The Protestant Reformation and the English - Irish Province
After his Act of Supremacy was passed through the English Parliament on 3rd November 1534 by King Henry VIII, his dissolution of all English monasteries was more thorough and universal that the effect of Lutheranism had been on the Augustinian monasteries in Continental Europe during the previous twenty years. Within a week of making himself supreme head of the church in January 1535, Henry commissioned his principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to make a detailed survey of monasteries, convents and other ecclesiastical property in England and Wales. This was achieved by Cromwell with great efficiency in a massive document entitled Valor Ecclesiasticus ('Church Wealth').
The suppression of all thirty-five Augustinian houses in England was rapid. It began at Droitwich in May 1538 and ended with the closure of Hull in 1539. About three hundred Augustinians were simply forced out into the street, almost always penniless and without any compensation. One undoubted factor in the failure of English Augustinians generally to take a stronger stance against Henry VIII was their lack of strong leadership. In this predicament, the members of the Order in England did not appreciate the gravity of the situation so as to formulate and adopt a strong position against King Henry VIII.
Of the three hundred members of the English Province at that time, only a few embraced Protestantism, and only three notoriously so. These three influential Augustinians joined forces with the royal suppression of religious communities, rather than resist it. These Augustinians were Robert Barnes, Miles Coverdale and George Browne.
Robert Barnes (1495-1540) is variously discussed as the former Augustinian Prior of Miles Coverdale, a friend of Martin Luther, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, and a martyr of King Henry VIII. As an Augustinian, Barnes had attended the Augustinian studium generale (international Augustinian house of studies) at the University of Louvain, Belgium in 1520-1523. There he came across Lutheran ideas, and developed strong Puritanical views.
He was then Prior and a teacher at the studium generale (Augustinian international house of studies for scholars to the Order) at Cambridge. There he became one of the first Englishmen to side openly with Martin Luther. With characteristic imprudence, on Christmas Day 1525 he preached a violent, polemical sermon at St Edward's Church, Cambridge, although he had been forbidden by the bishop even to enter the pulpit. For this he was imprisoned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey at Fleet Street Prison for two months in 1526, until he recanted.
He was then moved to the prison at Austin Friars Priory, London. He continued his Lutheran propaganda, and was transferred to the prison at Austin Friars Priory, Northampton. For relapsing, Wolsey condemned him to be burnt at the stake. By a ruse he escaped imprisonment and fled England. He found refuge in Germany at Wittenberg, where he met Martin Luther in person. There under Luther’s protection he wrote Acta Romanorum Pontificium, a scathing history of the Popes.
Barnes returned to England, at the invitation of Thomas Cromwell. Eustace Chapuys (c. 1490 – 1556), the Spanish ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, reported to Emperor Charles V of Spain about an ex-priest, who had to be Barnes, “An English Austin friar ... who has lived for a length of time with Luther and others of his sect, has lately arrived in this city [London]. He has come with a safe conduct, and, it is added, at the king's express solicitation. He goes about Court dressed as a layman.”
Thomas Cromwell, the powerful agent of King Henry VIII, used Barnes as an intermediary between Martin Luther and the King, once Henry had broken with Rome. His later role was that of a royal ambassador to the princes and theologians of the German Protestant League of Schmalkalden. In 1535 he was sent back to Germany in the hope of inducing the Lutherans to approve the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. Four years later was employed in negotiations for Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Barnes accompanied Anne to England in December 1539, and thus may possibly have been present when the City of Canterbury conducted the gruesome execution of (Saint) John Stone O.S.A., who was hanged, drawn and quartered.
(It should be mentioned that the historian, Rev Dr Michael Benedict Hackett O.S.A., who died in April 2005, was an expert on John Stone. He questioned whether the execution occurred during Anne of Cleves' time in Canterbury.)
John Stone and Robert Barnes could respectively be described as the best and the worst that the Austin Friars could offer in December 1539. Paradoxically, Barnes was also gruesomely executed; this happened in London only six months later, when he was burned at the stake. Henry's subsequent turning away from Anne of Cleves saw Barnes fall out of royal favour, and Barnes intemperate nature and heretical views once again came to the fore. Imprisoned in the Tower of London without trial, Barnes was burnt at the stake on 30th July 1540 at Smithfield (London), for reasons that are still unclear. His execution was exception in that it was a rare occasion of a sentence of death being carried out during the reign of King Henry VIII without due legal process.
Luther held that Barnes had been executed not because of doctrinal issues, but for the political matter of supporting the marital status of one of Henry’s wives, Anne of Cleves, after she had lost royal favour. In 1546 Barnes' books were forbidden as heretical.
Miles Coverdale (1488-1565 or 1568) of Yorkshire was a younger Augustinian who had come under the Lutheran influence of Barnes while he was a student at Cambridge. He was Barnes' most talented student. Coverdale was ordained an Augustinian priest at Norwich probably in 1524 (and not in 1514, as once stated), at the unusually late age of thirty-four years. Coverdale had been Barnes’ secretary at the time of the latter’s trial for heresy in 1525. Coverdale was in correspondence with Thomas Cromwell in 1527. It was Coverdale who made the only known English Augustinian converts to his creed, which in 1528 was Luther-inspired and included Lollard elements, all garnished with Erasmus's destructive lampooning of the religious life of friars. Four friars of Clare Priory, Suffolk, in East Anglia, succumbed to the influence of Coverdale. They were the Topley brothers, Robert and Thomas, William Gardiner, and John Wygge.
The above were charged with holding that the Eucharist was merely bread and wine, that bishops and priests should be free to marry, that sacramental confession was useless, that a layman could administer the sacraments as validly as any ordained priest, that fasting was no use as a penance, that sea water was as good as holy water, and so forth. All four friars were charged for heresy to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, before whom, on 11 May 1528, Thomas Topley, William Gardiner, and John Wygge recanted. Thomas's brother, Robert Topley, at first managed to avoid detection, but in 1532 he was arrested and then recanted. He was compelled to do penance in the priory prison at Clare for his errors and for having taken a wife, but he managed to escape and rejoin his wife.
There may have been other Protestant-minded Austin Friars at Clare Priory, Suffolk at the time, but, if so, they kept their thoughts and ideas to themselves. As far as records reveal, it would seem that the tide of Lutheranism did not inundate the English Province, and perhaps for good reason. From 1520, down to the death of Henry VIII in 1547, anyone who valued his liberty and life would take good care not to be apprehended in possession of Lutheran writings. But in 1528 Coverdale preached against images, sacramental confession, the Mass, veneration of the saints, and many other doctrines. The king ordered his arrest, but Coverdale fled to the Continent.
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