by Beth von Staats
Merciful God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou has made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels and heretics, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word: and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Isrealites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord…
— Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer, 1549 —
In 16th century Tudor Era England and Wales, religion was serious business. Unfortunately for the subjects of the realm, just what religion one was to adhere to changed with the theological whims of the reigning monarchs and was particularly confusing during the reign of King Henry VIII. Overstep the mark of the King’s ever changing religious philosophies, and a person would very quickly become the victim of judicial murder.
During the course of King Henry VIII’s reign, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people were executed for belief in their chosen faiths. Roman Catholics with one notable exception, Blessed John Forest, were executed for treason, while Evangelicals most commonly were executed for heresy.
Were convicted Roman Catholics actually traitors or convicted Evangelicals really heretics? Well that all depended on the King’s religious beliefs at any given point of his 37 year reign. What was treason or heresy today changed tomorrow.
Whether Saint Thomas More was Lord Chancellor or Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop was irrelevant. Revered by many as great martyrs themselves, people were executed for their religious beliefs at the hands of both men — those convicted of heresy typically burned at the stake, those convicted of treason, commonly hanged, drawn and quartered. Convicted women were burned at the stake to prevent the disrobing necessary of the “traitor’s death” or were simply hanged to death or decapitated.
When we think of Saint Thomas More, his religious beliefs are straight forward, and thus his life choices and the rationale for his decisions are easily grasped and understood. A staunch Roman Catholic his entire life, there is no gray in any decision he made.
To More, Roman Catholicism was the one and only true religion. Those who did not accept the true religion and papal authority were heretics. It was that simple.
Thomas Cranmer’s religious beliefs, on the other hand, are far more complex in sorting out, because this was a man whose religious theology evolved over time. While a young Cambridge don, he was a humanist Roman Catholic with similar beliefs to Thomas More.
Incrementally over time, however, Thomas Cranmer’s theology became increasingly Evangelical and ultimately Protestant. Thus, while Cranmer was Archbishop, people were convicted of heresy and burned at the stake for exercising the very same beliefs Cranmer would later embrace himself.
Though Saint Thomas More and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were steadfast rivals, disagreeing vehemently regarding the sanctity of marriage, the justification of papal authority, King Henry’s break with Rome, and the King’s ultimate Supremacy over the Church of England, the two men came together with their beloved King to defend the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in so doing, hold joint responsibility with Henry VIII for the tragic martyrdom of Evangelical Reformer John Frith.
The story of John Frith began long before Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor and later Thomas Cranmer consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. Educated at Eton College and later Cambridge University, John Frith was ordained a priest in 1525.
While still a student at Cambridge, Frith began meeting with Thomas Bilney, a graduate student at Trinity Hall. Bilney organized a group of scholars that met at the White Horse Inn to study scripture and theology through the reading of the Greek New Testament.
It is believed that John Frith first met William Tyndale in these group meetings. Tyndale greatly influenced Frith’s theological beliefs that became decidedly Evangelical in leaning.
Upon ordination, John Frith was recruited to became a junior canon at Thomas Wolsey’s new Cardinal College in Oxford. While at Oxford, he was arrested with nine other men hiding in a cellar that stored fish for possessing books considered “heretical” by the university. In close confinement in unsanitary conditions for six months, four of the men died.
John Frith survived the torment and was eventually released. He wisely fled to Europe, joining William Tyndale in Antwerp, Belgium in 1528. There, Frith assisted Tyndale in his scripture translations into English and subsequent publications.
While in Antwerp, John Frith translated the Latin work of the Scottish Evangelical martyr Patrick Hamilton. Patrick’s Places became the first explanation of Reformation Doctrine published in the English language.
Soon after, Frith translated an assortment of other religious articles, including A Pistle to the Christian Reader: The Revelation of the Anti-Christ and An Antithesis Between Christ and the Pope. These historic works originally penned by an unknown author were the first anti-papal works printed in the English language.
While completing these translations, both William Tyndale and John Frith secretly met with English merchant Stephen Vaughan, agent and suspected smuggler and spy to Thomas Cromwell. Authorized by King Henry VIII, Cromwell through Vaughan offered both Tyndale and Frith safe haven back in England. Suspecting a trap, neither man accepted the offer.
Unknown to both, some historians conjecture that Stephen Vaughan smuggled Evangelical and Lutheran works to Thomas Cromwell, both men highly Evangelical themselves. Cromwell’s admiration of Tyndale in particular is well documented. Whether this was actually a missed opportunity for both Tyndale and Frith is lost to history.
Instead, Frith stayed in Antwerp, married and entered with Tyndale into a spirited debate with Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher and John Rastell. His original work, Disputation of Purgatory Divided Into Three Books, disputed the existence of purgatory to each Roman Catholic scholar in turn.
Although neither More or Fisher were swayed, Rastell was so persuaded that he was won over to the Evangelical cause. Ironically, Rastell was More’s brother-in-law. More’s opinions of the conversion can be easily imagined.
In 1532, John Frith decided to return to England, while William Tyndale remained in Europe. Irrespective of their individual decisions, both men eventually perished for practice of their faith. Upon returning home, Frith was quickly arrested in Reading, mistaken for a vagabond. He was released with the assistance and persuasion of school master Leonard Cox, who was impressed with his obvious scholarship. From there, Frith traveled secretly from place to place, preaching the gospel.
Learning John Frith was in England, Saint Thomas More issued a warrant for Frith’s arrest, offering a large reward for his apprehension. On the run, Frith was ultimately arrested by More’s agents and local authorities while attempting to board a ship bound to Antwerp.
Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Frith was charged by Saint Thomas More in his role as Lord Chancellor with heresy. Against his mentor Tyndale’s advice and all reasonable caution, Frith began writing comprehensively of his views of purgatory and more alarmingly his denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Concurrent with Frith’s substantiated Evangelical writings becoming increasingly pronounced and obvious, Saint Thomas More resigned his Lord Chancellorship upon the clergy’s ultimate submission to King Henry VIII’s authority. Soon thereafter, Archbishop William Warham died.
It is within this context and timeline that Thomas Audley was appointed Lord Chancellor. Soon thereafter Thomas Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop, leaving both men to inherit the unenviable task of dealing with John Frith’s controversial theology, most pointedly Cranmer.
Although secretly married himself and becoming increasingly Reformist in theology, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1533 agreed with Saint Thomas More, King Henry VIII, Pope Clement V and Martin Luther of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Consequently, John Frith was summonsed to Cranmer’s palaces at Lambeth and Croydon for several intense interrogations about his “sacramentarian” Eucharist theology.
Thomas Cranmer attempted repeatedly to counsel John Frith to alter his Eucharist theology to those of the King to no avail. Per Cranmer in frustration, Frith “… looketh every day to go unto the fire.”
Interestingly, Thomas Cranmer never labeled any Evangelical a heretic openly, but his opinion regarding John Frith’s religious interpretations was clearly documented in a letter to his friend Nicholas Hawkins.
“His said opinion is of such nature, that he thought it not necessary to be believed as an article of our faith, that there is a very corporal presence of Christ within the host and sacrament of the altar, and holdeth of this point… And surely I myself sent for him three or four times to persuade him to leave that to his imagination; but for all that we could do therein, he would not apply to any counsel.”
With Cranmer unable to convert John Frith’s views, the law of England inevitably proceeded in due course through the offices of the new Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley. On July 4, 1533, by command of King Henry VIII, John Frith was burned at the stake for heresy.
In 1535, Saint Thomas More refused to take the Oath of Supremacy in accordance with his religious beliefs. As a Roman Catholic, he was charged and convicted of treason, then executed. Though not charged with heresy or burned at the stake, he is a martyr to his faith, as were many Roman Catholics executed during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.
Already in agreement with John Frith’s views of the non-existence of purgatory, thirteen years after Frith burned at the stake, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s views of the Eucharist took a dramatic shift. Now Protestant in his beliefs, Cranmer’s views of the Eucharist ultimately mirrored those of the man he, King Henry VIII and Saint Thomas More together martyred.
King Henry VIII dead and no longer an impediment, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s sweeping Protestant reforms during the reign of King Edward VI personified the beliefs John Frith embodied. The premature death of the young king, however, resulted in a return of a Roman Catholic monarch.
In 1556, at the command of Queen Mary I, like John Frith before him, Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake for heresy, a martyr to the Protestant beliefs he ironically and ultimately shared with the man he once steadfastly attempted to convert.
Today, Thomas Cranmer and John Frith, once greatly divided in theological beliefs, together are considered among England’s most cherished Protestant Martyrs.
Ashdown, A.G., Roman Catholic and Protestant Martyrs Contrasted.
Author Unidentified, A Puritan’s Mind, John Frith.
Graves, Dan, John Frith Burned for Beliefs, Christianity.com.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer, A Life, Yale University Press, 1996.
Samworth, Dr. Herbert, John Firth: Forging the English Reformation, Grace Solar Foundation, Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth von Staats is a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.
Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.
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