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History of Protestantism, vol. 1 - Contents
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    Book 7: Protestantism in England, from the Times of Wicliffe to those of Henry VIII.

    Chapter 1: The First Protestant Martyrs in England

    Two Sources of Protestantism—The Bible and the Holy Spirit—Wicliffe’s Missionaries—Hopes of the Protestants—Petition Parliament for a Reformation—England not yet ripe—The Movement Thrown Back—Richard II. Persecutes the Lollards—Richard Loses his Throne—Henry IV. Succeeds—Statute De Haeretico Comburendo—WilliamSawtrey—the First Martyr for Protestantism in England—Trial and Execution of John Badby—Conversation between the Prince of Wales and the Martyr at the Stake—Offered his Life—Refuses and Dies

    Picture: Waterspout on Luthers House at Eisenach

    Picture: Interior of the Wartburg

    Picture: Conference between Thorpe and Arundel

    The Protestant movement, which, after flowing during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries within narrow channels, began in the sixteenth to expand and to fill a wider area, had two sources. The first, which was in heaven, was the Holy Spirit; the second, which was on the earth, was the Bible. For ages the action of both agencies on human society had been suspended. The Holy Spirit was withheld and the Bible was hidden. Hence the monstrous errors that deformed the Church, and hence all the frightful evils that afflicted the world.HOPV1 350.1

    At length a new era had opened. That sovereign, beneficent, and eternal Spirit, who acts when and where and how He will, began again to make His presence felt in the world which He had made; He descended to erect a Temple in which He might dwell with men upon the earth. The Omnipotent and Blessed One put forth His creative power through the instrumentality which He Himself had prepared, even the Scriptures of Truth, which He inspired holy men to write. The recovery of the Holy Scriptures and their diffusion over Christendom was the one instrumentality, as the Spirit who dwells in and operates through the Scriptures was the one Author, of that great movement which was now renewing the world. On this supposition only-that this great movement was not originated by human forces, but created by a Divine agent-can we account for the fact that in all the countries of Christendom it appeared at the same moment, took the same form, and was followed by the same blessed fruits-virtue in private life and order in public.HOPV1 350.2

    We left Luther in the Wartburg. At a moment of great peril, Providence opened for him an asylum; not there to live idly, but to do a work essential to the future progress of Protestantism. While Luther is toiling out of sight, let us look around and note the progress of Protestantism in the other countries of Christendom. We return to England, the parent land of the movement, briefly to chronicle events during the century and a half which divides the era of Wicliffe from that of Luther.HOPV1 350.3

    Wicliffe was dead (1384), and now it was seen what a hold he had taken of England, and how widely his doctrine had spread. His disciples, styled sometimes Wicliffites, sometimes Lollards, travelled the kingdom preaching the Gospel. In the Act of Richard II. (1382), which the clergy, practising upon the youth of the king, got passed without the knowledge of the Commons, mention is made of a great number of persons “going about from country to country, and from town to town, in frieze gowns, without the licence of the ordinaries, and preaching, not only in churches and churchyards, but in market-places and at fairs, divers sermons containing heresies and notorious errors, to the blemishing of the Christian faith, the estate of holy Church, and the great peril of souls.” 1Fox, pp. 229, 230; Lond. 1838. Wicliffe was yet alive, and these men “in frieze gowns,” which the Act empowered the bishops to seize and confine in their houses and prisons, were the missionaries of the great Reformer. These preachers were not troubled with doubts touching their right to assume the sacred office. They reasoned that the same charter which gave to the Church her right to exist, gave to her members the right to discharge those functions that are needful to her welfare. They went not to Rome, therefore, but to the Bible for their warrant to minister.HOPV1 350.4

    Their countrymen flocked to their sermons. The soldiers mingled with the civilians, sword in hand, ready to defend the preacher should violence be offered to him. Several of the nobility joined their party, and were not ashamed to confess themselves the disciples of the Gospel. There followed, wherever their doctrine was received, a reformation of manners, and in some places a purging of the public worship by the removal of idolatrous symbols.HOPV1 351.1

    These signs promised much; in the eyes of the Wicliffites they promised everything. They believed that England was ready to throw off the yoke of Rome, and in this belief they resolved on striking a vigorous blow at the reigning superstition. Within ten years of the death of Wicliffe (1395) they petitioned Parliament for a reformation in religion, accompanying their petition with twelve “conclusions,” or grounds, 2These included the condemnation of transubstantiation; exorcisms; the blessing of bread, oil, wax, water, etc.; the union of spiritual and temporal offices; clerical celibacy; prayers for the dead; the worship of saints and images; pilgrimages; auricular confession; indulgences; conventual vows, etc. etc. (Collier, Eccles. Hist., vol. 1, pp. 597, 598; Lond., 1708.) for such a reformation; of which the second, which we give as a sample of the style and spirit of the whole, was as follows: - “That our usual priesthood, which took its original at Rome, and is feigned to be a power higher than angels, is not that priesthood which Christ ordained unto His disciples. This conclusion is thus proved: forasmuch as this priesthood is done with signs, and Pontifical rites, and ceremonies, and benedictions of no force and effect, neither having any ground in Scripture, forasmuch as the bishops ordinal and the New Testament do nothing at all agree: neither do we see that the Holy Ghost doth give any good gift through any such signs or ceremonies, because that He, together with noble and good gifts, cannot consist and be in any person with deadly sin. The corollary or effect of this conclusion is that it is a lamentable and dolorous mockery unto wise men to see the bishops mock and play with the Holy Ghost in the giving of their orders, because they give (shaven) crowns for their characters, and marks instead of white hearts, and this character is the mark of Antichrist, brought into the holy Church, to cloke and cover their idleness.” These conclusions they also posted up on the walls of Westminster, and suspended on the gates of St. Paul’s. 3Walsingham, Hist. Anglae, p. 328; Camdeni Anglica, Frankfort, 1603. Lewis, Wiclif, p. 337. Fox, Acts and Mon., bk. 1, p. 662; Lond., 1641.HOPV1 351.2

    England was not yet prepared for such “plainness of speech.” The great mass of the nation, without instruction, awed by tradition, and ruled over by the hierarchy, was inert and hostile. The Wicliffites forgot, too, when they went to Parliament, that Reformations are not made, they must grow. They cannot be evoked by royal proclamations, or by Parliamentary edicts; they must be planted by the patient labor of evangelists, and watered not unfrequently by the blood of martyrs. Of all harvests that of truth is the slowest to ripen, although the most plentiful and precious when it has come to full maturity. These were lessons which these early disciples had yet to learn.HOPV1 351.3

    The bold step of the Wicliffites threw back the movement, or we ought rather to say, made it strike its roots downward in the nation’s heart. The priests took the alarm. Arundel, Archbishop of York, posted with all speed to Ireland, where Richard II. then was, and implored him to return and arrest the movement, which was growing to a head. His pious wife, Anne of Luxemburg, a disciple of Wicliffe, was dead (1394), and the king readily complied with Arundel’s request. He forbade the Parliament to proceed in the matter of the Lollard petition, and summoning the chief authors of the “conclusions” before him, he threatened them with death should they continue to defend their opinions. 4Fox, bk. 1, p. 664. But Richard II. did not long retain a scepter which he had begun to wield against the Lollards. Insurrection broke out in his kingdom; he was deposed, and thrown into the Castle of Pontefract. There are but few steps between the prisons and the graves of princes. Richard perished miserably by starvation, and was succeeded by Henry IV., son of that Duke of Lancaster who had been the friend of Wicliffe.HOPV1 351.4

    The cause which the father had defended in the person of its great apostle, found no favor in the eyes of the son. Henry had mounted the throne by Arundel’s help, and he must needs repay the service by devotion to the Church of which Arundel was one of the main pillars. To consolidate his power, the son of John of Gaunt sacrificed the Wicliffites. In his reign was passed a law adjudging men to death for religion - the first of the sort to stain the Statute-book. It enacted that all incorrigible heretics should be burned alive.HOPV1 351.5

    The preamble of the Act sets forth that “divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect of the faith of the Sacraments, damnably thinking, and against the law of God and the Church, usurping the office of preaching,” were going from diocese to diocese, holding conventicles, opening schools, writing books, and wickedly teaching the people.HOPV1 351.6

    To remedy this, the diocesan was empowered to arrest all persons suspected of heresy, confine them in his strong prison, bring them to trial, and if on conviction they refused to abjure, they were to be delivered to the sheriff of the county or the mayor of the town, who were “before the people, in a high place, them to do to be burnt.” Such was the statute DeHoeretico Comburendo, of which Sir Edward Coke remarks that it appears that the bishops are the proper judges of heresy, and that the business of the sheriff was only ministerial to the sentence of the spiritual court. 5Instit., pax. 3, cap. 5, fol. 39. Collier, Eccles. Hist., vol 1, pp. 614, 615. “King Henry IV.,” say’s Fox, “was the first of all English Kings that began the unmerciful burning of Christ’s saints for standing against the Pope.” 6Fox, bk. 1, p. 675. This statute is known as 2 Henry IV., cap. 15. Cotton remarks “that the printed statute differs greatly from the record, not only in form, but much more in matter, in order to maintain ecclesiastical tyranny.” His publisher, Prynne, has this note upon it: “This was the first statute and butcherly knife that the impeaching prelates procured or had against the poor preachers of Christ’s Gospel.” (Cobbett,. Parliament. Hist., vol. 1, p. 287; Lond., 1806.) The “Statute of Heresy” was passed in the previous reign-Richard II., 1382. It is entitled “An Act to commission sheriffs to apprehend preachers of heresy, and their abettors, reciting the enormities ensuing the preaching of heretics.” It was surreptitiously obtained by the clergy and enrolled without the consent of the Commons. On the complaint of that body this Act was repealed, but by a second artifice of the priests the Act of repeal was suppressed, and prosecutions carried on in virtue of the “Act of Heresy.” (See Cobbett, Parliament. Hist., vol. 1, p. 177.) Sir Edward Coke (Instit., par. 3, cap. 5, fol. 39) gives the same account of the matter. He says that the 6th of Richard II., which repealed the statute of the previous year (5th Richard II.), was not proclaimed, thus leaving the latter in force. Collier (Eccles. Hist., vol. 1, p. 606) argues against this view of the case. The manner of proclaiming laws, printing being then unknown, was to send a copy on parchment, in Latin or French, to each sheriff, who proclaimed them in his county; and had the 6th of Richard II., which repealed the 1048 previous Act, been omitted in the proclamation, it would, Collier thinks, have been known to the Commons.HOPV1 352.1

    The law was not permitted to remain a dead letter. William Sawtrey, formerly Rector of St. Margaret’s in Lynn, and now of St. Osyth in London-“a good man and faithful priest,” says Fox-was apprehended, and an indictment preferred against him. Among the charges contained in it we find the following: - “That he will not worship the cross on which Christ suffered, but only Christ who suffered upon the cross.” “That after pronouncing the Sacramental words of the body of Christ, the bread remaineth of the same nature that it was before, neither doth it cease to be bread.” He was condemned as a heretic by the archbishop’s court, and delivered to the secular power to be burned. 7Fox, bk. 1, p. 675. Collier, Eccles. Hist., vol. 1, p 618.HOPV1 352.2

    Sawtrey being the first Protestant to be put to death in England, the ceremony of his degradation was gone about with great formality. First the paten and chalice were taken out of his hands; next the chasuble was pulled off his back, to signify that now he had been completely stripped of all his functions and dignities as a priest. Next the New Testament and the stole were taken away, to intimate his deposition from the order of deacon, and the withdrawal of his power to teach. His deposition as subdeacon was effected by stripping him of the alb. The candlestick and taper were next taken from him to “put from thee all order of an acolyte.” He was next deprived of the holy water book, and with it he was bereft of all power as an exorcist 8Fox, bk. 1, p. 674. By these and sundry other ceremonies, too tedious to recite, William Sawtrey was made as truly a layman as before the oil and scissors of the Church had touched him.HOPV1 352.3

    Unrobed, disqualified for the mystic ministry, and debarred the sacrificial shrines of Rome, he was now to ascend the steps of an altar, whereon he was to lay costlier sacrifice than any to be seen in the Roman temples. That altar was the stake, that sacrifice was himself. He died in the flames, February 12, 1401. As England had the high honour of sending forth the first Reformer, England had likewise the honour, in William Sawtrey, of giving the first martyr to Protestantism. 9Collier,. Eccles. Hist., 1, 618. Burnet, Hist. Ref., 1:24.HOPV1 353.1

    His martyrdom was a virtual prophecy. To Protestantism it was a sure pledge of victory, and to Rome a terrible prognostic of defeat! Protestantism had now made the soil of England its own by burying its martyred dead in it. Henceforward it will feel that, like the hero of classic story, it stands on its native earth, and is altogether invincible. It may struggle and bleed and endure many a seeming defeat; the conflict may be prolonged through many a dark year and century, but it must and shall eventually triumph. It has taken a pledge of the soil, and it cannot possibly perish from off it. Its opponent, on the other hand, has written the prophecy of its own defeat in the blood it has shed, and struggle as it may it shall not prevail over its rival, but shall surely fall before it. 10There is some ground to think that Sawtrey was not the first to be put to death for religion in England. “A chronicle of London,” says the writer of the Preface to Bale’s Brefe Chronycle, “mentions one of the Albigenses burned A.D. 1210.” And Camden, it is thought, alludes to this when he says: “In the reign of John, Christians began to be put to death in the flames by Christians amongst us.” (Bale, Preface 2)HOPV1 353.2

    The names of many of these early sufferers, to whom England owes, under Providence, its liberties and its Scriptural religion, have fallen into oblivion. Among those whom the diligence of our ancient chroniclers has rescued from this fate is that of John Badby. He was a layman of the diocese of Worcester. Arraigned on the doctrine of the Sacrament, he frankly confessed his opinions. In vain, he held, were the “Sacramental words” spoken over the bread on the altar: despite the conjuration it still remained “material bread.” If it was Christ whom the priest produced on the altar, let him be shown Him in his true form, and he would believe. There could be but one fate in reserve for the man who, instead of bowing implicitly to his “mother the Church,” challenged her to attest her prodigy by some proof or sign of its truth. He was convicted before the Bishop of Worcester of “the crime of heresy,” but reserved for final judgment before Arundel, now become the Archbishop of Canterbury. 11Fox, bk. 5, p. 266.HOPV1 353.3

    On the 1st of March, 1409, the haughty Arundel, assembling his suffragans, with quite a crowd of temporal and spiritual lords, sat down on the judgment-seat in St. Paul’s, and commanded the humble confessor to be brought before him. He hoped, perhaps, that Badby would be awed by this display of authority. In this, however, he was mistaken. The opinions he had avowed before the Bishop of Worcester, he maintained with equal courage in presence of the more august tribunal of the primate, and the more imposing assemblage now convened in St. Paul’s. The prisoner was remanded till the 15th of the same month, being consigned meanwhile to the convent of the Preaching Friars, the archbishop himself keeping the key of his cell, 12Ibid. p. 267.HOPV1 353.4

    When the day for the final sentence, the 15th of March, came, Arundel again ascended his episcopal throne, attended by a yet more brilliant escort of lords spiritual and temporal, including a prince of the blood. John Badby had but the same answer to give, the same confession to make, on his second as on his first appearance. Bread consecrated by the priest was still bread, and the Sacrament of the altar was of less estimation than the humblest man there present. 13Collier. Eccles. Hist., vol. 1, p. 629. Fox, bk. 5, p. 266. This rational reply was too rational for the men and the times. To them it appeared simple blasphemy. The archbishop, seeing “his countenance stout and his heart confirmed,” pronounced John Badby “an open and public heretic,” and the court “delivered him to the secular power, and desired the temporal lords then and there present, that they would not put him to death for that his offense,” as if they had been innocent of all knowledge that that same secular power to which they now delivered him had, at their instigation, passed a law adjudging all heretics to the fire, and that the magistrate was bound under excommunication to carry out the statute De Haeritico Comburendo.HOPV1 353.5

    A few hours only elapsed till the fire was lighted. Sentence was passed upon him in the forenoon: on the afternoon of the same day, the king’s writ, ordering the execution, arrived. Badby was hurried to Smithfield, “and there,” says Fox, “being put in an empty barrel, he was bound with iron chains fastened to a stake, having dry wood put about him.” As he was standing in the barrel, Prince Henry, the king’s eldest son, appeared at the outskirts of the crowd. Touched with pity for the man whom he saw in this dreadful position, he drew near and began to address him, exhorting him to forsake these “dangerous labyrinths of opinion” and save his life. The prince and the man in the barrel were conversing together when the crowd opened and the procession of the Sacrament, with twelve torches burning before it, passed in and halted at the stake. The Prior of St. Bartholomew, coming forward, requested Badby to speak his last word. The slightest act of homage to the Host, once more presented before him, would loose his chain and set him free. But no! amid the faggots that were to consume him, as before the assembled grandees in St. Paul’s, the martyr had but the same confession to make: “it was hallowed bread, not God’s body.” The priests withdrew, the line of their retreat through the dense crowd being marked by their blazing torches, and the Host borne aloft underneath a silken canopy. The torch was now brought. Soon the sharp flames began to prey upon the limbs of the martyr. A quick cry escaped him in his agony, “Mercy, mercy!” But his prayer was addressed to God, not to his persecutors. The prince, who still lingered near the scene of the tragedy, was recalled by this wail from the stake. He commanded the officers to extinguish the fires. The executioners obeyed. Addressing the half-scorched man, he said that if he would recant his errors and return to the bosom of the Church, he would not only save him from the fire, but would give him a yearly stipend all the days of his life. 14Walsingham, Hist. Angliae, p. 570; Camdeni Anglica, Frankfort, 1603. Holinshed, Chronicles, vol. 3, pp. 48, 49; Lond., 1808. Holinshed says the prince “promised him not only life, but also three pence a day so long as he lived, to be paid out of the king’s coffers.” Cobbett, in his Parliamentary History, tells us that the wages of a thresher were at that time twopence per day. It was kindly meant, no doubt, on the part of the prince, who commiserated the torments but could not comprehend the joys of the martyr. Turn back now, when he saw the gates opening to receive him, the crown ready to be placed upon his head? No! not for all the gold of England. He was that night to sup with a greater Prince. “Thus,” says Fox, “did this valiant champion of Christ, neglecting the prince’s fair words... not without a great and most cruel battle, but with much greater triumph of victory... perfect his testimony and martyrdom in the fire.” 15Fox, bk. 5, pp. 266, 267; Lond., 1838.HOPV1 353.6

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