Robert Barnes – Early English Reformer

Robert Barnes – Early English Reformer

            The early 1500’s was an exciting time for young intellectuals. Scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre and religious Reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli fueled many stirring discussions in the European universities. The growing discontent with the church and its doctrines seemed to have reached its highest pitch and the increasing consensus provided hope for a change.

            As a young Augustinian prior with a promising career in the academy and the church, Robert Barnes shared this hope and excitement. The English historian John Foxe numbers him among those who met regularly for discussions at the Cambridge’s White Horse Inn. As a prior, Barnes’s reforms included the introduction in the friars’ curriculum of a course on Paul’s epistles, in an attempt to bring Scriptures back to the center of their education. Another indication of his discomfort with Roman Catholic practices is the fact that, during his priory, the popular request for masses in Rome was discontinued.

A Fiery Sermon and a Clever Escape

            It was with this fervor that he preached in St Edward's Church, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve of 1525. The circumstances leading to this important sermon are uncertain. Some have suggested he was specifically invited in order to stir the waters. And stirring he did, with a violent attack on ecclesiastical corruption in general and on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in particular.

            As a result, he was arrested, tried, and found guilty. After a forced display of public penance through the streets London, he was asked to abjure his heresies (even if his sermon had not attacked any theological teachings of the church).

            Through the help of powerful friends (possibly some of his White Horse Inn companions), he was moved after six months from the Fleet Prison of London to the Augustinian friary in London, where he was kept on house arrest. There, he was able to take active part in the promotion of Tyndale outlawed translation of the New Testament – so much that he apparently turned the place into a distribution center.

            When his activities were discovered, he was moved to the Austin House in Northampton, where he was supposed to stay under closer supervision “as in a perpetual prison.” According to Foxe, this imprisonment would have probably ended in execution.  

            Aware of his precarious situation, Barnes hatched an elaborate plan of escape. He would flee to Germany, but not before leaving a suicide note for Wolsey. He gave credibility to his suicidal story by displaying a deeply despondent mood for some time before his flight.

            The suicide note was meant to send the authorities on a treasure hunt, since he wrote that he would place another letter inside his clothes and a third one on his body. His plan was successful. While the authorities spent a week searching the river for a non-existing body, Barnes, disguised as a peasant, sailed to Antwerp, in the Netherlands, then traveled down to Wittenberg, Germany.

Theologian and Ambassador

            In Wittenberg, he found lodging in the house of the pastor Johannes Bugenhagen, who encouraged him to study and write. In 1530, Barnes published (under the Latin pseudonym Antonius Anglus) a compilation of quotations from the Bible and the writings of past theologians (from the church fathers to his time) to demonstrate that the doctrines taught by Luther were firmly rooted in both Scriptures and tradition.

            The book, entitled Sentenciae ex doctoribus collectae, quas papistae valde impudenter hodie damnant (“Collection of sentences by divines, which today’s papists quite impudently condemn”) was republished six years later under Barnes's real name.

            In the meantime, he wrote his most famous book, A Supplication Unto the Most Gracious Prince King Henry VIII. Intended as a defense of his position, it contains one of the clearest declarations of justification by faith alone.

            A copy of this book was sent to Henry by Stephen Vaughan, a merchant with Protestant leanings who worked closely with Thomas Cromwell (Henry’s chief minister). Both Vaughan and Cromwell were instrumental in Barnes's return to England in 1531. After that, Cromwell took advantage of Barnes’s connections in Germany by employing him in negotiations with Lutheran reformers and rulers, both in that country and in Denmark.

            In 1536, Barnes published Vitae Romanorum pontificum, the first history of the papacy written by a Protestant. But he was mostly appreciated as a preacher, even if he had to lay low for some time after the execution of Anne Boleyn.

            In fact, from 1536 onward, the state of English Protestants continued to ebb and flow, with renewed persecutions after the 1539 publication of the Six Articles (abolishing diversity in opinions), followed by a period of favor after Catherine Parr’s exoneration and the ejection from the privy council of her main accuser, Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Barnes was actually the catalyst for this ejection, which took place after Gardiner’s angry tirade against Cromwell for employing Barnes (a known Lutheran sympathizer).

Protestant Martyr

            Gardiner had a chance to retaliate against Barnes in 1540, when he was called to preach on the first Sunday of Lent at Paul's Cross, in London. Gardiner’s sermon attacked not only Barnes, but the doctrine of justification by faith the reformer held so dear.

            Two weeks later, it was Barnes’s turn to preach in the same setting, and he didn’t hold back. What’s more, two other preachers (Thomas Garrett and William Jerome) felt emboldened to do the same.

            This placed Cromwell (who had promoted those preachers) in a difficult position at a time when he was already losing the king’s favor. Eventually, this loss of favor caused Cromwell to be condemned to death without trial and publicly beheaded on Tower Hill.

            Left without a protector, Barnes, Garrett, and Jerome were summoned to appear before the king. All three were asked to preach sermons of public recantation. Barnes began to recant, only to take back his words in the end. He was sent to the Tower on April 3, 1540, and publicly burned on July 30.

            According to Foxe, white at the stake Barnes made a last profession of faith, which was later published in German at Wittenberg with a preface by Martin Luther. Today, he is considered one of the main protagonists of the early English Reformation.

Simonetta Carr