Edward Dering and His Stunning Lenten Sermon

Edward Dering and His Stunning Lenten Sermon

            Whatever Queen Elizabeth I might have expected by inviting Edward Dering to preach a Lenten sermon in her presence, it was certainly not an outspoken rebuke.

            Edward Dering was a young, promising preacher, with an outstanding reputation as a Greek scholar. Elizabeth had heard him speak six years earlier, when he gave a Greek oration during her visit to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he had studied and had been elected a Fellow. He had been a personal preacher for members of the nobility and had spent time in the household of Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575), who considered him the best prospect for replying recent Roman Catholic accusations.

            Preaching in front of the queen was another step up the ladder of a successful career. But Dering (about thirty at that time) was no longer interested in a career. He had seen enough corruption in a clergy that seemed only interested in money and fame. “While they are clothed in scarlet, their flocks perish for cold, and while they fare deliciously, their people are faint with a most miserable hunger. This fault is intolerable, and such as God abhorreth,”[1] he wrote in a letter to Chancellor William Cecil (1520-1598).

            This indictment is reminiscent of something Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) had written a few decades earlier about the Roman Catholic Church. In both cases, what suffered was the preaching of the Word, as priests and bishops ran after larger benefices and secular patrons determined who would receive them.

            Dering might have felt a twinge of guilt for his participation in a similar system. He also regretted he had not been more outspoken with his latest patron, Thomas Howard (1536-1572), fourth duke of Norfolk. Howard had recently been arrested for his scheme to marry Mary, Queen of Scots (whom Queen Elizabeth considered a dangerous rival).

            Two years later, as the duke awaited execution, Dering asked him for forgiveness. “You know howe in my time I have perswaded you from your wicked servants, from your popish friendes, and from your adulterous woman. But (alas) my Lord, your high calling has bridled my words, I could not speake as I should, my words were too soft to heale so olde a disease.”[2]

            These regrets motivated Dering not to make the same mistake again, not even with the queen.

Shaking Up the Queen

            Elizabeth must have sat comfortably through the first part of the sermon, where Dering praised God for freeing England from the spiritual bondage of the Roman Catholic Church and for allowing His word to be preached freely. He recognized God’s spirit at work in Elizabeth’s life and reign, and reminded her of her duty to continue to promote the preaching of the gospel.

            But that was the problem. She wasn’t. At least not in the measure Dering and other likeminded reformers expected. If she was truly sovereign over the church, why was there still so much ignorance of God’s word among those who were supposed to teach it to others? Why so much complacency and contentment with the few crumbs of truth that were regularly fed to God’s flock?

            A large part of the sermon explained how the Church of England was full of usurpers to the ministry of the word – “some shake bucklers, some ruffians, some hawkers and hunters, some dicers and carders, some blind guides and can not see, some dumbe dogs and will not barke.” At that point, he addressed the queen with unprecedented boldness: “And yet you, in the meane while that all these whordoms are committed, you at whose hands God will require it, you sit still and are carelesse, let men doe as they list. It toucheth not belike your common wealth, and therefore you are so well contented to let all alone.”[3]

            Most modern quotations of this shocking sermon stop here, but Dering continued to speak to the queen as to a sister in Christ, encouraging her to rely on God’s spirit to give her the wisdom and faith that were necessary to make such necessary change. “The Lord increase the gifts of his Holy Spirit to you, that from faith to faith you may grow continually, till that you be zealous as good King David, to worke his will. If you know not how to reforme this, or have so little counsel (as man’s heart is blinded) that you can devise no way, ask for counsel at the mouth of the Lord, and his holy will shall be revealed unto you.”

            In spite of this gentle addition, his sermon cost Dering the favor of the queen. She never forgot and never forgave. She forbade him to preach again in her kingdom, and never retracted her orders, in spite of Dering’s expressions of pain in her decision. “How grievous it has beene unto mee, or how gladly I would bee delivered from it,” he said in his dedication of his Works to her.

            In the meantime, he kept his tongue unbridled, rebuking William Cecil for the new, restrictive statutes Christ’s College had adopted under his administration, soon after expelling Thomas Cartwright, another outspoken Puritan.

            He also reproved Archbishop Parker for the poor management of his province, especially Kent, where “only two out of six hundred parishes, in Dering’s opinion, had adequate instruction.”[4] While he was at it, he condemned Parker’s frequent swearing, and chastised him for allowing his sons to wear “gaudy garments, and his retainers ‘monstrous great breches.’”[5]

            If Dering was forbidden to preach, his sermons were still making their rounds. In fact, his sermon before the queen became the most reprinted Elizabethan sermon ever, with sixteen editions published just within the queen’s life. Some might have read it out of curiosity, but for many it was a vivid expression of what they were thinking and not saying.

            It was not a new message. Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) and John Hooper (1495-1555) had said similar things before, but the problems were persisting, and it was time for new voices to be raised.

Marriage and Last Years

            In 1572, Dering married Anne Locke (c. 1533-1590), a widow a few years older than him.[6] Locke had been a dear friend and staunch supporter of the fiery John Knox (1513-1572), and must have seen many similarities between the two reformers. She was not the only one. John Field (1544-1588), a young and militant clergyman who helped John Foxe (1516-1587) with his research for the second edition of the Acts and Monuments, published a collection of works by Knox and Dering combined.

            Like Knox, Dering had a large group of loyal female supporters who continued to offer provisions and hospitality after he had lost the queen’s favor. This included Mary Honywood (1527–1620), a well-known advocate of persecuted preachers, and Katherine Killigrew (c. 1542-1583), sister of the more famous Anne Bacon (1528-1610) and sister-in-law of William Cecil. Killigrew received much encouragement from Dering during her frequent bouts of illness.

            Dering could easily relate to physical afflictions, as he suffered from rapidly progressing tuberculosis. “I weigh not all the world a feather,” he wrote to Killgrew on July 25, 1575, “and with as glad a minde I spit blood (I trust) as cleare spittle. To those that love God all things are for the best. He hath a hard hart that beleeveth not this. … I write this unto you, Mistress K., because you know it, and that you may more effectually believe him that will knowe you when the worlde, your health, your corruptible body, death and sinne itself, have done their work.”[7]

            He died almost one year later, on June 26, 1576, surrounded by his loved ones and friends.

[1] H. C. Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958, p. 138.

[2] Margaret Aston, The King's Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 200.

[4] Patrick Collinson, Godly People: Essays On English Protestantism and Puritanism, London: The Hambledon Press, 1983, p. 303

[5] Ibid.


Simonetta Carr