29 December 2016

500 years after Wittenberg,
what was Luther’s impact on
the Anglican Reformation?

Martin Luther … what was his influence on the Anglican Reformation in England?

Patrick Comerford

The year 2017 sees the fifth centenary of the Lutheran Reformation and the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther (1483-1546) setting in process the Reformation when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

But for Anglicans, what is the legacy of Martin Luther, and what are his lasting influences on Anglicanism? How Lutheran was the Anglican Reformation, what were the Lutheran influences on the Reformation in the Church of England Lutheran, and how did Cambridge become known as ‘Little Germany’ and the ‘Birthplace of the English Reformation’?

Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Long before Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg in 1517, Desiderius Erasmus was at Queens’ College, Cambridge. There between 1511 and 1514, Erasmus translated his new Greek and Latin versions of the New Testament that would inspire the kind of Bible study that created an interest in Luther’s writings and theology.

In 1520, Luther wrote The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, challenging the traditional sacramental system. Incensed by Luther’s attack, King Henry VIII of England published his reply, An Assertion of the Seven Sacramentsm in 1521. Henry VIII earned Papal approval for his refutation and was honoured as ‘Defender of the Faith. The exchange between the English monarch and the former monk was an important factor in the history of the English Church and Luther’s uncharitable and injudicious invective closed the door to Henry’s later acceptance of the Augsburg Confession.

The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of Saint Giles’ near Baliol College, Oxford … Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake near this spot on 16 October 1555 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although books were burned in Cambridge in 1520 and 1521 in efforts to supress sympathies for Wycliffe and the Lollards and for Luther, English merchants trading between London and Antwerp became a source for Luther’s writings, which were soon read widely in the universities in Cambridge and Oxford.

‘Little Germany’ in Cambridge

The moon dial at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where Erasmus lived while he taught Greek in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1521, the Archbishop of Canterbury received complaints that Oxford was infested with Lutheranism. But Cambridge became the nursery of the English Reformation, and many of the English reformers and some of the early martyrs were students and scholars there. The White Horse Inn, on a site that is now part of Chetwynd Court at King’s College, Cambridge, became the meeting place for these young scholars. Because of their interest in Luther’s writings and theology, the White Horse Inn became known as ‘Little Germany.’

The Cambridge scholars who met at the White House from 1521 came to include Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Barnes, Prior of the Austin Friars in Cambridge and future martyr, Thomas Bilney, who would change Latimer’s views about the Reformation, Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester, Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible into English and future Bishop of Exeter, Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury, William Tyndale, Bible translator, Nicholas Shaxton, later Bishop of Salisbury, John Bale, later Bishop of Ossory, and the martyr Hugh Latimer.

A plaque at King’s College, Cambridge, marking the site of the White House Tavern or ‘Little Germany’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many of this group were influenced both by the new edition of the New Testament produced by Erasmus and by the ideas of Luther. Many in this group also preached at the Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr, close to King’s College. This Cambridge church played a unique role in the early days of the English Reformation, and was closely associated with the Austin Friars, whose priory stood on the site of Corpus Christ College. The North Chapel of the church had been built for the use of Trinity Hall and the South Chapel for the use of Clare Hall (now Clare College).

In 1522, Hugh Latimer of Clare College was nominated as university preacher and university chaplain. When he received the degree Bachelor of Divinity (BD) in 1524, Latimer publicly defence of the Pope’s authority and refuted the new Reformation ideas on the Continent, in particular the opinions of Philip Melanchthon, who would become the leading Reformer in Germany after Luther’s death in 1546.

However, Thomas Bilney, one of the White Horse group, came privately to Latimer in his study. Latimer was convinced by Bilney’s arguments and soon became one of the leading advocates of the Reformation. He began to preach publicly on the need for a translation of the Bible into English.

The Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr, where many of the early English reformers preached (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At the Midnight Mass in Saint Edward’s in Christmas 1525, Robert Barnes preached what was probably the first openly evangelical sermon in a church in England, proclaiming the Gospel and accusing the Church of many heresies. And so Saint Edward’s became ‘the cradle of the Reformation’ in England, and the pulpit from which Latimer preached is still in use.

Barnes was forced to make a recantation, Bilney was forced to make humiliating penance for his offences, and Latimer was prohibited from preaching in the university or in the Diocese of Ely. However, the pulpit of the Augustinian Friars in Cambridge – now part of the site of Corpus Christ College – was outside episcopal control. There Robert Barnes was the prior, Myles Coverdale, translator of the Bible, had joined the community in 1523, and Erasmus was close to the community while he was at Cambridge in 1511-1514.

In 1528, Cardinal Wolsey admonished Latimer, but then gave him a special licence to preach throughout England. In December 1529, Latimer preached two sermons that caused a turbulent controversy in the university. But it was reported to King Henry VIII that Latimer favoured the king’s demand divorce, and he was invited to preach before Henry VIII in Lent 1530.

Hugh Latimer’s pulpit in Saint Edward’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prompted by Christian II, the exiled king of Denmark, Luther sent a letter of apology to the king in September 1525. But a royal letter of ridicule and rebuke followed 10 months later. By 1527, however, Henry’s views were changing. He wanted a male heir and also wanted to marry Anne Boleyn in the hope that she would become the mother of a male heir.

Luther concluded that the king was bound under pain of eternal damnation to retain the wife he had married. But the divorce issue was settled for Henry in 1533 when Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, dissolved the marriage to Catherine of Aragon and declared the king lawfully married to Anne Boleyn.

Secure in Henry VIII’s protection, Latimer wrote a letter on the free circulation of the Bible. Latimer left Cambridge in 1531 to become a vicar in Wiltshire. But in in March 1532, he was censured, excommunicated and imprisoned. He was freed through the intervention of the king and confessed he had erred not only ‘in discretion but in doctrine.’

Cranmer finds favour

Jesus College, Cambridge … Thomas Cranmer was a student here and later a fellow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, another member of the White Horse group was finding favour with the king too. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was six years Luther’s junior, and was martyred 10 years after Luther’s death. As a student in Cambridge, Erasmus was one of his favourite authors, but it was Luther who drew his attention to the Scriptures.

He found favour with the king in 1529, when he suggested that the king’s divorce was a problem to be settled by theologians and not by canon lawyers. The king sent Cranmer as his representative to the Italian universities and to the Emperor. In Germany, he made his Lutheran connections, and married a niece of Andreas Osiander of Nuernberg.

When Cranmer returned to England, he left his wife behind in Germany and became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. One of his first acts as Archbishop was to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon void and to validate his marriage to Anne Boleyn. After Cranmer’s consecration, Latimer’s fortunes changed, and he became Bishop of Worcester, in succession to four Italian absentee bishops who had been placed in the diocese, one after another.

In 1534, Henry VIII formally repudiated the authority of the Pope. Latimer began to advise Cranmer and Cromwell on legislative measures, and became the royal chaplain to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. That year, Convocation called for a translation of the Bible into English, and the Ten Articles in 1536 mark the beginning of doctrinal reform. Since Tyndale was considered a heretic, Myles Coverdale was enlisted as the translator of the Bible. His translation, edited by John Rogers, was printed in Antwerp under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew, and a new edition was published in 1540, with a preface by Cranmer.

Meanwhile, Latimer was forced to resign as Bishop of Worcester when he opposed Henry VIII’s Act of the Six Articles in 1539, and was imprisoned. Cranmer, however, continued to enjoy Henry’s favour until the king’s death in 1547. Henry VIII died before Latimer’s final trial could take place, but Latimer declined to return to Worcester. Instead, he became a court preacher in the court of Edward VI.

The Lutheran influence that was dominant in the early Reformation in England diminished during the reign of Edward VI, when England became a haven for religious refugees, including Martin Bucer from Strasburg, who had once tried to bring Luther and Zwingli together and who influenced Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Cranmer invited Melanchthon and Calvin to England for a conference to discuss a united confession but that conference never took place. The Lutherans were unfriendly to these exiles because of their denial of the real presence, and the heirs of exiles were among the later Puritans rather than among the Anglicans.

Martyrs in Oxford

Thomas Cranmer's memorial in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Edward VI died, his sister, Mary I, came to the throne in 1553. She hated Cranmer, who by annulling the marriage of her mother Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII had declared her illegitimate.

In 1554, papal commissioners began to examine Latimer, Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley, former Bishop of London. The commissioners tried to demonstrate that Latimer did not share the same faith as the Early Fathers, but Latimer replied: ‘I am of their faith when they say well … I have said, when they say well, and bring Scripture for them, I am of their faith; and further Augustine requireth not to be believed.’

Latimer was burned at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555, alongside Nicholas Ridley, outside Balliol College. As the flames rose, Latimer is said to have said to Ridley: ‘Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.’ It was said he ‘received the flame as it were embracing it. After he had stroked his face with his hands, and (as it were) bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeared) with very little pain or none.’

Cranmer had outlived Luther. In the hope of saving his life, Cranmer signed a recantation, but he was deceived, and he too was also burned at the stake at the same place in Oxford on 21 March 1556. On the day of his burning, he publicly recanted his recantation, confessed his faith, and thrust into the fire the offending hand that he said had ‘written contrary to his heart.’

Of almost 300 people burned during Queen Mary’s reign, the most famous are the Oxford martyrs. The Martyrs’ Memorial in the city centre, near the site of their execution, commemorates the ‘faithfulness unto death’ of these three martyrs.

Cranmer drew on Lutheran catechisms, litanies, and liturgies as he compiled the Book of Common Prayer, Tyndale gave England its Bible, and Barnes gave it a Lutheran theology. No English denomination ever emerged that could call itself the Lutheran Church. But the 39 Articles were strongly influenced by phrases and sentences in the Augsburg Confession, and the Lutheran imprint is impressed on The Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican form of worship. Like the Lutheran Reformers, Cranmer and his heirs combined music and a polished vernacular prose style to achieve new heights of grandeur in the service of God in worship.

Hugh Latimer (right), depicted in a window of the Chapel in Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

This feature was published in the Christmas 2016 edition of ‘Koinonia’ (Kansas MO), Vol 10, No 32, pp 12-16.

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