Henry VIII was nothing if not even minded. He executed fifty people for not renouncing the pope – thereby becoming traitors to the king and he executed another forty for their heretical leanings between 1533 when he assumed control of the Church in England and his death in 1547.
On the 30 July 1540, just two days after Thomas Cromwell was executed, Smithfield witnessed Henry’s bizarre not to mention gruesome relies tightrope act. Six people were executed. Three of them, Richard Fetherstone, Thomas Abel and Edward Powell, were condemned as papists. Their crime was their failure to deny the pope. They were hanged drawn and quartered as traitors whilst the other three to die that day were burned as heretics.
Robert Barnes, a Norfolk man, was educated at Cambridge and like Lambert began life as a Catholic. But like Lambert he was drawn to protestantism very early in his career. He was imprisoned by Wolsey but undeterred he used his incarceration as an opportunity to give out Bibles written in English. Very sensibly he decamped to Antwerp as soon as possible where he made the acquaintance of one of Cromwell’s agents. Interestingly he returned to England in 1531 where he became an agent employed by the Crown liaising with Lutheran Germany. He had, after all, met Luther during his travels. He was part of the delegation which went to Germany in 1535 to find out how the Lutherans viewed Henry VIII’s intended divorce from Katherine of Aragon. He returned as part of Cromwell’s team negotiating for the match between Henry and Anne of Cleves.
This disastrous union would hasten Thomas Cromwell’s demise but the lines were already drawn up for a contest between Cromwell who was seen as leaning towards reform and the old guard of catholicism in the persons of the duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner. One of the early signs of this conflict was when Barnes preached against Gardiner from the cross at St Paul’s. He was made to apologise and briefly stopped being Lutheran but then Cromwell was made earl of Essex and it looked to Barnes to be service as usual so he reverted to beliefs that exceeded the dictates of the Ten Articles.
Except of course Cromwell was on his way out and without the Vicar General’s protection it wasn’t long before Barnes was turned into a rather dreadful example.
William Jerome and Thomas Gerrard were executed on the same heresy charges. Jerome, another one of Cromwell’s proteges, had also preached at St Paul’s but the subject of his sermon had been that magistrates had the power to make make what was indifferent not indifferent – make of that what you will! Gardiner added it up to identify the fact that Jerome was advising people to adhere to the king through their outward behaviour only and think what they want in private – which probably didn’t go down terribly well with Henry. Even worse Jerome preached justification through faith alone which essentially chopped out the need for the priesthood and the Church. Bernard considers whether this was the sort of behaviour that hastened Cromwell’s end due to his men spouting heresy pointing towards dodgy radical leanings of the master who protected them. Certainly it may have been one of the threads which broke Cromwell’s increasingly tenuous hold on power.
Equally it should be pointed out that whilst this interpretation is fine if you subscribe to the theory that catholicism was on the rise thanks to the duke of Norfolk dangling his pretty little niece Katherine Howard under Henry’s nose. It fails to take account of the fact that while the protestants burned, three catholics were hanged.
Foxe noted that confused and ignorant people wouldn’t know what to make of the opposing sides suffering equally on the same day. The french ambassador expressed similar bewilderment. They have a point but Bernard states that academics have missed the key issue ever since – that Henry was doing what Henry wanted. After all, Henry saw himself as an Old Testament kind of king with a hotline to The Almighty. It was Henry’s Church and his was the only way…if you didn’t want to end up in Smithfield.
Bernard, G.W. (2007) The King’s Reformation. London and Harvard: Yale University Press
Wilson, Derek. (2012) The English Reformation. London: Running Press