Feast Day of St Thomas More 22 June 2004
It is uncanny how often a common theme emerges for an issue of the Journal. A recent lead article in the Church Times bore the eye-catching title ‘By the light of burning martyrs – heresy trials in prospect’. Suddenly the words heresy and martyrs are on everyone’s lips in everyone’s thoughts in the 21st century when many think they were confined to the 16th century! Sad cases of heresy have been brought to our attention from India and Pakistan, it has featured in recently published books, and Tyndalians are keenly aware of it through their studies of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
The trials of a certain John Hoggesflesh from Lewes in the county of Sussex leapt out from the pages of a book by Jeremy Goring Burn Holy Fire: Religion in Lewes since the Reformation (reviewed in this issue). Lewes had long been well known for harbouring a Lollard group in the peculiar deanery of Malling. Hoggesflesh was accused of the stock Lollard offence of denying the validity of the Holy Sacrament, but the reason that makes his case of interest is that it ran its course through a series of judicial courts and procedures and that finally he, although punished, was not burnt as an heretic. Rarely in the history of religious conflict has one obscure individual caused so much trouble to so many important people over such a long period of time.
John Hoggesflesh, lived in the parish of St Mary Westout, Lewes, and was a keen reader of the Bible. In October 1534 he was charged with refusing to ‘give any honour or worship’ to the Blessed Virgin and with affirming that ‘it is not necessary to be confessed to a priest’. After a preliminary hearing in Lewes he was despatched to Chichester, where he was arraigned before a court composed of the diocesan chancellor, the dean, two canons, the mayor of the city and other dignitaries. After a lengthy trial, in which he defended his position vigorously with numerous biblical texts, his judges appear to have been confounded. Uncertain about the seriousness of his errors, they referred the case to Archbishop Cranmer, who in turn referred it to the Duke of Norfolk, who in his turn referred it to the King in his new capacity of Supreme Head of the Church in England. In due course Henry VIII confirmed that the opinions were erroneous and the Bishop of Chichester was accordingly instructed to have Hoggesflesh condemned. Eventually this ‘famous heretic’ was forced to recant his ‘detestable opinions’, do public penance in the cathedral and read out a declaration of his errors in the market places of Chichester, Midhurst, and Lewes. A light punishment for the time when compared with the lot of Thomas Bilney in Norwich, William Tylesley in Amersham and a later group of avid Bible readers in Lewes who were all burnt for such an offence and who are all featured in this issue.
What fascinates Goring, the author of the book, is how had Hoggesflesh acquired his impressive knowledge of Scripture? Before the publication of Miles Coverdale’s edition in 1535, the Bible in English was a prohibited book; furthermore before 1538 when, in accordance with the Second Royal Injunctions, the churchwardens of St Andrew’s, Lewes bought a Great Bible to be set up (chained) in their church for the use of parishioners, it was dif- ficult for the laity to lay hands on one. In 1534, at the time of his trial, there were in fact only two (strictly illegal) vernacular versions available. One was William Tyndale’s New Testament printed clandestinely in the Netherlands, copies of which had been smuggled to England from 1526 onwards chiefly through ports along the South Coast. It is not impossible that some may have arrived in Lewes, where contemporary subsidy rolls record a number of Dutchmen lived. If Tyndale’s New Testament was not the source of Hoggesflesh’s extensive biblical knowledge it would have had to have been a manuscript copy of Wycliffe’s Bible.
His trials may have been long but his sentence was light compared with the horrific fate of Thomas Bilney, the subject of lead article by Korey Maas. This paper was delivered at the very informative Norfolk Bilney Day this spring (reported on in this issue). At the North Ockendon Day Conference in March Brian Buxton gave an interesting follow up to his research on the Poytnz family. The thoughts he delivered then and his transcript of Thomas’s letter of 25 August 1535 to his brother John asking him to intercede on Tyndale’s behalf in England constitute the second article in this issue. Thomas Poytnz, although not burnt as a heretic himself, suffered great misfortune in trying to prevent William Tyndale’s martyrdom. Eunice Burton has written a very succinct report for those members unable to attend this meeting in Essex.
The Annual Gloucester Cathedral Lecture ‘Translating the Bible: Why Tyndale is still Vital’ delivered in October 2003 by Prof. David Daniell is printed in full. It recounts the writing of and quotes passages from his magnum opus published in 2003 ‘The Bible in English’. This has been reviewed for us by a newcomer to our team, the Rev. Edwin Robertson.
This time I have been truly blessed with book reviewers. Neil Inglis, appropriately for this ‘martyrdom’ issue, chose a book by David Cloud Rome and the Bible: The history of the Bible through the Centuries and Rome’s Persecutions Against it. Neil’s reviews are never dull and one always emerges better informed from reading them! Prof. Don Millus has reviewed a far from easy book D’Aubigné’s Méditations sur les Psalmes and Dr Helen Parish tackled Archbishop Rowan Williams’ Anglican Identities with verve.
America is definitely awakening. A great incentive to get this Journal out on schedule has been the thought that you will all rush off and register for the A**merican Tyndale Society Conference** ‘The Bible as Battleground: The Impact of the English Bible in America’ which is being held in Virginia Beach this September. The organizing committee has put together an interesting programme and found an impressive line-up of speakers. Look on the website (no excuses accepted – get a friend to do it if you have not got a computer), sign up and get a flight to ‘hasten ye there’.
Still dogged by Lollards, Press Gleanings continues the martyrdom theme with an account of the Amersham Martyrs Community Play by Garry Marshall who assures us that in spite of it not being ‘a ball of fun subject’ the creation and performing of it was greatly enjoyed by the community.
The Ploughboy Group is rallying. David Ireson reflects on the Gospel Truth, David Green strikes a more practical note with an account of his recent activities and his pursuit of musical ballad. Society Notes will give an insight into the activities of your Society and its members but, above all, please read, note down and inwardly digest the Dates for Your Diary section at the back of the Journal. Fascinating and excellent events are being organized for members. Many of you missed their predecessors earlier in the year; and so do not let them pass you by this coming autumn and for the future do not forget the Fifth International Oxford Tyndale Conference in September 2005 and the Lichfield Conference in 2006.
Heartfelt thanks to those who have written to me and to the many contributors to this ‘heretics and martyrdom’ issue. Paradoxically it has been a pleasure to edit. Even the offline state of my editorial assistant, Judith Munzinger, has not been the great impediment I had feared. She has had to resort to a near Wycliffian manuscript state since her computer went into an inaccessible box in a furniture store but her devoted quill-scratching proved equal to the challenge.
Even though I received my education in Lewes, witnessed the burning of effigies of the Pope by the Martyrs memorial and relaxed in the ruined Priory grounds I would not have understood an earlier Sussex historian’s remark ‘Lewes may claim to have some fitness as a starting place for the study of English religious history’. After working on this issue, as you will see as you read further, all is now explained and clear.