John Nicholson, or Lambert, was a Norfolk man who studied at Cambridge. He’d come to the attention of Katherine of Aragon and it was due to her nomination that he was elected fellow. However, he shifted away from the Catholicism of his birth and moved to Antwerp where he became acquainted with Tyndale.
He returned to London when it seemed that England was to have its own reformation when Anne Boleyn was in the ascendent. He taught Latin and Greek but unfortunately for him he got into a dispute about a year after Anne’s execution when the official religious hue of the country was shifting back to its starting point. This argument was reported to the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk accused Lambert of heresy and had him imprisoned.
During his imprisonment Lambert wrote a paper justifying his belief that Christ was not present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist which he presented to his accusers who promptly handed it over to Thomas Cranmer.
Lambert’s crime was to deny transubstantiation which at this point in the Church of England’s history made him a heretic. The Ten Articles left no room for manoeuvre in this matter. Cranmer tried him and found him guilty of heresy, which is ironic because Cranmer would himself deny transubstantiation as soon as he felt it safe to do so.
Lambert appealed his case directly to Henry VIII – perhaps he thought the monarch was a rational man with Protestant tendencies – after all he’d broken with Rome. Little did he realise that he was going to be at the heart of a show trial to demonstrate that having broken with Rome Henry intended to go no further down the road towards Protestantism. In fact even when the monasteries were being suppressed there were heresy trials and executions. Henry didn’t have any truck with Lutherans or Zwinglians or any of the other protestant sects that were springing up across Europe. It wouldn’t be long in England and Wales before the Ten Articles shrunk into the Six Articles which were essentially catholic in view but with Henry in charge.
Henry summoned assorted bishops and theologians to Westminster rather fancying himself as a learned theologian himself – afterall he was the Defender of the Faith having launched his repost to Luther in 1521. He also arranged for an audience to gather on specially erected tiered seating.
Richard Sampson, Bishop of Chichester was the ringmaster for the day. He explained to the gathered courtiers and bishops that Lambert had appealed his case to Henry and that Henry was going to demonstrate that it was far from the case that he’d turned German in his religious sympathies. Sampson went on to say that whilst Henry had given the monks the big heave ho it was because they were an idle bunch who encouraged superstition. He also explained that in giving the Bible to the people in English it was to encourage them in their true understanding and away from the superstitious nonsense of the past – a humanist approach if you will.
Henry then exchanged words with the accused who had to explain about having two surnames which didn’t go down well with Hal but the king very graciously said that as Lambert was his subject he wanted him to have the opportunity of understanding the error of his ways and come back into the fold of the true faith even if he was an untrustworthy sort of bloke with two different names which was in Hal’s opinion just plain shifty.
Five hours later six or so bishops including Cranmer and Gardiner had disputed with Lambert who hadn’t budged an inch in his views during the entire time. Henry announced Lambert must die on account of the fact he didn’t patronise heretics. Cromwell recorded it as an occasion of Henry’s “inestimable majesty” when he wrote about the event which suggests that the Vicar General might have thought that someone was reading his letters before they were delivered to their intended recipients.
As he burned on November 22 1538 at Smithfield, Lambert called out, “None but Christ.”
Those of you of a gentle disposition may wish to stop reading at this point.
Henry, allegedly, decreed that Lambert’s suffering should be extended as a warning to all other heretics so the poor man was lifted on pikestaffs from the flames as his legs burned.