Beccon or Becon was born in Norfolk around 1510-12, so during the first eighteen months of Henry VIII ascending the throne. He was educated in Cambridge where he studied under the tutelage of Hugh Latimer. He was ordained in 1533 – just as Henry VIII’s marital disputes were hotting up in more ways than one. Despite the fact that Henry VIII passed a series of laws that changed the management and government of the Church making Hal the Supreme Head of the Church of England, religion and belief itself didn’t change very much. Essentially Henry VIII remained a Catholic throughout his life. This was rather unfortunate for Beccon who travelled along the road towards Protestantism preaching his views to anyone who might care to hear. He was arrested in 1540 for preaching Protestantism and was forced to recant his beliefs. To avoid further problems he stopped preaching and took to writing tracts under the assumed name of Theodore Basille. Between 1541-43 at least eight works were published. Sadly for him the pseudonym ploy was not entirely successful as Bishop Gardiner wasn’t without employees who knew how to wheedle the truth out of people. Beccon found himself recanting for a second time whilst chopping up three of his books in public to show how very sorry he was for having written them in the first place. In 1546 thirteen of his books were on a list of prohibited texts that were burned as an example to the populace.
Beccon seems to have spent these difficult years until the death of Henry VIII wandering around the Midlands doing a spot of tutoring and generally trying to avoid having to recant for a third time as that presumably would have meant burning him as well as his books.
However, in 1547 when Edward VI ascended the throne he became the chaplain of the Lord Protector Edward Seymour where he could write openly about his beliefs, acquire a decent living and begin to aspire to making social as well as religious changes.
In 1553 things took a turn for the worse for Beccon when Mary I ascended the throne and promptly tried to turn the clock back. This was the third stage of the English Reformation (broadly speaking). Aside from Beccon’s Protestant inclinations there was the small fact that as an ordained member of the clergy he really shouldn’t have had a wife according to Mary I’s beliefs. In August 1553 he found himself ensconced within the Tower of London and removed from his living. In March 1554 he was released and promptly left the country going to Germany where he was certain of a more friendly welcome. He actually became a tutor in the household of the Landgrave of Hesse.
He returned to England from Marburg where he taught at the university when Elizabeth I ascended the throne ushering in the fourth phase of the English Reformation (broadly speaking). He became a canon of Canterbury Cathedral and secured a number of benefices in Kent including that of Sturry. He wasn’t entirely popular with Elizabeth I as although he’d welcomed Elizabeth I as the “English Deborah” (i.e. the saviour of her nation) he’d also subscribed to John Knox’s view about the “monstrous regiment of women” – which didn’t necessarily go down terribly well with Elizabeth. He died in June 1567.
Beccon is credited with writing more than sixty texts however the book I’m interested in today is entitled The Jewel of Joy which was aimed at ordinary people and their beliefs as I’m giving a talk on the Dissolution of the Monasteries in Derbyshire in July. It includes an insight into Derbyshire at the time of his wanderings in the 1540s – I might add that he saw the county as “barren” in a spiritual sense claiming that because of the ignorance of many of its inhabitants they found themselves clinging to catholicism and lacked the “spark of godliness.” The text is partially autobiographical. He explains that having recanted for the second time at the foot of St Paul’s Cross he decamped from London to “avoid the ravening paws of these greedy wolves.” First he went to Thetford to visit his family and from there he set off to the Peak District intent on earning his living as a tutor. He didn’t known anyone and he didn’t expect a welcome. Apparently he didn’t get one either as he described the locals as “rude and uncivilised:”
But all the religion of the people consisted of ‘hearing matins and masses, in superstitious worshipping of saints, in hiring soul’s carriers to ring trintals, in pattering upon beads, and such other Popish pedlar’. Yet the people where I have travelled, for the most part, are reasonable and quiet enough, yea, and very conformable to God’s truth. If any be stubbornly obstinate, it is for want of knowledge and because they have been seduced by blind guides.
The only exception to this appears to have been in Alsop-En-La-Dale because of John Alsop (yes the name is a clue as to that particular gentleman’s authority within the place). Alsop En La Dale is about five miles north of the market town of Ashbourne. And it was here that Beccon discovered a kindred spirit. Not only did John Alsop show Beccon his prized Coverdale Bible, written by Miles Coverdale in 1535 being a translation of the Bible into English, but he also showed him his library which contained many reforming treatises including some of Beccon’ own works (obviously Beccon didn’t look like an arch-conservative in the pay of Gardiner):
In a little village called AIsop En Le Dale, I chanced upon a certain gentleman called Alsop, lord of that village, a man not only ancient in years, but also ripe in the knowledge of Christ’s doctrine. When we had saluted each other, and I had taken a sufficient repast, he showed me certain books, which he called his jewels and treasures. To repeat them all by name, I am not able, but of this I am sure, that there was the New Testament after the translation of that godly learned man. Miles Coverdale, which seemed to be as well worn by the diligent reading thereof as ever was any mass book among the Papists. In these godly books – I remember right well that he had many other godly books, as the Obedience of Christian Man, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, The Revelation of Anti- Christ, The Sun of Holy Scripture, The Book of John Frith against Purgatory, &c. – this ancient gentleman, among the mountains and rocks, occupied himself both diligently and virtuously.
And on that cheerful note I’m off to occupy myself both diligently and virtuously cooking dinner!