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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 7 — Protestantism in England, From the Times of Wicliffe to Those of Henry VIII

Chapter 11 — Influence of the wars of the fifteenth century on the progress of Protestantism

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Convulsions of the Fifteenth Century – Fall of Constantinople – Wars in Bohemia – in Italy – in Spain – in Switzerland – Wars of the Papal Schism – Was it Peace or War which the Popes gave to Christendom? – Wars originated by the Popes: the Crusades; the War of Investitures; the Albigensian and Waldensian Crusades; the Wars in Naples, Poland, etc.; the Feuds in Italy; the Hussite Campaigns, etc. – Wars of the Roses – Traced to the Council of Archbishop Chicheley – Providential End of the Wars of the Fifteenth Century – The Nobility Weakened – The Throne made Powerful – Why? – Hussitism and Lollardism.

THE Day that was hastening towards the world sent terrible tempests before it as the heralds of its approach. Than the middle of the fifteenth century there is, perhaps, no point in modern history that presents a scene of more universal turmoil and calamity, if we except the period that witnessed the fall of the Western Empire. Nowhere is there stability or rest. All around, as far as the eye can reach, appears a sea whose waters, swollen into huge billows by the force of the mighty winds, are assailng the very foundations of the earth. The Christian of that day, when he cast his eyes around on a world rocked and tossed by these great tempests, must have despaired, had he not remembered that there is One who "sits King upon the floods."

The armies of the Turk were gathering round Constantinople, and the Queen of the East was about to bow her head and sink in a tempest of pillage, of rapine, and of slaughter. The land of Bohemia, watered, as with a plenteous rain, once, again, and a third time, with German blood, was gloomy and silent. Germany had sufered far more than she had inflicted.

From the Rhine to the Elbe, from the Black Forest to the Baltic, her nations were lamenting their youth slaughtered in the ill-fated campaigns into which Rome had drawn them against the Hussites. Italy, split up into principalities, was ceaselessly torn by the ambitions and feuds of its petty rulers, and if for a moment the din of these intestine strifes was hushed, it was in presence of some foreign invader whom the beauty of that land had drawn with his armies across the Alps. The magnificent cities of Spain, adorned by the art and enriched by the industry of the Moors, were being emptied of their inhabitants by the crusades of bigotry; the Moslem flag was being torn down on the walls of Granada, and the race which had converted the Vega around the Moorish capital into a garden, watering it with the icy torrents of the Sierra Nevada, and clothing it with corn-fields and orange-groves, were fleeing across the Straits to form new seats on the northern shores of Africa. The Swiss, who had looked for centuries with almost uninterrupted indifference on the wars and convulsions that distracted the nations that dwelt at the feet of their mountains, finding in their great hills an impregnable fortress against invasion, now saw themselves menaced in their valleys with a foreign sword, and had to fight for their immemorial independence. They were assailed by the two powerful kingdoms on each side of them; for Austria and France, in their desire to enlarge their territories, had become forgetful that in leveling the Alps of the Swiss, they but effaced the barrier between themselves, which prevented the two nations mingling their blood on fierce and frequent battle-fields.

As if the antipathies of race, and the ambition of princes, were not enough to afflict an unhappy age, another element of contention was imported into the strife by the Papal schism. The rival Popes and their supporters brought their cause into the battle-field, and torrents of Christian blood were shed to determine the question which was the true Vicar.' The arguments from piety, from wisdom, from learning were but dust in the balance against the unanswerable argument of the sword, and the gospel of peace was converted into the tocsin of war. The evils flowing from the schism, and which for so many years afflicted Christendom, cannot but raise the question in every dispassionate mind how far the Popes have fulfilled the office assigned them as the "Fathers of Christendom" and the Peacemakers of the World?, Leaving out of view their adulators on the one side, and their incriminaters on the other, let us put to history the question, How many are the years of peace, and how many are the years of war, which have come out of the Papal chair, and what proportion does the one bear to the other?

To put, then, a few plain questions touching matters of fact, let us ask, from whom came the crusades which for two centuries continued to waste the treasure and the blood of both Europe and Asia? History answers, from the Popes. Monks preached the crusades, monks enlisted soldiers to fight them and when the host was marshalled and all was ready, monks placed themselves at their head, and led them onward, their track marked by devastation, to the shores of Syria, where their furious fanaticism exploded in scenes of yet greater devastation and horror. In these expeditions the Popes were always the chiefs; the crossed emperors and kings were enlisted under their banner, and put under the command of their legates; at the Popes' mandate it was that they went forth to slay and to be slain. In the absence of these princes the Popes took into their hands the government of their kingdoms; the persons and goods of all the crusaders were declared under their protection; in their behalf they caused every process, civil and criminal, to be suspended; they made a lavish distribution of indulgences and dispensations, to keep alive fanatical fervor and sanguinary zeal; they sometimes enjoined as a command,

and sometimes as a penance, service in the crusades; their nuncios and legates received the alms and legacies bequeathed for maintaining these wars; and when, after two dismal centuries, they came to an end, it was found that none save the Popes were the gainers thereby. While the authority of the Papal See was vastly strengthened, the secular princes were in the same proportion weakened and impoverished; the sway of Rome was confirmed, for the nations, broken and bowed down, suffered a yoke to be rivetted upon their necks that could not be broken for ages. [1]

We ask further, from whom came the contest between the mitre and the Empire–the war of investitures,–which divided and ravaged Christendom for a full century and a half? History answers, from the Pope–Gregory VII. From whom came the Albigensian crusades, which swept in successive tempests of fire and blood across the south of France?

History answers, from the Pope–Innocent III. Whence came those armies of assassins, which times without number penetrated into the Waldensian valleys, carrying the torch into dwelling and sanctuary, and inflicting on the unoffending inhabitants barbarities and cruelties of so horrible a nature that they never can be known, because they never dare be told? History answers, from the Pope. Who made donations of kingdoms–Naples, Sicily, Aragon, Poland, and others–knowing that those to whom they had gifted them could possess them only by fighting for them? History answers, the Popes.

Who deposed sovereigns, and sanctioned insurrection and war between them and their subjects? The Popes. Who so often tempted the Swiss from their mountains to shed their blood on the plains of Italy? The Bishop of Sion, acting as the legate of the Pope. Who was it that, the better to maintain the predominance of their own sway, kept Italy divided, at the cost of almost ceaseless intestine feuds and wars, and the leaving the gates of the country unguarded, or purposely open, for the entrance of foreign hordes? History answers, the Popes. Who was it that, having entered into war with France, threw aside the mitre for the helmet, and, passing over a bridge on the Tiber, is said to have thrown the keys of St. Peter into the river, seeing they had served him so ill, and called for the sword of St. Paul? Pope Julius II. Who organised the successive campaigns waged against the Hussites, and on two several occasions sent his legate-a-latere to lead the crusaders? History answers, the Pope.

We stop at the era of the Reformation. We put no questions to history touching the wars in Germany, the wars in France, the wars in the Low Countries, the wars in Hungary, and in other lands; in which, too, the blood of the scaffold was largely mingled with the blood of the battle-field. We restrict our examples to those ages when Rome was not only a power, but the power in Christendom. Kings were then her vassals, and she had only to speak to be obeyed. Why then did she not summon them to her bar, and command them to sheathe their swords? Why did she not bind them in the chain of her excommunications, and compel them to be at peace till she had arbitrated in their quarrels, and so prevent this great effusion of human blood? Here are the Pope's exploits on the field of war. Why has history forgotten to chronicle his labors and sacrifices in the blessed work of peace? True, we do find a few outstanding instances of the Popes enjoining peace among Christian princes. We find the Council of Lyons (1245) ordaining a general cessation of arms among the Western sovereigns, with power to prelates to proceed by censures against those who refused to acquiesce; but for what end? in order that the crusade which had been projected might be carried out with greater unanimity and vigor. [2] We find Gregory X. sending his nuncio to compel observance of this decree of the Council on Philip III. of France and the King of Castile, knowing that these two sovereigns were about to decide a certain difference by arms, because he needed their swords to fight his own battles. We find, further, Boniface VIII. enjoining all sovereigns to terminate all wars and differences at home, that, they might be in circumstances to prosecute more vigorously the holy wars of the Church.

These, and a few similar instances, are all that we have on the one side to set over against the long roll of melancholy facts on the other. History's verdict is, that with the ascent of the Popes to supremacy came not peace but war to the nations of Christendom. The noon of the Papal power was illustrated, not by its calm splendors and its tranquil joys, but by tempest and battle and destruction.

We return from this digression to the picture of Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century. To the distractions that were rife in every quarter, in the east, in the south, and in the center of Christendom, we have to add those that raged in the north. The King of England had proclaimed war against France. Mighty armaments were setting sail from–

"that pale, that white-faced shore,
Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides,
And coops from other lands her islanders" [3]

the man who led them being forgetful that nature had ordained the sea around England to be at once the limit of her seat and the rampart of her power, and that by extending he was imperiling his dominions. This ill-starred expedition, out of which came so many calamities to both countries, was planned, we have seen, by the Romish clergy, for the purpose of finding work for the active-minded Henry V., and especially of diverting his eye from their own possessions to a more tempting prize, the crown of France.

The mischiefs and woes to which this advice opened the door did not exhaust themselves till the century was drawing to a close.

The armies of England smote not merely the northern coasts of France, they penetrated to the center of the kingdom, marking the line of their march by cities sacked and provinces devastated and partially depopulated. This calamity fell heavily on the upper ranks of French society. On the fatal field of Agincourt perished the flower of their nobility; moanings and lamentations resounded in their chateaux and royal residences; for there were few indeed of the great families that had not cause to mourn the counsel of Archbishop Chicheley to Henry V., which had directed this destructive tempest against their country.

At last the Cloud of calamity returned northward (1450), and discharged its last and heaviest contents on England itself. The long and melancholy train of events which now began to run their course at home took its rise in the war with France. The premature death of Henry V.; [4] the factions and intrigues that strove around the throne of his infant son; the conspiracies that spread disquiet and distraction over the kingdom; and, finally, the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, which, like a fearful conflagration, consumed all the great families of the kingdom, the royal house included; all these tragedies and crimes connect themselves with, and can be traced up to, the fateful counsel of the clergy, so eagerly adopted and acted upon by the king. Nor was the blood sprit on the battle-field the only evil that darkened that unhappy period. In the wake of fierce civil war came a relaxation of law, and a suspension of industry. The consequence of the former was that the country was defiled by crime and outrage; and of the latter, that frequent famines and pestilences decimated the population. [5]

The contest which opened in 1452 between the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster, it is the province of the civil historian to narrate. We notice it here only so far as it bears on the history of Protestantism. The war was not finished in less than thirty years; it was signalised by twelve pitched battles; it is computed to have cost the lives of eighty princes of the blood, and almost entirely annihilated the ancient nobility of England. [6] The kingdom had seemed as a stricken land ever since the De Hoeretico Comburendo law was placed upon its statute-book, but the Wars of the Roses filled up its cup of misery. [7]

The rival hosts were inflamed with the rancorous hate peculiar to civil conflicts, and seldom have more sanguinary battles been fought than those which now deluged the soil of England with the blood of its own children. Sometimes the House of York was victorious, and then the Lancastrians were mercilessly slaughtered; at other times it was the House of Lancaster that triumphed, and then the adherents of York had to expiate in the hour of defeat the barbarities they had inflicted in the day of victory. The land mourned its many woes. The passage of armies to and fro over it was marked by castles, churches, and dwellings burned, and fields wasted. [8] In these calamities passed the greater part of the second half of the fifteenth century. The reign of the Plantagenets, who had so long governed England, came to an end on the bloody field of Bosworth (1485), and the House of Tudor, in the person of Henry VII., mounted the throne.

If these troubles were so far a shield to the Wicliffites, by giving the King of England and his nobles other things to think of than hunting for Lollards, they rendered any revival of their cause impossible. The work of doing to death those who professed and preached the Reformed faith, though hindered by the causes before alluded to, did not actually cease.

From time to time during this period, some were called, to use the words of Fox, "to consummate their testimony in the fire." "The intimidated Lollards," says D'Aubigne, "were compelled to hide themselves in the humblest ranks of the people, and to hold their meetings in secret. The work of redemption was proceeding noiselessly among the elect of God.

Of these Lollards there were many who had been redeemed by Jesus Christ, but in general they knew not, to the same extent as the Protestant Christians of the sixteenth century, the quickening and justifying power of faith. They were plain, meek, and often timid folk, attracted by the Word of God, affected by the condemnation it pronounces against the errors of Rome, and desirous of living according to its commandments. God had assigned them a part–and an important part too–in the great transformation of Christianity. Their humble piety, their passive resistance, the shameful treatment which they bore with resignation, the penitent's robes with which they were covered, the tapers they were compelled to hold at the church door–all these things betrayed the pride of the priests, and filled the most generous mind with doubts and vague desires. By a baptism of suffering, God was then preparing the way to a glorious Reformation." [9]

Looking only at the causes acting on the surface, surveying the condition and working of established institutions, especially the "Church," which was every day mounting higher in power, and at the same time plunging deeper into error; which had laid its hand upon the throne and made its occupant simply its lieutenant–upon the statute-book, and had made it little better than the register of its intolerant edicts–upon the magistracy, and left it hardly any higher function than the humble one of executing its sentences–looking at all this, one would have expected nothing else than that the darkness would grow yet deeper, and that the storms now afflicting the world would rage with even greater fury. And yet the dawn had already come.

There was light on the horizon. Nay, these furious blasts were bearing on their wings blessings to the nations. Constantinople was falling, that the treasures of ancient literature might be scattered over the Western world, and the human mind quickened. The nobility of France and England was being weakened on the battlefield, that the throne might rise into power, and be able to govern.

It was needful that an institution, the weakness of which had invited the lawlessness of the nobles, and the arrogance of the hierarchy, should be lifted up and made strong. This was one of the first steps towards the emancipation of society from the spiritual bondage into which it had fallen.

Ever since the days of Gregory VII., monarchy had been in subordination to priesthood. The policy of the Popes, pursued through four centuries, was to centralise their power, and place it at the summit. One of the means adopted for this end was to make the nobles a poise to the kings, and by weakening both parties, to make the Pope the most powerful of the three. This policy had been successful. The Popes had grown to be more than a match for the petty sovereigns of the fifteenth century. Nothing but a system of strong monarchies could now cope with that chair of combined spiritual and temporal power which had established itself at Rome, and grown to be so strong that it made kings their tools, and through them scourged their subjects.

Accordingly we see at last emerging from the tempests that raged all through the century under review, three powerful thrones – that of England, that of France, and that of Spain. The undivided power of Christendom was no longer in one hand, and that hand the holder of the tiara. The three powerful sovereigns who had risen up could keep their nobles in check, could spurn the dictation of the hierarchy, and so could meet on equal terms the sovereign of the Vatican. With that sovereign their interests were sometimes in accordance, and sometimes in opposition, and this poise between Popedom and monarchy constituted a shield for that great expansion of the Protestant movement which was about to take place.

Before leaving England in the fifteenth century, it is necessary to remember that during this century the great movement which had been originated by the instrumentality of Wicliffe in the previous one, was parted into two; the one branch having its seat in the west, and the other in the east of Christendom.

Further, that movement was known under two names–Hussitism in Bohemia, and Lollardism in England. When the famous Protest was given in by the German princes in 1529 it dropped both appellatives, and received henceforward that one designation by which it has been known these three centuries. The day will come when it will drop in turn the name it now bears–that of Protestantism–and will resume that more ancient, more catholic, and more venerable one, given it eighteen centuries ago in Antioch, where the disciples were first called – Christians.

Although there was one spirit in both branches of the movement, yet was there diversity of operations. The power of Protestantism was shown in Bohemia in converting a nation into heroes, in England it was shown in making martyrs. In the one country its history leads us to camps and battlefields, in the other it conducts us to prisons and stakes. The latter reveals the nobler champions, and the more glorious conflict. Yet do we not blame the Hussites. Unlike the Lollards, they were a nation. Their country was invaded, their consciences were threatened; and they violated no principle of Christianity that we are acquainted with, when they girded on the sword in defense of their hearths and their altars. And surely we do not err when we say that Providence set the seal of its approval upon their patriotic resistance, in that marvellous success that crowned their arms, and which continued to flow in a tide that knew not a moment's ebb till that fatal day when they entered into compact with Rome. In the Great Roll we find the names of those who "waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens" as well as that of those who "were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tortured, were slain with the sword, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection."

Still, it must be confessed that the stake of the Lollard showed itself in the end a more powerful weapon for defending Protestantism than the sword of the Hussite. The arms of the Bohemians merely extinguished enemies, the stakes of the Lollards created disciples. In their deaths they sowed the seed of the Gospel; that seed remained in the soil, and while "the battle of the warrior, with its confused noise and garments rolled in blood," was swaying to and fro over the face of England, it continued to germinate in silence, awaiting the sixteenth century, with its mollient air, for the time of springing.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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