7. Late Medieval Religion and Its Critics

Prof: Okay.
Well, last time we looked at
the early Tudors reestablishing the authority of the monarchy,
and now we turn towards what was to prove one of the biggest
problems for most of the sixteenth century:
the question of the authority of the church and of the nature
of English religion. Let’s start by taking you to a
couple of places. A few miles north of the city
of Cambridge in the Fenlands– the flatlands stretching up
to–towards– the sea, here lies the small
city of Ely, which has one of the greatest
of English cathedrals in it. Ely Cathedral dates back to the
twelfth century and when you go there the main nave of the
cathedral is of magnificent Norman architecture,
but rather gloomy. But at the bottom of the nave
there’s a little door which leads through to the Lady
Chapel. And if you go through there you
get struck almost immediately by a dazzling light.
You find yourself in a
beautiful chapel, late medieval chapel,
with vast windows glazed in clear glass with the light
streaming through. On a sunny day it’s quite an
astonishing contrast. And it’s only when your eyes
get used to the light that you notice that in the stone tracery
of the windows there are niches where once statues stood.
Some of them are still there
with the heads broken off or half the statute is still there.
And here and there in the white
glass of the windows you see a little bit of stained glass that
they found and replaced in what were once windows full of
stained-glass pictures. So that’s Ely Cathedral.
And if you go a couple of
hundred miles north to North Yorkshire there’s a little
church there called Saint Agatha’s Easby.
It lies by the river,
not far from the town of Richmond, which I was talking
about last week. And at Easby there’s a tiny
twelfth-century church, Saint Agatha’s.
The windows are very small and
when you go in it’s exceedingly dim.
But again when your eyes adjust
to the light you notice on the walls faded wall paintings which
were probably put there sometime early in the thirteenth century.
There’s Adam and Eve.
There’s the nativity,
a very nice nativity scene with a very sweet donkey,
and so the story continues ’round the walls to the
crucifixion, the resurrection.
And in the spaces left by the
main paintings there are little portrayals of medieval peasants
at work sowing, plowing and so forth.
And outside by the river are
the ruins of Easby Abbey, which was quite near the Church
of Saint Agatha’s. Okay.
Well, we can use those two
places to symbolize the way that the Protestant Reformation has
been presented in the historiography of early modern
England. To some people it was,
as it were, a flood of light: purifying, bracing,
invigorating, liberating.
On the other hand,
other historians have greater sympathy for the religious
culture represented by those faded wall paintings in the
church at Easby or the empty niches in the windows at Ely
Cathedral or the ruined monastery by the river,
Easby Abbey. They have a greater sense of
what was lost, of the destruction of a great
deal of beauty in the course of the zeal of the reformation.
Well, prior to the 1980s one
could say in general that it was the first approach which tended
to be the dominant tradition. The reformation was generally
seen as being positive. As Christopher Marsh puts it,
it “had purpose, direction and also a certain
inevitability.” Nowadays the dominant trend is
rather in the other direction. It tends to stress the
destruction of the older religious tradition,
a destruction which, to quote Marsh again,
was “regrettable, undesired and
undesirable.” So as a result we now have a
much more two-dimensional historiography of the
reformation. And that’s a good thing.
History should involve critical
examination rather than mere celebration or
self-congratulation. But if we have a more
two-dimensional picture, one which includes not only the
reformers and the victors but also those who resisted and
those who lost, it’s still not exactly even
handed, and historians inevitably have
their preferences. They tend to lean one way or
the other, and this whole story is one which still engages a
good deal of passion. Well, today I want to start
approaching all of that by considering the nature of the
old religion and the state of the pre-reformation church:
its strengths, its weaknesses,
and those who were already there criticizing some of its
features. And that will help us to begin
consideration of how it was possible in only a few years to
bring this great edifice crashing down.
At the beginning of the
sixteenth century, the church was of course the
greatest corporate institution in the kingdom.
It was the English branch of a
great international institution which gave Western Europe its
identity, collectively, as Catholic Christendom.
The church in England–of
course, there wasn’t a Church of England yet–
the church in England was organized into two provinces
with archbishops at Canterbury and York,
and then there were twenty-one diocese each of them headed by a
bishop, and beneath that archdeaconries
and deaneries and so on down to somewhat more than 9,000
parishes at most local level each with its parish church.
And in addition scattered
around the landscape but particularly concentrated in
parts of the north and the west were the great monasteries and
nunneries, some 750 of them in all.
The clergy who staffed this
institution were a distinct estate of the realm as you
already know. Attempts have been made to
estimate their numbers. It’s been estimated about
60,000 in all, which would mean that the
clergy comprised about four percent of the entire national
population or, since most of them were men,
something like eight percent of the entire male population;
a very large presence. Members of the clergy enjoyed a
privileged position before the law.
They were dealt with in the
church courts in the first instance,
though they could sometimes be handed over to the secular
authorities if they had committed crimes,
and they were supported by a variety of fees and dues paid to
them and, in particular tithes,
by which people gave a tenth of their income or produce for the
maintenance of the church. And then of course there were
the great endowments given to the church by pious members of
the laity. So it was a great institution,
a wealthy institution, the owner of a great deal of
land and property, but also a collection of more
than 9,000 small Christian communities periodically united
in their parish churches in worship,
in the practice of their religion.
And in considering the old
religion and its nature we should perhaps start there with
the fundamentals of the nature and characteristics of the old
faith. Well, the central doctrines can
be covered briefly. They were as follows:
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had made salvation available to
sinful humankind through grace; divine favor.
Access to grace,
the means of salvation, was made available through the
church and through its sacraments.
Membership of the church was
gained through the sacrament of baptism,
usually in infancy of course, and it was demonstrated by
continued participation in the sacraments,
especially the mass when elements of bread and wine were
consecrated and transformed into the body and blood of Christ
through the miracle of transubstantiation.
The Christian life involved
obedience to the Ten Commandments,
avoidance of the seven deadly sins,
participation in the sacraments, the doing of good
works and prayer. Given that all mankind was
sinful, believers were enjoined to repent of their sins,
to confess them, to perform penance for them and
in return they were granted absolution by the priest.
The church as a whole was
conceived of as a community of saints,
and so it was possible to pray for the souls of others,
in addition to which the saints already in heaven were believed
to intercede with God on behalf of living believers,
so petitionary prayers could be addressed to saints.
And finally the expiation of
sins committed in life could continue after death when souls
lingered in purgatory until they were purged of sin and made fit
for heaven. The living could ease the
passage of the dead through purgatory by their prayers.
Only those who failed to
achieve salvation by their rejection of the means of grace
would probably ultimately suffer eternal torment in hell.
Those are the basic beliefs.
In its transmission of these
central beliefs and in its practices of worship the
pre-reformation church fostered what’s been described as a
ritually and visually rich religion.
In a society in which the vast
majority of people were illiterate,
the decorations of the church–the paintings on the
wall like those in Easby, the images, the carved images
around the walls or the altars, the stained-glass windows with
their pictures– all of these were to a large
extent the books of the unlearned.
And often they conveyed the
essence of central Bible stories,
like the progression from the Garden of Eden through to the
crucifixion and so forth at Easby,
and they conveyed sometimes the central doctrines of the faith
in visual representations. An outstanding example of this
is the fifteenth-century stained-glass window which
survives still in a church near Exeter in the West Country
called– at a place called
Doddingscombeleigh. They have interesting place
names in the West Country. I haven’t written it on the
board because the word’s too long, but you’ll find it on your
handout, Doddingscombeleigh. In the great window there they
have portrayals of–in seven panels–of each of the seven
sacraments. Each of those panels is also
linked by a red line in the glass to the wounds of Christ on
the cross, and the message is quite clear:
Christ’s sacrifice, the flow of grace along the red
lines through the sacraments, which the window represents the
congregation participating in. Or again most churches had an
elaborately carved ‘rood screen’ which stood at the entrance to
the chancel, where the altar was,
with wooden statues above it– again a crucifix and various
central saints all there for observation and veneration by
the congregation. Well, numerous other images and
pictures would adorn the side chapels of the churches,
there would be altars dedicated to particular saints and so
forth, and indeed this devotion to the
saints was a particularly marked characteristic of late medieval
popular religion. Images and shrines and relics
of the saints were much venerated and much visited.
There were some very great
centers of pilgrimage. In Canterbury Cathedral was the
shrine of Saint Thomas � Becket, a twelfth-century
English saint. At Walsingham was a shrine
dedicated to the Virgin. At Durham was the shrine of
Saint Cuthbert, the great Saxon saint of the
north of England, and so one could go.
These were the great shrines.
But there were also many lesser
localized places which were visited by pilgrims from the
area ’round about, and they would make donations
to beautify the images at the altars of the saints and to
maintain their shrines. For example,
down near Exeter again there was a local saint called Saint
Sidwell, S-i-d-w-e-double l. She was a Celtic martyr from
the early days of the church in Britain.
And records survive of the
gifts that people made to Saint Sidwell in Exeter.
One person gave her wedding
ring to Saint Sidwell. Girdles were given to adorn the
statue. Rosary beads of fine quality
were given to be hung about the statute.
There was money given for
renewing the gilding on Saint Sidwell’s statue.
One person even gave money to
buy her a new pair of velvet slippers.
And in return people of course
made petitionary prayers to the saint.
You could borrow the girdles to
lay across a woman in childbirth, which was thought to
protect her. Well, obviously this was a
system which could offer a great deal of comfort,
but at the same time it could be open to the risk of
corruption. It could obscure people’s focus
upon the central doctrines of the faith and substitute
devotion to particular saints’ cults,
and at times expectations of an almost mechanical manipulation
of the powers of particular saints in response to acts of
veneration and donations. Erasmus of Rotterdam,
the great humanist scholar of the early sixteenth century who
taught at the University of Cambridge for a while,
was deeply critical of all this. He wanted a simpler,
more Bible-centered faith, and he joked in one of his
essays about how there were enough pieces of the true cross,
or alleged pieces of the true cross,
in churches in Europe that if you got them all together you
could build Noah’s ark. So Erasmus was prepared to
scoff at all of this, and he wasn’t alone.
There was undoubtedly an
accretion of superstitious practices around these forms of
devotion which scrupulous churchmen like Erasmus found
very hard to take. And some of the saints who were
venerated were of rather dubious provenance.
All over the country there were
holy wells and holy trees where people would hang gifts and
offerings and make requests for assistance.
Many of these were of very
dubious origins and probably had originated as Celtic water
spirits and tree spirits which had been gradually incorporated
into the local practice of Christianity in the early Middle
Ages. And then of course there was
the whole business of the relics.
The Abbey of Bury St.
Edmunds, which lies about
halfway between Cambridge and Norwich, had quite a collection.
They had the clippings from
Saint Edmund’s nails. They had the coals with which
Saint Lawrence had been toasted to death.
They had Sir Thomas–Saint
Thomas–of Canterbury’s penknife and one of his boots,
all of which were objects of veneration.
Well, a lot of this was clearly
very far from being impeccably Christian.
It was the product of the
medieval church’s toleration of what people refer to as
syncretism, the blending together of
different religious traditions, the Christianizing of some
older traditions like those holy wells and sacred trees and so
forth. And at times it could
undoubtedly be hard to draw the line between where Christian
devotion to the saints ended and superstitious practices began.
Well, the old historiography
tended to lay a lot of emphasis on that kind of thing,
stressing the corruption and degeneracy of the old church and
the compromised nature of its spirituality.
But more recently in the work
of historians like J.J. Scarisbrick and Eamon
Duffy and Christopher Haigh, all of whom are on our reading
lists, there’s been a tendency to
point out instead the soundness of some of the core elements of
worship and to argue that whatever its faults the
pre-reformation religious system was in fact hugely successful
and hugely popular. Far from being a sort of rotten
tree ready to fall before the first blast of reforming wind,
Christopher Haigh argues that late medieval Catholic
Christianity, to quote him,
“was not only secure in early Tudor England but also
luxuriant and energetic.” And the strongest arguments in
favor of such views derives from the evidence of “energetic
commitment to conventional devotions”
at the lowest level, at the level of the parish.
There are three major sources
of such evidence which people draw upon.
First of all,
there are people’s wills. Most of them from the early
sixteenth century leave some bequest to religion.
The request–the bequest–of
money for services, for the beautification of
churches and so forth. One of the most spectacular
examples is a man I’ve mentioned before,
the extremely wealthy Robert Jannys of the city of Norwich
who left when he died in the 1520s the greater part of his
fortune for religious purposes. He left 1,400 pounds in all,
which I was trying to translate into modern money.
It’s difficult to do that but
five or six million dollars perhaps, left to religious
purposes, in modern equivalent. And there was a particular
focus in such pious bequests upon the endowing of prayers and
masses for dead souls. Robert Jannys for example of
his 1,400 pounds laid down that 800 of it was to be spent on
paying priests to say prayers for his soul and for all other
Christian souls. And in addition he provided 400
pounds for masses which should be said for the same–dedicated
to the same purpose. So pious bequests is one form
of evidence of this enthusiasm and involvement.
Secondly, there are
churchwardens’ accounts, the account books of parish
churches which sometimes survive,
and they reveal the substantial sums of money which people
raised and spent on their churches,
on the fabric of the church and its rebuilding,
and beautification, and on its furnishings.
They spent far more on such
purposes than they ever paid in taxes or than they paid to their
manorial lords in rents. Thirdly, there’s the evidence
of the activity of religious guilds.
All over the country there were
numerous fraternities or guilds formed for religious purposes
where people would band together to maintain an altar and to pray
for the souls of members of the guild,
both the living and those who had passed on.
They also often had charitable
functions, poor relief, and educational functions.
And there were very,
very many of these voluntary fraternities and guilds which
people joined. In the city of London alone
there were eighty-one religious fraternities operating in the
early years of the sixteenth century.
In Norwich in 1500 there were
twenty-one and even much smaller places could have them.
The tiny parish of Morebath in
Devon, which is to the north of
Exeter, was a place where they had several guilds which would–
which were run by different groups within the population.
There was a women’s guild;
there was a young people’s guild.
The peasants of the area
dedicated some of their sheep to the maintenance of their guilds,
and the members took turns to look after those sheep and the
profits went for the maintenance of the guilds’ activities.
Well, clearly there’s a lot of
evidence of such activity, and such investment in
traditional religion was clearly prodigious and participation was
widespread. You can’t gainsay that;
the evidence is clear. It supports such views as that
of the historian Richard Rex who argues that “it’s possible
that the ideal of a Christian community united in belief and
worship,” an ideal which was to be
pursued so zealously by Protestants and Catholics alike,
“was never so closely approximated”
to as in the late medieval parish.
It’s certainly possible to read
the evidence that way. And at present,
as I’ve said, that’s the dominant trend in
the historiography, but at the same time one has to
recognize that it’s not without some ambiguities.
One can’t be sure quite how
well attended parish churches actually were.
One can’t be quite sure just
how extensive participation in parish guilds was–
in some places it seems to have been quite widespread though
some guilds were somewhat socially exclusive.
And above all it’s been said
that a vast amount of the money which was invested in the late
medieval church was invested for the specific purpose of easing
the passage of one’s soul through purgatory.
That was fundamental to a great
deal of it, as in the case of Robert Jannys.
And arguably that preoccupation
with easing the passage of souls through purgatory was motivated
more by fear than by anything else.
In a sense, purgatory could
have been a somewhat oppressive doctrine,
raising anxiety particularly amongst those who couldn’t
afford to pay for masses for their souls.
In other words,
the fact of heavy investment in traditional religion cannot be
denied, but its meaning is open to interpretation.
Like so much historical
evidence you can read it more ways than one.
Well, you can say the same sort
of thing about the evidence relating to relationships
between members of the clergy and the laity.
Certainly, there was sometimes
quite acute conflict, especially over such matters as
tithes. People sometimes resented the
payment of tithes and resisted it,
or similarly other dues which might be demanded by the clergy,
mortuary payments when people died and so forth.
And then there was the
perennial problem of instances of clerical misbehavior,
especially the sexual misconduct of a clergy was–
which was–theoretically celibate.
That was the butt of a great
deal of ribald comment throughout the late medieval
period. Sometimes the jurisdiction of
the church courts, which had jurisdiction over
such matters as marriage and the probate of wills and other
things which were of a spiritual nature,
this was sometimes resented particularly by their rivals,
the common lawyers in the secular courts.
Or again the pomp and the pride
of some of the great clergy could occasion a certain amount
of cynicism and contempt. An outstanding example of a
great clergyman who attracted that kind of opprobrium was
Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Wolsey,
Cardinal Wolsey, who to all intents and purposes
ran the government on Henry VIII’s behalf between 1514 and
1529. Wolsey was proud;
he was arrogant; he was extremely able but he
was arrogant; he held multiple livings.
He was Archbishop of York;
he was Bishop of Durham; he held other church livings,
places he never visited, and drew the income from them.
He engaged in a great deal of
conspicuous consumption, building his own palaces most
of which were eventually confiscated by the king.
He had a mistress and children
and so on and so forth. It’s been argued that if few
people envisaged an alternative religion before 1520 there was
nonetheless a good deal of anticlericalism which could be
drawn upon when action was eventually taken against the
church. That view in–clearly has some
strength, and yet again one has to consider whether it might be
overdrawn. It’s true that the parish
clergy were often not very well educated,
that some of them had moral failings,
that some of them came into conflict with their
parishioners. But on the other hand the
crucial issue was whether they were adequate to perform the
religious services which were expected of them.
Their principal duties were not
as educators; their principal duties were as
priests. Their principal duties were
sacerdotal. They had to perform the
rituals, the sacraments, the mass.
If they had their faults,
they also had the sacred power by virtue of their ordination to
perform those sacraments. They had the power to
consecrate the elements in the mass.
They had the power to
administer the last rites to the dying.
They had the power to absolve
sin and that above all set them apart, and it could make them
objects of reverence or even of anxiety.
In a sense then human
weaknesses could be cloaked by the majesty of the office.
As for the higher clergy,
by the early sixteenth century men like Thomas Wolsey were
really spectacularly exceptional.
Most bishops on the whole were
quite an impressive group. If a lot of them were primarily
administrators in their functions,
and servants of the state very often as well as of the church,
they were often conscientious enough in running their
dioceses. So given the powers and the
privileges of the clerical estate it was inevitable that
abuses could provoke resentment and indeed conflict and there
were occasional notorious scandals which appear
particularly significant in hindsight.
if such incidents reveal tensions they don’t necessarily
reveal a fundamental hostility to the established church.
But there was real criticism
which went beyond mere occasional resentment and it
came from three sources. First of all,
there was criticism that came from reformers within the church
itself. John Colet, whose name is on
your handout, the Dean of Saint Paul’s
Cathedral in London, was a man who was deeply
troubled by the failings of the church.
He–in a famous sermon which he
preached to Convocation, which was the gathering of the
leading clergy, the parliament of the church if
you like– in a sermon to Convocation in
1511 he castigated the pride and the worldliness which was to be
found among some clergy. And Colet could be said to be
representative of the long reformist tradition within the
church itself, whereby strict moralists
demanded from time to time that the clergy should live up to the
standards of their own profession in a manner which
would deserve the privileges that they enjoyed.
And Colet wasn’t alone.
His close friend,
the pious layman Thomas More, a learned and devout man,
sympathized greatly with Colet’s desire for the reform of
clerical standards and so did others among the senior clergy.
Bishop John Fisher of
Rochester, which is down in Kent,
or Bishop Tunstall, first of London,
then of Durham, were other bishops who had
reforming agendas of this kind within the church.
Well, most of these were elite
critics. They, one could say,
enjoyed the luxury of knowing better,
but they weren’t willing to challenge the ultimate authority
of the church itself nor were they really willing to damage
the practice of piety of the common people.
They were very anxious not to
break the unity of Christendom though they wanted the church to
reform itself, and all of them died Catholics.
Indeed, Thomas More and John
Fisher both died as martyrs for the old faith,
executed in the early years of the reformation by Henry VIII.
They died in defense of the
papal authority over the English church.
So there were some critics
within the church. At the other end of the scale
there were a set of very trenchant plebeian critics of
both church authority and the conventional nature of late
medieval Catholicism, and these were the heretics
known in England as the Lollards.
Lollards were the followers of
a fourteenth-century Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe,
who had been very critical of the church of his time.
Wycliffe had died in 1384 but
his ideas survived him. The Lollards were an
underground heretical sect and they had survived for over a
century despite intermittent persecution.
They were deeply hostile to the
privileges enjoyed by the church.
Many of them saw both the pope
and the church hierarchy as being a kind of collective
representation of Antichrist. They were deeply hostile to
veneration of the saints, the reverence shown to saints
and to relics of the saints. They regarded it as fraudulent
and idolatrous. They were skeptical of the
doctrine of transubstantiation in the mass which–
they tended to see the communion service more as a
service of remembrance. They regarded the doctrine of
purgatory as a false doctrine which had been late introduced
into the church, and they saw the saying of
masses for souls as simply a mercenary racket to put money
into the pockets of the priesthood.
And above all they relied upon
the authority of the Bible. From the 1380s onwards,
Lollards had translated the New Testament into English and
copies of their New Testament translation were secretly
circulated amongst Lollard groups.
Some of them are extremely
beautiful. One tends to imagine these as
being rather primitive products produced in secret,
but some of them survive and they could be in fact very
beautifully produced, even illuminated.
So these were the Lollards,
and all of these features of their beliefs and attitudes tend
to make them sound like proto-Protestants,
and so in a sense they were. Wycliffe undoubtedly influenced
the great Bohemian reformer of the fifteenth century,
Jan Hus of Prague, and Jan Hus’ teachings deeply
influenced Martin Luther so there is a connection which can
be traced. Both Catholics and Protestants
were later to see the Lollards as being forerunners of the
reformation in England. That’s a view you find already
current by the 1540s and 1550s. But more recently their role
has been somewhat questioned, or at least their potential for
bringing about change. The point usually made is that
certainly the Lollards were present but they were not very
numerous. Well, that’s true.
there were some areas of concentration.
There were quite a few of them
in London, hiding out in the crowd as it were.
There were some areas of the
country where their influence had spread and remained deeply
rooted. The Chiltern Hills just to the
northwest of London was one area where they were well
established. There were outposts of Lollardy
scattered through the small towns of East Anglia.
We know about all of this
because occasionally bishops would conduct a kind of purge of
Lollards within their diocese; they would seek them out.
In 1521, one bishop conducted
such a purge in the county of Buckinghamshire,
which is over here, and he brought in over 400
Lollard suspects– so within a single county there
were a fair number of these people.
They were nevertheless
contained. The church courts were vigilant.
There were these occasional
purges. Occasionally,
a Lollard was burned though most of them when they were
found tended to recant and then quietly go back when they
weren’t being observed to their private beliefs.
though, examples were made and people were burned.
Over the nation as a whole they
were a tiny minority but they were there and in some areas
they were quite a significant presence,
especially amongst the literate laity of London and parts of the
southeast of England, with scatterings of
sympathizers elsewhere. There were even some members of
the clergy who secretly sympathized with the Lollards.
So they were able to retain a
presence, they were able to retain a
certain coherence through their underground contacts,
and I think it’s a mistake to dismiss them entirely.
One could compare them perhaps
to the dissidents of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s,
who were hard put to survive and were in no position to
overthrow the established system,
but were nonetheless a corrosive presence within it.
And when the structures of
power were eventually to be shaken the Lollards similarly
were ready to come out into the open when they had the
opportunity and many did. Well, between the critics
within the church, the reforming members of the
higher clergy, and the Lollards at the other
end of the scale, there were small numbers of
people who can be legitimately described as early Protestants.
Most of them didn’t actually
owe much to the Lollard tradition.
They were mostly highly
educated; in fact, they were mostly
members of England’s two universities,
Oxford and Cambridge, but in particularly Cambridge.
They were mostly men of
evangelical orientation, very pious, and when they
learned of Martin Luther’s doctrinal protests made in
Germany in 1517 they took an interest.
Luther’s books were actually
available in the early years after his first protest of 1517.
They weren’t actually banned
until the early 1520s, so people could get hold of
copies from Germany and they were able to read them to see
what was going on. Some of them became persuaded
of Luther’s arguments. The Cambridge men,
who included Thomas Cranmer, later to be the Archbishop of
Canterbury under the reformed church,
met secretly at a tavern known as the White Horse Tavern which
was in the red light district of the town near the river–
it still stands; it’s now the Cambridgeshire
Folk Museum– and the meetings amongst them
were known as Little Germany because they were discussing
books which had been smuggled from the centers of the early
reformation in Germany. They also discussed the works
of the early Swiss reformers which were available to them.
Well, the position of these
early Protestants was often rather ambiguous.
Not all of them had made a full
transition to doctrinal heresy. One who was much venerated
later was a man named Thomas Bilney, who was actually
captured and burned at the stake in 1531.
It seems unlikely that Bilney
was ever a full-blown Lutheran. Nonetheless,
he was a passionate evangelical who detested some aspects of the
practice of worship at the time. He saw it as a cluttered form
of devotion. He wanted a much more
biblically based religion and he preached openly these beliefs.
In his own words,
he “went up to Jerusalem”
for those beliefs and was eventually burned in the city of
Norwich. Bilney was a sort–of
Protestant one could say; he was halfway there.
Or another example is William
Tyndale. Tyndale was the first
translator, other than the Lollards,
of the New Testament into English, the translator of the
first published version of the English New Testament.
He had long had the idea that
it was desirable to translate the scriptures into English,
but he originally brought that project to Cuthbert Tunstall,
the reforming Bishop of London. He was willing to do it within
the boundaries of the existing church.
Tunstall, however,
would not back him. Tunstall, like many churchmen,
associated the scriptures in English with Lollardy.
He thought it was too dangerous.
So Tyndale had to look for
support elsewhere and when rejected he found patronage from
a London merchant called Humphrey Monmouth.
Humphrey Monmouth is known to
have been a Lollard sympathizer. He sent Tyndale abroad where
Tyndale eventually became a Lutheran and in 1526 produced
his New Testament in Germany, had it printed there,
and copies were subsequently smuggled into England through
the cloth trade with the Netherlands.
The fact that these early
Protestants were mostly based in Cambridge and parts of East
Anglia and London is no accident.
These are the areas most easily
reached by the trade routes from the Netherlands and Germany.
Well, as William Tyndale’s
story indicates, people like him had a rather
separate origin from the Lollards,
but not infrequently they eventually linked up with them.
The older Lollard networks were
sometimes activated to smuggle New Testaments into England and
Lutheran books into England once they were banned,
and by the 1520s the two movements had to a large extent
overlapped. To some extent they were
merging together and becoming one, a critical underground.
So one can say that England had
a religious underground by the 1520s.
It did not in itself mount a
significant challenge to the hegemony of traditional
religion. In all probability,
it would never have spontaneously gained the
strength to mount a victorious challenge to the religious
status quo of the kind that was mounted by Protestants in some
of the cities of Germany and Switzerland and Flanders and so
forth. But to say that,
that they might never have gained the spontaneous strength
to mount such a challenge, is speculation because of
course what actually happened is that this tiny minority of
dissidents actually won. And what made it possible was a
contingent circumstance, a contingent circumstance of
the kind that so often makes history take turns which are
otherwise utterly unpredictable. And that circumstance is
probably known to you. In 1527, King Henry VIII,
a man whose hostility to Martin Luther and the early Protestants
was such that he had written a book against them and had been
awarded the title Defender of the Faith from the pope in 1521,
this man decided that he needed to have his marriage dissolved.
He was thirty-five.
His wife, Katherine,
was forty-ish. They had one daughter but they
had no son and the Tudor succession was in danger.
Henry needed his marriage
dissolved; he needed it desperately.
All the achievements of his
father and his own early reign in establishing the Tudor
dynasty were at risk of being lost without a male heir to the
crown. He needed a new wife.
He needed to remarry,
hopefully to beget such a son to succeed him.
The pope, Clement VII,
would have loved to cooperate. Popes usually cooperated with
kings over such difficult matters.
But he couldn’t oblige for
political reasons since the pope was in the immediate power of
the Emperor of Germany, Charles V, who happened to be
Queen Katherine’s nephew. So these were the contingent
circumstances and it was those contingent circumstances which
were to make all the difference. And how that happened we’ll
look at next week.

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