whole New Testament in English, accurately rendered, was Tyndale’s work, and its importance cannot be overstressed. The Vulgate was incomprehensible to the ploughboy and most of his familiars throughout the land. Now all four gospels could be read, often aloud, in their entirety, and the whole of Paul.

And, closing: (and listen carefully for the last sentence – it’s the kicker).

Tyndale’s gift to the English language is unmeasurable. He translated into a register just above common speech, allied in its clarity to proverbs. It is a language which still speaks directly to the heart. His aims were always accuracy and clarity. King James’s revisers adopted his style, and his words, for much of the Authorized Version. At a time when European scholars and professionals communicated in Latin, Tyndale insisted on being understood by ordinary people. He preferred a simple Saxon syntax of subject–verb–object. His vocabulary is predominantly Saxon, and often monosyllabic. An Oxford scholar, he was always rhetorically alert. He gave the Bible-reading nation an English plain style. It is a basis for the great Elizabethan writers, and there is truth in the remark ‘without Tyndale, no Shakespeare’.

For the record, 

I mentioned St. Bride’s, the other bookend of the two Fleet Street churches.

Turns out it’s got a Thanksgiving connection that’s no less impressive than St. Dunstan’s down at the other end of Fleet Street.

And what’s the connection? Edward Winslow was one of the leaders of the Mayflower expedition of 1620. One of the pilgrim founding fathers in other words. His parents were married at St. Bride’s.

Winslow himself was apprenticed to a Fleet Street printer with strong Puritan sympathies. 

And that gets Fleet Street’s printing associations – Fleet Street’s being the Street of Ink – back into play in connection with Thanksgiving. It was the printing press, after all, that was the game changer. It introduced the era of mass communication, altered the structure of society. It was what made William Tyndale’s dream – getting scripture into the head of the boy who driveth the plow – made that dream possible, realizable. 

And in fact, a final pivot here to St. Dunstan himself. His last words – he was speaking of God – his last words were, “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works…”

Those words are equally applicable to William Tyndal. He made a remembrance of his wonderful works…” He let there be light, so to speak. 

And look, it’s being Thanksgiving, and our touching down here at St. Bride’s,

I have to mention another American. An American who got there a third of a century before the pilgrim fathers.

I’m talking about Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. That baby girl was American born and bred. But she was also a London girl. Both of her parents were Londoners. And, yes, they were married in St. Bride’s. 

But Virginia’s is another story. Almost certainly a tragic story, though we’ll never know for sure. Virginian was born on Roanoke Island. The Lost Colony. 

I for one can’t walk past St. Bride’s without thinking about those two Londoners, Eleanora White and Ananias Dare, exchanging their wedding vows there and that ceremony leading, eventually, to the birth of that baby girl – a momentous birth for its symbolic import – on that August day in 1587, far, far away. On that island off North Carolina as it’s known today.

Shakespeare’s been mentioned here already. Shakespeare came to London, we believe, in 1587. The same year that the first child of English parents was born in the New World.

And on that note, Happy Thanksgiving. From London. 

Wrote this on Thanksgiving eve. Putting it up on Thanksgiving. 

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