English Protestantism

J.B. Trapp

  • Studies in the Reformation: Luther to Hooker by W.D.J. Cargill Thompson
    Athlone, 259 pp, £18.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 485 11187 X

Towards the end of 1533, Sir Thomas More turned to write the last of his harsh rejoinders to a pamphlet attack, printed abroad, on the Catholic doctrine of the eucharist. He did not know who the author was, though he guessed it to be his fierce old adversary William Tyndale, or perhaps George Joye, Tyndale’s former friend and collaborator, now his mortal enemy. More’s title leaves no doubt about his position: The Answer to the first Part of a poisoned Book which a nameless Heretic hath named The Supper of the Lord. Published a bare three months before he was imprisoned in the Tower on 17 April 1534, it is his last work of religious controversy and shows – as well it might – signs of weariness. It was written by a man troubled with ‘a certain sickly disposition of his breast’, in reply to a defence against More’s retort to an earlier tract by John Frith.

Frith was only a late intervener in a battle that had been joined since 1528, in which year More, chartered by his old friend Cuthbert Tunstal, who was also his bishop, had begun to read and to refute the ‘pestilent books’ of Luther’s English sect. Some of these Tunstal had already caused to be confiscated and publicly burned in an attempt to stem the flood-tide of the Reformation in England. (Erasmus was more of a realist: you could burn books, he said, but you could not pluck what they had to say out of the minds of men.) More buckled to his task and in half a dozen years, during half of which he was Lord Chancellor, he wrote and published nearly a million words in English to add to his earlier vehement Latin works against the arch-heretic Luther.

The Answer was More’s fifth book in hardly over a year. He had resigned the Chancellorship immediately after the Submission of the Clergy on 15 May 1532. At the beginning of 1533, he was obliged to defend his Church from another assault, constitutional this time, but again anonymous, sponsored by Thomas Cromwell. The antagonist was an eminent and now elderly lawyer, one Christopher St German, and he was attacking the temporal jurisdiction of the Church through the existence and the practice of the ecclesiastical courts. Since he urged that these courts be brought under the control of the King in Parliament, More had to tread warily. The great question of the English Reformation, the royal claim to be supreme head of the Church in England, was at issue. He knew what might be in store for him in this world, and he feared what might be his lot in the next.

Still, that May – his son-in-law William Roper tells us – he rounded on the bishops who came to plead that he would go with them to the coronation of Anne Boleyn: ‘Though your lordships have in the matter of the matrimony hitherto kept yourselves pure virgins, yet take good heed, my lords, that you keep your virginity still ... It lieth not in my power but that they may devour me. But, God being my good Lord, I will provide that they will never deflower me!’ He was indeed devoured, for the very reason he feared. As Richard Hooker put it, half a century later, in a cooler ecclesiastical climate: ‘Hitherto they which condemn utterly the name [Supreme Head of the Church] so applied, do it because they mislike that any such power should be given unto civil governors. The greatest exception that Sir Thomas More took against that title, who suffered death for the denial of it, was “for that it maketh a lay, or secular person, the head of the state spiritual or ecclesiastical” ... ’ Hooker found other faults in More. He had embraced the doctrine which ‘maketh the works of man rewardable in the world to come through the mere goodness of God’, whereas the true, the Protestant belief was ‘that a man doth receive that eternal and high reward, not for his works’, but for his faith’s sake.’

If one were trying to extract the reaction ‘Reformation’, the three words ‘eucharist’, ‘supremacy’ and ‘faith’ would do as well as any. They are the keys to this fine collection of essays by the late professor of ecclesiastical history at King’s College, London.

The earliest essay to have been published answers the question ‘Who wrote The Supper of the Lord?’ It makes a sort of pivot for the volume, since it turns from the turbulence of the Reformation in Germany during its first three decades to the calm of the English Church, the Church in particular of Hooker, in late Elizabethan and Jacobean times. This is the sort of closely focused and precisely argued exposition of points of doctrine and bibliographical evidence at which James Cargill Thompson excelled. There was much dispute among the Reformers about the nature of the eucharist, which More turned to good polemical account by comparing it with the singleness of Catholic belief. The author of the Supper took the Zwinglian position that it was not a sacrifice, but a ‘bare sign or token’. Cargill Thompson skilfully and convincingly builds up the case for Joye’s being the author.

The doctrine of the English heretics, and of Tyndale in particular, was, according to More, a compound of the worst heresies picked out of the books of Martin Luther. The first three essays in this book are circumstantial accounts of Luther’s attitudes: to a man’s right of resistance to the secular power, to the earthly and the divine kingdoms and governances, to justification by faith. How far and in what circumstances was it compatible with political realities, with the legal rights of the cities and of the princes of Germany, and with the moral teaching of the Gospel, to resist the Emperor Charles V if he should take active, armed measures to suppress the Reformation? In the 1520s, after the Edict of Worms of 1521, with its violent condemnation of the Protestant cause and its prompt and violent rejection by the Protestants, this seemed possible; it seemed more likely still in the 1530s and early 1540s.

Cargill Thompson is irenic but firm, clearheaded, even-handed on the matter. A committed Anglican, he was the gentlest and most scrupulous of scholars. In his choice of subject no less than in his manner of proceeding, he places his emphasis on the spiritual and mental anguish of the men involved, giving little prominence to the dangers and the deaths. The survey of Luther’s ‘Tower experience’ is a good example of his method. It was a very different Tower experience from Thomas More’s as we find it recorded in More’s tortured prayer-book annotations and transcended in his last letters to family and friends, his Dialogue of Comfort and his long meditation on the Agony in the Garden, all written in prison. Luther’s was full of the promise of eternal life rather than the certainty of temporal death: fear yields to something like elation. The problems in writing about Luther’s experience are severe. His opinions, and his views of what his opinions had been, change with the years, so that it is not easy to be sure what the experience actually was, let alone when it took place and what was its precise role in his spiritual and doctrinal development. The amount of scholarly dispute over even so inessential a detail as where Luther was when the meaning of St Paul’s words, ‘The just shall live by faith,’ burst on him is daunting enough. Was he in ‘this tower and heated room’ that he speaks of as his study, or in a less dignified place of meditation, the privy preferred by many from the authoritative Jesuit Grisar to the psychoanalytical Erik Erikson and Norman O. Brown? Cargill Thompson steers us gently, rationally, judiciously, not bypassing any of the problems, to acceptance of his own inclination to date the experience early, in 1515, and to see it as representing a tentative but formative stage in Luther’s theology, rather than the instantaneous Reformation breakthrough.

From Luther we come via Luther’s disciple Joye to the chief preoccupation of this book: the Church of England in Elizabeth’s day, the Anglican solution. This, Cargill Thompson clearly feels, is the culmination of the evolutionary process that began with Luther and the violence of Henry’s reign. His editor has shaped the volume to reach its climax in Hooker, the philosopher of consent, of the Church of England. Before that, there is a masterly study in depth of the persistent, fanatically anti-Catholic knight Sir Francis Knollys, who was, unusually for a layman, an exile in Mary’s time. A minute concern for detail issues in a general conclusion which is exemplary in all senses of the word. Knollys’ complicated doctrinal allegiances, his long badgering of Burghley, his risking of his wife’s kinswoman Elizabeth’s anger, and his opposition to Archbishop Whitgift, are the stuff of ecclesiastical history. Knollys was a special kind of Puritan, a fervent supporter of the Supremacy, a great exponent of apostolic simplicity and a great mistruster of episcopal claims to hold office by divine rather than crown appointment: Henrician rather than Elizabethan in his attitudes.

Embedded in the essay on Knollys is a him at a brief concluding paper on the late 17th-century historian of the Church in England, John Strype, on whose not always reliable accounts our estimate of English Protestantism still partly depends. Strype and John Foxe, both reissued on the high tide of 19th-century Anglicanism, are still the recourse of the historian, who has to come to terms with the yard of shelving they occupy in any library. Foxe suppressed, telescoped, misreported. Strype, vaster and more reliable, also needs to be used cautiously. Everyone uses him faute de mieux, and everyone will be glad of Cargill Thompson’s cool survey of his merits and defects.

Between this final sketch examining one of the tools of the trade and the paper on Knollys comes the longest and finest, most important, general, accomplished and sympathetic essay in the book, on Richard Hooker as the philosopher of the politic society. Written as part of the prolegomena to the new edition of Hooker’s works, it has the individual virtues of the shorter, detailed essays deployed with greater ease and spaciousness. As before, we never lose sight of how, for the 16th century, religious and political history are inseparable from each other, how the study of the English Church requires an understanding of the European background – medieval (Aquinas, Marsilio of Padua, Jean Gerson) as well as earlier Reformation (Melanchthon, Luther, Calvin) and near contemporary (Hadrian de Saravia). European minds and movements were at least as important as national. Hooker, the theocratic meliorist, is nevertheless seen as himself, a man in his own time and his own intellectual climate, not a latter-day Marsilio, nor an Averroist, nor an Aquinas, nor a despiser like Luther of such ‘pig-philosophers’, nor a proto-Lockcan ‘social contract’ man.

In this essay the writing rises to its subject: it is academic prose of the best sort, spare and almost elegant. It is sad that its balance, its range and its clarity and grasp of detail were never matched in a longer account before the author’s sudden and premature death. Equally sadly, we have to make do with these brief studies of the particulars of Luther’s thought, rather than a projected book. All the same, the essays reprinted here, with others uncollected, make a better memorial than most leave behind them after a longer life.