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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 1 — The King and the Scholars

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The Darkness Fulfils its Period — Two Currents in Christendom — Two Phases of the One Movement in England — Henry VIII — His Education — His Character — Popularity — Dean Colet — His Studies at Florence — Englishmen in Italy — Colet's Lectures at St. Paul's School — William Grocyn — Colet Founds St. Paul's School — William Lily — Linacre — Dean Colet's Sermon at St. Paul's — Fitzjames, Bishop of London — Warham, the Primate — Erasmus — Sir Thomas More — The Plough of Reform Begins again to Move.

IT is around the person and ministry of Wicliffe that the dawn of the new times is seen to break. Down to his day the powers of superstition had continued to grow, and the centuries as they passed over the world beheld the night deepening around the human soul, and the slavery in which the nations were sunk becoming ever viler. But with the appearance of Wicliffe the darkness fulfils its period, and the great tide of evil begins to be rolled back. From the times of the English Reformer we are able to trace two great currents in Christendom, which have never intermitted their flow from that day to this. The one is seen steadily bearing down into ruin the great empire of Roman superstition and bondage; the other is seen lifting higher and higher the kingdom of truth and liberty.

Let us for a moment consider, first, the line of calamities which fell on the anti-Christian interest, drying up the sources of its power, and paving the way for its final destruction; and next, that grand chain of beneficent dispensations, beginning with Wicliffe, which came to revive the cause of righteousness, all but extinct.

In the days of Wicliffe came the Papal schism, the first opening in that compact tyranny which had so long burdened the earth and defied the heavens. Next, and as a consequence, came the struggles of the Councils against the Papal autocracy: these were followed by a series of terrible wars, first in France and next in England, by which the nobles in both countries were nearly exterminated. These wars broke the power of feudalism, and raised the kings above the Papal chair. This was the first step in the emancipation of the nations; and by the opening of the sixteenth century, the process was so far advanced that we find only three great thrones in Europe, whose united power was more than a match for the Popedom, but whose conflicting interests kept open the door for the escape of the nations.

When we turn to the other line of events, we find it too taking its rise at the feet, so to speak, of Wicliffe. First comes the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue, with the consequent spread of Lollardism — in other words, of Protestant doctrines in England; this was followed by the fall of Constantinople, and the scattering of the seeds of knowledge over the West; by the invention of the art of printing, and other discoveries which aided the awakening of the human mind; and finally by the diffusion of the light to Bohemia and other countries; and ultimately by the second great opening of the day in the era of Luther and the Reformers. From the Divine seed deposited by the hand of Wicliffe spring all the influences and events that constitute the modern times. The reforming movements which we have traced in both the Lutheran and the Calvinistic countries are about to culminate in the British Reformation — the top-stone which crowns the edifice of the sixteenth century.

The action into which the English nation had been roused by the instrumentality of Wicliffe took a dual form. With one party it was a struggle for religious truth, with the other it was a contest for national independence. These were but two phases of one great movement, and both were needed to create a perfect and powerful Protestantism. For if the corruptions of the Papacy had rendered necessary a reformation of doctrine, not less had the encroachments and usurpations of the Vatican necessitated a vindication of the national liberties. The successive laws placed on the statute-book during the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, remain the monuments of the great struggle waged by England to disenthrall herself from the fetters of the Papal supremacy. These we have narrated down to the times of Henry VIII, where we now resume our narrative.

Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, and thus the commencement of his reign was contemporaneous with the birth of Calvin, of Knox, and of others who were destined, by their genius and their virtues, to lend to the age now opening a glory which their contemporaries, Henry and Francis and Charles, never could have given it by their arms or their statesmanship. It was a long while since any English king had mounted the throne with such a prospect of a peaceful and glorious reign, as the young prince who now grasped the scepter which had been swayed by Alfred the Great. Uniting in his person the rival claims of York and Lancaster, he received the warm devotion of the adherents of both houses. Of majestic port, courteous manners, and frank and open disposition, he was the idol of the people. Destined to fill the See of Canterbury, his naturally vigorous understanding had been improved by a carefully conducted education, and his mental accomplishments far exceeded the customary measure of the princes of his age. He had a taste for letters, he delighted in the society of scholars, and lie prodigally lavished in his patronage of literature, and the gaieties and entertainments for which he had a fondness, those vast. treasures which the avarice and parsimony of his father, Henry VII, had accumulated. The court paid to him by the two powerful monarchs of France and Spain, who each strove to have Henry as his ally, also tended to enhance

his importance in the eyes of his subjects, and increase their devotion to him. To his youth, to the grace ,of his person, to the splendor of his court, and the wit and gaiety of his talk, there was added the prestige that comes from success in arms, though on a small scale. The conquest of Tournay in France, and the victory of Flodden in Scotland, were just enough to gild with a gleam of military glory the commencement of his reign, and enhance the favorable auspices under which it opened. But we turn from Henry to contemplate persons of lower degree, but of more inherent grandeur, and whose lives were destined in yield richer fruit to the realm of England. It is not at the foot of the throne of Henry that the Reformation is seen to take its rise. The movement took root in England a full century before he was born, or a Tudor had ascended the throne. Henry will reappear on the stage in his own time; meanwhile we leave the palace and enter the school.

The first; of those illustrious men with whom we are now to be concerned is Dr. John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's. The young Colet was a student at Oxford, but disgusted with the semi-barbarous tuition which prevailed there, and possessed of a large fortune, he resolved to travel, if haply he might find in foreign universities a more rational system of knowledge, and purer models of study. He visited Italy, where he gave himself ardently in the acquisition of the tongue of ancient Rome, in company with Linacre, Grocyn, and William Lily, his countrymen, who had preceded him thither, drawn by their thirst for the new learning, especially the Greek. The change which the study of the classic writers had begun in Colet was completed by the reading of the Scriptures; and when he returned to England in 1497, the shackles of the schoolmen had been rent from his mind, and he was a discountenancer of the rites, the austerities, and the image-worship of the still dominant Church. [1] To the reading of the Scriptures he added the study of the Fathers, who furnished him with additional proofs and arguments against the prevailing doctrines and customs of the times, lie began a course of lectures on the Epistles of St. Paul in his cathedral church; and deeming his own labors all too little to dispel the thick night that brooded over the land, he summoned to his aid laborers whose minds, like his own, had been enlarged by the new learning, and especially by that diviner knowledge, to the fountains of which that learning had given them access. Those who had passed their studious hours together on the banks of the Arno, and under the delicious sky of Florence, became in London fellow-workmen in the attempt to overthrow the monkish system of tuition which had been pursued for ages, and to introduce their countrymen to true learning and sound knowledge. Colet employed William Grocyn to read lectures in St. Paul's on portions of Holy Scripture; and after Grocyn, he procured other learned men to read divinity lectures in his cathedral. [2]

But the special service of Colet was the founding of St. Paul's School, which he endowed out of his ample fortune, in order that sound learning might continue to be taught in it by duly qualified instructors. The first master of St. Paul's School was selected from the choice band of English scholars with whom Colet had formed so endearing a friendship in the capital of Tuscany. William Lily was appointed to preside over the newly-founded seminary, which had the honor of being the first public school in England, out of the universities, in which the Greek language was taught. This eminent scholar had been initiated into the beautiful language of ancient Greece at Rhodes, where he is said to have enjoyed for several years the instruction of one of the illustrious refugees whom the triumph of the Ottoman arms had chased from Constantinople. Cornelius Vitelli, an Italian, was the first who taught Greek in the University of Oxford. From him William Grocyn acquired the elements of that tongue, and, succeeding his master, he was the first Englishman who taught it at Oxford. His contemporary, Thomas Linacre, was not less distinguished as a "Grecian."

Linacre had spent some delightful years in Italy — the friend of Lorenzo de Medici, and the pupil of Politianus and Chalcondyles, at that time the most renowned classical teachers in Europe — and when afterwards he returned to his native land, he became successively physician to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and to Henry VIII. These men were scholars rather than Reformers, but the religious movement owed them much. Having caught on the soft of Virgil and Cicero an enthusiastic love of classic learning, they imbibed therewith that simplicity and freedom, that vigor and independence of thought which characterized the ancients, and they transplanted these great qualities into the soft of England. The teaching of the monks now began to offend the quickened intellect of the English people, and the scandalous lives of the clergy to revolt their moral sense. Thus the way was being paved for greater changes.

Colet, however, was more than the scholar; he attained the stature of a Reformer, though, the time not being ripe for separation from Rome, he lived and died within the pale of the Church. In a celebrated sermon which he preached before Convocation on Conformation and Reformation, he bewailed the unhappy condition of the Church as a flock deserted by its shepherds. The clergy he described as greedy of honors and riches, as having abandoned themselves to sensual delights, as spending their days in hunting and hawking, and their nights in feasting and revelry. Busied they truly were, but it was in the service of man; ambition they lacked not, but it rose no higher than the dignities of earth; their conversation was

not in heaven, nor of heavenly things, but of the gossip of the court; and their dignity as God's ministers, which ought to transcend in brightness that of princes and emperors, was sorely bedimmed by the shadows of earth. And referring to the new doctrines which were beginning to be put forth in many quarters, "We see," said the dean, "strange and heretical opinions appearing in our days, and I wonder not; but has not St. Bernard told us that there is no heresy more dangerous to the Church than the vicious lives of its priests?" And coming in the close to the remedy, "The way," said he, "by which the Church may be reformed into a better fashion is not to make new laws — of these there are already enough — but to live new lives. With you, O Fathers and bishops, must begin the reformation so much needed; we, the priests, will follow when we see you going before, and then we need not fear that the whole body of the people will come after. Your holy lives will be as a book in which we shall read the Gospel, and be taught how to practice it; your example will be a sermon, and its sweet eloquence will be more effectual to draw the people into the right path than all the terror of cursings and excommunications." [3]

The people listened with delight to the Dean of St. Paul's; but not so the clergy. The times were too early, and the sermon too outspoken. Among Colet's auditors was the Bishop of London, Fitzjames. He was a man of eighty, of irritable temper, innocent of all theology save what he had learned from Thomas Aquinas, and he clung only the more tenaciously to the traditions of the past the older he grew. His ire being kindled, he went with a complaint against Color to Warham of Canterbury. "What has he said?" asked the archbishop. "Said!" exclaimed the aged and irate bishop, "what has he not said?" He has said that it is forbidden to worship by images; that it is lawful to say the Lord's Prayer in one's mother tongue; that the text, 'Feed my sheep,' does not impose temporal dues on the laity to the priest; and," added he, with some hesitation, "he has said that sermons in the pulpit ought not be read." Warham stuffed, for he himself was wont in preaching to read from his manuscript. To these weighty accusations, as Fitzjames doubtless accounted them, the dean had no defense to offer; and as little had the archbishop, an able and liberal-minded man, ecclesiastical censure to inflict. Another indication had been given how the tide was setting; and Dean Colet, feeling his position stronger, labored from that day more zealously than ever to dispel the darkness around him. It was after the delivery of this famous sermon that he resolved to devote his ample fortune to the diffusion of sound learning, knowing that ignorance was the nurse of the numerous superstitions that deformed his day, and the rampart around those monstrous evils he had so unsparingly reprobated.

Erasmus, the famous scholar of Holland, and More, the nearly as famous scholar of England, belong to the galaxy of learned men that constituted the English Renaissance. Both contributed aid to that literary movement which helped to fill, at this early hour, the skies of England with light. The service rendered by Erasmus to the Reformation is worthy of eternal remembrance. He it was who first opened to the learned men of Europe the portals of Divine Revelation, by his edition of the Greek New Testament, accompanied by a translation in Latin. It was published in 1516, and fracas a great epoch in the movement. Erasmus visited England, contracted a warm friendship with Colet, and learned from him to moderate his admiration of the great schoolman, Aquinas He was introduced at court, was caressed by Henry, and permitted to share in the munificence with which that monarch then patronized learned men. Erasmus could not endure the indolence, the greed, the gluttony, the crass ignorance of the monks, and he lashed them mercilessly with his keen wit and his pungent satire. The two great scholars, Erasmus and More, met for the first time at the table of the Lord Mayor of London. A short but brilliant encounter of wits revealed the one to the other. More was the Erasmus of England; the Utopia of the former answers to the Praise of Folly (Encomium Morice) of the latter. Possessing a playful fancy, a vigorous understanding, and a polished sarcasm, More delighted to assail with a delicate but effective raillery the same class of men against whom Erasmus had leveled his keenest shafts. He united with Erasmus in calling for a reformation of that Church of which, as says one, "he lived to be the champion, the inquisitor, and the martyr." [4] In his Utopia he shows us what sort of world he would fain have given us — a commonwealth in which there should be no place for monks, in which the number of priests should not exceed the number of churches, and in which the right of private judgment should be accorded to every one, and if any should think wrong, he was to be, put right by argument, and not by the rack or the faggot. Of great intellect, but not of equally great character, the two scholars had raised their voices, as we have said, for a reformation of abuses; but when they heard the voice of Luther resounding through Europe, and raising the same cry, and when they saw the reformation they had demanded at last approaching, they drew back in affright. They had failed to take account of the strength of error, and the forces necessary to uproot it; and when they saw altars overturned and thrones shaken — in short, a tempest arise that threatened to shake "not the earth only, but

also heaven" — they resembled the magician who shudders at the spirit himself hath conjured up.

Such were the men and the agencies now at work in England. They were not the Reformation, but they were necessary preparatives of that great and much-needed change. The spiritual principles that Wicliffe had taught were still in the soft; but, like flowers in the time of winter, they had hidden themselves, and waited in the darkness the coming of a more mollient time to blossom forth. Letters might exist where they would not be suffered to live. But meanwhile the action of these principles was by no means suspended. Wicliffe's Bible was being disseminated among the people; the line of his disciples was perpetuated in the poor and despised Lollards: Protestant tracts were frequently arriving in the Thames from Germany: and here and there young priests and scholars were reading public lectures on portions of the Scriptures. In the political sphere, also, preparations were going forward. England had been overturned — the old tree had been cut down to its roots, as it were, in order that fresh and more friendly shoots might spring forth. The barons had fallen in the wars: the Plantagenets had disappeared from the throne: a Tudor was now swaying the scepter; inveterate customs and traditions were vanishing in the clear though chilly dawn of letters; and the plough of Reform, which had stood motionless in the furrow for well-nigh a century, was once more about to go forward.

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Monday, May 29th, 2017
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