Reign of Henry V. Part 1 page 2
The commotion now produced by the recalled Lollards was the commencement of this great war, though our historians do not seem to have perceived it, which was destined to go on, through wonderful and terrible burnings, hangings, beheadings, imprisonings, scourgings, torturings; through the groans from the thumbscrew and the wedge of the iron boot; through inquisitions and star chambers, till in some countries, as Bohemia and Italy, Protestantism was exterminated: but in our country it had established itself at the Revolution of 1688, by the Act of Toleration, and yet, even here, not so wholly established itself, but that the conflict of opinion, though mollified and separated from the burning stake and the dungeon, should go on, as it will go on from age to age, still stimulating inquiry, and ultimately establishing, if not uniformity of faith, at least "the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."
The Church, startled at the new phenomenon of the laity assuming the office of self-inquiry and self-decision, and still more by the obstinacy with which the people maintained this novel function, began to punish and coerce. The prelates persecuted the reformers, and the reformers, raised to a sublime sense of their own right by a nearer approach to Christian truth, rebelled as vigorously. The war of opinion assumed its bitterest aspect. The Church, too far removed from the experience of the primitive ages, had again to learn the power of persecution to produce that which it would destroy; that to lop the boughs of religious opinion is only to strike deeper its roots; that in casting stones on a martyr, you are only piling him up a monument; that endeavouring to hew down the tree of any faith that has a sap of vitality in it, is only to scatter its seeds by every stroke of the axe, and where you level a single stem to disseminate a forest.
In a fatal hour, Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, obtained the statute De heretico comburendo, by which William Sawtre had been burnt, and now again sought to apply the same deceptive remedy. With this intent he applied to Henry for permission to indict Lord Cobham, as the head and great encourager of the sect, for heresy, and by his public execution to strike terror into the whole body of reformers. Henry, however, was too averse by nature to persecution, and too mindful of his old friendship for this nobleman, to accede at once to so violent a measure. He undertook to have some conversation with Lord Cobham on the subject himself, observing very truly to the primate that gentleness and persuasion were the best means of conversion. He therefore called Cobham into his closet at Windsor, and exerted the knowledge which he had acquired of school divinity at Oxford to convince his friend. But Lord Cobham, fresh from the zealous perusal of the Bible itself, and from the earnest discussion of its truths amongst his Lollard associates, was more than a match for the royal casuist. He maintained the truth of his doctrines with the boldness of a man who knows that he is right, and that on questions far above all the decision of kings. It was, in fact, the very worst resolution that Henry could have come to, that of himself arguing the point with the great apostle of the new faith; for nothing so soon excites anger and resentment in the mind as religious controversy, especially where the party which has begun with high pretensions feels himself defeated. Words probably of severity arose between the king and Lord Cobham, for the latter suddenly left Windsor and withdrew to his own house of Cowling in Kent.
Henry now seems to have lost his tenderness towards his old friend in the awakened feeling of a determination to subdue where he failed to convince, and to have given Arundel permission to take his own way with the offender; for, immediately on Lord Cobham's withdrawal, there appeared proclamations ordering all magistrates to apprehend every itinerant preacher, and directing the archbishop to proceed against Cobham according to law; that is, the recent law against heresy. This alarming measure brought back Lord Cobham to Windsor, having drawn up a confession of faith, probably in conjunction with his most eminent friends. This confession still exists, subscribed by Cobham himself, and on looking it over at this time of day, one is at a loss to discover in it what any true Catholic could object to.
It begins with the Apostles' Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity, and then declares that no one can be saved unless he be a member of the Church. "Now the Church consists of three bodies: - 1. Of the saints in heaven, who during life renounced Satan, the world, and the flesh. 2. Of the souls in purgatory, abiding the mercy of God, and a full deliverance of pain. 3. Of the Church militant, which Church is divided into three estates: - 1. Of the priesthood, which ought to teach the Scripture purely, and give example of good living; 2. Of knighthood, which, having the sword, should compel the priesthood to fulfil its duty, and should seclude all false teachers; and 3. Of the common people, who ought to bear obedience to their king and civil governors, and priests."
It moreover declares that the sacraments are necessary to all believers, and that in the sacrament of the altar is contained very Christ's body and blood, that was born of the Virgin and died on the cross. "If a better faith than this," he continues, "can be taught by the word of God, the subscriber will most reverently at all times subscribe thereunto."
According to this confession, the Lollards themselves still recognised the right of compulsion by the state - to compel, at least, the priests to do their duty, and to "seclude all false teachers." This doctrine of compulsion in religious matters accordingly descended as a heritage to the reformed church, and produced its bitter fruits of persecution in all the future reigns of the reformed sovereigns, till stemmed by William III. through the Act of Toleration.
But Henry would not even receive Cobham's confession. His blood was evidently up, and in that mood he was firm as a rock. He declared that he had nothing to do with confessions of faith; they belonged to bishops: forgetting that he had just before undertaken to expound his own faith in order to convert his heretical friend. Cobham then offered, in the spirit of the times, for he was a brave and experienced soldier, to purge himself from, the charge of heresy by doing battle with any adversary, Christian or infidel, who dared to accept his challenge. But Henry simply asked him whether he would submit to the decision of the bishops, which he refused; but still, like a good Catholic, offered to appeal to the Pope. Henry's only answer was to leave him to the tender mercies of Arundel, who summoned him before him, and, in conjunction with his three suffragans, the Bishops of London, Winchester, and St. David's, condemned him to be burnt.
Cobham's story, and the story of the whole case of the Lollards, is, unfortunately, told only by their enemies, and the enemies of the Reformation. We are, therefore, necessarily required to be on our guard against exaggeration on their part, and against false charges, which so readily insinuate themselves during times of heated controversy. We find his conduct described while before his prelatical judges as bold and insolent, and theirs, on the contrary, as mild and dignified. But we are not to forget that Cobham stood there as the representative of a largo, earnest, and cruelly - persecuted body; a body, three of whoso leaders - Sawtre, Thorpe, and Badley - had already been burnt, and who believed that they were suffering for "the faith as delivered to the saints;" that he must, therefore, feel himself bound to maintain a confidence befitting his position as the champion of the truth and the cause of the reformed public. It is not to be forgotten that he well knew that those who sat so mildly and in such calm dignity, sat there not to forgive, but to destroy him. and all his fellows in the faith, and to exterminate them by the most terrible of deaths. It is, in this view of the question, then, impossible not to recognise in Lord Cobham, not the insolent demagogue, but the brave and undaunted defender of great principles, and of the popular liberty.
"He maintained," says Lingard, "that the Church had ceased to teach the doctrine of the Gospel from the moment that it became infected with the poison of worldly riches; that the clergy were the Antichrist; that the Pope was the head, the bishops and prelates the limbs, and the religious orders the tail of the beast. That the only true successor of St. Peter was he who most faithfully practised the virtues of St. Peter." And that then, turning to the spectators and extending his arms, he exclaimed, "Beware of the men who sit here as my judges. They will seduce both you and themselves, and will lead you to hell."
But there is that direct discrepancy between this statement and the confession just preceding it, that we must regard the latter representation as exaggerated or distorted. To appeal to the Pope and acknowledge his authority in the one, and describe him as the Antichrist and the beast in the other, is too glaringly absurd to be true of a man like Lord Cobham. The upshot, however, of the trial was, that which had been determined on from the first; after two days' hearing, in which he eloquently and heroically defended his doctrines before the whole synod of prelates and abbots, he was condemned to expiate his heresy at the stake, and meantime was committed to the Tower for safe custody. In the words of the record, he was "sweetly and modestly condemned to be burnt alive on the 10th of October." But Henry still was not prepared to acquiesce in so desperate a doom on one who had spent with him so many mirthful days. He granted the reformer a respite of fifty days; and before that time had expired, Lord Cobham had managed to escape from his prison, probably by the connivance of his lenient sovereign.
But once more at large, and in communication with his friends and confederates, Cobham became all the more active in his plans for the maintenance of the great cause. The Church had now manifested its intentions; it had shown that it was not conversion, but destruction of the whole body of the reformers that it was resolved upon; and the question, therefore, with the persecuted sect naturally was, by what means it was to prevent the fate menacing it. If we are to believe the chroniclers of the times, the Lollards resolved to anticipate their enemies, to take up arms, and to repel force by force. That seeing clearly that war to the death was determined against them by the Church, and that the king had yielded at least a tacit consent to this iniquitous policy, they came to the conclusion to kill not only the bishops, but the king and all his kin.
So atrocious a conspiracy is not readily to be credited against men who contended for a greater purity of gospel truth, nor against men of the practical and military knowledge of Lord Cobham. But over the whole of these transactions there hangs a veil of impenetrable mystery, and we can only say that the Lollards are charged with endeavouring to surprise the king and his brother at Eltham, as they were keeping their Christmas festivities there, and that this attempt failed through the court receiving intimation of the design, and suddenly removing to Westminster; that, disappointed in this scheme, the Lollards were summoned from all quarters to march towards London, there to secure and kill all the principal clergy. They were, according to these accounts, to meet in St. Giles's Fields, on the night of the 6th of January.
The king, it is stated, being warned of this movement, gave due notice to the city, and on the day previous to the proposed meeting, the Mayor of London made various arrests of suspected persons, and amongst others of a squire of Lord Cobham's, at the sign of the "Ark," in Bishopsgate Without. The aldermen were ordered to keep strict watch each in his own ward, and at midnight Henry himself issued forth with a strong force. He is represented as being greatly alarmed for the public safety, from the popular insurrections which had lately been raging in Paris, and to which we shall presently have to draw attention. He ordered all the city gates to be closed, to keep the Lollards who were within the walls separate from those without, hastening then to the place of rendezvous.
Here again the narratives of this unaccountable affair contradict each other. One represents all the roads as being covered with the adherents of Lord Cobham, hastening to the appointed spot in St. Giles's Fields. That on asking the first overtaken who they were for, they replied by the preconcerted watchword - "For Sir John Oldcastle," and that these being seized, the rest took the alarm and fled. By other accounts there were expected to be 25,000 men collected in the same fields, but only fourscore were found there. That some of these confessed that they came there to meet Lord Cobham, but that the greater part knew nothing of any such meeting, but appeared to have been there by mere accident.
As for Lord Cobham himself, the reputed originator of this great rising, the enthusiastic advocate of Lollardism, and the practical military man, he was nowhere to be seen or heard of. Had he got wind of the king's intended visit? If so, why had he not taken prompt means to warn his followers? If he had not heard of it, where was he? Why was he not there? The whole affair bears ^ wild, so misty and inconsistent an aspect, that the most probable solution of it is, that the bishops, disappointed of their prey by Lord Cobham's escape, concerted this plan, and probably themselves disseminated the summonses to the meeting, in order to collect there some runaway followers of the fugitive leader, who under torture might disclose some knowledge of his retreat. If so, they failed in their main object; but they succeeded in alarming the king and the country, and giving a considerable check to Lollardism.
Henry, surprised at the non-appearance of the confidently predicted host of armed heretics, sent out detachments of his troops in all directions, and these picked up about seventy poor creatures who were tried as Lollards. Little reliance can be placed on the compulsory confessions of these prisoners. Amongst them was a silly fanatic, one William Murle, a rich brewer and maltster of Dunstable, who was said to be taken with others at Harengay Park, who had two led horses with him, trapped with gold, and a pair of gilt spurs in his bosom, expecting to be knighted by Lord Cobham in the field.
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