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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 3 — Growth of English Protestantism

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The Papal Schism — Its Providential Purpose — Council of Pisa — Henry's Letter to the Pope — The King exhorts the Pope to Amendment — The Council of Pisa Deposes both Popes — Elects Alexander V. — The Schism not Healed — Protestantism in England continues to grow — Oxford Purged — A Catholic Revival — Aves to Our Lady — Aves to the Archbishop — Persecution of Protestants grows Hotter — Cradle of English Protestantism — Lessons to be Learned beside it.

WE have already spoken of the schism by which the Papal world was divided, and its governing head weakened, at the very moment when Wicliffe was beginning his Reformation. [1] To this event, in no small degree, was it owing that the Reformer was permitted to go to his grave in peace, and that the seeds of truth which he had scattered were suffered to spring up and take some hold of the soil before the tempest burst. But if the schism was a shield over the infant reformation, it was a prolific source of calamities to the world. Consciences were troubled, not knowing which of the two chairs of Peter was the indubitable seat of authority and true fountain of grace. The nations were distracted, for the rival Popes had carried their quarrel to the battle-field, and blood was flowing in torrents.

To put an end to these scandals and miseries, the French king sent an embassy to Pope Gregory XII., to induce him to fulfill the oath he had taken at his election, to vacate the chair provided his rival could be brought to terms. "He received," says Collier, "a shuffling answer." [2]

In November, 1409, the Cardinal of Bordeaux arrived in England from France, on the design of engaging the two crowns to employ their authority in compelling Gregory to make good his oath. The cardinals, too, lent their help towards terminating the, schism. They took steps for commencing a General Council at Pisa, to which the English clergy sent three delegates. [3]

King Henry had previously dispatched ambassadors, who carried, with other instructions, a letter to the Pope from the king. Henry IV. spoke plainly to his "most Holy Father." He prayed him to "consider to what degree the present schism has embarrassed and embroiled Christendom, and how many thousand lives have been lost in the field in this quarrel." Would he lay these things to heart, he was sure that "his Holiness" would renounce the tiara sooner than keep it at the expense of creating "division in the Church, and fencing against peace with evasive answers. For," added he, "were your Holiness influenced by serviceable motives, you would be governed by the tenderness of the true mother, who pleaded before King Solomon, and rather resign the child than suffer it to be cut in pieces." [4] He who gives good advice, says the proverb, undertakes a thankless office. The proverb especially holds good in the case of him who presumes to advise an infallible man. Gregory read the letter, but made no sign.

Archbishop Arundel, by way of seconding his sovereign, got Convocation to agree that Peter's pence should be withheld till the breach, which so afflicted Christendom, were healed. If with the one hand the king was castigating the Pope, with the other he was burning the Lollards: what wonder that he sped so ill in his efforts to abate the Papal haughtiness and obstinacy?

Still the woeful sight of two chairs and two Popes continued to afflict the adherents of the Papacy. The cardinals, more earnestly than ever, resolved to bring the matter to an issue between the Pope and the Church; for they foresaw, if matters went on as they were doing, the speedy ruin of both.

Accordingly they gave notice to the princes and prelates of the West, that they had summoned a General Council at Pisa, on the 25th of March next ensuing (1409). The call met a universal response. "Almost all the prelates and venerable men of the Latin world," says Walsingham, "repaired to Pisa." [5] The Council consisted of 22 cardinals, 4 patriarchs, 12 archbishops in person and 14 by proxy, 80 bishops in person and a great many by their representatives, 87 abbots, the ambassadors of nearly all the princes of Europe, the deputies of most of the universities, the representatives of the chapters of cathedral churches, etc. [6] The numbers, rank, and authority of the Council well entitled it to represent the Church, and gave good promise of the extinction of the schism.

It was now to be seen how much the Papacy had suffered in prestige by being cleft in twain, and how merciful this dispensation was for the world's deliverance. Had the Papacy continued entire and unbroken, had there been but one Pope, the Council would have bowed down before him as the true Vicar; but there were two; this forced the question upon the members—Which is the false Pope? May not both be false? And so in a few days they found their way to the conclusion which they put into a definite sentence in their fourteenth session, and which, when we take into account the age, the men, and the functionaries over whom their condemnation was suspended, is one of the most remarkable decisions on record. It imprinted a scar on the Papal power which is not effaced to this day. The Council pronounced Gregory XII. and Benedict XIII. "to be notorious and incorrigible schismatics and heretics, and guilty of plain perjury; which imputations being evidently proved, they deprive them both of their titles and authority, pronounce the Apostolic See vacant, and all the censures and promotions of these pretended Popes void and of none effect. [7]

The Council, having ejected ignominiously the two Popes, and having rescued, as it thought, the chair on which each had laid hold with so tenacious and determined a grasp, proceeded to place in

it the Cardinal of Milan, who began to reign under the title of Alexander V. [8] This Pontificate was brief, for within the year Alexander came by his end in a manner of which Balthazar, who succeeded him as John XXIII., was supposed to know more than he was willing to disclose. The Council, instead of mending matters, had made them worse. John, who was now acknowledged the legitimate holder of the tiara, contributed nothing either to the honor of the Church or the repose of the world. The two Popes, Gregory and Benedict, refusing to submit themselves to the Council, or to acknowledge the new Pope, were still in the field, contending with both spiritual and temporal arms. Instead of two rival Popes there were now three; "not three crowns upon one Pope's head," says Fox, "but three heads in one Popish Church," each with a body of followers to support his pretensions. The schism thus was not only not healed, it was wider than ever; and the scandals and miseries that flowed from it, so far from being abated or extinguished, were greatly aggravated; and a few years later, we find another General Council assembling at Constance, if haply it might effect what that of Pisa had failed to accomplish. [9]

We return to England. While the schism continued to scandalize and vex Romanists on the Continent, the growth of Lollardism was not less a torment to the clergy in England. Despite the rigour of Arundel, who spared neither edicts nor faggots, the seeds which that arch-enemy of the Papacy, Wicliffe, had sown, would ever be springing up, and mingling the wheat of Rome with the tares of heresy. Oxford, especially, demanded the primate's attention. That fountain had savoured of Lollardism ever since Wicliffe taught there. It must be purified. The archbishop set out, with a pompous retinue, to hold a visitation of the university (1411). The chancellor, followed by a numerous body of proctors, masters, and students, met him at a little distance from the gates, and told him that if he came merely to see the town he was welcome, but if he came in his character of visitor, he begged to remind his Grace that the University of Oxford, in virtue of the Papal bull, was exempt from episcopal and archiepiscopal jurisdiction. This rebuff Arundel could ill bear. He left Oxford in a day or two, and wrote an account of the affair to the king. The heads of the university were sent for to court, and the chancellor and proctors were turned out of their office. The students, taking offense at this rigor, ceased their attendance on the public lectures, and were on the point of breaking up and dissolving their body.

After a warm contention between the university and the archbishop, the matter, by consent of both parties, was referred to the king. Henry decided that the point should remain on the footing on which Richard II. had placed it [10] Thus judgment was given in favor of the archbishop, and the royal decision was confirmed first by Parliament and next by John XXIII., in a bull that made void the privilege of exemption which Pope Boniface had conferred on the university. [11]

This opened the door of Oxford to the archbishop. Meanwhile Convocation raised a yet louder cry of Wicliffitism in the university, and pressed the primate to interpose his authority ere that "former seat of learning and virtue" had become utterly corrupt. It was an astounding fact, Convocation added, that a testimonial in favor of Wicliffe and his doctrines, with the seal of the university affixed to it, had lately issued from the halls of Oxford. [12] Arundel did not delay. Presently his delegates were down on the college. These inquisitors of heretical pravity summoned before them the suspected professors, and by threats of Henry's burning statute compelled them to recant. They next examined the writings of Wicliffe. They extracted out of them 246 propositions which they deemed heretical [13] This list they sent to the archbishop. The primate, after branding it with his condemnation, forwarded it to the Pope, with a request that he would stamp it with his final anathema, and that he would send him a bull, empowering him to dig up Wicliffe's bones and burn them. "The Pope," says Collier, "granted the first, but refused the latter, not thinking it any useful part of discipline to disturb the ashes of the dead." [14]

While, with the one hand, Arundel maintained the fight against the infant Protestantism of England, with the other he strove to promote a Catholic revival He bethought him by what new rite he could honor, with what new grace he could crown the "mother of God." He instituted, in honor of Mary, "the tolling of Aves," with certain Aves, the due recital of which were to earn certain days of pardon. [15] The ceremonies of the Roman Church were already very numerous, requiring a whole technological vocabulary to name them, and wellnigh all the days of the year for their observance. In his mandate to the Bishop of London, Arundel set forth the grounds and reasons of this new observance. The realm of England verily owed "Our Lady" much, the archbishop argued. She had been the "buckler of our protection." She had "made our arms victorious," and "spread our power through all the coasts of the earth." Yet more, to the Virgin Mary the nation owed its escape from a portentous evil that menaced it, and of which it was dreadful to think what the consequences would have been, had it overtaken it. The archbishop does not name the monstrous thing; but it was easy to see what was meant, for the archbishop goes on to speak of a new species of wolf that waited to attack the inhabitants of England and destroy them, not by tearing them with their teeth after the

usual manner of wild beasts, but in the exercise of some novel and strange instinct, by mingling poison with their food. "To whom [Mary] we may worthily ascribe, now of late in these our times, our deliverance from the ravening wolves, and the mouths of cruel beasts, who had prepared against our banquets a mess of meat mingled full of gall." [16] On these grounds the archbishop issued his commands (Feb. 10th, 1410), that peals should be tolled, morning and evening, in praise of Mary; with a promise to all who should say the Lord's prayer and a "hail Mary" five times at the morning peal, of a forty-days' pardon. [17]

To whom, after "Our Lady," the archbishop doubtless thought, did England owe so much as to himself? Accordingly, we find him putting in a modest claim to share in the honors he had decreed to his patroness. This next mandate, directed to Thomas Wilton, his somner, enjoined that, at what time he should pass through his Province of Canterbury, having his cross borne before him, the bells of all the parish churches should be rung, "in token of special reverence that they bear to us." [18] Certain churches in London were temporarily closed by the archbishop, because "on Tuesday last, when we, between eight and nine of the clock, before dinner, passed openly on foot as it were through the midst of the City of London, with our cross carried before us, they showed toward us unreverence, ringing not their bells at all at our coming." "Wherefore we command you that by our authority you put all these churches under our indictment, suspending God's holy organs and instruments in the same." [19]

"Why," inquires the chronicler, "though the bells did not clatter in the steeples, should the body of the church be suspended? The poor organs, methinks, suffered some wrong in being put to silence in the quire, because the bells rang not in the tower." There are some who may smile at these devices of Arundel to strengthen Popery, as betokening vain-glory rather than insight. But we may grant that the astute archbishop knew what he was about. He thus made "the Church" ever present to Englishmen of that age. She awoke them from slumber in the morning, she sang them to repose at night. Her chimes were in their ears and her symbols before their eyes all day long. Every time they kissed an image, or repeated an Ave, or crossed themselves with holy water, they increased their reverence for "mother Church." Every such act was a strengthening of the fetter which dulled the intellect and bound the soul. At each repetition the deep sleep of the conscience became yet deeper.

The persecution against the Protestants did not abate. The pursuit of heretics became more strict; and their treatment, at the hands of their captors, more cruel. The prisons in the bishops' houses, heretofore simply places of confinement, were now often provided with instruments of torture. The Lollards' Tower, at Lambeth, was crowded with confessors, who have left on the walls of their cell, in brief but touching phrase, the record of their "patience and faith," to be read by the men of after-times; nay, by us, seeing these memorials are not yet effaced. Many, weak in faith and terrified by the violence that menaced them, appeared in penitential garb, with lighted tapers in their hand, at market crosses, and church doors, and read their recantation. But not all: else England at this day would have been what Spain is. There were others, more largely strengthened from on high, who aspired to the glory, than which there is no purer or brighter on earth, of dying for the Gospel. Thus the stake had its occasional victim.

So passed the early years of English Protestantism. It did not grow up in dalliance and ease, amid the smiles of the great and the applause of the multitude; no, it was nurtured amid fierce and cruel storms. From its cradle it was familiar with hardship, with revilings and buffetings, with cruel mockings and scourgings, nay, moreover, with bonds and imprisonments.

The mob derided it; power frowned upon it; and lordly Churchmen branded it as heresy, and pursued it with sword and faggot. Let us draw around its cradle, placed under no gorgeous roof, but in a prison-cell, with jailers and executioners waiting beside it. Let us forget, if only for awhile, the denominational names, and ecclesiastical classifications, that separate us; let us lay aside, the one his lawn and the other his Genevan cloak, and, simply in our character of Christians and Protestants, come hither, and contemplate the lowliness of our common origin. It seems as if the "young child" had been cast out to perish; the Roman Power stands before it ready to destroy it, and yet it has been said to it, "To thee will I give England."

There is a lesson here which, could we humble ourselves, and lay it duly to heart, would go far to awaken the love and bring back the union and strength of our first days.

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Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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