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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 4 — Efforts for the redistribution of Ecclesiastical property

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The Burning Bush – Petition of Parliament – Redistribution of Ecclesiastical Property – Defence of Archbishop Arundel – The King stands by the Church – The Petition Presented a Second Time – Its Second Refusal – More Powerful Weapons than Royal Edicts – Richard II. Deposed – Henry IV. – Edict De Haeretico Comburendo – Griefs of the King – Calamities of the Country – Projected Crusade – Death of Henry IV.

IN the former chapter we saw the Protestants of England stigmatised as Lollards, proscribed by edicts, and haled to prisons, which they left, the many to read their recantation at cathedral doors and market crosses, and the few to fulfill their witness-bearing at the stake. The tempest was growing in violence every hour, and the little company on whom it beat so sorely seemed doomed to extinction. Yet in no age or country, perhaps, has the Church of God more perfectly realised the promise wrapped up in her earliest and most significant symbol, than in England at the present time. As amid the granite peaks of Horeb, so here in England, "The bush burned and was not consumed."

This way of maintaining their testimony by suffering, was a surer path to victory than that which the English Protestants had fondly chalked out for themselves. In the sixth year of Henry IV., they had moved the king, through Parliament, to take possession of the temporalities of the Church, and redistribute them in such a manner as would make them more serviceable to both the crown and the nation.

The Commons represented to the king that the clergy possessed a third of the lands in the realm, that they contributed nothing to the public burdens, and that their riches disqualified them from the due performance of their sacred functions. Archbishop Arundel was by the king's side when the petition was presented by the Speaker of the house, Sir John Cheney. He was not the man to stand silent when such an accusation was preferred against his order. True it was, said the archbishop, that the clergy did not go in person to the wars, but it was not less true that they always sent their vassals and tenants to the field, and in such numbers, and furnished with such equipments, as corresponded to the size of their estates; and further, the archbishop maintained that as regarded the taunt that the clerics were but drones, who lived idly at home while their countrymen were serving abroad, the Speaker had done them injustice. If they donned the surplice or betook them to their breviary, when their lay brethren buckled on the coat of mail, and grasped rapier or cross-bow, it was not because they were chary of their blood, or enamoured of ease, but because they wished to give their days and nights to prayer for theft country's welfare, and especially for the success of its arms. While the soldiers of England were fighting, her priests were supplicating; [1] the latter, not less than the former, contributed to those victories which were shedding such luster on the arms of England.

The Speaker of the Commons, smiling at the primate's enthusiasm, replied that "he thought the prayers of the Church but a slender supply." Stung by this retort, Arundel quickly turned on Sir John, and charged him with profaneness. "I perceive, sir," said the prelate, "how the kingdom is likely to thrive, when the aids of devotion, and the favor of Heaven, are thus slighted and ridiculed."

The king "hung, as it were, in a balance of thought." The archbishop, perceiving his indecision, dropped on his knees before him, and implored Henry to remember the oath he had sworn on coming to the crown, to maintain the rights of the Church and defend the clergy; and he counselled him, above all, to beware incurring the guilt of sacrilege, and the penalties thereto annexed. The king was undecided no longer; he bade the archbishop dismiss his fears, and assured him that the clergy need be under no apprehensions from such proposals as the present, while he wore the crown; that he would take care to leave the Church in even a better condition than that in which he had found it. The hopes of the Lollards were thus rudely dashed. [2]

But their numbers continued to increase; by-and-by there came to be a "Lollard party," as Walsingham calls it, in Parliament, and in the eleventh year of Henry's reign they judged the time ripe for bringing forward their proposal a second time,. They made a computation of the ecclesiastical estates, which, according to their showing, amounted to 485,000 merks of yearly value, and contained 18,400 ploughs of land. This property, they suggested, should be divided into three parts, and distributed as follows: one part was to go to the king, and would enable him to maintain 6,000 men-at-arms, in addition to those he had at present in his pay; it would enable him besides to make a new creation of earls and knights. The second was to be divided, as an annual stipend, among the 15,000 priests who were to conduct the religious services of the nation; and the remaining third was to be appropriated to the founding of 100 new hospitals. But the proposal found no favor with the king, even though it promised to augment considerably his military following. He dared not break with the hierarchy, and he might be justly suspicious of the changes which so vast a project would draw after it.

Addressing the Commons in a tone of great severity, he charged them never again, so long as he lived, to come before the throne with any such proposal. He even refused to listen to the request with which they had accompanied their petition, that he would grant a mitigation of the edict against heresy, and permit convicted Lollards to be sent to his own prisons, rather than be immured in the more doleful strongholds of the

bishops. Even these small favors the Protestants could not obtain, and lest the clergy should think that Henry had begun to waver between the two faiths, he sealed his devotion to the Church by anew kindling the pile for the Lollards. [3]

By other weapons were the Wicliffites to win England than by royal edicts and Parliamentary petitions. They must take slow and laborious possession of it by their tears and their martyrdom. Although the king had done as they desired, and the edict had realised all that they expected from it, it would after all have been but a fictitious and barren acquisition, liable to be swept away by every varying wind that blew at court. But when, by their painful teachings, by their holy lives, and their courageous deaths, they had enlightened the understandings and won the hearts of their countrymen to the Protestant doctrine, then would they have taken possession of England in very deed, and in such fashion that they would hold it for ever. These early disciples did not yet clearly see wherein lay the great strength of Protestantism. The political activity into which they had diverged was an attempt to gather fruit, not only before the sun had ripened it, but even before they had well sowed the seed. The fabric of the Roman Church was founded on the belief, in the minds of Englishmen, that the Pope was heaven's delegate for conferring on men the pardon of their sins and the blessings of salvation. That belief must first be exploded. So long as it kept its hold, no material force, no political action, could suffice to overthrow the domination of Rome. Amid the scandals of the clergy and the decay of the nation, it would have continued to flourish to our day, had not the reforming and spiritual forces come to the rescue. We can the more easily pardon the mistake of the English Protestants of the fifteenth century when we reflect that, even yet, the sole efficacy–the omnipotency –of these forces finds only partial belief in the general mind of even the religious world.

From the hour that the stake for Protestantism was planted in England, neither the king nor the nation had rest. Henry Plantagenet (Bolingbroke) had returned from exile, on his oath not to disturb the succession to the crown. He broke his vow, and dethroned Richard II. The Church, through her head the primate, was an accomplice with him in this deed. Arundel anointed the new king with oil from that mysterious vial which the Virgin was said to have given to Thomas aBecket, during his exile in France, telling him that the kings on whose head this oil should be poured would prove valiant champions of the Church. [4] The coronation was followed by the dark tragedy in the Castle of Pontefract; and that, again, by the darker, though more systematic, violence of the edict De Hereretico Comburendo, which was followed in its turn by the imprisonings in the Tower, and the burnings in Smithfield. The reign thus inaugurated had neither glory abroad nor prosperity at home. Faction rose upon faction; revolt trod on the heels of revolt; and a train of national calamities followed in rapid succession, till at last Henry had completely lost the popularity which helped him to mount the throne; and the terror with which he reigned made his subjects regret the weak, frivolous, and vicious Richard, whom he had deprived first of his crown, and next of his life. Rumors that Richard still lived, and would one day claim his own, were continually springing up, and occasioned, not only perpetual alarms to the king, but frequent conspiracies among his nobles; and the man who was the first to plant the stake in England for the disciples of the Gospel had, before many days passed by, to set up scaffolds for the peers of his realm. His son, Prince Henry, added to his griefs. The thought, partly justified by the wild life which the prince then led, and the abandoned companions with whom he had surrounded himself, that he wished to seize the crown before death had given it to him in the regular way, continually haunted the royal imagination; and, to obviate this danger, the monarch took at times the ludicrous precaution of placing the regalia on his pillow when he went to sleep. [5] His brief reign of thirteen years and five months wore away, as an old chronicler says, "with little pleasure."

The last year of Henry's life was signalized by a projected expedition to the Holy Land. The monarch deemed himself called to the pious labor of delivering Jerusalem from the Infidel. If he should succeed in a work so meritorious, he would spend what might remain to him of life with an easier conscience, as having made atonement for the crimes by which he had opened his way to the throne. As it turned out, however, his efforts to achieve this grand enterprise but added to his own cares, and to his subjects' burdens. He had collected ships, money, provisions, and soldiers.

All was ready; the fleet waited only till the king should come on board to weigh anchor and set sail [6] But before embarking, the monarch must needs visit the shrine of St. Edward. "While he was making his prayers," says Holinshed, "there as it were to take his leave, and so to procede forth on his journie, he was suddenlie and grievouslie taken, that such as were about him feared that he should have died presentlie; wherefore, to relieve him, if it were possible, they bare him into a chamber that was next at hand, belonging to the Abbot of Westminister, where they laid him on a pallet before the fire, and used all remedies to revive him. At length he recovered his speech and understanding, and perceiving himself in a strange place which he knew not, he willed to know

if the chamber had any particular name, whereunto answer was made that it was called 'Jerusalem.' Then said the king, 'Lauds be given to the Father of Heaven, for I know that I shall die here in this chamber, according to the prophecy of me, which declared that I should depart this life in Jerusalem.'" [7]

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