Tyndale Society Study Day (10 May 2014)

Last Saturday was clearly the best day to hold a study day – there were three different ones on that date that J & I between us found interesting. The one I chose to go to was organised by the Tyndale Society who are a group whose primary interest is in the life and works of William Tyndale (who translated the Bible into English in the early 16th Century). I’m not a member of the Society myself, I just spotted a poster advertising the study day a few weeks ago & signed up for it. The subject of the day was Ipswich as a late medieval port of the type whose trade & shipping links helped the spread of Reformation books, and three men with Ipswich links who played a significant role in the Reformation. It was held in St Peter’s by the Waterfront which was for a brief moment in its history the chapel for Cardinal Wolsey’s school in Ipswich. As well as the four talks there were a couple of (very short) walks to see relevant places in Ipswich – the weather was good for just long enough at just the right times for those! One of which included our lunch in the cafe attached to Dance East (nice soup & sandwiches, if a little basic). There were also a selection of books for sale (I picked up “Late Medieval Ipswich: Trade and Industry” by the third speaker, Nicholas Amor). And a rather fine (and jaunty) model of a medieval Cog:

Model Cog
Model CogModel Cog

(All photos are links to flickr, the whole album is here.)

“Thomas Wolsey as Educationalist” John Blatchly

The first talk was given by John Blatchly who is a local historian, former Head of Ipswich School and currently chairman of the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust (which includes St Peter’s by the Waterfront in the churches it looks after). After a preamble about himself and the Ipswich Historic Churches Trust he talked to us about Cardinal Wolsey, concentrating on his links with education and with Ipswich. Wolsey was born in Ipswich, the son of Robert Wolsey & his wife Joan (née Daundy). I’m sure Blatchly said he was born and lived at the Black Horse Inn – but there’s a plaque on the wall near Curzon House that suggests he was born in that part of Ipswich instead. He was born in 1470 or 1471 – this is known because on Maundy Thursday of 1530 he washed the feet of 59 old men, one for each year of his life so far.

Wolsey was first educated in Ipswich, and went to Magdalen College, Oxford at around the age of 15. A biographer of Wolsey’s writing not long after his death said that his early education was good, through the encouragement of his parents and masters. Blatchly explained that this was unlikely to be Robert Wolsey’s influence. Robert Wolsey was an innkeeper and butcher (at the Black Horse) and there are records of him appearing in court rather a lot. He was fined for several misdemeanours like letting pigs roam freely and so on. Thomas Wolsey’s mother was rather better born than her husband. Her brother was patron of St Lawrence Church, and was likely the person who encouraged the young Thomas Wolsey and got him his good education.

Blatchly mostly skipped over Wolsey’s career in the church and his involvement in Henry VIII’s government. He did, however, give us a flavour of the man with a digression on his attitude to heraldry. Obviously as the son of a butcher & innkeeper Wolsey had no coat of arms himself – and so he made one up with symbols that he felt suitable. Wolsey’s mistress, and mother of his children, was the daughter of a Thetford innkeeper which sounds a bit like Wolsey seeking out someone of a similar background to his own – but Blatchly felt her being the sister of the archdeacon who was Wolsey’s confessor was far more signficant. Their son was called Thomas Winter (discretely not using Wolsey’s name, nor his mother’s name). It would’ve been rather indiscreet for Thomas Winter to do the canonical thing of using his father’s coat of arms with an indicator of bastardy, so Wolsey made him a new one too. Blatchly said there’s some evidence that Winter was a spendthrift, so one of the symbols on his coat of arms is coins which are perhaps a nod to this tendency.

Wolsey was not on the side of Reformation as a theological/political movement, but he wasn’t against the idea of dissolving a few priories when he could “make better use” of the money. He dissolved several (I think Blatchly said generally in Norfolk and Suffolk, and no longer vibrant communities) to pay for his great educational foundations. These were Christchurch College in Oxford (taken over by Henry VIII so it still exists) and Cardinal College of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ipswich. One of the dissolved priories was what has become St Peter’s by the Waterfront. This included the church and sat on a site of around 6 acres. So what Wolsey did was to dissolve the priory and convert the church into a chapel for his college. The rest of the site was then used for the college. After Wolsey’s fall from grace the College was abandoned – the church became a parish church, the institution of the college became the ancestor of Ipswich School and the fabric of the college mostly went to London to build Whitehall.

Blatchly also talked about Wolsey’s retirement plans – he was intending to live in Curzon House next to his new Ipswich College. This was inhabited by the Curzon family at the time, but they agreed to move somewhere else (although never had to, because Wolsey fell from grace). The house itself no longer exists (there’s a rather ugly modern building in its place) but Curzon Lodge, where visitors were put up, still does. Blatchly also explained about the statue of Wolsey as an educationalist which sits outside the modern Curzon House, and after his talk he took us all on a short walk to see the statue and the Lodge (and another 15th Century merchant’s house which is now the Thomas Wolsey pub).

15th Century Merchant's HouseJohn Blatchy talking about the Wolsey Statue
Curson Lodge

“John Bale” Oliver Wort

The second talk of the day was given by Oliver Wort, about John Bale who wrote many books and was a Protestant Reformer. The Ipswich connection is that Bale was born in Suffolk, and spent 30 years as a Carmelite friar first in Norwich and later as the prior of the Carmelite house in Ipswich. He then converted to Protestantism, and spent 30 years as a Protestant writer. Bale wrote extensively in both his incarnations but most modern scholarship concentrates on the later Bale and ignores his earlier writing. Wort feels this is foolish – whilst the later Bale is important, his formative years were as a friar and this did have an influence on his later thinking.

One of the reasons for concentrating on his later life comes from Bale himself – as a convert he was very keen to disavow his Carmelite past and repeatedly got irritated by people who referred to him as Friar Bale. Bale published one of the first autobiographies in English, which was the fourth iteration of his own account of his life over a 20 year period (the first three were as essays at the back of books he wrote). Wort made the point that it’s necessary to take Bale’s words with a large pinch of salt. In Wort’s preamble to this talk he gave us a flavour of John Bale the man – he had somewhat of an ego. In books that he wrote he wasn’t just content to put his name on the title page and perhaps at the end. Instead he made sure his name was repeated throughout, and constantly in the text referenced the fact that these were the opinions of John Bale. In one of his books there was even a puzzle to do with the capitals at the start of each chapter, which when solved spelt out “BY ME JOHAN BALE”. This occasionally backfired – in his autobiography (which has his name on each page as part of the title) his name is at least once spelt “BAAL” instead of “BALE”. Particularly amusing as this was one way that ardent Protestants referred to the Pope.

So the autobiography is in all its incarnations the work of a man who is keen on presenting an image of himself to the world. Wort suggested that this is probably not just ego, Bale may also have been trying to overwhelm the reader with his new convert status and hoped they’d forget the earlier conformist Friar Bale. Taking it with a pinch of salt the autobiography gives us what is likely to be a historical overview of Bale’s life. He was born in 1495, and became a monk in Norwich at the age of 12 (in 1507). He was educated at Cambridge, starting in 1514, and graduated as a Bachelor of Divinity. After this he rose swiftly through the Carmelite ranks, becoming Prior in Ipswich. In 1536 he left the Carmelites to become a priest. And after his conversion to Protestantism (1537ish? I haven’t got a note of what Wort said) he wrote plays at court for a few years (writing the first English history play). He fled into exile after Cromwell’s fall, and only returned when Edward VII took the throne. He also spent the years of Mary’s reign in exile abroad, returning when Elizabeth became Queen.

Wort explained that the four different versions of the autobiography can tell us something about Bale’s changing sense of himself and the ways that religious conversion was seen in England at the time. The details change depending on the political climate of the time that it was written, in particular the details of the moment of his conversion (which become more elaborate and specific). His marriage is positioned in the later versions as the capstone sealing his conversion but closer to the event he doesn’t refer to his wife at all – perhaps he was keeping her secret because it was illegal for him as a priest to marry, perhaps he didn’t actually marry her till later when it became legal! The autobiography might also be better referred to as an autohagiography. For instance Bale repeatedly compares himself to the apostle Paul, giving a whole host of (rather tenuous) correspondences between their lives. At the time this attracted rather heated disagreement from other writers about the ego involved in appropriating an apostle’s life for one’s own self-aggrandisement.

“Ipswich, a Late Medieval Port” Nicholas Amor

The third talk was after lunch, and started with a walk along the Waterfront to Isaacs where we looked at the (outside) of the oldest part of the building, which is a 15th Century merchant’s house and would’ve existed during the time period that Nicholas Amor was talking to us about.

Nicholas Amor talking about the Medieval Waterfront15th Century Merchant's House

Ipswich has been a port since Anglo-Saxon times, and one thing Amor told us on the walk was that when the new university buildings were built there was an opportunity for archaeologists to dig there. The Waterfront area is where the medieval port was – the river ran past there at the time (nowadays the course of the river has changed and the Waterfront is on a canal that forms the Wet Dock). Amor’s specialisation is the late medieval period, particularly the 15th Century when Ipswich was an important port. During this century Ipswich had trading links as far afield as Spain, Iceland and the Baltic – but no trans-atlantic links and no Mediterranean trade either. The bulk of the trade, however, was with the Low Countries. Amor has compared the trade through Ipswich in the 1390s, the 1460s and the 1490s to get a picture of how it changed throughout the 15th Century. This is a period with a lot of unrest in England and wars with France, and you can think of the 1390s as a sort of golden age. Trade goes significantly downhill across the whole country by the 1460s – Ipswich actually does rather better than other places because of a high concentration of German merchants operating in the town. By the 1490s trade has improved but not back to the levels of the late 14th Century.

One question he looked at was why was Ipswich important at the time. One of the reasons is changes in the wool trade in the 15th Century. Wool could only be shipped through ports designated as staples – where the wool was taxed. In the 14th Century staples were in a selection of English ports and Ipswich wasn’t one of them. In the 15th Century the staple was in Calais, so it didn’t matter which English port you shipped from so long as you went there. Ipswich is conveniently located close to London and the Stowbridge Fair (an important wool market near Cambridge). It was also a quick journey from there to Calais. Another factor that made Ipswich more important than other East Anglian ports was that its position relatively far upriver made it safer. For instance nearby Harwich was sacked by the French during the 1440s, but Ipswich never was. This meant that even though the Crown would’ve preferred to move trade to Great Yarmouth it wasn’t ever a successful move.

At first wool was the biggest export from Ipswich, later in the 15th Century its importance declined. Suffolk wool was actually quite low quality, Amor said this was because the sheep have too easy a life in East Anglia – not enough poor weather to make them grow dense wool. As wool was taxed by quantity rather than quality Suffolk wool wasn’t worth legitimately shipping to Calais, instead it was smuggled to Flanders cloth makers who wanted cheaper wool. East Midlands wool was better quality and so was the majority of the legitimate trade (and so is mentioned in the customs records that Amor has used in his work). During the 15th Century the importance of the (export) cloth trade grew and much less wool was exported to cloth manufacturers in the Low Countries. Suffolk became the industrial heartland of England at the time, manufacturing the bulk of the cloth a lot of which was then exported via Ipswich. Wine imports were also an important part of the trade through Ipswich until the loss of Gascony to France in 1453, after which significantly less wine was shipped. Beer imports were important at the beginning of the century, but by the end it was being exported back to the Continent.

The merchants involved in this trade changed over the century. At the beginning a lot of them were local, but towards the end of the century there were many more foreign merchants living in and trading through Ipswich. The big players traded with Gascony and Spain – the long haul destinations. Smaller merchants operated to & from the Low Countries. In the mid 15th Century trade was much less lucrative – the loss of Gascony was part of this, and the ongoing war closing off markets at random was another part of the reason.

Sadly Amor ran out of time before he could finish his talk – the walk had taken longer than originally planned which ate into the time.

“Thomas Bilney” Andrew Hope

The fourth and last talk was another biographical talk, this time about Thomas Bilney and given by Andrew Hope. Bilney was a Cambridge academic and one of the first such reformers to go out to preach and talk to the ordinary parishioners. The Ipswich connection is that in 1527 Bilney went on a preaching tour of East Anglia, including a visit to Ipswich in May of that year. The bulk of Hope’s talk was focussed on what we know about the sorts of topics that Bilney preached about, and what sort of reformer Bilney actually was. This last is a topic of some debate with no clear answers – even the authorities at the time weren’t sure. When he was arrested they drew up two different charge sheets while trying to figure out which heresy to charge him with – a Lutheran or a Lollard.

The two possibilities are quite different in terms of their social constructs. Lollards are a community, who meet face to face. It had existed as a movement for around a century at the time and generally Lollards became Lollards because they knew people (like their parents) who were already Lollards. At the time, however, Lutherans in England were primarily isolated academics who had read the pamphlets and books being brought through ports like Ipswich and had experienced a moment of intellectual conversion like John Bale. Bilney falls between the two groups – he is an academic, and is isolated rather than part of group, however from what we know of his preaching he agrees with some of the Lollard thinking. For instance Lutheran thinking says that pilgrimages don’t confer salvation or any sort of de facto spiritual merit. Bilney in his preaching goes beyond this in a very puritannical direction, in much the same way the Lollards do. But it’s not clear if he read some of the more radical Continentals, or if he came to these conclusions via conversations with Lollards that he preached to.

One topic of his preaching was against the use of miracles to imply that God approves of pilgrimages. This was the standard Catholic answer to people who doubted the worth of shrines and pilgrimage. But Bilney picked up on a biblical reference which says that Satan will be on the loose after the year 1000 AD, and used this to argue that this so-called miracles were the work of the devil (this also comes up in Bale’s writing). Bilney also preaches on salvation using terminology from both the Lutheran and Lollard schools of thought. For instance he uses the term “mediator” for Christ, which is really only used in Lutheran texts but he couples this with the Lollard imagery that praying to a saint is like putting the head at the feet. He also preaches against the Papacy, with a rather clever argument that it’s put itself in the position that conscience should take, and that conscience should be the temple of the Holy Ghost. This is clever because conscience as an idea wasn’t the same as it is now – one of the important questions of the era was how come there seems to a cross-humanity consensus on right and wrong (like, murder is bad, that sort of thing). So the medieval thinkers postulated that there is a conscience that is responsible for this, a sort of collective thing that some people were more in touch with than others. The official position of the Church was that when they put forward rules of behaviour this was them channelling this conscience and letting everyone know what it said – so if you were in doubt about the moral course, you just asked the Church. So Bilney was taking an existing concept (the Church is in some sense the conscience of society) and arguing that this was bad and that one’s own individual conscience was more important. There is evidence that his preaching on this topic is taken up by local Lollards who start using his terminology and ideas about conscience.

The Lollards of the time must’ve felt like this was a new dawn. They had been living as a heretical community for over a hundred years, and suddenly academics and mainstream thinkers are putting forward viewpoints that are close to what the Lollards believe. There’s a general idea that areas with a strong Lollard presence become strong Protestant areas, and Ipswich is an example of this. But it’s important not to assume this is always the case.

Hope finished up his talk by telling us a bit about the end of Bilney’s life. Bilney was arrested as a heretic, as mentioned before, and examined – and eventually abjures his faith. It’s clear that he’d struggled with his identity before (Lutheran or Lollard) but after this he became unsettled and struggled with the tension between his belief and the fact that he’d saved his life by denying his beliefs. After 3 years of this he went to Norwich and practically baited the authorities into arresting him – he preached and handed out tracts written by William Tyndale. After being arrested he was sentenced to death by burning at the stake (the only sentence possible for this second offence). Even though Bilney sits in this odd position between the Lollard and the Lutheran traditions of reform his influence in Cambridge at this time was second to none, so he was an important part of the English Reformation.