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- England Under the Tudors - 20/90 -


[Sidenote: Corruption of doctrine]

But the corruption of the clerical body fostered also the degeneration of popular religious conceptions. The actual teaching of the clergy was a grotesque distortion of the doctrines they professed to expound. The intelligible doctrine of absolution following on repentance and confession, and accompanied by penance, had been transformed into that of absolution purchasable by cash. Reverence for the relics of saints and martyrs had been degraded by their spurious multiplication. The belief that such relics were endowed with miraculous properties had been utilised to convert them into fetishes, and pampered by fraudulent conjuring tricks. The due performance of ceremonial observances was treated as of far more vital importance than the practice of the Christian virtues. The images of the Saints had virtually come to be regarded not as symbols, but as idols possessed of various degrees of power, the assistance of one and the same saint proving more or less efficacious according to the shrine favoured by his suppliant.

[Sidenote: Evidence from Colet and More (1512-18)]

These facts are not disputable. They were fully recognised by Reformers of the type of Colet and More, who would have had the Church reform herself by reverting to the primitive and orthodox expression of the doctrines of which these deformities were a corrupt latter-day misrepresentation, and to the ideals of life and conduct which had been overlaid by ceremonial observances. The primitive doctrines they accepted without question; as regarded the ceremonial observances, they objected to them not in themselves but only so far as they obscured in practice the much higher value of moral ideals. In the view of such men the remedy for heresies lay in the hands of the clergy: would they but bring their lives into some conformity with primitive ideals, surrendering the pursuit of place, profit, or pleasure to tread in the footsteps of the apostles, heresy would perish of inanition.

[Sidenote: Later evidence]

When Colet was preaching at St. Paul's, when More was imagining the _Utopia_, when Erasmus was preparing his _Praise of Folly_ and his edition of the Greek Testament, the name of Luther was still unknown. Their aim was the active propagation of reform; not to exercise thereon a restraining influence, which at that time would have seemed superfluous. The only reason they could have had for understating the existing corruption would have been fear of the authorities, a fear from which both Colet and More always showed themselves conspicuously free. Colet's most vigorous exhortations were addressed to prelates and persons in high places; More never throughout his career hesitated to oppose Chancellors, or even Tudor Kings, when a principle was involved. We are therefore entitled to assume that they neither over-coloured nor deliberately toned down the prevalent conditions. A decade later, when fanaticism had broken loose, the anathemas hurled at the clergy by irresponsible pamphleteers, or zealots who were sheltered in the Lutheran States of Germany, were of a much more sweeping character. Later, again, the reports of the Commissioners for the suppression of monasteries formed an appalling indictment. Later still, when the Protestant party won the upper hand after a season of relentless and embittering persecution, the pictures they painted of the past were lurid in the extreme. But the evidence of such witnesses could not be other than passionately biassed, just as the evidence of persecuted monks and nuns must have been biassed on the other side: whereas the evidence of Colet, of More in his earlier days, and, with certain reservations, of Erasmus, is that of honest and high-minded men of great intellectual capacity, speaking without prejudice of conditions with which they were in direct contact. Their assertions, and the fair inferences from their assertions, are a safe basis from which we can ascertain both the gravity and the limits of the corruption which existed in England.

[Sidenote: Dean Colet]

John Colet was appointed to the Deanery of St. Paul's four or five years before the death of Henry VII., being transferred thither from Oxford, where he had won high repute, not merely for character and learning, but as the initiator of a new and rational method of Scriptural study in place of the old scholasticism. At St. Paul's the Dean proved himself a great preacher, exercising also in private life a powerful influence on all who came in contact with him, alike from the splendour of his intellect and the large-hearted purity of his character. His outspoken sermons were by no means to the liking of his bishop; but some of the leading prelates, notably Warham of Canterbury and Fox of Winchester, were well disposed to the new school of learning and exposition and to higher moral standards, as Cardinal Morton had been. When the young King ascended the throne in 1509, his accession was hailed by all men of the new school as heralding the reign of intellectual liberty and enlightenment.

[Sidenote: Colet's sermon, 1512]

Accordingly, when Convocation was summoned in 1512 to discuss the suppression of heresy, in consequence of some stray reappearances of Lollardry, the prevalence of a wider spirit was shown by the selection of Colet to preach the opening sermon, and by the subsequent ignominious failure of the Bishop of London to have the Dean punished as a heretic. It is to the sermon preached on this occasion that we must turn to see how Colet viewed the situation. It was a direct indictment of the manner of life of the clergy from Wolsey down; a summons to them to amend their ways, to set a higher example to their flock; an appeal to them to fix their eyes on apostolic ideals, and so to remove the real incitement which turned men's minds to heretical speculation. While the positive arguments of the preacher are evidence not only of the purity of his own aims and his courage in supporting them, their reception shows that the substantial justice of the indictment was recognised by the audience at whom it was personally directed, however little disposed they might be to act individually on his appeal. On the other hand however, it is a striking fact that the charges brought are almost exclusively of worldliness, laxity, indiscipline, unbecoming in pastors and in ministers of the Gospel of Christ--though these charges were pressed home relentlessly; not at all of that rampant immorality and vice of which the clergy were so freely accused in later years. From what Colet did _not_ say, we may fairly infer a reasonable average of respectability among them.

[Sidenote: Erasmus]

If, in the _Encomium Moriae_ or _Praise of Folly_, which Erasmus wrote at about the same period (1511), the vices and follies of the Church were lashed with a mockery still more unsparing, we have to note, first, that the great scholar drew his picture less from England than from the Continent; next, that it had no injurious effect on his appointment to the professorship of Greek at Cambridge. The patronage extended to him by the Primate, and by Fisher of Rochester, the most orthodox and saintly of the English bishops, is a sufficient proof that the authorities were not bigoted enemies of all reform; a proof borne out by the enthusiastic welcome extended to his edition of the Greek Testament in 1518, by Fox of Winchester amongst others.

[Sidenote: The _Utopia_, 1516]

From the _Utopia_ of Sir Thomas More we derive precisely the same impression. In 1516, when the work was published, Luther had not yet defied the Pope; the German Peasants' War had not yet broken out, nor the spread of new ideas been associated with Anarchism under the name of Anabaptism. Persecution, which fifteen years later More advocated and practised as the unavoidable remedy for the spread of doctrines which he had come to regard as actively pernicious, was alien to his instincts; in his ideal Commonwealth, men might expound whatever they honestly held, provided they did not deny God and the Future Life. More's nature was tolerant and charitable. But his own convictions were thoroughly orthodox; he had at one time a strong disposition to enter the priesthood himself; he held the priestly office in high reverence. Yet his restriction of the number of priests in _Utopia_ shows his vivid consciousness of the evil wrought by their unrestricted multiplication in England; and in the description of English social conditions in the introductory portion of his work, he refers in emphatic terms to the large proportion of "sturdy vagabonds" among them. His whole tone in the section of his book devoted to religious matters implies that he is pointing a contrast between his ideal order of things and that familiar to his readers, wherein non-essentials are so emphasised that essentials are practically forgotten. Yet More, like Colet, makes no sweeping attack on the morality (in the narrower popular sense of the term) prevalent among the clerical body.

[Sidenote: Exaggerated attacks]

The wholesale condemnation of later days has been largely due to the acceptance without qualification of denunciations poured forth in the heat of controversy, in days when men did not mince words and were not given to the careful weighing of evidence. Typical of such works is the _Supplicacyon for the Beggers_ produced by one Simon Fish in 1527, which has been seriously treated as a sober indictment. The Clergy, from Bishops to "Somners" are a "rauinous cruell and insatiabill generacion" ... "counterfeit holy and ydell beggers and vacabundes" ... "that corrupt the hole generation of mankind," committing "rapes murdres and treasons". They are a "gredy sort of sturdy idell holy theues" habitually guilty of every conceivable form of vice and profligacy. The pamphlet teams with arithmetical absurdities. It is simply inconceivable that the growth within the realm of such an organisation as is here depicted would have been permitted; or that, if there, it would not have been sternly repressed by Henry VII.; or that if it had survived the first Tudor, the second would have suffered it to flourish unregarded for eighteen years of his reign. The exaggeration is so flagrant that we can hardly infer from it even a substratum of truth. Such diatribes as this must be referred to, not as being valid evidences against the accused, but as proving the passion of the controversy, and the hesitation necessary before accepting conclusions traceable to the wild and whirling words of such controversialists.

[Sidenote 1: Clerical privileges] [Sidenote 2: Tentative reforms]

In another respect however there was a serious demand for reform; namely the legal and judicial privileges which the ecclesiastical body had acquired in the course of centuries, and which had gradually become the source of serious abuses. The administration of certain branches of the Civil Law had been absorbed by the Clerics, who were charged with converting their functions into an elaborate machinery for extorting fees; and on the Criminal side, what was known as Benefit of Clergy, as well as the rules of Sanctuary, had become not merely anomalous but an actual encouragement to crime. Any criminal or accused person who succeeded in reaching Sanctuary was safe from the secular arm; and any one who could produce evidence, even of the flimsiest character, that he was a cleric could claim to be tried by the ecclesiastical instead of the secular courts. Originally these privileges had been of very great service in the wild days when judicial treatment was at least more readily obtainable from the Clergy, when trial by ordeal was common, and the merciless punishments of the ordinary law gave place to the milder but not ineffective penalties of Ecclesiastical discipline. Even the legal fictions by which evildoers were allowed to claim Benefit of Clergy as Clerics had their justification. But when even murderers could escape with a moderate penance as Clerics, because they could read, the general public were hardly the better. A beginning of reform in this direction had been made when Henry VII. obtained a Bull diminishing the rights of Sanctuary in cases of treason; and again in 1511 when the rights both of Sanctuary and Benefit of Clergy were withdrawn from murderers. It was noteworthy however that there was a protest against even this made by the Clergy in 1515; when one Dr. Standish, for justifying the measure, was attacked by the Bishops in


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