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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

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

Chapter 10 — Scaffolds — Death of Henry VIII

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Executions for Denying the King's Supremacy—Bishop FisheręSir Thomas More—Execution of Queen Anne Boleyn—Henry's Policy becomes more Popish—The Act of the Six Articles—Persecution under it—The Martyr Lambert—Act Permitting the Reading of the Bible—A Bible in Every Church—The Institution of a Christian Man—The Necessary Erudition of a Christian Man—The Primer—Trial and Martyrdom of Anne Askew—Henry VIII Dies.

We come now within the shadow of very tragic events. Numerous scaffolds been to deform this part of the history of England, the guilt of which must be shared between Clement VII, who threatened the kingdom with invasion, and Henry VIII, who rigorously pressed the oath of supremacy upon every man of importance among his subjects. The heads of the religious houses were summoned with the rest to take the oath. These persons had hitherto been exempt from secular obedience, and they refused to acknowledge any authority that put itself, as the royal supremacy did, above the Pope. The Prior of Charterhouse and some of his monks were tried and convicted for refusing the oath, and on the 4th of May, 1535, they were executed as traitors at Tyburn. Certain friars who had taken part in the northern rebellion were hung in chains at York. The Pope having released all his Majesty's subjects from their allegiance, to refuse the oath of supremacy was regarded as a disowning of the king, and punished as treason.

But amid the crowd of scaffolds now rising in England—some for refusing the oath of supremacy, and others for denying transubstantiation—there are three that specially attract our notice, and move our sorrow, though not in equal degree. The first is that of Dr. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester.

He was a man of seventy-seven, and refusing to take the oath of supremacy, he was committed to the Tower. He had been there a year when the Pope, by an unseasonable honor, hastened his fate. Paul III sent him a red hat, which when the king learned, he swore that if he should wear it, it would be on his shoulders, for he should leave him never a head. He was convicted of treason, and executed on the 22nd June, 1535. This prelate had illustrated his exalted station by a lowly deportment, and he attested the sincerity of his belief by his dignified behavior on the scaffold.

The next was a yet nobler victim, Sir Thomas More, the flower of English scholars. His early detestation of monks had given place to a yet greater detestation of heretics, and this man of beautiful genius and naturally tender sensibilities had sunk into the inquisitor. He had already been stripped of the seals as chancellor, and in the private station into which he had retired he tried to avoid offense on the matter of the supremacy. But all his circumspection could not shield him from the suspicions of his former master. More was asked to take the oath of supremacy, but declined, and after languishing a year in prison, on the 6th of July, 1535, he was led to Tower Hill, and beheaded.

And now comes the noblest victim of all, she whom, but three short years before, the king took by the hand, and leading her up the steps of his throne, placed beside himself as queen. The same gates and the same chamber in the Tower which had sent forth the beautiful and virtuous Anne Boleyn to be crowned, now open to receive her as a prisoner. Among her maids of honor was one "who had all the charms both of youth and beauty in her person; and her humor was tempered between the severe gravity of Queen Catherine, and the gay pleasantness of Queen Anne." [1]

Jane Seymour, for such was her name, had excited a strong but guilty passion in the heart of Henry. He resolved to clear his way to a new marriage by the axe. The upright Cranmer was at this time banished the court, and there was not another man in the nation who had influence or courage to stop the king in his headlong course. All befit to a tyranny that had now learned to tread into the dust whatever opposed it, and which deemed the slightest resistance a crime so great that no virtue, no learning, no former service could atone for it. The king, feigning to believe that his bed had been dishonored, threw his queen into the Tower. At her trial on the 15th of May, 1536, she was left entirely unbefriended, and was denied even the help of counsel. Her corrupt judges found her guilty on evidence which was discredited then, and which no one believes now. [2] On the 19th of May, a little before noon, she was brought on the scaffold and beheaded. "Her body was thrown into a common chest of elm tree that was made to put arrows in, and was buried in the chapel within the Tower before twelve o'clock." [3] The alleged accomplices of Anne quickly followed her to the scaffold, and though some of them had received a promise of life on condition of tendering criminatory evidence, it was thought more prudent to put all of them to death. Dead men can make no recantations. Henry passed a day in mourning, and on the morrow married Jane Seymour.

We have reached a turning-point in the life and measures of Henry VIII. He had vindicated his prerogative by abolishing the Pope's supremacy, and he had partially replenished his exchequer by suppressing the monasteries, and he resolved to pause at the line he had now reached. He had fallen into "a place where two seas met:" the Papacy buffeted him on the one side, Lutheranism on the other; and the more he strove to stem the current of the old, the more he favored the advancing tide of the new. He would place himself in equilibrium, he would be at rest; but this he found impossible.

The Popish party regained their ascendency.

Cromwell, who had been Henry's adviser in the assault on the supremacy and the despoiling of the monasteries, was sent (28th July, 1540) to die on a scaffold. [4] Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, an ambitious and intriguing man, devoted to the old religion, took the place of the fallen minister in the royal councils. The powerful family of the Howards, with whom the king was about to form an alliance—Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves being already both out of the way—threw their influence on the same side, and the tyranny of the king became henceforth more truculent, and his victims more numerous. If Henry had quarreled with the Pope, he would show Christendom that he had not apostatized from the Roman Catholic faith, that he cherished no inclination towards Lutheranism, and that he was not less deserving now of the proud title of "Defender of the Faith" than he had been on the day when the conclave voted it to him. What perhaps helped to make the king veer round, and appear to be desirous of buttressing the cause which he had seemed so lately desirous only to destroy, was the fact that Paul III had confirmed and re-fulminated against him the bull of excommunication which Clement VII had pronounced, and the state of isolation in which he found himself on the Continent made it prudent not further to provoke the Popish Powers till the storm should be over.

Accordingly there was now passed the Act of the Six Articles, "the lash with the six strings," as it was termed. The first enacted the doctrine of transubstantiation; the second withheld the Cup from the laity; the third prohibited priests from marrying; the fourth made obligatory the vow of celibacy; the fifth upheld private masses for souls in purgatory; and the sixth declared auricular confession expedient and necessary. This creed, framed by the "Head of the Church" for the people of England, was a very compendious one, and was thoroughly Roman. The penalties annexed were sufficiently severe. He who should deny the first article, transubstantiation namely, was to be burned at the stake, and they who should impugn the others were to be hanged as felons; and lands and goods were to be forfeited alike by the man who died by the rope as by him who died by the fire. [5] These articles were first proposed in Convocation, where Cranmer used all his influence and eloquence to prevent their passing. He was out-voted by the lower clergy. When they came before Parliament, again Cranmer argued three days together against them, but all in vain. The king requested the archbishop to retire from the House before the vote was taken, but Cranmer chose rather to disoblige the monarch than desert the cause of truth. It was to the credit of the king that, instead of displeasure, he notified his approval of the fidelity and constancy of Cranmer—the one courageous man in a pusillanimous Parliament. It was soon seen that this Act was to draw after it very tragic consequences. Latimer, now Bishop of Worcester, and Shaxton, Bishop of Salisbury, were both thrown into prison, and they were soon followed by 500 others. Commissioners were appointed to carry out the Act, and they entered upon their work with such zeal that the prisons of London were crowded with men suspected of heresy. The Act was applied to offenses that seemed to lie beyond its scope, and which certainly were not violations of its letter. Absence from church, the neglect of the use of the rosary, the refusal to creep on one's knees to the cross on Good Friday, the eating of meat on interdicted days, and similar acts were construed by the commissioners as violations of the articles, and were punished accordingly.

It was now that stakes began to be multiplied, and that the martyrs, Barnes, Garret, and Jerome, suffered in the fire. To show his impartiality, the king burned two Papists for denying the supremacy. It was now too that Henry, who, as the historian Tytler says, "had already written his title of Supreme Head of the Church in letters, of blood," found an opportunity of exhibiting in a public debate his zeal for orthodoxy.

Lambert, a clergyman in priest's orders, who taught a school in London, had been accused before the archiepiscopal court of denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, and had appealed from the primate to the king. The court was held in Westminster Hall. The king took his place on the judgment-seat in robes of white satin, having on his right hand the prelates, the judges, and the most eminent lawyers, and on his left the temporal lords and the great officers of the court. Scaffolds had been erected for the accommodation of the public, before whom Henry took pride in showing his skill in ecclesiastical lore. The disputation between the king and the prisoner, in which Cranmer and nine other prelates took part, lasted five hours. The day wore away in the discussion; torches were brought in.

"What sayest thou now," exclaimed Henry, anxious to close the strange ren-contre, "after these solid reasons brought forward by these learned men: art thou satisfied? Wilt thou live or die?" The prisoner declared himself still unconvinced. He was then condemned, as "an obstinate opponent of the truth," to the stake. He was executed two days afterwards. "As touching the terrible manner and fashion," says Fox, "of the burning of this blessed martyr, here it is to be noted, of all others that have been burned and offered up at Smithfield, there were yet none so cruelly and piteously handled as he." The fire was lighted, and then withdrawn, and lighted again, so as to consume him piecemeal. His scorched and half-burned body was raised on the pikes of the halberdiers, and tossed from one to the other to all the extent his chain would allow; the martyr, says the martyrologist, "lifting up such hands as he had, and

his finger-ends flaming with fire, cried unto the People in these words, 'none but Christ, none but Christ!' and so being let down again from their halberds, fell into the fire, and gave up his life." [6]

Cranmer had better success with the king in another matter to which we now turn. The whole Bible, as we have already seen, had been translated into English by Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, with the view of being spread through England. The work was completed in October, 1535. Another edition was printed before the 4th of August, 1537, for on that day we find Archbishop Cranmer sending Grafton, the printer, with his Bible to Cromwell, with a request that he would show it to the king, and obtain, if possible, the royal "license that the same may be sold, and read of every person, without danger of any Act, proclamation, or ordinance, heretofore granted to the contrary." [7] In 1538 a royal order was issued, appointing a copy of the Bible to be placed in every parish church, and raised upon a desk, so that all might come and read. The Act set forth "that the king was desirous to have his subjects attain to the knowledge of God's Word, which could not be effected by means so well as by granting them the free and liberal use of the Bible in the English tongue." [8] It was wonderful," says Strype, "to see with what joy this Book of God was received, not only among the learned sort, and those who were lovers of the Reformation, but generally all England over, among all the vulgar and common people; and with what greediness God's Word was read, and what resort to places where the reading of it was. Everybody that could bought the book, or busily read it, or got others to read it to them, if they could not themselves and divers elderly people learned to read on purpose.

And even little boys flocked among the rest to hear portions of the Holy Scriptures read." [9] The first edition was sold in two years, and another immediately brought out. How different now from the state of things a few years ago! Then, if any one possessed a copy of the Scriptures he was obliged to conceal it; and if he wished to read it, he must go out into the woods or the fields, where no eye saw him, or choose the midnight hour; now, it lay openly in the peasant's home, to be read at the noon-day rest, or at the eventide, without dread of informer or peril of prison. "I rejoice," wrote Cranmer to Cromwell, "to see this day of reformation now risen in England, since the light of God's Word doth shine over it without a cloud." In the same year other injunctions were issued in the king's name, to the effect, among other directions, that once a quarter every curate should preach a sermon specially directed against the superstitious usages of the times. The preacher was enjoined to warn his hearers against the folly of going on pilgrimage, of offering candles and tapers to relics, of kissing them, and the like. If the preacher had extolled these practices formerly, he was now publicly to recant his teaching, and to confess that he had been misled by common opinion and custom, and had had no authority from the Word of God. [10]

The publication of the Bible was followed by other books, also set forth by authority, and of a kind fitted to promote reformation. The first of these was The Institution of a Christian Man, or "The Bishops' Book," as it was termed, from having been drawn up by the prelates. It was issued with the approval of the king, and was intended to be a standard of orthodoxy to the nation. Its gold was far indeed from being without alloy; the new and the old, a few evangelical doctrines and a great many Popish errors, being strangely blended and bound up together in it.

The Institution of a Christian Man was succeeded, after some time, by The Necessary Erudition of a Christian Man. This was called "The King's Book." Published after the Six Articles, it maintained the doctrine of transubstantiation. In other respects, The Erudition was an improvement upon The Institution. Revised by Cranmer, it omits all mention of what the other had recommended, namely, the veneration of images, the invocation of the saints, and masses for the dead, and places moral duties above ceremonial observances, as, for instance, the practice of charity above abstinence from flesh on Friday. It contained, moreover, an exposition of the Apostle's Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria, to which were appended two articles on justification, in which an approximation was made to sounder doctrine on the subject of the fall of man, and the corruption of nature thereby inherited. The redemption accomplished by Christ was so exhibited as to discourage the idea of merit. [11]

The king published, besides, a Primer. It was intended for the initiation of the young into the elements of the Christian religion, and consisted of confessions, prayers, and hymns, with the seven Penitential psalms, and selections from the Passion of our Lord as recorded in the Gospel of St. John. But the Primer was not intended exclusively for youth; it was meant also as a manual of devotion for adults, to be used both in the closet and in the church, to which the people were then in the habit of resorting for private as well as public prayer.

Henry VIII was now drawing to his latter end. His life, deformed by many crimes, was to be darkened by one more tragedy before closing. Anne Askew was the second daughter of Sir William Askew, of Kelsey, in Lincolnshire. Having been converted to the Protestant faith by reading the Scriptures, she was taken before

"the Quest," or commissioners appointed to work the "drag-net" of the Six Articles, charged with denying transubstantiation. She was thrown into prison, and lay there nearly a year. The Council, with Gardiner and Bonner at its head, was then plotting the destruction of Queen Catherine; and Anne Askew, by command of the king, was brought before the Council and examined, in the hope that something might be elicited from her to incriminate the ladies of the queen's court. Her firmness baffled her persecutors, and she was thrown into the Tower. In their rage they carried her to a dungeon, and though she was delicate and sickly, they placed her on the rack, and stretched her limbs till the bones were almost broken. Despite the torture, she uttered no groan, she disclosed no secret, and she steadfastly refused to renounce her faith. Chancellor Wriothesly, in his robes, was standing by, and, stung to fury by her silence, he stripped off his gown, grasped the handle of the rack, and swore that he would make the prisoner reveal her accomplices.

He worked the torture with his own hands, till his victim was on the point of expiring. Anne swooned on being taken off the rack. On recovering, she found herself on the stony floor, with Wriothesly by her side, trying, by words of feigned kindness, to overcome the resolution which his horrible barbarities had not been able to subdue. She was condemned to the fire.

When the day of execution arrived, she was carried to Smithfield in a chair, for the torture had deprived her of the use of her limbs. Three others were to die with her. She was fastened to the stake with a chain. The Lord Mayor, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Bedford, the Lord Chancellor Wriothesly, and other persons of rank occupied a bench in front of St. Bartholomew's Church, in order to witness the execution. A strong railing served to keep off the dense crowd of hardened ruffians and fanatical scoffers that occupied the area; but here and there were persons whose looks testified their sympathy with the sufferers and their cause, and were refreshing to them, doubtless, in their hour of agony. Presently the Lord Mayor commanded the torch to be applied. At the lighting of the train the sky suddenly blackened; a few drops of rain fell, and a low peel of thunder was heard. "They are damned," said some of the spectators. "God knows whether I may truly call it thunder," said one who was present; "methought it seemed that the angels in heaven rejoiced to receive their souls into bliss. [12] Their heroic death, which formed the last of the horrors of Henry VIII's reign, was long remembered.

A few months after these tragic events, the king was laid down on the bed from which he was to rise no more. On the 27th of January, 1547, it became evident that his end was drawing near. Those around him inquired whether he wished to have the consolations of a clergyman. "Yes," he replied, "but first let me repose a little." The king slept an hour, and on awakening desired his attendants to send immediately for Cranmer. Before the archbishop could arrive Henry was speechless; but he retained his consciousness, and listened to the exhortations of the primate. Cranmer then asked of him a sign that he rested on Christ alone. Henry pressed his hand and expired. It was early on the morning of the 28th when the king breathed his last. He had lived fifty-five years and seven months, and had reigned thirty-seven years, nine months, and six days. [13]

It has been the lot of Henry VIII to be severely blamed by both Protestants and Papists. To this circumstance it is owing that his vices have been put prominently in the foreground, and that his good qualities and great services have been thrown into the shade. There are far worse characters in history, who have been made to figure in colors not nearly so black; and there are men who have received much more applause, who have done less to merit it. We should like to judge Henry VIII by his work, and by his times. He contrasts favorably with his two great contemporaries, Francis I and Charles V. He was selfish and sensual, but he was less so than the French king; he was cruel inexorably and relentlessly cruel but he did not spill nearly so much blood as the emperor. True, his scaffolds strike and startle our imagination more than do the thousands of victims whom Charles V put to death, but that is because they stand out in greater relief. The one victim affects us more than does the crowd; and the relationship of the sufferer to the royal murderer touches deeply our pity.

It is the wife or the minister whom we see Henry dragging to the scaffold: we are therefore more shudderingly alive to his guilt; whereas those whom the kings of France and Spain delivered up to the executioner, and whom they caused to expire with barbarities which Henry VIII never practiced, were more remotely connected with the authors of their death. As regards the two most revolting crimes of the English king, the execution of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, the Popish faction must divide with Henry the guilt of their murder. The now morose and suspicious temper of the monarch made it easy for conspirators to lead him into crime. The darkest periods of his life, and in particular the executions that followed the enactment of the Six Articles, correspond with the ascendency at court of Gardiner and his party, who never ceased during Henry's reign to plot for the restoration of the Papal supremacy.

Henry VIII was a great sovereign—in some respects the greatest of the three sovereigns who then governed Christendom. He had the wisdom to choose able ministers, and he brought a strong understanding and a resolute

will to the execution of grand designs. These have left their mark on the world for good. Neither Charles nor Francis so deeply or so beneficially affected the current of human affairs. The policy of Charles V ruined the great country at the head of which he stood, The same may be said of the policy of Francis I: it began the decline of the most civilized of the European nations. The policy of Henry VIII inspired, we grant, by very mixed motives, and carried through at the cost of great crimes on his part, and great suffering on the part of others—has resulted in placing Great Britain at the head of the world. His policy comprised three great measures. He restored the Bible to that moral supremacy which is the bulwark of conscience; he shook off from England the chains of a foreign tyranny, and made her mistress of herself; and he tore out the gangrene of the monastic system, which was eating out the industry and the allegiance of the nation. This was rough work, but it had to be done before England could advance a step in the path of Reform. It was only a man like Henry VIII who could do it. With a less resolute monarch on the throne, the nation would have been broken by the shock of these great changes; with a less firm hand on the helm, the vessel of the State would have foundered amid the tempests which this policy awakened both with and without the country.

The friendship that existed to the close between Henry VIII and Cranmer is one of the marvels of history. The man who could appreciate the upright and pious archbishop, and esteem him above all his servants, and who was affectionately regarded and faithfully served by the archbishop in return, must have had some sterling qualities in him. These two men were very unlike, but it was their dissimilarity, we are disposed to think, that kept them together. It was the simplicity and transparency of the archbishop that enabled the heart of the king fully to confide in him; and it was the strength, or shall we say it, the tyranny of Henry that led the somewhat timid and weak Reformer to lean upon and work along with the monarch. Doubtless, Cranmer's insight taught him that the first necessity of England was a strong throne; and that, seeing both Church and State had been demoralized by the setting up of the Pope's authority in the country, neither order nor liberty was possible in England till that foreign usurpation was put down, and the king made supreme over all persons and causes. This consideration, doubtless, made him accept the "Headship" of Henry as an interim arrangement, although he might not approve of it as a final settlement. Certain it is that the cooperation maintained between the pure and single-minded primate, and the headstrong and blood-stained monarch, resulted in great blessings to England.

When Henry died, he left to Cranmer little but a ruin. The foundations of a new edifice had indeed been laid in the diffusion of the Word of God; but while the substructions lay hid underground, the surface was strewn over by the debris of that old edifice which the terrible blows of the king had shivered in pieces. Cranmer had to set to work, with such assistants as he could gather round him, and essay in patience and toil the rearing of a new edifice. It is in this labor that we are now to follow him.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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