“You kiss the arse of Luther, the shit-devil… Look, my fingers are smeared…”
~~~ Saint Thomas More ~~~
In a field just outside Antwerp, Belgium — 1531
(POV: English Merchant and Cromwell agent, Stephen Vaughan)
Heavens, it’s damn cold, and here I be, standing in this field, waiting once again to meet with William Tyndale. King Henry offers safe passage home, and Tyndale, he trusts it not. I can’t say I fault the man. His Majesty can turn on a crown. If that comes to pass, the bastard More will burn him, just as Bishop Stokesley burned his Bible translations upon the steps of St. Paul’s, just as More did almost burn me. I’d be dead, all but for Cromwell. How we both live, just God knows. I pace to and fro to pass the time, thinking in my mind what dear Cromwell did send me, coded but clear. “Get Tyndale to England before he’s routed out. I’ll protect him. You know just how.”
Yes, I know the terms Tyndale laid clear. Either King Henry allows the Bible in English throughout the realm, or he will stay here. He is willing to die for that, but nothing short. I look out to the distance, and finally lay eyes on the man I seek. Who be that with him? Finally John Frith mayhaps? After six months of secret meetings, I’ve come to respect dear Tyndale. He has a gentle grace about him, but he be no fool. Trust has grown between us, and I know his heart — and he mine. Above all, we hold the same beliefs, the same values, the same God. O Lord, for that I thank thee abundantly. There is hope yet, hope that Your divine word will be known to all, stripped of the papal authority’s canon laws and false, self-serving interpretations. Make it so, I pray in Jesus’ name, my Lord and Savior.
I wave at Tyndale from across the field, and he smiles broadly. We rush to each other, the other man close behind. Winded he asks, “Did the king agree? Will he allow a Bible in English, Master Vaughan? Will he?”
Before answering I must be sure who stands among us. I pause and gesture to the stranger. “John Frith, he be my noble servant of God in translation endeavors. I trust him all,” assures dear Tyndale.
I bow respectfully. Both Thomas Cromwell and I know of Frith well. His translations of the great Scottish martyr Patrick Hamilton are now legend, spread across the realm like autumn leaves blowing hither and yon. God knows the risks we took to get them to England. I rest my hand on Tyndale’s shoulder and speak frankly with resignation. “No, His Majesty was livid at the demand. He offers safe haven, but nothing more. Mine master — he dares push him no further.”
I look over to John Frith with the message planned if granted our hoped for audience, “Alas, you are welcome, as well, good man. Master Cromwell offers you safe haven, as he does for Christopher Mont, in his own home. Mont is translating Lutheran writings as we now speak.” He looks back at me guardedly and tips a nod.
“Stephen, His Majesty is into trickery. His legal advisor — your master — Cromwell, though reformist in views as you say, does his bidding. I’d be a fool to go. I’d lay down my life for an English language Bible for our people, but I have no death wish. I am sorry for all your troubles to sway me, your risks taken. Alas, son, I’m not going,” says Tyndale, his mind set like Excalibur. Me, no King Arthur, can move him not.
“Nor I… not yet,” chimes Frith.
Do I speak frankly? I decide it be time. “In truth, Cromwell is not Reformist in views, dear man. He speaks out what he can safely say. The king’s new legal advisor, truth be told, follows Luther. He’s in now so tight with His Majesty, God knows how, even the bastard Lord Chancellor can’t touch him, though he tries at any opportunity.”
“The Lord Chancellor? My God man, More speaks filth. He refers to Luther as a shit-devil and says my mouth is full of dung, the pig,” Tyndale growls pointed.
Nodding his head, Frith adds, “That man may be Lord Chancellor of the realm, but he is of the devil, spewing Satan’s work. There be not shit on his hands, but dead men.”
I try to ease the tension with good humor. “Well, Dr. Tyndale… John Frith… Master Cromwell shan’t say shit if he had a mouthful, albeit he steps in it from time to time.” We laugh heartily. God, we did need it. Now I must speak seriously. I pray God he listens. “Dr. Tyndale… and you also John Frith… you swim in dangerous waters. I fear ye both will drown. There be no place safe in Christendom for you, not without protection.”
“We do have protection, Stephen,” reassures Tyndale naively.
William Tyndale needs know their protection is not a secret to all. “Thomas Poyntz, though resourceful he be, can’t keep you safe, good man.” I look over to John Frith, “And I know where you lay thy head too. Need I tell ye?”
Both men look at me stunned like I be Merlin the Wizard. That would be mine dearest friend Cromwell, but let them suppose. “I have no idea of whom you speak, Stephen,” offers Tyndale, his voice a’quiver.
“Aye, but yes you do. And if Master Cromwell knows where you rest your head, who may find you next, good man?” I swallow hard and venture on. Damn Cromwell, the things I do for him. “I grudge you not His Majesty’s offer. It’s backhanded at best, but do hear Master Cromwell’s. Let us smuggle you home, under his protection. It’s your best hope.”
“What? Are you daft, man? Is Cromwell insane? What does he suggest next? That I rest my head at Chelsea among More’s menagerie? My God man, I’m no fool,” chides Tyndale.
“If I go back to England, I will leave mine protection to God. I trust the king’s new man not,” Frith chides.
I state the obvious as it escapes them. “The best place to hide is in a crowd. Who would venture you to be sitting right under King Henry’s nose?” I pause, then plead. “Please, both of you… think, think hard, think now. It really is your best hope, I do swear. We have all planned. It’s arranged, carefully in all detail. Every resource is at your disposal.”
I add, “John Frith, go it alone and More will chase you down as the king does a stag. That not be God’s will I fear.” I pause and make the message clear. “If you go your own way, Dr. Frith, we can do nothing to protect you. Cromwell has the king’s ear, but so does More, the King’s Secretary Winchester and Lord Norfolk. My master swims with serpents. It be at your own peril. Know that now.”
“Cromwell, either he is a liar and a charlatan or he risks far too much. Stephen, I thank you most humbly, but I just can’t do it. I’ll stay here and carry on,” Tyndale says with full conviction.
I sigh, resigned to Dr. Tyndale’s decision, a foolish one, but his to make. “The offer stands, good man. Should you change your mind, send word to me.” I swallow hard, and offer what is only left to give. “Dr. Tyndale, stay where you are, and I will use our resources here in Antwerp, with Master Cromwell’s blessing, to insure that no one finds you, but you must know this. If Judas prays upon you, there is no hope. Choose your confidants wisely, or you shall perish.” I look to this man of God, a man who in truth risks far more than me, and rest my hands upon his arms. “God be with you, Dr. Tyndale.”
I look over to John Firth and advise, though I see he be stubborn in his ways… a man who will throw all caution to the wind, thus will die. There be no need for mystics to predict it. “You are safer here then there alone, good man. I beseech you reconsider the offer before you. We need cautious reformers, not martyrs.”
“If it be God’s will I be a martyr, that be that. I will do what my prayers do lead me.”
Resigned to their wills, I drop to my knees before the great reformer William Tyndale, both of us most willing to risk our lives to bring the word of God to all Englishmen. He gently rests his hands on my head. “May God bless and protect you, Stephen Vaughan, through our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. May He protect us all.”
~~~~~ Fade To Black ~~~~~
Video Credit: DU Rom (You Tube)
Cromwell’s home by Austin Friars Abbey — London 1537
(POV: English Merchant and Cromwell agent, Stephen Vaughan)
Exhausted from my travels from Antwerp, smuggled into England unknown to all but in this room, I am exhilarated. There, on the dining table in Lord Cromwell’s banquet hall at Austin Friars, sits before us all that we toiled for, took huge risks for, smuggled for, spied for, languished for, prayed for, nearly burned at the stake and like the foolish John Frith, martyred for — God’s word, the Holy Bible, in English. With my dearest Tyndale dead despite all of our best efforts to save him, strangled until unconscious, then burned as a heretic by the Spaniards, my dear Lord Cromwell looked to our friend, John Rogers to rush an English language Bible into publication while awaiting Myles Coverdale to complete the translations of the New and Old Testaments of a Great Bible still to come. My God, my prayers are with this brave soul, hopeful his alias “Thomas Matthew” shall keep him safe. A tad drunk from this Frescobaldi Chiati Lord Cromwell pays dearly to import from Italy, the enormity of the moment sinks through the core of me just the same, and I venture, “When do you dare present this to His Majesty?”
My lord Cromwell lays his work worn hand of the common man upon the Bible and gently feels the leather cover, embossed in gold, much of Tyndale’s own words beneath speaking truth. God willing this shall be my lord Cromwell’s crowning achievement, not his damnation. I look to my friend, many a year passed risked together. A smile slowly etches across his face. “Tomorrow, dear man — if I find the gonads. His Majesty sways like a summer rain. Tomorrow, I will be heralded a genius or arrested for heresy, which comes to pass, only time will tell.”
I look over across the table to Archbishop Cranmer and shrug my shoulders. My lord Cromwell, he is a quandary. His Grace smiles back at me knowingly, as when the Lord Privy Seal be jesting, sly or serious, no man can tell. His Grace clears his throat. “A Bible in English — my prayers these many years are finally answered! Don’t fret so, Thomas. His Majesty will be right pleased, my lord, his supremacy laid bare for all to read or hear, direct from God’s Holy Word in our mother tongue. Shall I go with you?”
Shall the Archbishop go with him? Is the man daft? No, as my master told me many a time, the blessed man is naive. Without my lord’s help, our beloved Archbishop would be thrown to the wolves long by now. “No, Your Grace. If His Majesty throws a rage, best at least one of us remain to carry forward, laying in wait for a better time.” Lord Cromwell gestures to God’s blessing laying before us. “Your Grace, for now, your hands are clean of this. Should His Majesty be pleased and command we move forward, I will be counting on you to write a preface of Coverdale’s work. Your words, they are of a poet, more beautiful than those of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Lord Surrey, exquisite in their gracious simplicity.”
Archbishop Cranmer, he swells with pride. Though most think him a humble man, I know better. So does our host. “Of course, my lord. I am truly humbled by your words and kind offer,” he says simply. Lord Cromwell glaces my way with a wink, and I nearly spew my Chianti. Damn, he knows better than to bait me so, the dog.
I raise my goblet in toast. “To Tyndale, may he look on joyously!”
“To Tyndale!” we all exclaim.
My lord Cromwell slams his goblet on the table and rises, looks to me and cocks his head to the side, arms crossed. Damn, I know what comes now, yet another assignment. Is he trying to send me to an early grave? “Stephen, chase the bastard across Christendom if you must, but before you slit his throat from ear to ear, do tell Tyndale’s Judas Harry Phillips the King’s Lord Privy Seal sends his regards.”
I raise my goblet his way, and state the obvious between us. “For Tyndale, of course.”
“By God, Thomas, sit down and be still. Repent now, dear man. I fear your damnation,” chides Archbishop Cranmer.
Lord Cromwell sits down with feigned sheepishness, tipping a nod in deference to our most blessed cleric. Who else but the king gets away with this? No one, I say… no one in this realm would so dare.
“Get ready then, Your Grace. I trust my last confession will wear you thin.”
“You say you were a ruffian as a child, my lord. I dare say you are a ruffian still,” teases the Archbishop. His Grace, his wit quick, waves his finger in jest. I laugh heartily, whilst Lord Cromwell merely snickers. As the merchant Jews of Antwerp say, “Man thinks. God laughs.” These two be an odd pair, and Our Savior enjoys the show.
Gently eased into submission by the Italians and their wine, we all grow silent, staring at the Bible before us, overcome with the enormity of the day, the enormity of what lies ahead. Lord Cromwell’s ink stained fingers begin strumming upon the table. “Kill the bastard, Vaughan! Kill the Judas Harry Phillips, I say. I pay ye well.”
~~~~~ Fade to Black ~~~~~
Author’s Note: Stephen Vaughan, one of English Tudor History’s lesser known historical figures, was a London merchant. Close friends with Thomas Cromwell since 1520, he was a known Cromwell agent, primarily based in Antwerp, Belgium. Some historians suggest the two worked together to smuggle Lutheran writings into England while Thomas More was Lord Chancellor. To learn more about the remarkable life of Stephen Vaughan visit Wiki Source: Vaughan, Stephen.