Book 17 - England Before the ReformationA History of the Reformation in the 16th Century
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For a full treatment of the Reformation, see my work: The Reformation Made Easy – C. Matthew McMahon.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 1
In attempting to gain a complete view of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, it would be prudent to cover its affects in England around these time periods which have been commented on thus far, for the church of England has an interesting history behind it. Up until this time it had gone through two phases: the first was of “formation” and the second was that of “corruption.” In formation it was oriented around the apostolic church, and in its corruption it seceded to be a national church following the papacy and one that followed the king’s dictates depending on the papacy for his support and guidance.
Throughout its history various missionaries and preachers had been bringing Christianity to the shores of Britain. Diocletian had persecuted the Christians in that empire and instead of diminishing they increased in number in the early days of the church. Succat, known as St. Patrick, ministered in Ireland bringing the Gospel to the people left in darkness there. After the evangelization of Patrick, a British monk named Pelagius began teaching heretical doctrines. St. Augustine fought him and kept the faith in check. Later, war pressed the Christians north into the mountains of Northumberland and Cornwall and Britain was nearly deprived of Christianity. Columba, one of the parishioners of the one of the two churches still left by Patrick’s preaching, decided he was called to Scotland to bring the Word of God there. The King of the Picts was converted there, along with many of the people, and in Iona, there arose a missionary college to train people to teach the Gospel. However, they did not successfully convert the Saxons that remained thoroughly pagan and suppressed the country.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 2
At the end of the sixth century a man arose, Pope Gregory the Great, saw the need to overtake Britain removing autonomous churches and considering all churches under his apostolic see. He claimed the power to rule over the kings of the surrounding nations in order to strengthen the pontificate. Many missionaries were sent into the lands in order to spread the Gospel, and there is no reason historically to believe that the doctrine they were spreading was corrupt. Through the papacy a decline spiritually towards power and corruption prevailed and the missionaries sent to England were Catholic. Here Christianity and Catholicism would fight, but Catholicism would be the victor. The power of the popes, armed with the various powers of the kings alarmed Britain.
The authority of the Pope was settled in great part with the sword. The faith of the Britons was crushed and the authority of the pontificate was lording over them. Oswald, an Anglo-Saxon prince fled to Scotland to take refuge during the taking over of the country by the Pope. He had been converted and was now baptized into the Scottish church. In 634 A.D. he fought the armies of Northumberland and gained victory there by the help of God. He desired the people to come to Christ and this would not happen without removing the Catholic influences in authority. He requested the help of a learned man in religion from the Scots and they sent Corman. Corman did not know the Saxon language and Oswald accompanied him everywhere to translate for the people. Aidan, a convert, was trained up as a pastor and ordained to the church there. Oswald was thankful for Aidan, but did not see the fruit of the efforts since he died by the sword repelling an invasion into the country in 642 A.D.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 3
At this time, the papacy rose to power. Oswald was dead, and his brother Oswy reigned. He had an external religion, but was not converted. Oswy’s wife was Roman and so the influence of that union changed the tide of the church in that country. Their numbers needed to increase in order to overrun the country by Catholic influence. Opportunity arose through a man named Wilfrid, who was sent to Rome to study their doctrines more carefully. The Queen granted his request and he found the power there very appealing. He returned with the intention to gain influence in the royal family, and then desired to have the ear of the king. Now Oswy had done a great amount of conquering nearby lands and the papacy found this very appealing, for if they could overwhelm him, then they would have control of a large portion of the land. Wilfrid spoke unceasingly about the power of Rome and the grace that could be attained through her help in all matters. A conference was held in Whitby to determine the ecclesiastical course of Rome in the land of Oswy. This was a triumph for Romanism, and Oswy gave himself over to their power. Wilfrid was named bishop of Northumberland, and contesting bishops appeared over the land, but Rome kept them in check.
Scotland, however, was still free from the influences of this hostile takeover. Rome attempted to overtake Scotland by subtle wiles, but they were repelled by the head of the church there, Adamnan. Yet, Egbert, a monk, arrived in Ireland and brought with him the designs of Rome. Iona rejected his influences, but many did not, giving themselves over to Rome. At the beginning of the eighth century, Britain is found primarily under the bondage of Rome.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 4
Scotland was saddened to see the decline of religion under this new power. A Christian doctor by the name of Clement left Scotland and traveled among the Franks to preach the Gospel and who was favorable towards the doctrines of grace and predestination. Boniface, archbishop of the Germans opposed him. At first he confronted Clement with the laws of the Roman church, but the learned doctor opposed them by the Scriptures. Boniface then turned to the early fathers, but Clement said that he would more willingly submit to the Word of God.
Other men rose up against the nonsense of Rome’s teachings. Another bishop named Adalbert saw the foolishness in the use of relics and distributed his own hair and fingernails to be used in worship proving the point about relics as nonsense quite well.
Boniface had Clement thrown into prison, but the people contested this and he was released. He had barely left his cell when he began contesting for the Word of God to be preached in its purity. Sampson and Virgil, two others who preached in central Europe were also likewise persecuted for the faith.
John Scot, a prince in Wessex, came to the throne in 871. He studied philosophical rationalism , along with Alfred, and desired to translate the Scriptures to have their own language. He died in battle while translating the Psalms of David for his people. However, after the quick rise and death of Scot, the next nine kings would find themselves dictates to Rome, and all of them being trained as monks. Yet, later, William the conqueror, Edward III, Wycliffe and the Reformation, will be four steps to a turn for England that will thrust it into its golden age of learning and Protestantism.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 5
Rome had entered into its climactic height, where learned men and despotic authority were overthrowing the Gospel for power. At this time, Anselm would appear in England. He filled the primacy of Canterbury and bowed his head to the Roman doctrines. He contested the kings and would not bow to them nor pay taxes, and lorded over the priests to put away their wives. He was tyrannical in this way pressing religion under the guise of manipulation.
Thomas Becket also came upon this scene and was appointed governor of the Tower. Later he was nominated chancellor of England and lived in extravagancy as a result. He was ruthless in his desire for power, even involving himself in conspiracy and murder. Four knights executed him and the people mourned for him since, at this time, he had recognized his faults but could not escape the justice that was due to them.
Henry’s son John came to blows with Pope Innocent III (one of the most powerful popes in the history of the papacy) and the Pope pronounced anathemas upon him. John would not acknowledge an illegally nominated archbishop to Canterbury that Innocent III had desired to gain the position. John threatened to become a follower of Mohamed instead, but Phillip Augustus was preparing to dethrone him, and John decided to lay his crown at the feet of the Pope. A national protest emerged and the people were furious that John was laying the crown before the dictates of the Pope. Here the papacy came into conflict with liberty for the first time in history in this regard and many of the barons throughout the land denounced both the king and the Pope. John died of extreme drunkenness in a convent while fleeing from a near death experience that frightened him.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 6
Though the papacy was overflowing upon all of Christendom in England, there were certain lights that could not go against the conscience to commit wickedness. One such man was Robert Grostete who undertook the reform of one of the largest diocese in England. He resisted the Pope telling him that he could not allow the abuses that had begun there to continue. When he died, Innocent desired to dig up his bones and pronounce a curse on them, but a phantom that visited him in the night, supposing to be Grostete, said he now had power over him and did not take up charge to carry out his plan, for fear. But Grostete was not the only one to raise a voice against the Pope on his view of preaching. Sewal, archbishop of York also followed Grostete and withstood the Pope on the same matter. The sheep of God are to be fed, not sheared by the Pope.
Two men arose at this time that desired to see England regain power. King Edward III rose to the throne and desired to give back to England her royal dignity and overthrow the power and authority the papacy had over the people in this regard. Bradwardine, an astronomer, philosopher and mathematician also prayed fervently that God would change the history of this country. At first Bradwardine was opposed to Christianity, and later was converted from the power of science that he held to. He fought strenuously against Pelagianism, and walked valiantly in his faith for the cause of Christ. Edward did the same but for polity in England. Edward, with the consent of parliament, publish the provisors that stated that every ecclesiastical appointment contrary to the dictates of the king null and void.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 7
The morning star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe, was born in 1324, in Yorkshire. He was a student of Bradwardine at Merton College, and was a great student and created a godly reputation for himself in the university. A plague fell on England and Wycliffe thought it was God’s judgment, and the last days falling upon men. He cried out to the Lord and found solace in the Bible. He desired to make these same truths known to others, and in 1365, as warden of Canterbury College, began to set forth the doctrine of faith among the people. He was a profound theologian and had great insight into the Bible. He wrote and preached against the papacy, and contested, as a good politician, the papacy’s rights over the crown. Edward III made Wycliffe one of his chaplains and the papacy backed down in attempting to overthrow the crown of England in such a manner with these two powerful evangelicals at the helm.
Wycliffe was presented with the rectory of Lutterworth and from this time he became known as a solid academic scholar. He taught at Oxford and preached in his parish as a compassionate pastor. The papacy became alarmed at the significance of Wycliffe and decided to maneuver towards him through it patron John of gaunt, third son of Edward III. Wycliffe was charged with heresy and was called to give testimony to these charges before the papal court. He was not condemned due to political moves by the Duke, and was let go charged with not preaching or teaching his doctrines. However, Wycliffe could not oppose his conscience, and ultimately set up the Lollards, the poor preachers, to take a translation of the Bible he finished from Latin into English to the people of England so they could hear and read the Bible in their own language.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 8
Wycliffe embarked to translate the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. He was ignorant of Greek and Hebrew, but knew Latin very well. He was aided by students and other learned men and in 1380 the task was completed. As soon as the translation was completed, the copyists began making bibles of Wickliffe’s work. All of England, though, did not look favorably upon this translation. The monks hated it since it placed the Bible in the hands of people who may in fact be more learned than they were. Now they were able to discover the Bible for themselves, and may surpass them in knowledge.
Wycliffe also studied the Bible fervently after the translation was finished, and began to embark on a disagreement with the papacy due to his theological conviction about the Lord’s Supper. He wrote a
Book against transubstantiation and demonstrated from Scripture that it could not be the actual body and blood of Christ that is offered literally in the mass. When the papacy heard of this they resolved to destroy Wycliffe and began persecuting the Lollards who were roaming the countryside with their English bibles teaching the Word. Even John of Gaunt was taken back that Wycliffe was attacking the mass.
Wycliffe expected to be taken captive by Rome and tried as a heretic at any moment. However, he fell ill with a stroke and was arrested by it. Sometime later he was again inflicted with another stroke that claimed his life on December 29, 1384 while in church.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 9
Wycliffe was dead, but his Lollards and disciples continued to bring the Gospel all over England. They recognized Wickliffe’s doctrines as those of Jesus Christ and saw their movement as independent of Rome. Many of the people in following them began to cleanse their churches of the relics and idols, and looked for a more pure outworking of the Gospel in the church. Many Lollards and students wrote against the papal abuses and hung placards in their churches pronouncing their condemnation of the practices of the papacy. They published their Twelve Conclusions on the gates of St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. King Richard was pressed to follow Rome instead of these new doctrines and, unfortunately, he leaned in that direction and became an enemy of the Gospel.
Persecution broke out against these reformers. Lancaster was placed in position to rail against this reform and pronounced everyone following it a heretic and worthy to be burned at the stake. Sawtre was the first martyr burnt alive by Lancaster. The priests and bishops, encouraged by this act, drew up the Constitutions of Arundel which outlawed reading the Bible.
The priests were not satisfied with simply saying the Bible should not be read. Instead they desired those who held to these new beliefs in high position to recant of them, demonstrating the power of the papacy. Sir John Oldcastle had Wickliffe’s writings reprinted, and so he was attacked. The king summoned him to appear in court before him, and was condemned to die. He was taken to the Tower on Friday, and then slowly roasted to death by burning while suspended by hot chains.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 10
The Reformation in England that was about to spring forth was a result of two powers: the revival of learning, which always surrounds reformation, and the “resurrection of the Word of God” which is always what should be studied to gain true revival. Greek and Hebrew learning became requisite to this reform, and a study of classics in literature accompanied such an education, even within the ranks of the Lollards.
While learning was on the rise, another dynasty of kings was coming to the throne: the Tudors succeeded the Plantagenets. Henry Tudor took the throne and Sir Thomas More rose to the scene, being the quintessential Catholic, and a good friend of Erasmus. Erasmus bewailed the lack of an Augustine at this time, but would soon find one in Germany under the auspice of Luther but not to his ultimate liking.
Henry VII had a son whom he had trained well and educated. In 1509 Henry VII died and Henry VIII took his place. He coupled about him learned Catholic men, such as Thomas More and Erasmus at Oxford. At this time Henry was also introduced to Thomas Cromwell, and young man of great genius and who would later help separate Rome from England.
Henry, upon the recommendation of his council, in need to have a queen at his side, took as his wife Catherine of Argon. He brought her to his lavish court where he lived in extravagance and pomp. Henry’s disposition towards fun was given over to games, tournaments and hunting.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 11
The Pope desired to attack France and wanted Henry to be his victor in the battle. He called for him while he was engaged in his usual amusements and responded. In 1511 he determined to invade France in person. Before he went out to battle, he heard a sermon given by John Colet that forbid people to go into battle for personal gain. He met with Colet and decided to take him as his doctor of the court. Colet founded a school, was a brilliant scholar and desired to propagate the Gospel as much as he was able to do so. He also opposed worshipping images (something the bishops and priest did not like).
In the meantime, Louis XII married Princess Mary and among Mary’s attendants was Anne Boleyn. Louis XII died shortly after his union, and Mary was encouraged to marry her love, Brandon. Mary returned to England and Anne Boleyn remained in France. Margaret duchess of Alencon took Anne into her own family becoming attached to her and would soon make her part of the English court along with Margaret.
The papacy needed a man who could overturn the reforms that were taking place through England. There rose up Wolsey, a man they thought could give them victory. Wolsey was not a scholar but a political-ecclesiastical manipulator. He fathered many illegitimate children, and was simply a scoundrel of the worst sort, hungry for power.
King Henry VIII desired Wolsey to present Sir Thomas More to him since he desired to be in the thrall of the fight and began studying literature. More, though, was in retirement, but Henry would do anything to pull him out.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 12
Thomas Wolsey was the son of a wealthy butcher in Ipswich who desired to reign in the highest papal courts. Instead of simply being about his duties as a priest, after he had completed them, he took time to make himself known in the court of the king. He wanted to please the king at every turn and continually remain in his good graces. He did not want to spend the rest of his life saying the mass. He wanted something bigger than this. He was hungry for power and prestige and he came into battle with Warham as a result of this. He even went to great length writing Rome against him hoping to attain a higher position than Warham had.
Wolsey was prideful and was not afraid to show himself greater than those around him, though he made every effort to please the king and would not think of anything but humility and servitude before him. With the good graces of the king in his pocket, and then later as a high official in the church, Wolsey could attain the lavish and extravagant lifestyle of pomp that he so desired. As for his character, Wolsey was immoral, double minded, unfaithful to promises he made to the people often oppressing them with heavy taxes, and was exceedingly arrogant to everyone. It is not difficult to understand that the people of England hated him in great measure.
History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century: Book 17, Chapter 13
The Lollards were about to be attacked again by the Roman church. Richard Hun, a tradesman in London, who was always about studying his Bible, had a child that died. The priest wanted an exorbitant amount of money to bury the child and Richard refused to pay. He was called before the court to stand trial for this and was thrown into the Tower of the Lollards. They plotted against him in order to trap him in heresy. They even sent three assassins to the tower to kill him in his sleep but he fought them off. He fought back, but did not win the fight, was overpowered by them in the end, and was strangled to death. The people of the city were outraged and demanded an examination of the body take place. They were found out and confessed to the crime, however, they said he deserved to die since they found his Wycliffe Bible and condemned him as a heretic.
John Brown, another priest who understood the truth, denounced a fellow priest who said he was the “savior of souls.” This priest along with two friends denounced Brown to the archbishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Rochester summoned Brown to make his ideas known. He did not recant of his views on the Gospel and they handed him over to the state to be burnt alive.
Gospel scholars still remained in England and the purists of the papacy hated them. But this was nothing compared to the echo that the year 1517 brought them, for the Reformation was about to break forth all over Europe, and a few scholars in one country would be joined with many reformers all over the nations.