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Anniversaries The Burning Time

18 February 1533: Thomas Cromwell receives a letter

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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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.

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The Burning Time

THE BURNING TIME Final extract from Introduction: Setting the scene

If we open our story in the year 1530 or thereabouts, we find little to suggest the turmoil to come – apart from the King’s increasing impatience with Rome, and the rise of Lutheranism in parts of Europe. (Soon after Luther’s teachings had been condemned by the Pope in 1521, his works had been publicly burnt in Oxford, Cambridge and at Paul’s Cross – the site of the open-air pulpit outside St Paul’s Cathedral – in London.) Henry was still married to Katherine of Aragon, though becoming increasingly desperate to cast her off and marry Anne Boleyn. He had been insinuating to Pope Clement VII that, if the Pope would not hurry up and make it possible for him to divorce Katherine, a way of dispensing with papal authority must be sought. In 1529 Henry had dismissed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey from the post of Lord Chancellor, under pressure from Anne, and replaced him with Thomas More. The disgraced Wolsey died in November 1530. Earlier that year, in July, John Stokesley, who was supportive of the King’s campaign for a divorce and involved in the making of the case for an annulment under canon law, was appointed Bishop of London in succession to Cuthbert Tunstall, who had become Bishop of Durham.

 

Cardinal Wolsey, English School
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

 

At the heart of the small community of Augustinian canons living in St Bartholomew’s Priory was William Bolton, who had been the prior since 1505. Now nearing the end of his life, Bolton had in his heyday been not only a cleric but also a builder of some eminence, having been employed as ‘master [or clerk] of the works’ by both Henry VII and Henry VIII. (The word ‘builder’ in this context implies something more akin to architect or project manager in modern terms, rather than someone involved in the physical work of construction.) Bolton’s main work for Henry VIII had involved the rebuilding of New Hall in Essex, which the King had procured from Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, and grandfather of Anne. The prior had also undertaken large building operations at St Bartholomew’s itself and at Canonbury Tower in Islington, which formed part of the monastery’s possessions (and from where its water supply was derived). Another notable commission entrusted to Bolton had been the ordering of the chimney pots for Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court. But by 1530 Bolton’s active life was over; in addition to his post at St Bartholomew’s, he had for the last eight years been Rector of Harrow on the Hill, in Middlesex, but he was by now about eighty years old and virtually immobile. He died in April 1532.

Within the Priory Church, as was common in monastic churches, a chapel was set aside for the use of parishioners – the lay people who lived and worked in the monastic close. The parish also had its own priest, who would celebrate Mass in the chapel and look after the general spiritual welfare of the parishioners. It is not known who was fulfilling this role around the time of Prior Bolton’s death, but by the end of the decade the post was held by a man who remained a constant presence at St Bartholomew’s throughout all the turmoil of the burning time. This was Sir John Deane, the last parish priest of the chapel and subsequently the first rector of the parish church. In the early 1530s, Deane was already connected to the monastery, being Rector of Little Stanmore in Middlesex, one of the possessions of St Bartholomew’s.

 

Sir John Deane
Sir John Deane

 

Meanwhile, steadily making his way up a different professional ladder, negotiating the twists and turns of Tudor politics, was a lawyer of the Middle Temple called Richard Rich, in 1530 aged thirty-four and recently returned as Member of Parliament for the borough of Colchester in Essex. His is a name that is already well-known, if in fictionalized form, to readers of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series – where he appears as the principal villain – as well as to viewers of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Rich’s life would intersect with that of John Deane at many points over the following years, and both men would be witnesses at close quarters to all the horror of the burning time.

 

461px-1stLordRich
Richard Rich, by Hans Holbein the Younger

 

Nothing they had known before 1530, in their respective careers, could quite have prepared them for the sights, sounds and smells they would encounter over the next thirty years, as many of their closest acquaintances were consumed in the fires of Smithfield.

Read more in The Burning Time.