‘Try me, good King, but let me have a Lawful Trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my Accusers and Judges..’ Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII, Tower of London 6 May 1536
This past year bereavement has meant that poignant and difficult letter writing has featured prominently in my personal life so maybe this was why the recent publicity surrounding the auction of Catherine of Aragon’s letter to the Pope leapt off the page and caused me to ponder on the significance and form of letters through the ages.
In bygone days everyone tried to write and to express themselves in the very best way they knew how, whereas today it is unimportant whether they write well or badly. Phone texts and email are a form of shorthand and, if the points raised are not clear, the recipient can instantaneously request clarification.
In Tudor times clarity and a good argument were vital. Take that letter Catherine of Aragon penned on 8 February 1534 – a letter so important that it precipitated one of the defining moments behind England’s split with the Pope and the Catholic Church. Catherine in a desperate attempt to cling on to her marriage to Henry VIII wrote, in Spanish, to her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to asking him to use his influence to persuade Pope Clement VII to resist Henry’s attempts to invalidate their marriage. In her letter she said ‘there is no need for my relating to Your Highness the sufferings that I and my daughter (Mary) undergo, as well in the treatment of our lives, as in the surprises and affronts which every day the King’s Council puts upon us, for our troubles are matters of universal notoriety…’. The auctioneer in New York remarked that ‘It is so rare to have someone of such high standing write in her own hand, not using a secretary. Her handwriting is very clear and her diction so poignant. She had a very good command of her emotions. It is a very powerful letter on so many levels’. Pope Clement by upholding the marriage, as we all know, helped change the course of English religious history for ever.
Letters from prison and exile form a long and variegated Christian literary tradition reaching from the Apostle Paul to the present day. The English Reformation period saw an extraordinary flowering of these missives, as Tyndalians are acutely aware. The translators, printers and compilers of the Geneva Bibles, so lucidly discussed by Prof. Francis Higman in his paper ‘The Genevan Context of the Geneva Bible’ (delivered at the Fourth Oxford Tyndale Conference 2005) were prolific letter writers. In January 1555 one of the Marian exiles, Thomas Lever, wrote an upbeat letter from Geneva to Henrich Bullinger, possibly the most prolific letter writer of all the Reformers, in Zurich ‘I live here entirely free of public duty. I follow Calvin’s sermons and public instruction sessions… I devote the remainder of my time to the publication of a little book in English: it is at the printers and if God wills will soon be sent to England’. Thus Prof. Higman’s theme comparing the cross-fertilization, translation, production and development of Bibles in Geneva is aptly corroborated in a letter.
‘History as Handmaiden’ by Korey Maas is a revised version of his presentation at the Oxford Tyndale Conference. Brian Buxton’s research on the Poyntz family is ongoing and his paper‘Godly Hospitality’ comprises the fruits of his latest original research. It is probably true to say that Brian’s research was largely triggered by a letter written by Thomas Poyntz from Antwerp in 1535 to his brother John in North Ockendon (a transcription was published in the Journal No 27 July 2004) asking him to plead the cause in England of William Tyndale, about to be condemned to death on the Continent. Thomas wrote ‘Because this poor man William Tyndale stayed in my house three quarters of a year, I know that the king has never a truer hearted subject to his grace this day living’. In this paper Brian reveals his latest findings in the Tyndale/Poyntz saga with his investigations of the St Dunstan in the West link. Come to the London Study Day ‘Not so Wicked Mammon II’ on Monday 30 April when Brian will be guiding us to follow this research more fully. It is a great privilege that all three authors agreed to have their interesting papers printed in the Journal.
If you cannot attend meetings, this issue contains some excellent reports on the Lichfield Conference May 2006, the Lambeth Lecture September 2006 and the Gloucester Cathedral Lecture October 2006. We were unable to find a reporter for Alec Ryrie’s Hertford Lecture ‘The English Bible and Protestant Piety’. The editor would be grateful if someone would write her a letter (not necessarily in Tudor language) agreeing to carry out this task for the autumn 2007 Thirteenth Annual Hertford Lecture.
The latest recruit to our talented band of book reviewers, Max von Hapsburg, has added a distinctly European flavour to this section of the Journal. Neil Inglis defected on this occasion to the ranks of exhibition reviewers and any enthusiasm generated for ‘In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000’ will have to be assuaged by buying the guide as the exhibition closed in Washington in early January!
Lady Jane Grey, the luckless nine days queen, wrote to her sister Catherine from the Tower of London ‘I have sent you a book which although not outwardly trimmed with gold, yet inwardly it is more worthy than precious stones. It is the book, dear sister, of the laws of the lord…It will teach you to live and learn you to die….’ Jane never lived long enough to sit for a portrait, or did she? Angela Butler discusses in Press Gleanings a recent discovery which may just alter the general view that she did not.
You will find extensive details of the Worcester and Gloucester Conference ‘Tasting the Word of God’ within these pages. Our chairman, Mary Clow, has spent more time than you can possibly imagine organising this and other events. Make sure you sign up for them: for not only will they be most informative and enjoyable but also Mary will be delighted to be inundated with registrations. She is working hard on ways to salve the disappointment caused by the cancellation of the American Conference in Virginia scheduled for September 2007.
Regarding the Sightings of Tyndale Competition the editor would like to apologize for its gender bias and assure you, dear readers, that the new one in this issue requires neither a male friend nor a male photographer!
As always this issue would not have seen the light of day without the great efforts, contributions and co-operation of so many. I must thank especially our chairman, Mary Clow, for burning the midnight oil so that as many details as possible of our meetings could be included here. My thanks to Judith Munzinger, my devoted editorial assistant, who returned jetlagged from her Christmas trip to Australia to finish the excellent proof reading started before she left. I thank Elizabeth Brown for deputizing in Judith’s absence, Angela Butler for her editing, and my ever-helpful in house computer guru for sterling work on the numerous illustrations.
It is to be hoped that any student reading this will now feel bold enough to tackle an essay entitled ‘The Art of the Letter Writing – its many facets through history’. I doubt that, in this age of multiple-choice examinations, essay writing figures large in modern curricula. As someone musing on the lost art of letter writing remarked, it is often fun to turn to such low-tech tools as pen and paper to bring a semblance of sanity to our lightspeed technological culture. Letters are definitely still a part of your editor’s life. Keep them coming!
In the manner of the letters of Honor Lisle, the wife of Viscount Lisle, Lord Deputy of Calais from 1533 until 1540
From Geneva the i day of January
‘…do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best’
Thomas More to his daughter Margaret Roper, Tower of London 3 May 1535