England: The Beginnings of Protestantism

IN ENGLAND John Wycliffe (1325-84) had spoken out against several aspects of the Medieval Church, and the Lollards, his followers, were persecuted until the sixteenth century. Everyone knew that the clergy were below standard, and monasteries had a reputation for wealth and good living rather than Christian example. Several had already been dissolved. The new books of Erasmus and Luther gained support in England, and so did the efforts of William Tyndale to produce a Bible which everyone could read (ordinary people could not read the old Latin Bibles). Popular opinion was hostile to the clergy and ready to help bring the Church out of the Middle Ages into modern times.

The Lollards strongly objected to the Church being so rich, as Lollard beliefs we learn from their statement to Parliament in 1394: ‘That when the Church of England began to go mad after temporalities, like its great step-mother the Roman Church, and churches were authorized by appropriation in divers places, faith, hope, and charity began to flee from our Church, because pride, with its doleful progeny of mortal sins, claimed this under title of truth. This conclusion is general, and proved by experience, custom, and manner or fashion (118).

They were also worried about the Mass: ‘That the pretended miracle of the sacrament of bread drives all men, but a few, to idolatry, because they think that the Body of Christ which is never away from heaven could by power of the priest’s word be enclosed essentially in a little bread which they show the people (119).

In the same year the King issued Letters Patent condemning the Lollards and giving the Archbishops of Canterbury and York power to punish them: ‘Being moved by zeal for the Catholic faith, of which we are and wish to be defenders in all things as we are bound, being unwilling in any wise to tolerate such heresies or errors springing up, have within the limit of our power granted authority and licence by our letters patent to the archbishop aforesaid and his suffragans, to arrest all and singular those who should wish secretly or openly to preach or maintain the aforesaid conclusions so condemned, wherever they may be found, and commit them, at pleasure, to their own prisons or [to the prisons] of others, to be kept in the same until they repent of the wickedness of their errors and heresies (120).

Many Lollards were burned at the stake. Here is an unsympathetic account of the burning of a Lollard in 1494: ‘Upon the eighteenth day of April was an old cankered heretic, weak-minded for age, named Joan Boughton, widow, and mother unto the wife of Sir John Young—which daughter, as some reported, had a great smell of an heretic after the mother—burnt in Smithfield. This woman was four score years of age or more, and held eight opinions of heresy which I pass over, for the hearing of them is neither pleasant nor fruitful. She was a disciple of Wyclif, whom she accounted for a saint, and held so fast and firmly eight of his twelve opinons that all the doctors of London could not turn her from one of them. When it was told to her that she should be burnt for her obstinacy and false belief, she set nought at their words but defied them, for she said she was so beloved with God and His holy angels that all the fire in London should not hurt her. But on the morrow a bundle of faggots and a few reeds consumed her in a little while; and while she might cry she spake often of God and Our Lady, but no man could cause her to name Jesus, and so she died. But it appeared that she left some of her disciples behind her, for the night following, the more part of the ashes of that fire that she was burnt in were had away and kept for a precious relic in an earthen pot (121).

John Foxe wrote in his Acts and Monuments that these persecutions brought disgrace to Christian people: ‘In turning over the registers and records of Lincoln likewise, and coming to the year of our Lord 1520, and to 1521, I find that as the light of the Gospel began more to appear, and the number of [its] professors to grow, so the vehemency of persecution and stir of the bishops began also to increase; whereupon ensued great perturbation and grievous affliction in divers and sundry quarters of this realm, especially about Buckinghamshire and Amersham, Uxbridge, Henley, New­bury, in the diocese of London, in Essex, Colchester, Suffolk and Norfolk, and other parts more. And this was before the name of Luther was heard of in these countries among the people. Wherefore they are much beguiled and misinformed, who condemn this kind of doctrine now received, of novelty; asking, “Where was this church and religion forty years ago, before Luther’s time”. To whom it may be answered, that this religion and form of doctrine was planted by the Apostles, and taught by true bishops; afterward decayed, and now reformed again . . . (122).

Foxe listed the four main Lollard beliefs: ‘Four principal points they stood in against the Church of Rome: in pilgrimage, in adora­tion of saints, in reading Scripture-books in English, and in the carnal presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament (123).

A sermon preached at an ordination service in 1510 by Dr William Melton, Chancellor of York Minster, stressed the need for better education and morals among the parish clergy: ‘For it is from this stupidity and from this darkness of ignorance that there arises that great and deplorable evil throughout the whole Church of God, that everywhere throughout town and countryside there exists a crop of oafish and boorish priests, some of whom are en­gaged on ignoble and servile tasks, while others abandon themselves to tavern-haunting, swilling and drunkenness. Some cannot get along without their wenches; others pursue their amusement in dice and gambling and other such trifling all day long. There are some who waste their time in hunting and hawking, and so spend a life which is utterly and wholly slothful and irreligious even to advanced old age. This is inevitable, for since they are all completely ignorant of good literature, how can they obtain improvement or enjoyment in reading and study? Nay rather, they throw aside their books in contempt and everywhere they return to the wretched and unlovely life I have mentioned, and seek to satisfy their sloth and idleness in trifles of this sort … (124).

Conditions in a monastery were reported after a visitation (inspection) of Ramsey Abbey by the Bishop of Lincoln in 1518: ‘The gates of the monastery are not shut securely at night for the lord abbot nor are the walls and closes of the monastery sufficient. The monks of the monastery can get out of the monastery at will in the night. And also outsiders and seculars enter the monastery at night time, also the conventual church, so that recently there was furtively taken from the conventual church at night, a chalice, in what way or by whom is not known. The bishop charged the abbot and prior that the walls and enclosures of the monastery should be adequate by the feast of All Souls, and that the gates should be sufficiently shut so that no monks should in any way be able to leave nor outsiders to enter (125).

A licence issued in 1509 allowed St John’s Priory, Cambridge, to be converted into St John’s College: ‘Executors of Margaret, Countess of Richmond. Licence to Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, Charles Somerset, Lord Herbert, Sir Thomas Lovell, Sir Henry Marney, Sir John Seynt John, Harry Hornby, clerk, and Hugh Assheton clerk, executors of the Countess; to acquire the site and possessions of the priory of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge, in the patronage of James, bishop of Ely, by right of his church, and now in a most impoverished and delapidated condition, and convert the same into a college for a master, fellows, and scholars (in pursuance of the wish of the said Countess), to be called The College of St John the Evangelist, Cambridge (126).

In the early 1500s, many people were converted to Protestantism. An early Protestant, Thomas Bilney of Cambridge, tells of his conversion in 1516 after buying a copy of Erasmus’s Latin version of the New Testament: ‘I bought it even by the providence of God, as I do now well understand and perceive: and at the first reading (as I well remember) I chanced upon this sentence of St Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in I Timothy, i: “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief and principal.” This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that immediately I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness (127).

Bilney in turn converted Robert Barnes, the Prior of the Augustinian Friary in Cambridge: ‘The first sermon that ever he preached of this truth was the Sunday before Christmas day [1525] at St Edward’s church, belonging to Trinity Hall in Cambridge by the Peasmarket, whose theme was the Epistle of the same Sunday, Gaudete in Domino, etc.; and so postilled [commented upon] the whole Epistle, following the Scripture and Luther’s Posh! ; and for that sermon he was immediately accused of heresy by two fellows of the King’s Hall. Then the godly learned in Christ both of Pembroke Hall, St John’s, Peterhouse, Queen’s College, the King’s College, Gonville Hall and Benet College showed themselves and flocked together in open sight, both in the schools and at open sermons at St Mary’s and at the Augustines and at other disputations; and then they conferred continually together (128).

Bilney, Barnes and other Cambridge scholars met secretly to discuss Luther’s books in the White Horse Inn during the 1520s : ‘The house that they resorted most commonly unto was the White Horse which for despite of them, to bring God’s word into contempt, was called Germany. This house especially was chosen because many of them of St John’s, the King’s College and the Queen’s College, came in on the back side (129).

A visiting teacher from London who had recently been in Germany read and talked to a group of Buckinghamshire Lollards at their usual meeting for Scripture-reading; this account Was taken from their trial in 1530:  ‘These persons with others were examined, excommunicated, and abjured, for being together in John Taylor’s house at Hughenden, and there hearing Nicholas Field of London read a parcel of Scripture in English unto them, who were expounded to them many things; as that they that went on pilgrimage were accursed: that it booted not to pray to images, for they were but stocks made of wood, and could not help a man: that God Almighty biddeth us work as well one day as another, saving the Sunday; for six days he wrought, and the seventh day he rested: that they needed not to fast so many fasting days, except the ember days; for he [Field] was beyond the sea in Almany [Germany], and there they used not so to fast, nor to make such holy days (130).

Tyndale had long wanted to translate the New Testament into English. His translation was at last printed in 1525. Here, he argues the need for a Bible which ordinary people could understand: ‘Christ commandeth to search the scriptures. John v. Though that miracles bore record unto his doctrine, yet desired he no faith to be given either to his doctrine, or to his miracles, without record of the scripture. When Paul preached, Acts xvii the other searched the scriptures daily, whether they were as he alleged them. Why shall not I likewise see whether it be the scripture that thou allegest? Yea, why shall I not see the scripture, and the circumstances, and what goeth before and after; that I may know whether thine interpretation be the right sense, or whether thou jugglest, and drawest the scripture violently unto thy carnal and fleshly purpose; or whether thou be about to teach me, or to deceive me? (131).

A confession made in 1527 by an Essex Lollard tells how Robert Barnes, at the Austin Friary in London, secretly sold them a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament, to replace their old Latin hand­written Gospels: ‘Thomas Hilles and this respondent showed the Friar Barnes of certain old books that they had; as of four Evangelists, and certain Epistles of Peter and Paul in English, which books the said Friar did little regard, and made a twit of it, and said, “A point for them, for they be not to be regarded toward [compared with] the new printed Testament in English, for it is of more cleaner English”. And then the said Friar Barnes delivered to them the said New Testament in English, for which they paid 3s. 2d., and desired them that they would keep it close (132).

Tyndale’s New Testaments had to be printed on the Continent and secretly smuggled into London by friendly English merchants. One of these, Augustine Packington, was asked by Cuthbert Tun‑ stall, Bishop of London, to buy copies so that he might throw them on a blazing fire as an example to the people of England: ‘Augustine Packington came to William Tyndale and said, “William, I know thou art a poor man, and hast a heap of New Testaments and books by thee, for the which thou hast endangered thy friends and beggared thyself, and I have now gotten thee a merchant, which with ready money shall dispatch thee of all that thou hast, if you think it so profitable for yourself.” “Who is the merchant?” said Tyndale. “The Bishop of London”, said Packington. “0, that is because he will burn them,” said Tyndale. “Yea, Mary”, quod Packington. “I am the gladder”, said Tyndale, “for these two benefits shall come thereof; I shall get money of him for these books, to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out upon the burning of God’s word. And the overplus of the money that shall remain to me shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same once again, and I trust the second will much better like you than ever did the first.” (133).

An extract from A Supplication for the Beggars written by Simon Fish about 1529 expresses a common dislike of the clergy: ‘These are not the [shep]herds but the ravenous wolves going in [shep]herds’ clothing, devouring the flock: the bishops, abbots, priors, deacons, archdeacons, suffragans, priests, monks, canons, friars, pardoners and summoners. And who is able to number this idle, ravenous sort, which (setting all labour aside) have begged so importunately that they have gotten into their hands more than the third part of all your realm. The goodliest lordships, manors, lands and territories are theirs (134).

This, then, was the background of religious feeling in England, which closely paralleled developments on the Continent. Yet the English Reformation developed along a road of its own, and was given special impetus by Henry VIII’s domestic problems—in particular, his need for a quick divorce from Catherine of Aragon.