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The Reformation Post by :ebooksuppliers Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :1362

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The Reformation

Long ago an eminent Professor of International Law, at the University of Cambridge, lecturing his class, spoke somewhat disparagingly of the Reformation as compared with the Renaissance, and regretted there was no adequate history of the glorious events called by the latter name. So keenly indeed did the Professor feel this gap in his library, that he proceeded to say that inconvenient as it had been to him to lecture at Cambridge that afternoon, still if what he had said should induce any member of the class to write a history of the Renaissance worthy to be mentioned with the masterpiece of Gibbon, he (the Professor) would never again think it right to refer to the inconvenience he had personally been put to in the matter.

It must be twenty years since these words were uttered. The class to whom they were addressed is scattered far and wide, even as the household referred to in the touching poem of Mrs. Hemans. No one of them has written a history of the Renaissance. It is now well-nigh certain no one of them ever will. Looking back over those twenty years it seems a pity it was never attempted. As Owen Meredith sweetly sings--


'And it all seems now in the waste of life
Such a very little thing.'


But it has remained undone. Regrets are vain.

For my part, I will make bold to say that the Professor was all wrong. Professors do not stand where they did. They have been blown upon. The ugliest gap in an Englishman's library is in the shelf which ought to contain, but does not, a history of the Reformation of Religion in his own country. It is a subject made for an Englishman's hand. At present it is but (to employ some old-fashioned words) a hotch-potch, a gallimaufry, a confused mingle-mangle of divers things jumbled or put together. Puritan and Papist, Anglican and Erastian, pull out what they choose, and drop whatever they do not like with a grimace of humorous disgust. What faces the early Tractarians used to pull over Bishop Jewel! How Dr. Maitland delighted in exhibiting the boundless vulgarity of the Puritan party! Lord Macaulay had only a paragraph or two to spare for the Reformation; but as we note amongst the contents of his first chapter the following heads: 'The Reformation and its Effects,' 'Origin of the Church of England,' 'Her Peculiar Character,' we do not need to be further reminded of the views of that arch-Erastian.

It is time someone put a stop to this 'help yourself' procedure. What is needed to do this is a long, luminous, leisurely history, written by somebody who, though wholly engrossed by his subject, is yet absolutely indifferent to it.

The great want at present is of common knowledge; common, that is, to all parties. The Catholic tells his story, which is much the most interesting one, sure of his audience. The Protestant falls back upon his Fox, and relights the fires of Smithfield with entire self-satisfaction. The Erastian flourishes his Acts of Parliament in the face of the Anglican, who burrows like a cony in the rolls of Convocation. Each is familiar with one set of facts, and shrinks nervously from the honour of an introduction to a totally new set. We are not going to change our old 'mumpsimus' for anybody's new 'sumpsimus.' But we must some day, and we shall when this new history gets itself written.

The subject cannot be said to lack charm. Border lands, marshes, passes are always romantic. No bagman can cross the Tweed without emotion. The wanderer on the Malvern Hills soon learns to turn his eyes from the dull eastward plain to where they can be feasted on the dim outlines of wild Wales. Border periods of history have something of the same charm. How the old thing ceased to be? How the new thing became what it is? How the old colours faded, and the old learning disappeared, and the Church of Edward the Confessor, and St. Thomas of Canterbury, and William of Wykeham, became the Church of George the Third, Archbishop Tait, and Dean Stanley? There is surely a tale to be told. Something must have happened at the Reformation. Somebody was dispossessed. The common people no longer heard 'the blessed mutter of the mass,' nor saw 'God made and eaten all day long.' Ancient services ceased, old customs were disregarded, familiar words began to go out of fashion. The Reformation meant something. On these points the Catholics entertain no kind of doubt. That they suffered ejectment they tearfully admit. Nor, to do them justice, have they ever acquiesced in the wrong they allege was then done them, or exhibited the faintest admiration for the intruder.


'Have ye beheld the young God of the Seas,
My dispossessor? Have ye seen his face?
Have ye beheld his chariot foam'd along
By noble wing'd creatures he hath made?
I saw him on the calmed waters scud,
With such a glow of beauty in his eyes
That it enforced me to bid sad farewell
To all my empire.'


This has never been the attitude or the language of the Roman Church towards the Anglican. 'Canterbury has gone its way, and York is gone, and Durham is gone, and Winchester is gone. It was sore to part with them.' So spoke Dr. Newman on a memorable occasion. His distress would have been no greater had the venerable buildings to which he alluded been in the possession of the Baptists.

But against this view must be set the one represented by the somewhat boisterous Church of Englandism of Dean Hook, who ever maintained that all the Church did at the Reformation was to wash her dirty face, and that consequently she underwent only an external and not a corporate change during the process.

There are thousands of pious souls to whom the question, What happened at the Reformation? is of supreme importance; and yet there is no history of the period written by a 'kinless loon,' whose own personal indifference to Church Authority shall be as great as his passion for facts, his love of adventures and biography, and his taste for theology.

In the meantime, and pending the production of the immortal work, it is pleasant to notice that annually the historian's task is being made easier. Books are being published, and old manuscripts edited and printed, which will greatly assist the good man, and enable him to write his book by his own fireside. The Catholics have been very active of late years. They have shaken off their shyness and reserve, and however reluctant they still may be to allow their creeds to be overhauled and their rites curtailed by strangers, they have at least come with their histories in their hands and invited criticism. The labours of Father Morris of the Society of Jesus, and of the late Father Knox of the London Oratory, greatly lighten and adorn the path of the student who loves to be told what happened long ago, not in order that he may know how to cast his vote at the next election, but simply because it so happened, and for no other reason whatsoever.

Father Knox's name has just been brought before the world, not, it is to be hoped, for the last time, by the publication of a small book, partly his, but chiefly the work of the Rev. T. E. Bridgett, entitled The True Story of the Catholic Hierarchy deposed by Queen Elizabeth, with Fuller Memoirs of its Two Last Survivors (Burns and Oates).

The book was much wanted. When Queen Mary died, on the 17th of November, 1558, the dioceses of Oxford, Salisbury, Bangor, Gloucester, and Hereford were vacant. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, died a few hours after his royal relative; and the Bishops of Rochester, Norwich, Chichester, and Bristol did not long survive her. It thus happened that at the opening of 1559 there were only sixteen bishops on the bench. What became of them? The book I have just mentioned answers this deeply interesting question.

One of them, Oglethorpe of Carlisle, was induced to crown the Queen, which service was, however, performed according to the Roman ceremonial, and included the Unction, the Pontifical Mass, and the Communion; but when the oath prescribed by the Act of Supremacy was tendered to the bishops, they all, with one exception, Kitchen of Llandaff, declined to take it, and their depositions followed in due course, though at different dates, during the year 1559. They were, in plain English, turned out, and their places given to others.

A whole hierarchy turned a-begging like this might have been a very startling thing--but it does not seem to have been so. There was no Ambrose amongst the bishops. The mob showed no disposition to rescue Bonner from the Marshalsea. The Queen called them 'a set of lazy scamps.' This was hard measure. The reverend authors of the book before me call them 'confessors,' which they certainly were. But there is something disappointing and non-apostolic about them. They none of them came to violent ends. What did happen to them?

The classical passage recording their fortunes occurs in Lord Burghley's Execution of Justice in England, which appeared in 1583. His lordship in a good-tempered vein runs through the list of the deposed bishops one by one, and says in substance, and in a style not unlike Lord Russell's, that the only hardship put upon them was their removal 'from their ecclesiastical offices, which they would not exercise according to law.' For the rest, they were 'for a great time retained in bishops' houses in very civil and courteous manner, without charge to themselves or their friends, until the time the Pope began, by his Bulls and messages, to offer trouble to the realm by stirring of rebellion;' then Burghley admits, some of them were removed to more quiet places, but still without being 'called to any capital or bloody question.'

In this view historians have pretty generally acquiesced. Camden speaks of Tunstall of Durham dying at Lambeth 'in free custody'--a happy phrase which may be recommended to those of Her Majesty's subjects in Ireland who find themselves in prison under a statute of Edward III., not for doing anything, but for refusing to say they will not do it again. Even that most erudite and delightful of English Catholics, Charles Butler, who is one of the pleasantest memories of Lincoln's Inn, made but little of the sufferings of these bishops, whilst some Protestant writers have thought it quite amazing they were not all burnt as heretics. 'There were no retaliatory burnings,' says Canon Perry regretfully. But this surely is carrying Anglican assurance to an extraordinary pitch. What were they to be burnt for? You are burnt for heresy. That is right enough. No one would complain of that. But who in the year 1559 would have been bold enough to declare that the Archbishop of York was a heretic for refusing an oath prescribed by an Act of the Queen of the same year? Why, even now, after three centuries and a quarter of possession, I suppose Lord Selborne would hesitate before burning the Archbishop of Westminster as a heretic. Hanging is a different matter. It is very easy to get hung--but to be burnt requires a combination of circumstances not always forthcoming. Canon Perry should have remembered this.

These deposed bishops were neither burnt nor hung. The aged Tunstall of Durham, who had played a very shabby part in Henry's time, died, where he was bound to die, in his bed, very shortly after his deposition; so also did the Bishops of Lichfield and Coventry, St. David's, Carlisle, and Winchester. Dr. Scott of Chester, after four years in the Fleet prison, managed to escape to Belgium, where he died in 1565. Dr. Pate of Worcester, who was a Council of Trent man, spent three years in the Tower, and then contrived to slip away unobserved. Dr. Poole of Peterborough was never in prison at all, but was allowed to live in retirement in the neighbourhood of London till his death in 1568. Bishop Bonner was kept a close prisoner in the Marshalsea till his death in 1569. He was not popular in London. As he had burnt about one hundred and twenty persons, this need not surprise us. Bishop Bourne of Bath and Wells was lodged in the Tower from June, 1560, to the autumn of 1563, when the plague breaking out, he was quartered on the new Bishop of Lincoln, who had to provide him with bed and board till May, 1566, after which date the ex-bishop was allowed to be at large till his death in 1569. The Bishop of Exeter was kept in the Tower for three years. What subsequently became of him is not known. He is supposed to have lived in the country. Bishop Thirlby of Ely, after three years in the Tower, lived for eleven years with Archbishop Parker, uncomfortably enough, without confession or mass. Then he died. It is not to be supposed that Parker ever told his prisoner that they both belonged to the same Church. Dr. Heath, the Archbishop of York, survived his deprivation twenty years, three only of which were spent in prison. He was a man of more mark than most of his brethren, and had defended the Papal supremacy with power and dignity in his place in Parliament. The Queen, who had a liking for him, was very anxious to secure his presence at some of the new offices, but he would never go, summing up his objections thus:--'Whatever is contrary to the Catholic faith is heresy, whatever is contrary to Unity is schism.' On getting out of the Tower, Dr. Heath, who had a private estate, lived upon it till his death. Dr. Watson of Lincoln was the most learned and the worst treated of the deposed bishops. He was in the Tower and the Marshalsea, with short intervals, from 1559 to 1577, when he was handed over to the custody of the Bishop of Winchester, who passed him on, after eighteen months, to his brother of Rochester, from whose charge he was removed to join other prisoners in Wisbeach Castle, where very queer things happened. Watson died at Wisbeach in 1584. There was now but one bishop left, the by no means heroic Goldwell of St. Asaph's, who in June, 1559, proceeded in disguise to the sea-coast, and crossed over to the Continent without being recognised. He continued to live abroad for the rest of his days, which ended on the 3rd of April, 1585. With him the ancient hierarchy ceased to exist. That, at least, is the assertion of the reverend authors of the book referred to. There are those who maintain the contrary.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Reformation

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