Luther in english part 6 After Lollardy and Humanism – by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
Luther in english
After Lollardy and Humanism –
by Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz, MA D.D
After Lollardy and Humanism
Luther’s Writings in England and the Beginnings of “Evangelical” Reformation
THERE ARE SOME SCHOLARS WHO HAVE ARGUED THAT ENGLISH REFORMERS whose careers emerged during the 1520s owe as much, if not more, to late medieval Lollard or humanist influences than to the writings of Martin Luther. Before making an individual assessment of this claim with regard to the life and thought of Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes, it is important to establish the broader context by making some general observations concerning the relationship of Lollardy, Humanism, and Luther’s writings to the English Reformation of the 1520s and 30s.
Of course, Luther’s works were not the first to inspire a movement calling for the reform of the English Church. Tracing their origins to the influence of the English philosopher John Wyclif (1330–1384), scattered groups of Lollards had begun implementing their own local reforms unofficially since the early fifteenth century, and Italian Renaissance Humanism began to make its impact first on English education and scholarship by the end of that same century. Many of the reforming concerns emerging from these late medieval movements indeed paralleled those of the first generation of English evangelicals living during the reign of Henry VIII. Lollards, Catholic humanists, and evangelicals could all bemoan the presence of superstitious devotion to images and relics among the people, which was the target of reforms under the official Injunctions promulgated by the Henrician court in the second half of the 1530s. In fact, in the light of this continuity it was long believed that Humanism and Lollardy naturally and effectively paved the way for the diffusion of evangelical beliefs imported from the Continent and made for a smoother transition to an established evangelical Reformation during the reign of Edward VI in the late 1540s to early 50s and Elizabeth I in the 1560s.
With regard to Wyclif and the Lollards and to lend historical credibility to the Reformation of the Elizabethan era, John Foxe praised Wyclif as the “mornynge starre” of the English Reformation, and a similar assertion was made earlier by John Bale in 1548. The first and most comprehensive study of Lollardy was published in the early twentieth century and actually adopted a more skeptical attitude with regard to the broader theological impact of Wyclif and the Lollards upon the development of the English Reformation, but studies more positive to the Lollard contribution to Protestant expansion gained popularity after the middle of the twentieth century. Recent research, however, accounting for the weaknesses in Lollard influence by the early sixteenth century, now leans more heavily against this point of view. The influence of Lollardy on evangelical reformers in the early period of English Reformation in the 1520s and 30s is also tenuous from the perspective of both history and theology.
It is important to point out that no new or original Lollard writings were written later than the middle of the fifteenth century, and the first printings of Lollard manuscripts date to the 1530s. The manuscript collection selected by Anne Hudson for her edition of Wycliffite writings dates between 1384 and 1414, and she is certain that none of the writings originates beyond 1425. Although relatively few of the original manuscripts dating to this period are now extant, evidence in heresy trials does prove that portions of the vernacular translations of the Bible and other pre-existing Lollard manuscripts did continue to circulate rather widely into the sixteenth century. The fact that Lollard manuscripts were even published in the 1530s by evangelical reformers such as William Tyndale is evidence that Lollard writings were accessible well into the sixteenth century.
An apparent lull in official persecution of Lollards that occurs in the historical records between 1430 and 1480 has led some scholars to surmise that a revival of the Lollard heresy occurred in the few generations just prior to, and was reenergized by, contact with the arrival of Luther’s works. Foxe does record a number of depositions against heretics in the diocese of London between 1509 and 1527, and episcopal registers in Lichfield and Coventry indicate the suppression of heretical activity in the early 1500s. However, as Richard Rex has wisely observed, this apparent lull could be nothing more than a gap in the historical records themselves. Otherwise, it might indicate a renewal of more intensified efforts to extirpate heresy, especially in the light of foreign heresies being imported. Furthermore, the evidence limits this so-called revival only to those areas already possessing a known stronghold of the heresy, such as Coventry, Bristol, London, and the Chilterns.13
Many of the regions with the smoothest turnover to the evangelical Reformation in the late 1540s do have a known history of Lollard strength at the popular level, but, as Rex points out, this is no basis on which to draw a universal conclusion about the relationship of Lollardy to the English Reformation. He argues that, while some areas with a Lollard presence do indeed show a relatively smooth transition to the evangelical Reformation, some areas devoid of a documented Lollard tradition were also won expediently to the evangelical faith just as others where Lollardy survived were actually centers of great opposition.
Most recently, Richard Lutton suggests that the particular success of Protestantism in the parish of Tenterden in Kent may have resulted from the “broader influence of Lollard heresy upon the types of pieties that may have been susceptible to new doctrines.” Yet, regardless of whether Lollard influences affected, or merely overlapped, with late medieval orthodox Catholic pieties in the particular parish of Tenterden in Kent does nothing to explain the origins of such Christocentric pieties throughout the rest of England and elsewhere on the Continent. Furthermore, it is important to point out that the types of pieties Lutton highlights in his study were also evident in places such as Yorkshire that were virtually untouched by Lollardy.17
In comparing theological content, it is obviously impossible not to recognize that many of the doctrinal themes of Wyclif and the Lollards are echoed in the evangelical writings of the English reformers in the 1520s and 30s. Besides having a vision for a vernacular Bible, Wyclif criticized the office of the papacy and the temporal power exercised by prelates, he objected to prayers for the dead, the cult of the saints, priestly absolution of sin through mandatory confession and indulgences, misguided devotion to images, relics, pilgrimages, shrines, and the scholastic doctrine of transubstantiation. Yet it is also known that Wyclif maintained belief in purgatory and the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist not shared by later English evangelicals.
There are doubts surrounding whether or not Wyclif had any personal role in shepherding the “Lollards” (“mumblers”), a pejorative term loaned from the continent against heretics and highly ambiguous, but he was certainly the major inspiration behind many of the reforming themes that appear in Lollard manuscripts and accounts of heresy trials. However, for all the agreements shared by Lollards, they lacked universal agreement with each other and even with Wyclif himself, since some went beyond him in adopting a more strictly memorial interpretation of the Eucharist. With regard to images, some Lollards recognized their value if used appropriately, while others promoted a more blatant iconoclasm against idolatry toward the saints. Wyclif’s belief in purgatory was also not universally embraced by all Lollards.20
Alec Ryrie argues that Lollards were sympathetic to evangelical ideas and became largely integrated into the evangelical reform movement of the 1520s and 30s. Their sympathy was chiefly displayed in the participation of the “Society of Christian Brethren” in the foreign book trade and through the distribution of Tyndale’s groundbreaking 1526 New Testament. There is also evidence that Lollards had personal contact with the emerging generation of evangelical reformers. It is well known that, while under house arrest in London, Robert Barnes sold a copy of Tyndale’s English New Testament to two Lollards from Essex. The confession of John Tyball before Bishop Tunstall of London in April 1528 gives the famous account of Barnes (here called “Barons”) selling the New Testament for 3s. 2d. in the chamber of his Augustinian house. The early reforming preacher Thomas Bilney also drew crowds of sympathizing Lollards in his criticism of images, pilgrimages, and the cult of saints.24
In the minds of the ecclesiastical and secular rulers, the ideas of Luther did seem, in fact, little more than a resuscitation of the earlier indigenous heresy. In fact, in a letter from Bishop of London Cuthbert Tunstall to Thomas More in 1528, licensing him to read and refute heretical books, he refers to Luther’s heresy as the “foster-daughter of Wycliffe’s.” Henry VIII similarly referred to Luther’s writings as having “kyndeled agayne almost all the embres of those olde errours and heresyes.” Such overlapping similarities between Lollard and evangelical beliefs has caused some dispute as to whether a reformer such as Thomas Bilney should be properly classified as Lollard or evangelical.27
The emphasis in Bilney’s reforming preaching throughout the 1520s against popular devotion to the cult of saints, pilgrimages, and the veneration of images certainly parallels those of the Lollards and even shares some common ground with the reforming criticisms of humanists against a morally vacuous and superstitious devotional ritualism. Bilney was raised in Norfolk and this town was known for Lollardy, but there is no proof that his reforming career was a product of such influence. Bilney later became a prominent member of the circle of scholars that met to discuss Luther’s writings in the early 1520s. According to Foxe, it was Bilney who succeeded in converting Robert Barnes, Thomas Arthur, and Hugh Latimer. Bilney’s narration of his own conversion to trusting in Christ for salvation from his sins indeed resembles the evangelical experience of Luther. Although his opponents readily associated his teachings with the heresies of Luther, and later of Tyndale, Bilney claimed that his own conversion resulted not from the writings of Luther but from his own reading of the epistles of Paul in Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum (1519). Perhaps this was then only reinforced and developed through contact with Luther’s more developed evangelical theology of justification. In his 1527 trial Bilney did give verbal support to the condemnation of Luther, but he also went on to deny having preached any of the heretical articles attributed to him during that trial. Bilney was later remorseful over his abjuration and resumed his tour of preaching against images and the cult of the saints in 1531 until his martyrdom the same year.
Although most of the Lollards probably did eventually become evangelicals, it is important to point out that no leading evangelical clergyman of the Henrician period was of a Lollard background. This is also true of most other leading reforming figures including Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes. Not long before going public in their support of evangelical reform, these three were all active within the elite institutions of the Catholic tradition.30 However, the assumption that such high profile evangelicals were actually converted from a devout Catholic background has come under some recent scrutiny: “What we do not yet know in any systematic way, aside from the anecdotal self-conscious accounts of the conversion of leading Protestant figures, is whether particular aspects of orthodox culture may have rendered their adherents susceptible to evangelical beliefs … that there may already have been changes in orthodox devotioether particular aspects of orthodox culture may have rendered their adherents susceptible to evangelical beliefs … that there may already have been changes in orthodox devotion prior to the arrival of outright solafidianism that were lessening the centrality of purgatory and the saints, n prior to the arrival of outright solafidianism that were lessening the centrality of purgatory and the saints, and reducing some of the more burdensome elements of religious observance.” Lutton suggests that such changes were actually inspired by Lollardy, which made an indirect contribution to the acceptance of evangelical beliefs among late medieval Catholics possessing a stronger devotion to the person and work of Christ, but this is not beyond reasonable doubt.
On the other hand, to give the impression that evangelical reformers were ever ignorant of Lollardy would be misleading, since the literature of the older heresy was later revived in the 1530s and 40s “to muster precedent and example.” Most historians now agree with John Foxe and John Bale that William Tyndale himself was the editor of Lollard manuscripts in the 1530s. While this does not prove that Tyndale was ever a Lollard or was even influenced by Lollardy early on in his reforming career, since the publication of these manuscripts appears well after his evangelical conversion became public, it does reveal his obvious sympathy for, and identification with, their preceding efforts.
It is certainly tempting to look for an incipient form of English Protestantism in the fifteenth century. Ian Stackhouse admits that caution is needed here particularly in light of the eventual victory of Protestantism in England. However, although Smeeton and Werrell are more favorable toward the idea that Wyclif and the Lollards taught a doctrine of justification by faith,35 most scholars argue that neither ultimately challenged fundamental assumptions within medieval soteriology concerning the role of good works in obtaining eternal life, other than with regard to attacking idolatrous devotional practices and a ceremonial or ritual works-righteousness, nor did they ever positively or clearly articulate a clear doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone so central to the evangelical reformers. The doctrine of justification sola fide among English evangelicals was even a distinction recognizable to contemporaries such as Bishop Tunstall. Furthermore, Anne Hudson has shown that, despite the obvious biblicism of Wyclif and the Lollards, their closer continuity with the allegorical tradition of medieval exegesis and interpretation also distances them from Tyndale and other early English evangelical reformers.38 Besides these differences, it is simply not possible to argue with any substantive evidence that leading early English evangelicals were influenced theologically by contact with the writings of Wyclif and the Lollards.
Lollards never established an organized movement or a coherent denominational structure, and due to its lack of consolidation, suppression from above, the decline in the literary output of new works, and eventual loss of support among the gentry and more educated, contributing to a social isolation largely among families of the rural mercantile classes, the impact of Lollardy was far less significant than formerly thought. A rampant anticlerical spirit at the dawn of the early sixteenth century in England is hard to substantiate historically, leading scholars to conclude that the Protestant reforms implemented during the Edwardian and later Elizabethan periods were enforced upon a largely unsympathetic and devout Catholic populace.
The relationship of Humanism to the evangelical theology of leading English reformers of the 1520s and 30s is also ambiguous. There is no doubt that these reformers received some education in Humanism and were influenced by some of its methodological advancements and reforming concerns. Trueman even states that it was “Humanism which provides the immediate intellectual context in which the English Reformers interpreted and developed the theology of the continental Reformation.” Yet it is important to recognize that Renaissance “Humanism” was by no means a uniform movement and, with regard to the reform of late medieval Catholicism, was really interested in cultivating moral virtue through the pragmatic application and eloquent communication of Christian doctrine and practice rather than in completely overturning the cardinal points of Catholic orthodoxy.42 Thus, although some scholars might argue that there would have been no Reformation without Humanism, “Humanism” is not a universal explanation for either the origins of, or receptiveness to, evangelical theology.
Humanism, or rather the studia humanitatis, originated in Renaissance Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and began broadly as a movement to reform scholarship and education through direct rhetorical and literary engagement with the ancient classics for the purpose of nurturing practical moral virtue. It did not begin with overt criticism of the Church but scholars trained in Humanism employed its methodological and moralistic emphases more explicitly in criticism of the impracticality of much of medieval scholastic theology and the moral decadence of late medieval Catholic clergy and popular religious piety. Humanism in essence imbibed an appreciation for the historical, literary, and rhetorical form of the classical texts of antiquity, including the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, as well as the best of ancient pagan Greek and Latin literature, studied in their original languages using the best available manuscripts. The classical Renaissance phrase coined by humanist scholars, “to the sources” (ad fontes), characterized this belief in the reformational value of direct historical engagement with the classics in their most primitive and pristine literary form. To this end it was necessary that scholars be well versed in the languages of Greek and Latin and that the learned have access to the most “critical and authoritative texts” of Scripture, the Fathers, and the acceptable pagan classics. Thus, Humanism of the late medieval period gave birth to early textual criticism in its search for the best and most accurate texts and translations, including improvements on the Latin Vulgate.46
Humanism in England in the early sixteenth century was neither a monolithic nor, as elsewhere, a uniform movement. Humanist scholars differed in their attitudes toward the legitimacy of the speculative, abstract, and dialectical methodology of medieval scholastic theology, the benefits of the vernacular translation of classical texts, and the ancient Christian and pagan writers to be favored. Those influenced by Humanism eventually became split over the acceptance of the new evangelical theology arriving from the Continent in the 1520s, thus forming more distinctively “evangelical” and “conservative,” or “Catholic,” humanisms. This makes it difficult to establish a universal connection between Humanism and receptiveness to evangelical theology, since many educated humanists rejected the new doctrines and remained orthodox Catholics. According to Rex, it is clear that Humanism affected religious change on both sides of the divide and, thus, “did not determine or even direct the theological course of the English Reformation.” In another essay by Rex, he points out that educated humanists at both Oxford and Cambridge were enlisted as a major force against Luther’s heresies.49 It is clear that many reformers trained in the literary and grammatical methodology of Humanism not only employed its scholarly tools in contrast to the more abstract methods favored by scholastic theologians and to attack clerical immorality and corruption, as well as the moral bankruptcy of medieval ritual and devotional superstition to images and relics, but also to reform more basic theological assumptions about God and salvation through the exposition of Scripture supplemented by recourse to the Church Fathers. Calvin and Zwingli, for example, owe something to their education in Humanism in communicating Christian doctrine and life on the basis of a rhetorical and exegetical engagement with Scripture and the Fathers.51 Yet, the priority they placed on reforming the very doctrinal and theological assumptions characterizing the mainstream of medieval Catholicism, and this according to a principle of sola scriptura, shows them to have moved significantly beyond the original essence and aims of Humanism.
Early on, humanists displayed a common concern for moral reform in the life of the Church, but eventually the influence of the new evangelical theology sharply divided them. By 1521, the year of Luther’s imperial condemnation at the Diet of Worms, it was clear that humanists loyal to Catholic orthodoxy needed to distance themselves from the more radical teachings of Luther. In a letter written by Erasmus to Cardinal Wolsey dated May 18, 1518, he denounces rumors of any favorable connection with Luther and reassures Wolsey of his faithfulness to the Pope and to Rome. In his letter to Wolsey, Erasmus states that it has been his preoccupation with writing letters that has kept him from penning a book against Luther thus far, which he eventually did with his diatribe on free-will in 1524. Catholic humanists were enlisted in the early 1520s as defenders of the Church against heresy and backed off in their own criticisms. When the matter of Henry’s divorce (technically, annulment) to Catherine of Aragon came up, the division was furthered even more since influential Catholic humanists like Thomas More (1478–1535) and John Fisher (1469–1535) were unable in good conscience to disavow papal authority, whereas evangelicals supported Henry in his break with Rome in marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, herself a sympathetic patron of evangelical ideas.
England’s own connection with Humanism originated from itinerant English scholars who visited Italy and Italian humanists who visited England in the 1400s, but there was little humanist scholarship of significance in England before the very end of the fifteenth century. Among the most influential of these English scholars educated in Italy were the so-called “Oxford Reformers”: Thomas Linacre, William Grocyn, and John Colet.58
The influence of John Colet (1467–1519), in particular, upon the development of Humanism at Oxford is controversial. In the nineteenth century, Frederick Seebohm heralded Colet’s university lectures on Paul’s epistles delivered in 1496–1499 as foreshadowing later Protestant expository style preaching. The lectures do indeed use a literary hermeneutic with emphasis on the moral application of Scripture, and this contrasts with the more conventional use in university lectures of allegory and scholastic commentary to dispute abstract theological questions. Colet used a similar humanist approach in a sermon later delivered before Convocation in Canterbury in 1512.
However, recent scholars have downplayed the novelty of the lectures and circumscribed their impact on the development of Humanism at Oxford. As was the case with Erasmus, Colet also apparently followed Origen in characterizing allegory as one of the four senses of biblical interpretation. Dickens acknowledges that the style of the lectures is undeniably distinct from the common methodology employed in the universities at the time, but he argues that it is not so unlike the preference for the literal sense of Scripture in the hermeneutics of the medieval Parisian commentator Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1340). John Gleason argues that it is also similar to the homiletic tradition of medieval monasticism.62 Furthermore, though Erasmus acknowledged the popularity of Colet’s lectures in personal letters, the methodology used by Colet did not create the shock and consternation that might be expected. Furthermore, according to the foremost scholar on Colet, the Oxford reformer remained theologically orthodox despite the harshness of his criticism of religious abuses in the Church. If Colet made any major contribution to English Humanism in his own time, says Gleason, this probably had less to do with the lectures than with his work in co-establishing and administering the St. Paul’s cathedral school in London in 1512. The school was to provide learning in “good literature both laten and greke,” which Colet restricted to Christian writers. The influence of Colet on Humanism at Oxford is also questionable since it was Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum (1516) that convinced Colet, now in his forties, of the indispensable value of learning Greek, a language he never mastered.
By the early decades of the sixteenth century, it was clear that Oxford and Cambridge had been touched by Humanism. The generous patronage of the Tudor prelates helped contribute to this reality. Lady Margaret Beaufort, for example, demonstrated her support of humanist learning by co-establishing St. John’s College, Cambridge, as did Richard Fox with the founding of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
St. John’s College, established in 1511 and opened for classes in 1516, was co-founded by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge. The older scholastic curriculum was preserved to such a degree as to avoid confrontation, but emphasis on language studies and grammatical-literary exegesis, rather than on dialectic, logical exercises, and the study of medieval commentaries, contributed to the subtle decline of the older method’s dominance.68
Humanist scholarship at Cambridge was, then, implemented into the curriculum rather slowly through emphasis upon grammar and language skills and regular readings of classical texts, but it did not immediately replace its medieval educational counterpart, and the reading and study of the medieval scholastic commentaries continued for some time alongside it. In fact, according to Leader, the line demarcating humanists from scholastics was not even quite so clear at Cambridge in 1517. It was not until 1535 that Thomas Cromwell, Vicegerent to Henry VIII, implemented a more comprehensive series of injunctions to abolish the study of canon law in the universities and the “total eradication” of the scholastic theologians from philosophical and doctrinal studies. This, coupled with Henry’s break with the papacy, aided the continual consolidation of humanist education in English universities well into the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
The impact of Humanism at Cambridge and Oxford, and all of England for that matter, arguably owes its greatest debt to Erasmus, “the most celebrated European humanist connected with England.” Elton argues that it was with Erasmus that Humanism became an actual movement in England.73 Erasmus had visited Oxford as early as 1499, was present during the lectures of Colet, and later taught the first official Greek course at Cambridge intermittently between 1511 and 1514. Erasmus, as a student of the Devotiona Moderna, was already well known for his description of the virtuous life as the imitation of Christ in his Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503), and the final draft of his satirical musings on the moral vacuity of the late medieval Church in the Praise of Folly was finished in 1514. While at Cambridge Erasmus also worked on his Greek New Testament. The Novum Instrumentum, a Latin translation revised on the basis of the original Greek text, was printed in 1514, but was not published for distribution until 1516 after receiving papal permission. The value of the Greek New Testament to the biblical scholarship of English evangelical reformers is obvious,75 but the importance of Erasmus was claimed by Catholic humanists as well. As has already been shown, the tools of Humanism could equally be used as a weapon against evangelicals and their theology.
Leading English evangelicals did encounter some humanist influences as young college students and at university in the early sixteenth century, but Catholic theology was still significantly impressed upon them in the scholastic mold. While Humanism did give budding English evangelical clergy, scholars, and theologians tools of literary interpretation, a more direct path to Scripture and the Fathers (Augustine being the most important to them), and a perspective that was as analytical towards texts as it was toward clerical immorality and the moral vacuity of medieval ritual and devotional superstition to images and relics, Luther’s works were profoundly influential in shaping their “evangelical” vision to reform English Christian faith and devotion at the root of theological assumption. Thus, it was not enough simply to elevate the virtuous life lived in imitation of Christ as many humanists had done, but it required a whole different outlook on the nature and purpose of human morality on the basis of, what English evangelicals believed was, a more biblical theology of the Gospel in the doctrine of justification before God through faith in Christ alone resulting in truly good works. In fact, it could be argued that the evangelical theology of Luther was the immediate intellectual background in which early English evangelicals interpreted and developed the prior methodological and moral impulses of English Humanism.
The influence of Luther and his theology was significant to the story of the English Reformation of the Henrician period, whether it was the serious efforts of the highest offices of government to suppress the importation, distribution, and perceived influence of his writings in the 1520s or, contrariwise, to court the sanction of German Lutheran political support for Henry’s break with the papacy in divorcing Catherine and in marriage to Anne Boleyn in the 1530s.
Luther’s evangelical writings found their way to England thanks to the trade market established much earlier between England and northern Europe. If it is true that “trade often built the circuits” on which the works of Luther traveled, then, as one historian has observed, the waters that served to defend England in war time were ironically the very channel on which the infection of his religious heresy spread.78 Antwerp, in particular, was a major importer of English wool, and England was a major importer of books printed by the more highly developed press industry of the Continent: “before and throughout the sixteenth century, the cultural and economic lives of England and the Netherlands were closely and intricately connected.” Therefore, it is not all that surprising when laws proscribing a rather lucrative market in the printing and exporting of prohibited books from Antwerp received little cooperation from local authorities.80 Such books sold at the large Frankfurt book fairs were shipped up the Rhine River, smuggled into London in bales of cloth, and delivered by courageous couriers to interested buyers. Lollards, local merchants, and sympathetic university scholars were those busiest in the trafficking of the works of Luther throughout England in the 1520s. Monasteries such as at Reading and Bury were also important receptacles of his works.
The printing, distributing, and reading of Luther’s works really became an international scandal after his preemptory condemnation in the papal bull Exurge Domine in May 1520. However, while visiting Rome, the Bishop of Rochester notified Cardinal Wolsey back in England about the bull even before its official release.84 If it is true, then, that Luther’s Latin works were distributed in England as early as 1518, then for almost two years they were imported, distributed, and discussed without legal prosecution.86
In 1521, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall of London urged Cardinal Wolsey in a letter from Worms to prevent Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) from penetrating the English border. Wolsey’s efforts to forbid the importation of Luther’s works were praised by Pope Leo in March of 1521, but Cardinal de Medici suggested that he schedule a more public book-burning ceremony.89 In a letter dated April of 1521, the Pope also urged Wolsey to burn Luther’s works and to forbid them to be read except by those with special permission to refute them. The Pope also notified Wolsey of a summons that had been sent to Luther in Germany to appear in Rome. Wolsey commissioned local bishops to furrow out Luther’s works from among the various religious institutions.91
Luther’s writings were well known at Oxford and Cambridge by 1520. A letter from Archbishop William Warham to Cardinal Wolsey in 1521 speaks of heresy at Oxford with a request that he take serious action against it: “that diverse of that Universitie be infectyd with the heresyes of Luther and of others of that sorte, havyng emong theym a grete nombre of books of the saide perverse doctrine which wer forboden …” John Dorne was a major marketer of Luther’s works, the treatise against the papacy being among the most popular.
Luther’s writings also made a noticeable impact upon a circle of intellectuals at Cambridge University, where, according to A. G. Dickens, the “earliest known society of English Lutherans originated.” Meetings at the White Horse Inn were the occasion for the discussion of the “new German doctrines” and came to be infamously known as “Little Germany.” Many of the future leading evangelical clergymen and supporters of the English Reformation were educated at Cambridge and present at these meetings. Scholars, however, have recently warned against adopting popular characterizations of these meetings as some sort of clandestine “Lutheran club.”95 Indeed the word “Lutheran” is a bit misleading, if not anachronistic, for the early 1520s. Furthermore, though many of its attendees, such as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and John Bale, would go on to become influential evangelical leaders and spokesmen for reform, a regular such as Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester, remained an orthodox Catholic. Gardiner had been John Frith’s tutor at Cambridge, but would later serve as a chief prosecutor in the trials of both Robert Barnes and John Frith. Attendance at these meetings, then, did not automatically translate into sympathy or support for Luther’s evangelical ideas.97 Nevertheless, as it relates to a movement of reform, Luther was the center of attention at Cambridge in the 1520s.
Although an earlier bonfire of Luther’s works had occurred at Cambridge in late 1520, and Erasmus told Oecolampadius in Basle of another possible one he had averted earlier that year, the first official burning of Luther’s books in England took place on May 12, 1521, in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cross in London. It was attended by Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop William Warham, and other English bishops and papal and imperial emissaries. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of Cambridge, preached a public sermon condemning the German friar for his heresy. This was “England’s first public assertion of orthodoxy” in reaction to Luther’s heresies.101 All of this took place before the official signing of Luther’s condemnation at Worms on May 25, 1521. Later that year, although the extent of his actual contribution is debatable, the invective Assertio Septum Sacramentorum was published by Henry VIII and earned him and all future kings of England the title of “Defensor Fidei” from the pope. The personal exchanges that followed between the two certainly contributed to the stalemate of the later 1530s and the failure to establish a possible Anglo-German alliance.
Even after 1520–21, those previously involved in the producing, distributing, and purchasing of these books continued their business at the risk of exile or martyrdom. Printers, merchants, and traders endangered their lives by subsidizing the work of English refugees and supervising the smuggling of forbidden works from the Continent. The London merchant Humphrey Monmouth, for example, was later imprisoned in the Tower of London for aiding and abetting Tyndale, and he confessed to boarding Tyndale for half a year and to forwarding him money in Hamburg.105
The warning of Bishop Tunstall of London to booksellers and his own personal involvement in supervising the book import later in 1524 was unsuccessful. After 1525, anxieties over the immigration of foreign heresies had by no means been quelled. In fact, a new wave of oppression emerged and was centered significantly on the person of William Tyndale. It was being rumored that two Englishmen were preparing a vernacular New Testament to be sent to England from the continent that would infect all of England with Luther’s heresies. Bishop Tunstall attempted to put a freeze on the buying and selling of Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament,108 but vast copies had already been circulating throughout the environs of London by the time he ordered the securing of all copies on pain of prosecution. Despite royal proclamations issued by Henry VIII threatening punishment for failure to surrender heretical works and unlicensed English translations of the Bible, the trafficking continued in the years that followed. It is hardly surprising that Dutch and German booksellers and merchants were resistant to the royal decrees.110
As Craig D’Alton suggests, this second wave of persecution beginning around 1525 reveals a shift in governmental policy toward more intensified action against native dissenters. Clebsch observes that what was perceived in the early 1520s as a foreign encroachment largely requiring the halting of illegal book trafficking had now become what the hierarchy had attempted to prevent—a growing domestic problem.
Between the years 1525 and 1530, efforts to curb the threat of heresy in general were amplified. The Index of Prohibited Books grew in size significantly after 1526, which by this time now included works by other rising continental reforming leaders such as Ulrich Zwingli, Philipp Melancthon, and Martin Bucer. Luther’s writings, however, still dominated the list. Tyndale’s New Testament and Prologue to Romans were the first prohibited writings to be written by a native English evangelical.
A second official book burning service took place in 1526 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Presided over by Cardinal Wolsey, John Fisher was appointed for a second time to preach the public sermon condemning Luther’s heresies. Thomas More had made an unexpected visit earlier that year to the London Steelyard to search for heretical works,116 and other suspected merchants accompanied the Augustinian friar Robert Barnes in public penance around the bonfire. As mentioned already, the reforming preacher Thomas Bilney was tried in 1527 and later martyred under the banner of Luther’s heresy in 1531.
Henry’s attitude toward Luther and the evangelicals dramatically changed near the mid-1530s in his courtship of the German theologians and princes in support of his defiance against Charles V and the papacy in divorcing Catherine and in marriage to Anne Boleyn. Luther was hopeful early on for a providential alliance with England but could not give his approval to the divorce, and his optimism was soured over the lack of progress in theological agreement in the second half of the 1530s. Even after the death of Anne Boleyn in 1536, continual efforts were made to establish theological consensus with the Germans until 1539. The evangelical Robert Barnes was a chief player in these negotiations as a royal ambassador to Germany, and evangelicals Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer rose to positions of political favor in the decade that also witnessed the dissolution of the monasteries, the sanctioning of an English Bible for every parish in 1538, and other royal injunctions aimed at deconstructing ritual and devotional superstition to images and relics. Henry VIII, however, refused to adopt the Augsburg Confession as a condition for leadership of the Schmalkaldic League.121 His passing of the “Act of Six Articles” in 1539, though never so strictly enforced as previously assumed, reaffirmed his loyalty to Catholic tenets unacceptable to the Lutherans and essentially ended all viable hopes of unity between England and Germany. This hope was severed further with the nullification of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Although this was followed by a declaration of a general amnesty for all heretics who had been charged prior to July 1, 1540, influential evangelicals like Barnes and Cromwell did not share in this amnesty, which Luther supposed was on account of their opposition to this divorce.
Alec Ryrie argues that it was the king’s “suspicion of Lutheranism” as a threat to the social and political stability of nations, as well as his personal dislike and disagreement with Luther, that prevented the lasting impact of Wittenberg on the official course of the English Reformation. Ryrie identifies the year 1540 as essentially the beginning of the end of attempts at diplomacy between England and Germany followed by the more formal “death” of Lutheran influence in England near the end of Henry’s reign in 1546. Like Ryrie, MacCulloch sees the influence of Luther waning at this time and supplanted by new relationships with the Reformed Swiss states under Edward VI.126 The defeat of the Protestant League by Charles V in 1547, Luther’s death the year before, theological division among the Lutheran churches over the next few decades, and the growing international influence of the Reformed tradition, also contributed to the weakening of German Lutheran influence on the English Reformation. By the reign of Edward VI, the Swiss Reformed tradition had essentially eclipsed the legacy of the German Lutheran tradition upon developments in English Protestantism, and thus paved the way for the emergence of Puritanism. Yet N.S. Tjernagel has argued that the Anglo-Lutheran theological negotiations of the 1530s provided the substance of the later official formularies of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, but the “Lutheran” quality of these later documents is still in dispute.130
There never was a “strictly Lutheran movement” in England and neither did England ever really come close to becoming a “Lutheran land.” No English evangelical reformer other than Robert Barnes adopted the Lutheran theology of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the breakdown in official dialogue between the two nations and their respective churches at the end of the 1530s only revealed the ultimate intransigence of Henry’s loyalty to Catholic doctrine. Yet Luther was a dominant focus of the religious discord characterizing this turbulent period of the early English Reformation, whether it was in attempts to find and destroy his writings and to suppress the perceived growth of their heretical influence in the 1520s or, in a near complete reversal, to court him and his German compatriots for much needed political support in the 1530s.
Much of the research in recent years has intentionally taken the spotlight away from Luther (as well as Zwingli and Calvin) as a defining personality of the broader Reformation to focus on the theological nuances and impact of lesser known reforming figures. There is much to be commended in the very fine and much needed studies that have appeared over the last few decades,133 but it appears that a reverse discrimination may be in danger of underestimating the defining role that Luther did play on the international scene. In fact, there are still reputable historians who are convinced that the Reformation, if it would have happened, would have looked remarkably different without him. With regard to the English Reformation in particular, including the early Henrician period of the 1520s and 30s, the influence of Luther has been diminished and, in some minor cases, rejected wholesale with regard to the first generation of English evangelicals Tyndale, Frith, and, to a lesser extent, Barnes. Of course, the mere fact that Luther’s writings found an eager readership among many learned and influential personalities in the 1520s and became a focus of English politics in the 1520s and 30s does not by itself prove that his ideas were the direct inspiration behind, nor even closely followed by, like-minded English reformers whose careers emerged during this period. That is why it is absolutely necessary to closely assess the life, intellectual development, and theology of each of the leading English evangelical reformers, Tyndale, Frith, and Barnes, on an individual basis and in their own contexts.
Whiting, M. S. (2010). Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35). (K. C. Hanson, C. M. Collier, & D. C. Spinks, Hrsg.) (S. 146–169). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.