A CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE REFORMATION. (MARCH AND APRIL, 1534)
THE parliament of 1534 had greatly advanced the cause of the Reformation. The voices of the most enlightened men of England had been heard in it with still greater power than in 1529; and accordingly an historian, referring to the meeting of 1534, speaks of it as ‘that great session.’ These enlightened men, however, formed but a small minority, and among them were many who, from a want of independence, never voted on the side of liberty but when the king authorized them. The epoch was a critical one for the nation. It might as easily fall back to the pope, as advance towards the Gospel. Hesitating between the Middle Ages and modern times, it had to choose either life or death. Would it make a vigorous effort and reach those bracing- heights, like travelers sealing the rugged sides of the Alps? England appeared too weak for so daring a flight.
The mass of the people seemed chained by time-worn prejudices to the errors and practices of Rome. The king no doubt had political views which raised him above his age; but a slave to his passions, and the docile disciple of scholasticism, he detested a real Reformation and real liberty. The clergy were superstitious, selfish, and excitable; and the advisers of the crown knew no other rule than the will of their master. By none of these powers, therefore, could a transformation be accomplished. The safety of England came from that sovereign hand, that mysterious power, which was already stirring the western world. The nation began to feel its energetic impulse. A strange breeze seemed to be filling the sails and driving the bark of the state towards the harbor, notwithstanding the numerous shoals that lay around it.
The thought which at that time mainly engrossed the minds of the most intelligent men of England — men like Cranmer, Cromwell, and their friends — was the necessity of throwing off the papal authority. They believed that it was necessary to root out the foreign and unwholesome weed, which had spread over the soil of Britain, and tear it up so thoroughly that it could never grow again. Parliament had declared that all the powers exercised by the bishop of Rome in England must cease and be transferred to the crown; and that no one, not even the king, should apply to Rome for any dispensation whatsoever. A prelate had preached every Sunday at St. Paul’s Cross that the pope was not the head of the Church.
On the other hand, the pontiff, who was reckoning on Henry’s promised explanations and satisfactory propositions, seeing that the messenger whom he expected from London did not arrive, had solemnly condemned that prince on the 23rd March, 1534. But immediately startled at his own boldness, Clement asked himself with agony how he repair this wrong and appease the king. He saw impossible, and in the bitterness of his heart exclaimed: ‘Alas! England is lost to us!’
Two days after the famous consistory in which Henry’s condemnation had been pronounced, an English courier entered Rome, still in a state of agitation and trouble, and went straight to the papal palace. ‘What is his business?’ people said; ‘and what can give him such boldness? The Englishman was bringing to the ministers of the Vatican the long-expected act by which the King of England declared himself prepared to enter into an arrangement with the pope, provided the cardinals of the imperial faction were excluded. The messenger at the same time announced that Sir Edward Carne and Revett, two envoys from Henry VIII., would soon arrive to conclude the business. Cardinal Farnese, who erelong succeeded Clement under the title of Paul III., and the more moderate prelates of the sacred college, waited upon the pope at once, and begged him to summon the consistory without delay. It was just what Clement desired; but the imperialists, more furious than ever, insisted on the confirmation of the sentence condemning Henry, and spared no means to ensure success. Monks went about repeating certain stories which their English brethren sent them, and which they furthermore exaggerated. They asserted that the English people were about to rise in a body against the king and throw themselves at the feet of the holy father. The pope ratified the sentence, and the consistory, taking one more step, ordered the emperor to carry it out.
It has been said that a delay of two days was the cause of the Reformation of England. That is a mistake. The Reformation came from the Holy Scriptures, from God, from His mighty grace, and not from princes, their passions, or delays. Even had the pontifical court at last conceded to Henry the divorce he asked for, that prince would probably not have renounced the rights he had acquired, and which made him sole and true monarch of England. Had he done so, it is doubtful whether he was strong enough to check the Reformation. The people were in motion. Christian truth had re-appeared among them: neither pontifical agitations nor concessions could stop the rapid current that was carrying them to the pure and living waters of the Gospel.
However, Sir Edward Carne and William Revert, Henry’s envoys, arrived in Italy full of hope, and pledged themselves (as they wrote to the king) to reconcile England and the papacy ‘in conformity to his Highness’s purpose.’ Having learnt on reaching Bologna, that the bishop of Paris, who was instructed to support them, was in that city, they hurried to him to learn the exact state of affairs. The bishop was one of those enlightened catholics who believed that the extreme ultramontane party was exposing the papacy to great danger, and who would have prevented schism in the Church, by giving some satisfaction to Germany and England. Hence the envoys from Henry VIII. found the prelate dejected and embarrassed. ‘All is over,’ he told them. ‘The pope has pronounced sentence against his Majesty.’ Carne and Revert were thunderstruck; the burden was too heavy for them. ‘All our hopes have vanished in a moment,’ they said.
Du Bellay assured them that he had spared no pains likely to prevent so precipitate and imprudent an act on the part of a pope. ‘But the imperialists,’ he said, ‘moved heaven and earth, and constrained Clement VII. to deliver a sentence in opposition to his own convictions.’ The ambassador of Francis I. added that there was still one gleam of hope. ‘Raince, secretary to the French embassy at Rome, with an oath, wished himself at perdition,’ said Du Bellay rather coarsely, ‘if our holy father does not patch up all that has been damaged.’ The Englishmen desired to go to the pope forthwith, in order to prevent the execution of the sentence. ‘Do nothing of the kind,’ said the French bishop. ‘Do not go to Rome on any pretext whatsoever.’ Perhaps Du Bellay wanted first to know what his master thought of the matter. Carne, undecided what to do, despatched a messenger to Henry VIII. to ask for orders; and then, ten days later, wishing to do something appealed from the bishop of Rome ill-informed to the bishop of Rome better informed. When the King of England received his ambassador’s message, he could hardly restrain his anger. At the very moment when he had made a concession, which appeared to him the height of condescension, Rome treated him with contempt and sacrificed him to Charles V. Even the nation was aroused. The pope, it was said, commissions a foreign prince to execute his decrees; soldiers newly raised in Germany, and brimful of insults and threats, are preparing to land in Great Britain! National pride arrayed the people on the King’s side. Henry no longer hesitated; his offended honor demanded reparation: a complete rupture alone could satisfy it. He wrote a treatise entitled: ‘On the power of Christian kings over their Churches, against the tyranny and horrible impiety of the pope.’ This book against the pope, and the very different one that he had formerly written against Luther, are the two claims of this prince to theological renown. Consulting merely his own interests, he threw himself now on one side, now on the other. Many writers supported him. ‘The pope,’ said Dr. Samsons, dean of the Chapel Royal, ‘has no more power in England than the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome. It was only by tacit consent that the pope crept into the kingdom, but we intend to drive him out now by express consent.’ The two houses of parliament were almost unanimously of that opinion. The privy council proposed to call upon the lord mayor to see that and-Romish doctrines were taught in every house in London. Lastly, the people showed their opposition after their fashion, indulging in games and masquerades, in which a cardinal at one time, the pope at another, were represented. To call a man a ‘papist’ or ‘a priest of the pope’ was one of the greatest insults. Even the clergy declared against Rome. On the 31st March the lower house of convocation discussed whether the Roman pontiff had in England, according to Scripture, a higher jurisdiction than any other foreign bishop. Thirty-three voted in the negative, only four in the affirmative. The king immediately forwarded the same question to all the ecclesiastical corporations of the kingdom. The friends of the Gospel were filled with joy. The pope had made a great mistake when, imitating the style of ancient Rome, he had hurled the bolts of the Vatican, as Jupiter had in days of old launched the thunders of the Capitol. A great revolution seemed to be working itself out unopposed in this island, so long the slave of the Roman pontiffs. There was just at this time nothing to be feared from without: Charles V. was overwhelmed with business; the King of Scotland was on better terms with his uncle of England, and Francis I. was preparing for a friendly interview with Henry VIII. And yet the danger had never been greater; but the mine was discovered in March 1534, before the match could be applied to it.
A dangerous political and clerical conspiracy had been for some time silently organizing in the convents. It was possible, no doubt, to find here and there in the cloisters monks who were learned, pious, and loyal; but the greater number were ignorant and fanatic, and terribly alarmed at the dangers which threatened their order. Their arrogance, grossness, and loose manners irritated the most enlightened part of the nation; their wealth, endowments, and luxury aroused the envy of the nobility. A religious and social transformation was taking place at this memorable epoch, and the monks foresaw that they would be the first victims of the revolution.
Accordingly they were resolved to right to the uttermost, pro aris et focis, for their altars and homes. But who was to take the first step in the perilous enterprise — who to give the signal?
As in the days of the Maid of Orleans, it was a young woman who grasped the trumpet and sounded the charge. But if the first was a heroine, the other was an ecstatic — nay, a fanatic.
There lived in the village of Aldington in Kent a young woman of singular appearance. Although of an age which is usually distinguished by a fresh and clear complexion, her face was sallow aria her eyes haggard. All of a sudden she would be seized with a trembling of the whole body; she lost the use of her limbs and of her understanding, uttered strange and incoherent phrases, and fell at last stiff and lifeless to the ground. She was, moreover, exemplary in her conduct. The people declared her state to be miraculous, and Master, the rector of the parish, a cunning and grasping priest, noticing these epileptic attacks, resolved to take advantage of them to acquire money and reputation. He suggested to the poor sufferer that the extraordinary words she uttered proceeded from the inspiration of Heaven, and declared that she would be guilty if she kept secret this wonderful work of God. A monk of Canterbury, named Bocking, joined the priest with the intention of turning the girl’s disease to the profit of the Romish party. They represented to Elizabeth Barton — such was the name of the Kentish maiden — that the cause of relic-ion was exposed to great danger in England; that it was intended to turn out the monks and priests; but that God, whose hand defends His Church by the humblest instruments, had raised her up in these inauspicious days to uphold that holy ark, which king, ministers, and parliament desired to throw down.
Such language pleased the girl: on the faith of the priests, she regarded her attacks as divine transports; a feeling of pride came over her; she accepted the part assigned her. On a sudden her imagination kindled, she announced that she had held communications with saints and angels, even with Satan himself. Was this sheer imposture or enthusiasm? There was, perhaps, a little of both; but in her eyes, the end justified the means. When speaking, she affected strange turns, unintelligible figures, poetical language, and clothed her visions in rude rhymes, which made the educated smile, but helped to circulate her oracles among the people. Erelong she set herself unscrupulously above the truth, and inspired by a feverish energy, did not fear to excite the people to bloodshed.
There was somewhere out in the fields in one part of the parish, a wretched old chapel that had been long deserted, and where a coarse image of the Virgin still remained. Master determined to make it the scene of a lucrative pilgrimage. He suggested the notion to Elizabeth Barton, and erelong she gave out that the Virgin would cure her of her disorder in that holy consecrated edifice. She was carried thither with a certain pomp, and placed devoutly before the image. Then a crisis came upon her. Her tongue hung out of her mouth, her eyes seemed starting from their sockets, and a hoarse sepulchral voice was heard speaking of the terrors of hell; and then, by a singular transformation, a sweet and insinuating voice described the joys of paradise. At last the ecstasy ended, Elizabeth came to herself, declared that she was perfectly cured, and announced that God had ordered her to become a nun and to take Bocking as her confessor. The prophecy of the Kentish maiden touching her own disease being thus verified, her reputation increased.
Elizabeth Barton’s accomplices imagined that the new prophetess required a wider stage than the fields of Aldington, and hoped that, once established in the ecclesiastical metropolis of England, she would see her followers increase throughout the kingdom. Immediately after her cure, the ventriloquist entered the convent of the Holy Sepulchre at Canterbury, to which Bocking belonged. Once in this primatial city, her oracles and her miracles were multiplied. Sometimes in the middle of the night, the door of her cell opened miraculously: it was a call from God, inviting her to the chapel to converse with Him. Sometimes a letter in golden characters was brought to her by an angel from heaven. The monks kept a record of these wonders, these oracles; and selecting some of them, Master laid the miraculous collection, this bible of the fanatics, before Archbishop Warham. The prelate, who appeared to believe in the nun’s inspiration, presented the document to the king, who handed it to Sir Thomas More, and ordered the words of the Kentish maiden to be carefully taken down and communicated to him. In this Henry VIII. showed probably more curiosity and distrust than credulity.
Elizabeth and her advisers were deceived, and thought they might enter into a new phase, in which they hoped to reap the reward of their imposture. The Aldington girl passed from a purely religious to a political mission. ‘Unhappily,’ says an ultramontane writer, ‘she quitted heaven for earth, and busied herself with worldly things.’ This is what her advisers were aiming at. All, and especially Friar Bocking, who contemplated restoring the authority of the papacy even were it necessary to their end to take the king’s life — began to denounce in her presence Henry’s tolerance of heresy and the new marriage he desired to contract.
Elizabeth eagerly joined this factious opposition. ‘If Henry marries Anne Boleyn,’ she told Bishop Fisher, ‘in seven months’ time there will be no king in England.’ The circle of her influence at once grew wider. The Romish party united with her. Abel, Queen Catherine’s agent, entered into the conspiracy; twice Elizabeth Barton appeared before the pope’s legates; Fisher supported her, and Sir Thomas More, one of the most cultivated men of his day, though at first little impressed in her favor, admitted afterwards the truth of her foolish and guilty revelations.
One thing was yet wanting, and that was very essential in the eyes of the supporters of the movement: Elizabeth must appear before Henry VIII. as Elijah appeared before Ahab: they expected great results from such an interview. At length they obtained permission, and the Kentish maiden prepared herself for it by exercises which over excited her. When brought into the presence of the prince, she was at first silent and motionless, but in a moment her eyes brightened and seemed to flash fire; her mouth was drawn aside and stretched, while from her trembling lips there fell a string of incoherent phrases. ‘Satan is tormenting me for the sins of my people,’ she exclaimed, ‘but our blessed Lady shall deliver me by her mighty hand... O times! O manners!... Abominable heresies, impious innovations!... King of England, beware that you touch not the power of the holy Father... Root out the new doctrines... Burn all over your kingdom the New Testament in the vulgar tongue. Henry, forsake Anne Boleyn and take back your wife Catherine... If you neglect these things, you shall not be king longer than a month, and in God’s eyes you will not be so even for an hour. You shall die the death of a villain, and Mary, the daughter of Catherine, shall wear your crown.’ This noisy scene produced no effect on the king. Henry, though prompt to punish, would not reply to Elizabeth’s nonsense, and was content to shrug his shoulders. But the fanatical young woman was not discouraged, if the king could not be converted, the people must be roused. She repeated her threats in the convents, castles, and villages of Kent, the theater of her frequent excursions. She varied them according to circumstances. The king must fall: but at one time she announced it would be by the hands of his subjects; at another, of the priests; and at a third, by the judgment of God. One point alone was unchanged in her utterances:
Henry Tudor must perish. Erelong, like a prophetess lifted above the ordinary ministers of God, she reprimanded even the sovereign pontiff himself. She thought him too timid, and taking him to task, declared that if he did not bring Henry’s plans to naught, ‘the great stroke of God which then hung over his head’ would inevitably fall upon him. This boldness added to the number of her partisans. Monks, nuns, and priests, knights, gentlemen, and scholars, were carried away by her. Young folks especially and men of no culture eagerly embraced this mad cause.
There were also men of distinction who did not fear to become her defenders. Bishop Fisher was gained over: he believed himself certain of the young woman’s piety. Being a man of melancholy temperament and mystic tendency, a lover of the marvellous, he thought that the soul of Elizabeth might well have a supernatural intercourse with the Infinite Being. He said in the House of Lords: ‘How could I anticipate deceit in a nun, to whose holiness so many priests bore witness?’ The Roman catholics triumphed. A prophetess had risen up in England, like Deborah in Israel.
One eminent and large-hearted catholic, Sir Thomas More, had however some doubts; and the monks who were Elizabeth’s advisers set every engine at work to win him over. During the Christmas of 1532, Father Risby, a Franciscan of Canterbury, arrived at Chelsea to pass the night there. After supper, he said: ‘What a holy woman this nun of Kent is! It is wonderful to see all that God is doing through her.’ — ‘I thank God for it,’ coldly answered More. — ‘By her mediation she saved the cardinal’s soul,’ added the monk. The conversation went no farther. Some time later a fresh attempt was made: Father Rich, a Franciscan of Richmond, came and told More the story of the letter written in letters of gold and brought by an angel. ‘Well, father,’ said the chancellor, ‘I believe the nun of Kent to be a virtuous woman, and that God is working great things by her; but stories like that you have told me are not part of our Credo, and before repeating them, one should be very sure about them.’ However, as the clergy generally countenanced Elizabeth, More could not bear the idea of forming a sect apart, and went to see the prophetess at Sion monastery.
She told him a silly story of the devil turned into a bird. More was satisfied to give her a double ducat and commend himself to her prayers.
The chancellor, like other noble intellects among the catholics, was prepared to admit certain superstitions; but he would have had the nun keep in her religious sphere; he feared to see her touch upon politics. ‘Do not speak of the affairs of princes,’ he said to her. ‘The relations which the late Duke of Buckingham had with a holy monk were in great part the cause of his death.’ More had been Chancellor of England, and perhaps feared the duke’s fate.
Elizabeth Barton did not profit by this lesson. She again declared that, according to the revelations from God, no one should deprive the Princess Mary of the rights she derived through her birth, and predicted her early accession. Father Goold immediately carried the news to Catherine. The nun and her advisers, who chided the pope only through their zeal for the papacy, had communications with the nuncio; they thought it necessary for him to join the conspiracy. They agreed upon the course to be adopted: at a given , monks were to mingle with the people and excite a seditious movement. Elizabeth and her accomplices called together such as were to be the instruments of their criminal design. ‘God has chosen you,’ said the nun to these friar’s, ‘to restore the power of the Roman pontiff in England.’ The monks prepared for this meritorious work by devout practices: they wore sackcloth next their skin; they fastened iron chains round their bodies, fasted, watched, and made long prayers.
They were seriously intent on disturbing the social order and banishing the Word of God.
The violent Henry VIII. — easy-tempered for once in his life — persisted in his indifference. The seven months named by the prophetess had gone by, and the dagger with which she had threatened him had not touched him. He was in good health, had the approbation of parliament, saw the nation prosper under his government, and possessed the wife he had so passionately desired. Everything appeared to succeed with him, which disconcerted the fanatics. To encourage them Elizabeth said: ‘Do not be deceived. Henry is no longer really king, and his subjects are already released from every obligation towards him. But he is like King John, who, though rejected by God, seemed still to be a king in the eyes of the world.’ The conspirators intrigued more than ever: not content with Catherine’s alliance, they opened a communication with Margaret Plantagenet, Countess of Salisbury, niece of Edward IV., and with her children the representatives of the party of the White Rose. Hitherto this lady had refrained from politics; but her son Reginald Pole, having united with the pope and quarrelled with Henry VIII., they prevailed upon her to carry over to the Princess Mary, whose household she directed, the forces of the party of which she was the head.
The conspirators believed themselves sure of victory; but at the very moment when they imagined themselves on the point of restoring the papacy in England, their whole scheme suddenly fell to the ground. The country was in danger: the state must interfere. Cranmer and Cromwell were the first to discover the approaching storm. Canterbury, the primate’s archiepiscopal city, was the center of the criminal practices of the Kentish girl. One day the prioress of the Holy Sepulchre received the following note from Cranmer: ‘Come to my palace next Friday; bring your nun with you. Do not fail.’ The two women duly came; Elizabeth’s head was so turned that she saw in everything that happened the opportunity of a new triumph. This time she was deceived. The prelate questioned her; she obstinately maintained the truth of her revelations, but did not convince the archbishop, who had her taken to Cromwell, by whom she was sent to the Tower with five other nuns of her party. At first Elizabeth proudly stuck to her character of prophetess; but imprisonment, the searching questions of the judges, and the grief she felt on seeing her falsehoods discovered, made her give way at last. The unhappy creature, a blind tool of the priests, was not entirely wanting in proper feeling. She began to understand her offense and to repent of it: she confessed everything. ‘I never had a vision in all my life,’ she declared; ‘whatever I said was of my own imagination; I invented it to please the people about me and to attract the homage of the world.’ The disorder, which had weakened her head, had much to do with her aberrations.
Master, Bocking, Goold, Deering, and others guiltier than her, appeared before the Star Chamber. Elizabeth’s confession rendered their denials impossible, and they acknowledged having attempted to get up an insurrection with a view of re-establishing the papacy. They were condemned to make a public disavowal of their impostures, and the following Sunday at St. Paul’s was appointed for that purpose. The bishop of Bangor preached; the nun and her accomplices, who were exposed on a platform in front of him, confessed their crimes before the people, and were then led back to the Tower. Personages far more illustrious than these were involved. Besides an epileptic girl and a few monks, the names of Fisher and of More were in the indictment. Cromwell urged both the bishop and the statesman to petition the king for pardon, assuring them they would obtain it. ‘Good Master Cromwell,’ exclaimed Sir Thomas More, who was much excited and ashamed of his credulity, ‘my poor heart is pierced at the idea that his Majesty should think me guilty. I confess that I did believe the nun to be inspired; but I put away far from me every thought of treason. For the future, neither monk nor nun shall have power to make me faithless to my God and my king.’ Cranmer, Cromwell, and the chancellor prevailed on Henry VIII. to strike More’s name out of the bill. The illustrious scholar escaped the capital punishment with which he was threatened. His daughter, Margaret Roper, came in a transport of joy to tell him the news: ‘In faith, Meg,’ said More with a smile, ‘quod differtur non aufertur, what is put off is not put away.’ The case of the bishop of Rochester was more serious: he had been in close communication with all those knaves, and the honest but proud and superstitious churchman would not acknowledge any fault. Cromwell, who desired to save the old man, conjured him to give up all idea of defending himself; but Fisher obstinately wrote to the House of Lords that he had seen no deception in the nun. The name of the king’s old tutor was left, therefore, in the bill of attainder. The bill was introduced into the House of Lords on the 21st February, and received the royal assent on the 21st March. The prisoners were brought together in the Star Chamber to hear their sentence. Their friends had still some hope; but the Bull which the pope had issued against Henry VIII. on the 23rd of March, endangering the order of succession, made indulgence difficult. The king and his ministers felt it their duty to anticipate, by a severe example, the rebellion which the partisans of the pontiff were fomenting in the kingdom. Sentence of death was pronounced upon all the criminals.
During this time the unfortunate Elizabeth saw all the evils she had caused rise up before her eyes: she was grieved and agitated, she was angry with herself and trembled at the idea of the temporal and eternal penalties she had deserved. Death was about to end this drama of fanaticism. On the 20th April the false prophetess was carried to Tyburn with her accomplices, in the midst of a great crowd of people. On reaching the scaffold, she said: ‘I am the cause not only of my own death, which I have richly deserved, but of the death of all those who are going to suffer with me. Alas! I was a poor wretch without learning, but the praises of the priests about me turned my brain, and I thought I might say anything that came into my head. Now I cry to God and implore the king’s pardon.’
These were her last words. She fell — she and her accomplices — under the stroke of the law.
These were the means to which fervent disciples of Rome had recourse to combat the Reformation in England. Such weapons recoil against those who employ them. The blindest partisans of the Church of the popes continued to look upon this woman as a prophetess, and her name was in great favor during the reign of Mary. But the most enlightened Roman catholics are now careful not to defend the imposture. The fanatical episode was not without its use: it made the people understand what these pretended visions and false miracles were, through which the religious orders had acquired so much influence; and so far contributed to the suppression of the monasteries within whose walls such a miserable deception had been concocted.