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18 February 1533: Thomas Cromwell receives a letter

February 18, 2019

Cromwell by HolbeinOn this day in 1533 an Observant Franciscan lay brother by the name of Richard Lyst wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, one in a series of letters denouncing a fellow Observant Franciscan, Friar John Forest. Cromwell had recruited Lyst as an informer in 1532, Lyst thereby becoming a small cog in Cromwell’s machinery to discredit, and ultimately destroy, monastic life in England.

Richard Lyst, a former grocer and apothecary in Cheapside, and at one time a servant of the late Cardinal Wolsey, saw himself as what we might term a ‘whistle blower’, telling Cromwell in his letter of 18 February 1533:

[Forest] says that he will labour to the King to get out of your hands all such letters as I and others have written about him, that he may get us punished, though we have written nothing but truth. Our fathers have made a law that whoever shows any act done secretly in the religion, or makes any complaint of any in the religion to secular persons, shall be grievously punished.

Lyst continues in a superior, self-righteous tone, as he tells Cromwell how he means to point out to Forest the error of his ways:

I wish you to burn all my letters, for I intend to write a long ‘epistle’ to Father Forest, containing all his faults and transgressions among us, for which he has always avoided punishment. I shall remind him of them, that in this holy time of Lent he may be sorry for them, and make some amends to God and the religion. I shall mention his unfaithful and indiscreet conduct towards the King and you, and will show you a copy of the letter, if he take it not well secundum evangelium, to which, I think, his perfection will not extend.

Lyst’s tone is that of every lay person who has ever written in indignation to their bishop to complain about the vicar. He reported that Forest had been unpleasant towards him personally, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances:

Since you first rebuked him for his indiscreet words about you, of which I gave you knowledge, he will never speak to me, nor show any tokens outward that he is in charity with me.

There had also recently been some scandal concerning the Greenwich friary, involving the death in prison of one ‘brother Ravenscroft’. Lyst had made this fact known to Cromwell and the King, referring to Ravenscroft’s death as ‘suspect’ and somehow implicating Forest, in the hope that it would furnish them with an excuse to investigate the Observant Friars and come down hard on them.

The horrifying fate of Friar John Forest is recounted in my book The Burning Time.

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