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Authors: Brian Moynahan

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Book of Fire

BOOK: Book of Fire
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Brian Moynahan
graduated with a double first in history from Cambridge, where he was a foundation scholar of Corpus Christi College. He was for many years a foreign correspondent with the
Sunday Times
, and was latterly the paper’s European editor. He is the author of several books, including
The Faith, a History of Christianity
. His most recent book,
Jungle Soldier
, the biography of Freddy Spencer Chapman, was a
Sunday Times

Praise for
Book of Fire

‘His research is exact and his prose elegant’ Peter Ackroyd,
The Times

‘Brian Moynahan’s biography of this difficult, aggressive, unworldly and monomaniacal man is a triumph … Authoritative, vital, passionate, closely attentive to the sources and superbly able to recreate the mentality of a violent and agonised time’ Adam Nicolson,
Evening Standard

‘Moynahan writes with the passion and style of a veteran journalist in love with his subject … his book is a fine introduction to Tyndale. It might be useful bedtime reading for a pope’

‘The book is a thousand times more intriguing than a thriller’ Anthony Daniels,
Sunday Telegraph Magazine

‘A thriller, a history and a biography all rolled into one, and the copious quotations from Tyndale’s many works and those of his enemies lend a fierce dynamism to the language. We feel the heat of their anger and smell the fire’
Irish Times

‘It was a bloody period in English history and the author captures all the excitement inherent in Tyndale’s exile, betrayal and eventual death at the stake’
Contemporary Review

‘Meticulously researched and written with great imagination and feeling’
Birmingham Post

‘Moynahan does a good job here in getting over the positively unsaintly side of More … a good yarn well told’
Yorkshire Post

Also by Brian Moynahan

Airport International

Fool’s Paradise

Claws of the Bear


The Russian Century


The British Century

The Faith

Jungle Book


Published by Hachette Digital

ISBN: 978-0-7481-2577-7

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

Copyright © Brian Moynahan 2002

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

Hachette Digital

Little, Brown Book Group

100 Victoria Embankment

London EC4Y 0DY


 For Alison Taylor,
my god-daughter


Preface On the Burning of Heretics


Also by Brian Moynahan

1 Youth

2 Decision

3 London

4 The New Testament

5 Printing

6 ‘Lyfe, love, faveour, grace, blessinge …’

7 Auguries

8 ‘A filthy foam of blasphemies’

9 The Fish Cellar

Wicked Mammon

11 Manhunt


13 The Flight to Hamburg

14 Eye for Eye, Tothe for Tothe

15 The Shorte Fyre

16 ‘My name is Tyndale’

17 The Confutation

18 ‘The Lord forgive Sir Thomas More!’

19 ‘Let not your body faint’

20 ‘A fellow Englishman, who is everywhere and nowhere’

21 Judas

22 The Paymaster

23 ‘Though I gave my body even that I burned …’

24 Aftermath





On the Burning of Heretics

arly in the year of Our Lord 1428, the mortal remains of a former rector of the parish were exhumed from beneath the flagstones in the chancel of St Mary’s Church in Lutterworth, a market town in the English Midlands. An array of powerful men stood out from the plain crowd of local people in the church. Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln, in whose see Lutterworth then lay, was present with his chancellor, his suffragan bishops and the priors and abbots of the diocese. The high sheriff of Leicestershire was attended by his officers. A coterie of canons and lawyers huddled round the gravediggers as they worked. An executioner looked on with professional interest.

The coffin was raised, and opened, and its contents were exposed to the onlookers. The body was then taken out through a small door in the south side of the chancel, as the dying rector had been carried by his parishioners forty-four years before, after he suffered a stroke while celebrating mass in December 1384. His remains were borne in solemn procession, under the dripping yews in the churchyard, along the streets of the town and down the wooded hillside to a field next to the hump back bridge that crossed the River Swift.

This was a field of execution. Public hangings continued here into coaching days, when Lutterworth was an important staging post on the route north from London past Leicester. The dead rector, however, was thought too evil to hang. A stake had been set up in the ground and piled with timber and kindling. Iron chains were attached to it at shoulder height. He was to be burnt.

A brief ceremony was held. Bishop Fleming confirmed that he was carrying out the command sent to him from Rome by Pope Martin V on 16 December last. This ordered him to carry out the sentence that had been passed on the body in 1415 by the great Council of the Church meeting at Constance on the German–Swiss border. The council had condemned two hundred propositions put forward by the dead man, John Wycliffe, the former master of Balliol College at Oxford and rector of Lutterworth, that touched on core doctrines of the Catholic faith. The council found that ‘since the birth of Christ no more dangerous heretic has arisen, save Wycliffe’. It instructed that his body be removed from the consecrated ground in the chancel at Lutterworth and destroyed.

Tradition allowed for the body to be dressed in the vestments that the rector had worn to celebrate mass, so that these could be stripped from him, chasuble and stole, one by one, to signify that he was ‘unfrocked’ and deposed from the priesthood. We do not know if this ritual was observed, or whether Wycliffe’s skull and fingers were scraped, to represent the removal of the oil with which he had been anointed at his ordination. Certainly, the bishops solemnly cursed him and commended his soul to the devil.

Heresy had been declared to be ‘treason against God’ by Pope Innocent III in 1199, and was thus regarded as the worst of all crimes. Its ‘vileness’ was said to ‘render pure even Sodom and Gomorrah’, while the great medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas declared that it separated man from God more than any other sin. The Church imposed a double jeopardy on heretics. The
poena sensus
, the punishment of the senses, was achieved by the stake and the fire. If, like Wycliffe, the person was convicted after he was dead, the penalty was imposed on his remains. The
poena damni
proclaimed by the bishops on Wycliffe pursued his soul into the life everlasting. It damned him to absolute separation from God and to an eternity in hell.

The Church could not itself carry out a burning. To do so would defy the principle that
Ecclesia non novit sanguinem
, the Church does not shed blood. Pope Lucius III had bypassed this inconvenience in 1184 by decreeing that unrepentant heretics should be handed over to the secular authorities for sentence and execution. After cursing the remains, Bishop Fleming therefore delivered them up to the high sheriff of the county, as the representative of the civil power. The sheriff declared that they should be burnt by the executioner.

The executioner attached the dead man to the stake with the iron chains before setting fire to the kindling. He made sure that the bones and skull were burnt to ash in the fire, breaking them into small pieces with a mattock to help the process, until they merged into an indistinguishable grey pile of ash and embers. These were carefully scraped into a barrow. When the last particles of dust were swept clean from the patch of scorched earth, the barrow was tipped into the waters of the Swift.

Only then was the bishop sure that he had fulfilled the papal instructions, to rid the world of all physical trace of the heretic. Any relic might otherwise be gathered up by the dead man’s supporters and placed in a shrine to perpetuate his accursed memory.

Fleming did his work well enough; he earned his altar-tomb in Lincoln Cathedral, where his bones lie undisturbed, and his renown as the founder of Lincoln College at Oxford. Only a few physical scraps remain that connect directly with Wycliffe: a fragment of his cope, an ancient pulpit and a font that he may have used.
Disposing of Wycliffe’s ideas was another matter. The ashen
waters of the Swift, his followers noted, flowed into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, and the Severn into the sea, so that ‘the whole world and all Christendom became his sepulchre’.

Wycliffe was the first of the ‘Bible-men’, a term of fear and abuse coined by a bishop of Chichester to describe the poor preachers, dressed in modest russet cloth, who spread Wycliffe’s Bible-based theology at impromptu gatherings in churchyards and at markets, and who translated the Bible into English at his behest. More than a century later, the ferocity aroused by this translation was to colour the life of William Tyndale, the subject of our book, in the most violent hues.

‘This wicked kindred,’ Wycliffe said of the clergy, ‘wulde that ye gospel slepte.’ He was correct. The medieval Church had no desire to share the secrets of its trade. Its monopoly of faith was bolstered by its near monopoly of Latin. It opposed the translation of the authorised Vulgate Bible into any native, or vernacular, language. The Vulgate was written in the Latin of the fourth century. It was incomprehensible to the great majority of laymen and women, who also had little understanding of the Latin rites and ceremonies used in everyday worship. They were dependent on the clergy to interpret the mysteries of the faith for them. The Church feared that translations would open its dogmas to question and challenge its spiritual dominion.

It was through the rector of Lutterworth and his followers that this general dread acquired a distinct and bloody edge in England.

A fierce and blunt-spoken Yorkshireman, and a fine scholar, Wycliffe had become master of Balliol in 1360 at the age of about thirty. Generations of scholars had paid lip service to the Bible, of course. They mined it for individual texts to use in debates and sermons, and they wrote copious notes and glosses on passages within it. But their approach was logical and scholastic; they did
not think of it as a work that was alive and breathing, like the God who had created it. It was a priestly text, dusty, locked up in Latin, safely beyond the reach of the English at large. Religion had come to mean the Church itself, and its traditions.

Wycliffe stood this on its head. He looked back to the scriptures and the early Fathers, before the Church had established its rituals and its wealth. He gave a series of lectures on the whole of the Bible, a sweeping commentary that – remarkably – had never been attempted before. He gathered round him, the Church noted with alarm, ‘many disciples in his depravity, living together in Oxford, clad in long russet gowns of one pattern, going on foot, ventilating his errors among the people and publicly preaching them in sermons’.

The Bible, Wycliffe declared, was the ‘highest authority for every Christian, and the standard of faith and all human perfection’. All that was within it must be obeyed. All that was not – the deep patina of lore, ritual, law, hierarchy and dogma that had built up for more than a thousand years – was mere human invention and superstition. No institution that God had not sanctioned, foremost among them the papacy, was to be trusted or obeyed. Wycliffe noted that the Bible did not mention the pope. ‘What good doeth hys gabblyng that ye pope wolde be caled moost holy father?’ he demanded. The dignities and privileges that Rome bestowed were ‘not worthe a fly’s foote’, and men should ‘shake awey al ye lawe that ye pope hath maad’, and return to the laws of God.

He stressed the importance of personal faith in Christ, rather than the merits of obedience to the Church. ‘As belief is the first virtue and the ground of all others,’ he wrote, ‘so unbelief is the first sin of all others.’ This belief was not gained through the intercession of the Church, he said; it flowed from the individual and the reading of the scripture, and the decadence of churchmen was an obstacle to it. Christ had been the ‘porest man of alle’. True
priests should be ‘moost pore men and moost meke in spirit’, for they were created ‘by power that Crist gyveth’ and not by bishops. No cleric had the right to be wealthy, yet they were rich and sleek and self-contented, for they drank the ‘podel water of ye canal’ and not the pure wisdom of the gospels.

BOOK: Book of Fire
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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