He recognized and largely exemplified the abuses that still survived in the ecclesiastical life of England: absentee bishops, worldly clergymen, idle monks, and priests snared into parentage. The state, which had so often called for a reform of the Church, was now part cause of the evils, for the bishops were appointed by the kings. Some bishops, like Morton and Warham and Fisher, were men of high character and caliber; many others were too absorbed in the comforts of prelacy to train their clergy in spiritual fitness as well as financial assiduity. The sexual morality of the curates was probably better than in Germany, but among the 8,000 parishes of England there were inevitably cases of sacerdotal concubinage, adultery, drunkenness, and crime—enough to make Archbishop Morton say (1486) that “the scandal of their lives imperiled the stability of their order.” 23 Richard Foxe, toward 1519, informed Wolsey that the clergy in the diocese of Winchester were “so depraved by license and corruption” that he despaired of any reformation in his lifetime.24 The parish priests, suspecting that their promotion depended on their collections, were more than ever exacting of tithes; some took a tenth, each year, of the peasant’s chickens, eggs, milk, cheese, and fruit, even of all wages paid to his help; and any man whose will left no legacy to the Church ran high risk of being denied Christian burial, with prospective results too horrible to contemplate. In short the clergy, to finance their services, taxed almost as sedulously as the modern state. By 1500 the Church owned, on a conservative Catholic estimate, about a fifth of all property in England.25 The nobility, here as in Germany, envied this ecclesiastical wealth, and itched to recover lands and revenues alienated to God by their pious or fearful ancestors.
The condition of the secular clergy in England was summed up with obvious exaggeration by Dean Colet in an address to an assembly of churchmen in 1512:
I wish that at length, mindful of your name and profession, you would consider the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs; for never was it more necessary.... . For the Church—the spouse of Christ—which He wished to be without spot or wrinkle, is become foul and deformed. As saith Isaiah, “The faithful city is become a harlot”; and as Jeremiah speaks, “She hath committed fornication with many lovers,” whereby she hath conceived many seeds of iniquity, and daily bringeth forth the foulest of offspring.... . Nothing has so disfigured the face of the Church as the secular and worldly living on the part of the clergy.... . What eagerness and hunger after honor and dignity are found in these days among ecclesiastical persons! What a breathless race from benefice to benefice, from a less to a greater one! ....
As to lust of the flesh, has not this vice inundated the Church with a flood... so that nothing is more carefully sought after... by the most part of priests, than that which ministers to sensual pleasure? They give themselves to feasting and banqueting... devote themselves to hunting and hawking, are drowned in the delights of this world....
Covetousness also .... has so taken possession of the hearts of all priests .... that nowadays we are blind to everything but that alone which seems able to bring us gain .... We are troubled in these days by heretics—men mad with strange folly; but this heresy of theirs is not so pestilential and pernicious to us and the people as the vicious and depraved lives of the clergy.... . Reformation must begin with you.26
And again the angry Dean cried:
O priests! O priesthood! .... Oh, the abominable impiety of those miserable priests, of whom this age of ours contains a great multitude, who fear not to rush from the bosom of some foul harlot into the temple of the Church, to the altar of Christ, to the mysteries of God! 27
The regular or monastic clergy incurred even severer censure. Archbishop Morton in 1489 charged Abbot William of St. Albans with “simony, usury, embezzlement, and living publicly and continuously with harlots and mistresses within the precincts of the monastery and without”; he accused the monks of “a life of lasciviousness .... nay, of defiling the holy places, even the very churches of God, by infamous intercourse with nuns,” making a neighboring priory “a public brothel.” 28 The records of episcopal visitations paint a less lurid picture. Of forty-two monasteries visited between 1517 and 1530 fifteen were found without serious fault, and in most of the others the offenses were against discipline rather than chastity.29 Some monasteries still faithfully practiced the medieval regimen of prayer, scholarship, hospitality, charity, and education of the young. Some exploited the credulity—and gathered the coins—of the commons by bogus relics to which they ascribed miraculous cures; bishops complained of the “stinking boots, mucky combs... rotten girdles... locks of hair, and filthy rags... set forth and commended unto the ignorant people” as authentic relics of holy women or men.30 All in all, in the estimate of the latest Catholic historian, the 600 monasteries of England, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, showed widespread misconduct, wasteful idleness, and a costly negligence in the care of ecclesiastical property.31
In 1520 there were some 130 nunneries in England. Only four had over thirty inmates.32 Eight were suppressed by the bishops, in one case, said the bishop, because of “the dissolute disposition and incontinence of the religious women of the house, by reason of the vicinity of Cambridge University.” 33 In thirty-three visitations of twenty-one nunneries in the diocese of Lincoln, sixteen reports were favorable; fourteen noted lack of discipline or devotion; two told of prioresses living in adultery, and one found a nun pregnant by a priest.34 Such deviations from arduous rules were natural in the moral climate of the times, and may have been outweighed by kindly services in education and charity.
The clergy were not popular. Eustace Chapuys, Catholic ambassador of Charles V to England, wrote to his master in 1529: “Nearly all the people hate the priests.”35 Many men fully orthodox in creed denounced the severity of ecclesiastical taxation, the extravagance of the prelates, the wealth and idleness of the monks. When the chancellor of the bishop of London was accused of murdering a heretic (1514), the bishop begged Wolsey to prevent trial by a civil jury, “for assured I am, if my chancellor be tried by any twelve men in London, they be so maliciously set in favor of heretical pravity that they will cast and condemn my clerk though he were as innocent as Abel.”36
Heresy was rising again. In 1506 forty-five men were charged with heresy before the bishop of Lincoln; forty-three recanted, two were burned. In 1510 the bishop of London tried forty heretics, burned two; in 1521 he tried forty-five and burned five. The records list 342 such trials in fifteen years.37 Among the heresies were contentions that the consecrated Host remains merely bread; that priests have no more power than other men to consecrate or absolve; that the sacraments are not necessary to salvation; that pilgrimages to holy shrines, and prayer for the dead, are worthless; that prayers should be addressed only to God; that man can be saved by faith alone, regardless of good works; that the faithful Christian is above all laws but that of Christ; that the Bible, not the Church, should be the sole rule of faith; that all men should marry, and that monks and nuns should repudiate their vows of chastity. Some of these heresies were echoes of Lollardry, some were reverberations of Luther’s trumpet blasts. As early as 1521 young rebels in Oxford eagerly imported news of the religious revolution in Germany. Cambridge in 1521–25 harbored a dozen future heresiarchs: William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Hugh Latimer, Thomas Bilney, Edward Fox, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer.... . Several of them, anticipating persecution, migrated to the Continent, printed anti-Catholic tracts, and sent them clandestinely into England.
Possibly as a deterrent to this movement, and perhaps to display his theological erudition, Henry VIII issued in 1521 his famous Assertion of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther. Many thought Wolsey the secret author, and Wolsey may have suggested the book and its leading ideas as part of his diplomacy at Rome; but Erasmus claimed that the King had actually thought out and composed the treatise, and opinion now inclines to that view. The book has the ring of a tyro; it hardly attempts a rational refutation, but relies on Biblical quotations, Church traditions, and vigorous abuse. “What serpent so venomous,” wrote the future rebel against the papacy, “as he who calls the pope’s authority tyrannous? .... What a great limb of the Devil he is, endeavoring to tear the Christian members of Christ from their head!” No punishment could be too great for one who “will not obey the Chief Priest and Supreme Judge on earth,” for “the whole Church is subject not only to Christ but... to Christ’s only vicar, the pope of Rome.” 38Henry envied the honorific titles given by the Church to the king of France as “Most Christian,” and to Ferdinand and Isabella as “the Catholic Sovereigns”; now his agent, presenting the book to Leo X, asked him to confer on Henry and his successors the titleDefensor Fidei—Defender of the Faith. Leo consented; and the inaugurator of the English Reformation placed the words upon his coins.
Luther took his time answering. In 1525 he replied characteristically to that “lubberly ass,” that “frantic madman... that King of Lies, King Heinz, by God’s disgrace King of England.... Since with malice aforethought that damnable and rotten worm has lied against my King in heaven it is right for me to bespatter this English monarch with his own filth.”39 Henry, unaccustomed to such sprinkling, complained to the Elector of Saxony, who was too polite to tell him not to meddle with lions. The King never forgaveLuther, despite the latter’s later apology; and even when in full rebellion against the papacy he repudiated the German Protestants.
Luther’s most effective answer was his influence in England. In that same year 1525 we hear of a London “Association of Christian Brothers,” whose paid agents went about distributing Lutheran and other heretical tracts, and English Bibles in part or whole. In 1408 Archbishop Arundel, disturbed by the circulation of Wyclif’s version of the Scriptures, had forbidden any vernacular translation without episcopal approval, on the ground that an unauthorized version might misconstrue difficult passages, or color the rendering to support a heresy. Many clergymen had discouraged the reading of the Bible in any form, arguing that special knowledge was necessary to a right interpretation, and that Scriptural excerpts were being used to foment sedition.40 The Church had raised no official objection to pre-Wyclif translations, but this tacit permission had been of no moment, since all English versions before 1526 were manuscript.41
Hence the epochal importance of the English New Testament printed by Tyndale in 1525–26. Early in his student days he had planned to translate the Bible, not from the Latin Vulgate as Wyclif had done, but from the original Hebrew and Greek. When an ardent Catholic reproved him, saying, “It would be better to be without God’s law”—i.e., the Bible—“than without the pope’s,” Tyndale answered: “If God spare me life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scripture than you do.”42 A London alderman gave him bed and board for six months, while the youth labored on the task. In 1524 Tyndale went to Wittenberg, and continued the work under Luther’s guidance. At Cologne he began to print his version of the New Testament from the Greek text as edited by Erasmus. An English agent roused the authorities against him; Tyndale fled from Catholic Cologne to Protestant Worms, and there printed 6,000 copies, to each of which he added a separate volume of notes and aggressive prefaces based on those of Erasmus and Luther. All these copies were smuggled into England, and served as fuel to the incipient Protestant fire. Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, alleging serious errors in the translation, prejudice in the notes, and heresies in the prefaces, tried to suppress the edition by buying all discoverable copies and publicly burning them at St. Paul’s Cross; but new copies kept coming from the Continent, and More commented that Tunstall was financing Tyndale’s press. More himself wrote a lengthy Dialogue (1528) criticizing the new version; Tyndale replied; More replied to the reply in a Confutation of 578 folio pages. The King thought to quiet the disturbance by forbidding the reading or circulation of the Bible in English until an authoritative translation could be made (1530). Meanwhile all printing, sale, importation, or possession of heretical works was banned by the government.
Wolsey sent orders to arrest Tyndale, but Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, protected the author, and he proceeded, at Marburg, with his translation of the Pentateuch (1530). Slowly, by his own labor or under his supervision, most of the Old Testament was rendered into English. But in a careless moment he fell into the hands of Imperial officials; he was imprisoned for sixteen months at Vilvorde (near Brussels), and was burned at the stake (1536) despite the intercession of Thomas Cromwell, minister to Henry VIII. Tradition reports his last words as “Lord, ope the King of England’s eyes.”43 He had lived long enough to accomplish his mission; the plowboy could now hear the Evangelists tell in firm, clear, pithy English the inspiring story of Christ. When the historic Authorized Version appeared (1611), 90 per cent of the greatest and most influential classic in English literature was unaltered Tyndale.44
Wolsey’s attitude toward this nascent English Reformation was as lenient as could be expected of a man who headed both Church and state. He hired secret police to spy out heresy, to examine suspicious literature, and to arrest heretics. But he sought to persuade these to silence rather than to punish them, and no heretic was ever sent to the stake by his orders. In 1528 three Oxford students were jailed for heresy; the bishop of London allowed one to die in confinement; one recanted and was released; the third was taken in charge by Wolsey, and was allowed to escape.45 When Hugh Latimer, the most eloquent of the early Reformers in sixteenth-century England, denounced the deterioration of the clergy, and the bishop of Ely asked Wolsey to suppress him, Wolsey gave Latimer license to preach in any church in the land.
The Cardinal had an intelligent plan for Church reform. “He despised the clergy,” according to Bishop Burnet, “and in particular... the monks, that did neither the Church nor state any service, but were through their scandalous lives a reproach to the Church and a burden to the state. Therefore he resolved to suppress a great number of them, and to change them to another institution.”46 To close a malfunctioning monastery was not unheard of; it had been done by ecclesiastical order in many instances before Wolsey. He began (1519) by issuing statutes for the reform of the canons regular of St. Augustine; if these rules were followed the canons became quite exemplary. He commissioned his secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to visit the monasteries in person or through agents, and to report the conditions found; these visitations made Cromwell a practiced hand in later executing Henry’s orders for a severer scrutiny of England’s conventual life. Complaints were heard of the harshness of these agents, of their receiving or exacting “gifts,” and of their sharing these with Cromwell and the Cardinal.47 In 1524 Wolsey obtained permission from Pope Clement VII to close such monasteries as had less than seven inmates, and to apply the revenues of these properties to establishing colleges. He was happy when these funds enabled him to open a college in his native Ipswich and another at Oxford. He hoped to continue this process, to close more monasteries year by year and replace them with colleges.48 But his good intentions were lost in the confusion of politics, and the chief result of his monastic reforms was to provide Henry with a respectable precedent for a more extensive and lucrative scheme.
Meanwhile the Cardinal’s foreign policy had come to grief. Perhaps because he sought the Emperor’s support for election to the papacy (1521, 1523), he allowed England to join Charles in war with France (1522). The English campaigns were unsuccessful and expensive in money and lives. To finance fresh efforts Wolsey summoned (1523) the first Parliament in seven years, and shocked it by asking an unprecedented subsidy of £800,000—a fifth of every layman’s property. The Commons protested, then voted a seventh; the clergy protested, but yielded half a year’s revenue from every benefice. When news came that Charles’s army had overwhelmed the French at Pa via (1525) and taken Francis prisoner, Henry and Wolsey thought it advisable to share in the impending dismemberment of France. A new invasion was planned; more money was needed; Wolsey risked the last shreds of his popularity by asking all Englishmen with over £50 ($5,000?) income to contribute a sixth of their goods to an “Amicable Grant” for the prosecution of the war to a glorious end; let us amicably grant that the purpose may have been to prevent Charles from swallowing all France. The demand was so widely resisted that Wolsey had to veer to a program of peace. A treaty of mutual defense was signed with France as another effort to restore the balance of power. But in 1527 Imperial troops captured Rome and the Pope; Charles seemed now the invincible master of the Continent; Wolsey’s policy of check and balance “was ruined. In January 1528, England joined France in war against Charles.
Now Charles was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, from whom Henry earnestly desired a divorce; and Clement VII, who could grant it for reasons of state, was in person and policy a captive of Charles.