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Anniversaries The Burning Time

14 February 1540 – Stephen Gardiner preaches at Paul’s Cross

Gardiner by unknown artistOn this day in 1540 (a Sunday), the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, preached the first of that year’s Lenten sermons at Paul’s Cross. These occasions drew large crowds and whatever was said at Paul’s Cross would be heard in the highest quarters. Bishop Gardiner used the opportunity to attack the doctrine of justification by faith, arguing that those who said good works were not necessary for salvation were guilty of misinterpreting the scriptures. This could be seen as an act of deliberate provocation, intended to goad the emerging Protestant clergy of London to contradict him and thereby land themselves in trouble with the authorities (King Henry VIII at this time was showing himself to be increasingly conservative in matters of religious doctrine and practice). The reformist preacher Robert Barnes duly rose to the bait, taking issue with Gardiner and accompanying his argument with personal insults in his own Paul’s Cross sermon, preached a fortnight later. Gardiner complained to the King, who ordered both preachers to be examined before him. Thomas Cromwell (previously a protector of Barnes, but now feeling the threat of the King’s displeasure himself) realised it would be impolitic, and probably useless, to intervene and so did nothing.

The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, was following – and reporting on – these events with interest, not least because Bishop Gardiner was well known to the French court:

A private matter, which might become of public consequence, has occurred in the shape of a great contention about religion between the Bishop of Winchester, formerly ambassador in France, and a great doctor of the law, called Barnes, principal preacher of these new doctrines. The Bishop, one of these Sundays in Lent, did marvels of preaching in St Paul’s Cathedral against the said doctrines, confirming wisely the old and sharply refuting the new. This Barnes could not endure, so that, some days after, although another was appointed to preach, he mounted the pulpit and, after long insisting on the contrary of what the Bishop had said, angrily threw his glove upon the people, as a defiance to the Bishop, against whom he would maintain what he said to the death. The King, much scandalised by this farce, has ordered both to dispute before him and the Council, in order that it may be seen who is right and who is to suffer punishment.

Gardiner and Barnes both appeared before Henry on 5 March, when the King declared Barnes to have lost the theological argument (there can never have been much doubt as to whose side he would come down on). He ordered Barnes to apologise to Gardiner and preach a recantation sermon, which order Barnes initially complied with, again at Paul’s Cross, on 12 March. Eighteen days later, however, unable to live with his conscience, he publicly withdrew his recantation – despite also begging Gardiner for forgiveness – in another sermon, preached at St Mary Spital in the presence of the Lord Mayor and members of the Court of Common Council. (The ‘Spital sermon‘ is a civic tradition that continues to this day, though it rarely generates such excitement as in 1540.) Barnes seems to have wished to distinguish the personal insults he had made to Gardiner, for which he was sorry, from the statements of his faith, for which he could not apologise. Gardiner, his actions almost as ambiguous as Barnes’s words at this point, was slow to respond to the request to indicate his forgiveness and, after hesitating, held up a finger rather than the hand Barnes had asked for. He explained later that he had been taken aback by the request and embarrassed, though also rather put out. His apparent lack of generosity, along with his whole role in the undoing of Barnes – with whom he was reported actually to have been friendly in their younger days at Cambridge – contributed to the reputation for treacherous cruelty he acquired among Protestants as one of their chief persecutors, to be forever remembered (by the name of his see) as ‘Wily Winchester’.

More about both Stephen Gardiner and Robert Barnes, and their respective fates, can be found in my book The Burning Time.

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Anniversaries The Burning Time

11 February 1526 – Robert Barnes recants

Robert BarnesOn this day in 1526 (a Sunday) Robert Barnes, a prominent early advocate of Protestantism in England, was forced to recant his beliefs in public at Paul’s Cross.

Robert Barnes was born in Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk in about 1495 and entered the house of the Austin Friars in Cambridge while still a boy. He subsequently studied under Erasmus at the University of Louvain, which was at that time a distinguished centre of academic humanism and where Barnes developed humanist sympathies. He returned to Cambridge in the mid-1520s, where he became prior of the Austin Friars and, as a result of his studies at Louvain, initiated a series of educational reforms in the house, including the introduction of various classical Latin authors into the curriculum. One of his pupils was Miles Coverdale, who would go on to produce the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Barnes played a significant role in the meetings of young intellectuals that took place at the White Horse tavern in St Edward’s parish in Cambridge. Just about everyone who was anyone in the church reform movement seems to have encountered and been influenced by Robert Barnes. The conservative Stephen Gardiner, who knew Barnes well and had himself been a devotee of Erasmus from an early age, does not seem to have been overly impressed, thinking of him as a typical friar of his period, albeit a very entertaining one – ‘a trim minion friar Augustine, one of a merry scoffing wit, friarlike, and as a good fellow in company was beloved of many’.

Barnes received the degree of Bachelor of Theology in 1522 and a doctoral degree a year later. He first attracted adverse attention from the wider authorities towards the end of 1525 when he preached a Christmas Eve sermon in the Cambridge church of St Edward King and Martyr, in which he criticised various aspects of traditional religion, decried the way festivals were observed and condemned the ostentatious splendour of Cardinal Wolsey. The sermon had been planned in advance, Barnes being encouraged to deliver it by Thomas Bilney and his other friends. Once in the pulpit, however, he departed from the prepared discourse, based on Luther’s sermon on the epistle for the day, and went further than any of his friends had anticipated, particularly in lashing out at the cardinal himself. On this first occasion of his getting into trouble, Barnes was brought to London where he was examined before Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall and Wolsey himself and persuaded, though not without protest, to recant his opinions. He was assisted in his trial by Miles Coverdale, who subsequently abandoned his monastic vows and went abroad.

At his recantation, Barnes was made to perform public penance by processing around the cathedral bearing a bundle of twigs and kneeling while Bishop Fisher preached a sermon. The service was presided over by Cardinal Wolsey himself who, with 36 bishops and mitred abbots, sat on a platform specially constructed for the occasion. Bishop Fisher based his sermon on the day’s Gospel reading (Luke 18:31-43), concerning the healing of a blind man; he likened the blind man to a heretic and declared: ‘Heresy is a perilous weed, it is the seed of the devil, the inspiration of the wicked spirits, the corruption of our hearts, the blinding of our sight, the quenching of our faith, the destruction of all good fruit, and finally the murder of our souls.’

More about the life and death of Robert Barnes, who later repented of his recantation and went to the flames, can be found in my book The Burning Time.