From:History of the Reformation: Of the Sixteenth CenturyFrom:Book 17. England Before the Reformation
Wolsey – His First Commission – His Complaisance and Dioceses – Cardinal, Chancellor, and Legate – Ostentation and Necromancy – His Spies and Enmity – Pretensions of the Clergy
JUST as everything seemed tending to a reformation, a powerful priest rendered the way more difficult.
One of the most striking personages of the age was then making his appearance on the stage of the world. It was the destiny of that man, in the reign of Henry VIII, to combine extreme ability with extreme immorality; and to be a new and striking example of the wholesome truth that immorality is more effectual to destroy a man than ability to save him. Wolsey was the last high-priest of Rome in England, and when his fall startled the nation, it was the signal of a still more striking fall-the fall of popery.
Thomas Wolsey, the son of a wealthy butcher of Ipswich, according to the common story, which is sanctioned by high authority, had attained under Henry VII the post of almoner, at the recommendation of Sir Richard Nanfan, treasurer of Calais and an old patron of his. But Wolsey was not at all desirous of passing his life in saying mass. As soon as he had discharged the regular duties of his office, instead of spending the rest of the day in idleness, as his colleagues did, he strove to win the good graces of the persons round the king.
Fox, bishop of Winchester, keeper of the privy-seal under Henry VII, uneasy at the growing power of the earl of Surrey, looked about for a man to counterbalance him. He thought he had found such a one in Wolsey. It was to oppose the Surreys, the grandfather and uncles of Anne Boleyn, that the son of the Ipswich butcher was drawn from his obscurity. This is not an unimportant circumstance in our narrative. Fox began to praise Wolsey in the king's hearing, and at the same time he encouraged the almoner to give himself to public affairs. The latter was not deaf, and soon found an opportunity of winning his sovereign's favor.
The king having business of importance with the emperor, who was then in Flanders, sent for Wolsey, explained his wishes, and ordered him to prepare to set out. The chaplain determined to show Henry VII how capable he was of serving him. It was long past noon when he took leave of the king at Richmond-at four o'clock he was in London, at seven at Gravesend. By traveling all night he reached Dover just as the packet-boat was about to sail. After a passage of three hours he reached Calais, whence he traveled post, and the same evening appeared before Maximilian. Having obtained what he desired, he set off again by night, and on the next day but one reached Richmond, three days and some few hours after his departure. The king, catching sight of him just as he was going to mass, sharply inquired, why he had not set out. "Sire, I am just returned," answered Wolsey, placing the emperor's letters in his master's hands. Henry was delighted, and Wolsey saw that his fortune was made.
The courtiers hoped at first that Wolsey, like an inexperienced pilot, would run his vessel on some hidden rock; but never did helmsman manage his ship with more skill. Although twenty years older than Henry VIII the almoner danced, and sang, and laughed with the prince's companions, and amused his new master with tales of scandal and quotations from Thomas Aquinas. The young king found his house a temple of paganism, a shrine of voluptuousness; and while Henry's councilors were entreating him to leave his pleasures and attend to business, Wolsey was continually reminding him that he ought to devote his youth to learning and amusement, and leave the toils of government to others. Wolsey was created bishop of Tournay during the campaign in Flanders, and on his return to England, was raised to the sees of Lincoln and of York. Three miters had been placed on his head in one year. He found at last the vein he so ardently sought for.
And yet he was not satisfied. The archbishop of Canterbury had insisted, as primate, that the cross of York should be lowered to his. Wolsey was not of a disposition to concede this, and when he found that Warham was not content with being his equal, he resolved to make him his inferior. He wrote to Paris and to Rome. Francis I, who desired to conciliate England, demanded the purple for Wolsey, and the archbishop of York received the title of Cardinal St. Cecilia beyond the Tiber. In November 1515, his hat was brought by the envoy of the pope: "It would have been better to have given him a Tyburn tippet," said some indignant Englishmen; "these Romish hats never brought good into England"-a saying that has become proverbial.
This was not enough for Wolsey: he desired secular greatness above all things. Warham, tired of contending with so arrogant a rival, resigned the seals, and the king immediately transferred them to the cardinal. At length a bull appointed him legate a latere of the holy see, and placed under his jurisdiction all the colleges, monasteries, spiritual courts, bishops, and the primate himself (1519). From that time, as lord-chancellor of England and legate, Wolsey administered everything in church and state. He filled his coffers with money procured both at home and from abroad, and yielded without restraint to his dominant vices, ostentation and pride. Whenever he appeared in public, two priests, the tallest and comeliest that could be found, carried before him two huge silver crosses, one to mark his dignity as archbishop, the other as papal legate. Chamberlains, gentlemen, pages, sergeants, chaplains, choristers, clerks, cupbearers, cooks, and other domestics, to the number of more than 500, among whom were nine or ten lords and the stateliest yeomen of the country, filled his palace. He generally wore a dress of scarlet velvet and silk, with hat and gloves of the same color. His shoes were embroidered with gold and silver, inlaid with pearls and precious stones. A kind of papacy was thus forming in England; for wherever pride flourishes there popery is developed.
One thing occupied Wolsey more than all the pomp with which he was surrounded: his desire, namely, to captivate the king. For this purpose he cast Henry's nativity, and procured an amulet which he wore constantly, in order to charm his master by its magic properties. Then having recourse to a still more effectual necromancy, he selected from among the licentious companions of the young monarch those of the keenest discernment and most ambitious character; and after binding them to him by a solemn oath, he placed them at court to be as eyes and ears to him. Accordingly not a word was said in the presence of the monarch, particularly against Wolsey, of which he was not informed an hour afterward. If the culprit was not in favor, he was expelled without mercy; in the contrary case, the minister sent him on some distant mission. The queen's ladies, the king's chaplains, and even their confessors, were the cardinal's spies. He pretended to omnipresence, as the pope to infallibility.
Wolsey was not devoid of certain showy virtues, for he was liberal to the poor even to affectation, and as chancellor inexorable to every kind of irregularity, and strove particularly to make the rich and high-born bend beneath his power. Men of learning alone obtained from him some little attention, and hence Erasmus calls him "the Achates of a new Aeneas." But the nation was not to be carried away by the eulogies of a few scholars. Wolsey-a man of more than suspected morals, double-hearted, faithless to his promises, oppressing the people with heavy taxes, and exceedingly arrogant to everybody-Wolsey soon became hated by the people of England.
The elevation of a prince of the Roman Church could not be favorable to the Reformation. The priests, encouraged by it, determined to make a stand against the triple attack of the learned, the reformers, and the state; and they soon had an opportunity of trying their strength. Holy orders had become during the middle ages a warrant for every sort of crime. Parliament, desirous of correcting this abuse and checking the encroachments of the church, declared in the year 1513, that any ecclesiastic, accused of theft or murder, should be tried before the secular tribunals. Exceptions, however, were made in favor of bishops, priests, and deacons-that is to say, nearly all the clergy. Notwithstanding this timid precaution, an insolent clerk, the abbot of Winchelcomb, began the battle by exclaiming at St. Paul's: "Touch not mine anointed, said the Lord." At the same time Wolsey, accompanied by a long train of priests and prelates, had an audience of the king, at which he said with hands upraised to heaven: "Sire, to try a clerk, is a violation of God's laws." This time, however, Henry did not give way. "By God's will, we are king of England," he replied, "and the kings of England in times past had never any superior but God only. Therefore know you well that we will maintain the right of our crown." He saw distinctly that to put the clergy above the laws was to put them above the throne. The priests were beaten, but not disheartened: perseverance is a characteristic feature of every hierarchical order. Not walking by faith, they walk all the more by sight; and skillful combinations supply the place of the holy aspirations of the Christian. Humble disciples of the gospel were soon to experience this, for the clergy by a few isolated attacks were about to flesh themselves for the great struggles of the Reformation.
From:History of the Reformation: Of the Sixteenth CenturyFrom:Book 17. England Before the Reformation
The Wolves – Richard Hun – A Murder – Verdict of the Jury – Hun Condemned, and His Character Vindicated – The Gravesend Passage-boat – A Festival Disturbed – Brown Tortured – Visit from his Wife – A Martyr – Character of Erasmus – 1516 and 1517 – Erasmus Goes to Basle
IT is occasionally necessary to soften down the somewhat exaggerated colors in which contemporary writers describe the Romish clergy; but there are certain appellations which history is bound to accept. The wolves, for so the priests were called, by attacking the Lords and Commons had attempted a work beyond their reach. They turned their wrath on others. There were many shepherds endeavoring to gather together the sheep of the Lord beside the peaceful waters: these must be frightened, and the sheep driven into the howling wilderness. "The wolves" determined to fall upon the Lollards.
There lived in London an honest tradesman named Richard Hun, one of those witnesses of the truth who, sincere though unenlightened, have been often found in the bosom of Catholicism. It was his practice to retire to his closet and spend a portion of each day in the study of the Bible. At the death of one of his children, the priest required of him an exorbitant fee, which Hun refused to pay, and for which he was summoned before the legate's court. Animated by that public spirit which characterizes the people of England, he felt indignant that an Englishman should be cited before a foreign tribunal, and laid an information against the priest and his counsel under the act of premunire. Such boldness-most extraordinary at that time-exasperated the clergy beyond all bounds. "If these proud citizens are allowed to have their way," exclaimed the monks, "every layman will dare to resist a priest.”
Exertions were accordingly made to snare the pretended rebel in the trap of heresy; he was thrown into the Lollards' tower at St. Paul's, and an iron collar was fastened round his neck, attached to which was a chain so heavy that neither man nor beast (says Foxe) would have been able to bear it long. When taken before his judges, they could not convict him of heresy, and it was observed with astonishment "that he had his beads in prison with him." They would have set him at liberty, after inflicting on him perhaps some trifling penance-but then, what a bad example it would be, and who could stop the reformers, if it was so easy to resist the papacy? Unable to triumph by justice, certain fanatics resolved to triumph by crime.
At midnight on the 2nd December-the day of his examination-three men stealthily ascended the stairs of the Lollards' tower: the bellringer went first carrying a torch; a sergeant named Charles Joseph followed, and last came the bishop's chancellor. Having entered the cell, they went up to the bed on which Hun was lying, and finding that he was asleep, the chancellor said: "Lay hands on the thief," Charles Joseph and the bellringer fell upon the prisoner, who, awaking with a start, saw at a glance what this midnight visit meant. He resisted the assassins at first, but was soon overpowered and strangled. Charles Joseph then fixed the dead man's belt round his neck, the bellringer helped to raise his lifeless body, and the chancellor slipped the other end of the belt through a ring fixed in the wall. They then placed his cap on his head, and hastily quitted the cell. Immediately after, the conscience-stricken Charles Joseph got on horseback and rode from the city; the bellringer left the cathedral and hid himself: the crime dispersed the criminals. The chancellor alone kept his ground, and he was at prayers when the news was brought him that the turnkey had found Hun hanging. "He must have killed himself in despair" said the hypocrite. But everyone knew poor Hun's Christian feelings. "It is the priests who have murdered him," was the general cry in London, and an inquest was ordered to be held on his body.
On Tuesday, the 5th of December, William Barnwell the city coroner, the two sheriffs, and twenty-four jurymen, proceeded to the Lollards' tower. They remarked that the belt was so short that the head could not be got out of it, and that consequently it had never been placed in it voluntarily, and hence the jury concluded that the suspension was an after-thought of some other persons. Moreover they found that the ring was too high for the poor victim to reach it, -that the body bore marks of violence-and that traces of blood were to be seen in the cell: "Wherefore all we find by God and all our consciences (runs the verdict), that Richard Hun was murdered. Also we acquit the said Richard Hun of his own death."
It was but too true, and the criminals themselves confessed it. The miserable Charles Joseph having returned home on the evening of the 6th December, said to his maid-servant: "If you will swear to keep my secret, I will tell you all."-"Yes, master," she replied, "if it is neither felony nor treason."-Joseph took a book, swore the girl on it, and then said to her: "I have killed Richard Hun!"-"O master! how? he was called a worthy man."-"I would lever [rather] than a hundred pounds it were not done," he made answer; "but what is done cannot be undone." He then rushed out of the house.
The clergy foresaw what a serious blow this unhappy affair would be to them, and to justify themselves they examined Hun's Bible (it was Wickliffe's version), and having read in the preface that "poor men and idiots [simple folks] have the truth of the Holy Scriptures more than a thousand prelates and religious men and clerks of the school," and further, that "the pope ought to be called Antichrist," the bishop of London, assisted by the bishops of Durham and Lincoln, declared Hun guilty of heresy, and on the 20th December his dead body was burnt at Smithfield. "Hun's bones have been burnt, and therefore he was a heretic," said the priests; "he was a heretic, and therefore he committed suicide.”
The triumph of the clergy was of short duration; for almost at the same time William Horsey, the bishop's chancellor, Charles Joseph, and John Spalding the bellringer, were convicted of the murder. A bill passed the Commons restoring Hun's property to his family and vindicating his character; the Lords accepted the bill, and the king himself said to the priests: "Restore to these wretched children the property of their father, whom you so cruelly murdered, to our great and just horror." "If the clerical theocracy should gain the mastery of the state," was the general remark in London, "it would not only be a very great lie, but the most frightful tyranny!" England has never gone back since that time, and a theocratic rule has always inspired the sound portion of the nation with a just and insurmountable antipathy. Such were the events taking place in England shortly before the Reformation. This was not all.
The clergy had not been fortunate in Hun's affair, but they were not for that reason unwilling to attempt a new one.
In the spring of 1517-the year in which Luther posted up his theses- a priest, whose manners announced a man swollen with pride, happened to be on board the passage-boat from London to Gravesend with an intelligent and pious Christian of Ashford, by name John Brown. The passengers, as they floated down the stream, were amusing themselves by watching the banks glide away from them, when the priest, turning towards Brown, said to him insolently: "You are too near me, get farther off. Do you know who I am?"-"No, sir," answered Brown. -"Well, then you must know that I am a priest."-"Indeed, sir; are you a parson, or vicar, or a lady's chaplain?"-"No; I am a soul-priest," he haughtily replied; "I sing mass to save souls."-"Do you, sir," rejoined Brown somewhat ironically, "that is well done; and can you tell me where you find the soul when you begin the mass?"-"I cannot," said the priest. "And where you leave it when the mass is ended?"-"I do not know."-"What!" continued Brown with marks of astonishment, "you do not know where you find the soul or where you leave it.... and yet you say that you save it!"-"Go thy ways," said the priest angrily, "thou art a heretic, and I will be even with thee." Thenceforward the priest and his neighbor conversed no more together. At last they reached Gravesend and the boat anchored.
As soon as the priest had landed, he hastened to two of his friends, Walter and William More, and all three mounting their horses set off for Canterbury, and denounced Brown to the archbishop.
In the meantime John Brown had reached home. Three days later, his wife, Elizabeth, who had just left her chamber, went to church, dressed all in white, to return thanks to God for delivering her in the perils of childbirth. Her husband, assisted by her daughter Alice and the maid-servant, were preparing for their friends the feast usual on such occasions, and they had all of them taken their seats at table, joy beaming on every face, when the street-door was abruptly opened, and Chilton, the constable, a cruel and savage man, accompanied by several of the archbishop's apparitors, seized upon the worthy townsman. All sprang from their seats in alarm; Elizabeth and Alice uttered the most heartrending cries; but the primate's officers, without showing any emotion, pulled Brown out of the house, and placed him on horseback, tying his feet under the animal's belly. It is a serious matter to jest with a priest. The cavalcade rode off quickly, and Brown was thrown into prison, and there left forty days.
At the end of this time, the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Rochester called before them the impudent fellow who doubted whether a priest's mass could save souls, and required him to retract this "blasphemy." But Brown, if he did not believe in the mass, believed in the gospel: "Christ was once offered," he said, "to take away the sins of many. It is by this sacrifice we are saved, and not by the repetitions of the priests." At this reply the archbishop made a sign to the executioners, one of whom took off the shoes and stockings of this pious Christian, while the other brought in a pan of burning coals, upon which they set the martyr's feet. The English laws in truth forbade torture to be inflicted on any subject of the crown, but the clergy thought themselves above the laws. "Confess the efficacity of the mass," cried the two bishops to poor Brown. "If I deny my Lord upon earth," he replied, "He will deny me before his Father in heaven." The flesh was burnt off the soles of the feet even to the bones, and still John Brown remained unshaken. The bishops therefore ordered him to be given over to the secular arm that he might be burnt alive.
On the Saturday preceding the festival of Pentecost, in the year 1517, the martyr was led back to Ashford, where he arrived just as the day was drawing to a close.
A number of idle persons were collected in the street, and among them was Brown's maid-servant, who ran off crying to the house, and told her mistress: "I have seen him... He was bound, and they were taking him to prison." Elizabeth hastened to her husband and found him sitting with his feet in the stocks, his features changed by suffering, and expecting to be burnt alive on the morrow. The poor woman sat down beside him, weeping most bitterly; while he, being hindered by his chains, could not so much as bend towards her. "I cannot set my feet to the ground," said he, "for bishops have burnt them to the bones; but they could not burn my tongue and prevent my confessing the Lord... O Elizabeth!... continue to love him for He is good; and bring up our children in his fear.”
On the following morning-it was Whitsunday-the brutal Chilton and his assistants led Brown to the place of execution, and fastened him to the stake. Elizabeth and Alice, with his other children and his friends, desirous of receiving his last sigh, surrounded the pile, uttering cries of anguish.
The fagots were set on fire; while Brown, calm and collected, and full of confidence in the blood of the Savior, clasped his hands, and repeated this hymn, which Foxe has preserved:- O Lord, I yield me to thy grace, Grant me mercy for my trespass; Let never the fiend my soul chase Lord, I will bow, and thou shalt beat, Let never my soul come in hell-heat.
The martyr was silent: the flames had consumed their victim. Then redoubled cries of anguish rent the air. His wife and daughter seemed as if they would lose their senses. The bystanders showed them the tenderest compassion, and turned with a movement of indignation towards the executioners. The brutal Chilton perceiving this, cried out: -"Come along; let us toss the heretic's children into the flames, lest they should one day spring from their father's ashes." He rushed towards Alice, and was about to lay hold of her, when the maiden shrank back screaming with horror. To the end of her life, she recollected the fearful moment, and to her we are indebted for the particulars. The fury of the monster was checked. Such were the scenes passing in England shortly before the Reformation.
The priests were not yet satisfied, for the scholars still remained in England: if they could not be burnt, they should at least be banished. They set to work accordingly. Standish, bishop of St. Asaph, a sincere man, as it would seem, but fanatical, was inveterate in his hatred of Erasmus, who had irritated him by an idle sarcasm. When speaking of St. Asaph's it was very common to abbreviate it into St. As's; And as Standish was a theologian of no great learning, Erasmus, in his jesting way, would sometimes call him Episcopus a Sancto Asino. As the bishop could not destroy Colet, the disciple, he flattered himself that he should triumph over the master.
Erasmus knew Standish's intentions. Should he commence in England that struggle with the papacy which Luther was about to begin in Germany? It was no longer possible to steer a middle course: he must either fight or leave. The Dutchman was faithful to his nature-we may even say, to his vocation: he left the country.
Erasmus was, in his time, the head of the great literary community. By means of his connections and his correspondence, which extended over all Europe, he established between those countries where learning was reviving, and interchange of ideas and manuscripts. The pioneer of antiquity, an eminent critic, a witty satirist, the advocate of correct taste, and a restorer of literature, one only glory was wanting: he had not the creative spirit, the heroic soul of a Luther. He calculated with no little skill, could detect the smile on the lips or the knitting of the brows; but he had not that self-abandonment, that enthusiasm for the truth, that firm confidence in God, without which nothing great can be done in the world, and least of all in the church. "Erasmus had much, but was little," said one of his biographers.
In the year 1517, a crisis had arrived: the period of the revival was over, that of the Reformation was beginning. The restoration of letters was succeeded by the regeneration of religion: the days of criticism and neutrality by those of courage and action. Erasmus was then only forty-nine years old; but he had finished his career. From being first, he must now be second: the monk of Wittemberg dethroned him. He looked around himself in vain: placed in a new country, he had lost his road. A hero was needed to inaugurate the great movement of modern times: Erasmus was a mere man of letters.
When attacked by Standish in 1516, the literary king determined to quit the court of England, and take refuge in a printing-office. But before laying down his scepter at the foot of a Saxon monk, he signalized the end of his reign by the most brilliant of his publications. The epoch of 1516-17, memorable for the theses of Luther, was destined to be equally remarkable by a work which was to imprint on the new times their essential character. What distinguishes the Reformation from all anterior revivals is the union of the learning with piety, and a faith more profound, more enlightened, and based on the word of God. The Christian people was then emancipated from the tutelage of the schools and the popes, and its charter of enfranchisement was the Bible. The sixteenth century did more than its predecessors: it went straight to the fountain (the Holy Scriptures), cleared it of weeds and brambles, plumbed its depths, and caused its abundant streams to pour forth on all around. The Reformation age studied the Greek Testament, which the clerical age had almost forgotten, -and this is its greatest glory. Now the first explorer of this divine source was Erasmus. When attacked by the hierarchy, the leader of the schools withdrew from the splendid halls of Henry VIII. It seemed to him that the new era which he had announced to the world was rudely interrupted: he could do nothing more by his conversation for the country of the Tudors. But he carried with him those precious leaves, the fruit of his labors-a book which would do more than he desired. He hastened to Basle, and took up his quarters in Frobenius's printing-office, where he not only labored himself, but made others labor. England will soon receive the seed of the new life, and the Reformation is about to begin.