John Colet, Heretic?
Tyndale's Assertion Reconsidered

William Tyndale had clearly moved into the center ring. He had drawn the full attention and wrath of Sir Thomas More, who had been directing his most vituperative assaults against leaders of the fledgling Protestant movement for several years. Now is was Tyndale's turn.

More's intent by 1528 was clear, as stated by Tyndale's most recent biographer: ‘to do all he could as a royal councillor to bring the power of both church and government to bear against the heretics, to crush them and their beliefs, and if need be to burn heresy out of England with fire.’[1] So, for the first time, More began to write against these heretics in the English language.[2]

The immediate result was More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies published in June of 1529 and aimed primarily at Tyndale. This work appeared just before More was elevated to the office of Lord Chancellor.[3]The Dialogue was republished in 1531 and 1557.[4]

Tyndale's response came in 1531 with An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue. More refused to quit and continued the literary battle thereafter, countering Tyndale's response with the Confutation of Tyndale's Answer in 1531. Getting yet another ‘last word’, More's Apology, published in 1533, was also directed in part against Tyndale.

In Tyndale's Answer he makes a reference to John Colet: ‘He (i.e. the bishop of London, Richard FitzJames) would have made the old dean Colet of Paul's an heretic, for translating the Paternoster into English, had not the bishop of Canterbury (i.e. William Warham) holp the [5]dean.’

Why did Tyndale even make such an assertion in the Answer? First, it is clear that Tyndale is responding in part to More's attacks on his translation work by pointing out the obvious, i.e. that he is not the first English church figure to translate something of significance into English. Second, Tyndale makes explicit use of Colet because the memory of Colet was respected and his reputation presumably still intact. Third, he makes specific reference to Colet because Tyndale undoubtedly knew that More and Colet (and Erasmus) had all been friends.[6]

So as a very small part of his defense against the Lord Chancellor's attack Tyndale invokes the name of More's old friend Colet as having done something quite similar to the offense with which Tyndale is charged. And Colet had experience, as Tyndale was now, the disfavor and even assault of the reigning ecclesiastical authorities.

The question immediately arises, however, whether Tyndale has gotten this right. Was Colet, indeed, charged with heresy by his bishop, FitzJames, and precisely on this point, at least without simply ‘settling’ it by resorting to their preconceptions of the true nature of Colet's role in the sixteenth century ecclesiastical history of England.

The starting point of this portion of the inquiry is with Tyndale's sources for this assertion. Unfortunately, there are only a few possibilities extant at our chronological distance.

If Colet had ever been charged with heresy, it could only have been while he was serving as dean of St. Paul's, i.e. between 1504/5 (his appointment to the Deanery) and his death in 1519.[7]

An accusation by the bishop of London against Colet might very well have become known to Tyndale, who was presumably at Oxford a good deal of the time period under consideration, through the venerable grapevine of ecclesiastical and/or academic gossip. A conflict of such import involving the prestigious Dean and the at least equally prestigious bishop of London, surely would have generated substantial discussion in the circles in which Tyndale presumably moved. However, such oral evidence is beyond our reach.

What of written sources? The only relevant contemporary sources we possess are the letters of Erasmus. Among these, one stands out: a 1521 letter to Justus Jonas, lately of Wittenberg, in which Erasmus sets out the twin biographies of John Colet and Jehan Vitrier.[8]

In this 1521 sketch, Erasmus discusses explicitly — if vaguely in a few key places — accusations of heresy brought by the bishop of London against John Colet. Erasmus writes that FitzJames and two other unnamed bishops, all having impure motives, ‘laid an information’ against Colet before William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury.[9] According to Erasmus, Colet was charged with three named offenses: attacking the ‘worship’ of images; misinterpreting the meaning of Jesus's words ‘feed my sheep’ in John chapter 21; and denouncing the practice of some clerics who read their sermons. Additionally, Erasmus vaguely recounts, Colet was accused of ‘even more absurd’ heresies, which remain unspecified. The passage ends with the whole matter coming to nought, as the Archbishop intervened and ‘protected the innocent’, i.e. Colet, who never deigned to reply to the charges.[10]

So has Erasmus accurately recorded heresy charges against the dean of St. Paul's by his bishop? Colet's most recent biographer, John Gleason, thinks not. Gleason attacks Erasmus' account on the following bases.[11]

First, Gleason argues that the charges against Colet, as recorded by Erasmus, were simply too insubstantial to be taken seriously. As for the first charge, Gleason notes that veneration (the cult of dulia) was certainly allowable but adoration (latria) or worship was not. This could not have been the basis for such an accusation of heresy, unless the accusers were interpreting Colet as attacking the entire cult of images in its entirety. Gleason rejects the plausibility of this interpretation, though, since there is evidence that Colet wished such images to remain on the walls of his intended place of retirement after his [12]death.

As to the second charge, Gleason states that there was no official interpretation of John 21, hence Colet could not have crossed any line between orthodoxy and heresy at that point. And lastly, there was surely nothing heretical about attacking the practice of reading [13]sermons. Then he points out that FitzJames would certainly have realized how weak these assertions were and wouldn't have made them.[14]

Thirdly, Gleason doubts the accuracy of Erasmus's account given the context of the letter to Jonas in which they appear. Erasmus was writing to convince Justus Jonas to leave the side of Luther and return to the sanctity and safety of the Roman fold. In so doing, Erasmus presented two short biographies, those of John Colet and Jehan Vitrier, as alternative models of Christian learning and piety — both of whom stayed within the Church. The prince of humanists hoped Jonas would find his role model in one of these two, rather than the wild Saxon monk. Thus, in Gleason's interpretation, Erasmus painted the picture of Colet as a persecuted, pious academic, flimsily charged with heresy by his mean spirited bishop. Erasmus did so, Gleason says, to engender ‘sympathy’ from Jonas toward Colet.

On one hand, in depicting Colet as accused of heresy he is seeking to enlist Jonas's sympathy and interest. On the other hand, was his object to keep Jonas within the Catholic fold. Hence the only heresies he actually mentions are so unheretical that Colet is clearly well within the doctrinal framework of the traditional church.

One is left wondering, however, how such portrayal of Colet is supposed to have made Jonas feel sympathetic and want to emulate Colet.

Thus Gleason casts doubt over Erasmus's entire description of Colet's being charged with heresy. There may have been some deeper issues involving Colet which were known to Erasmus, but glossed over in his comment that ‘Colet disdained to reply to these charges, and to others that were still more absurd’. And it is from Erasmus's account, Gleason argues, that Tyndale gets his idea that Colet was so charged for translating the Lord's Prayer into English. It should be noted, however, that Erasmus makes no mention whatsoever of such translation being the basis of an indictment by the bishop, nor does he ever suggest Colet made such a translation.

So what are we left with? According to Gleason, Colet must have crossed swords with his bishop (although Gleason's ultimate explanation is that this had to do with Colet's association with Wolsey, driving a wedge between the Dean and his bishop). Erasmus recognized this, Gleason believes, but toned it down or misdirected the reader. Of course, Tyndale's assertion of the charge against Colet has nothing to do with the ‘charges’ listed by Erasmus. Erasmus is utterly silent about any English translation of anything. And if Colet had been so charged, why wouldn't Erasmus have mentioned it in the biographical letter (that is, unless it comes under Erasmus's ‘more absurd’ charges category)?

Here the context and purpose of the letter to Jonas become important. Remember, Erasmus was writing in an effort to woo Jonas from the clutches of the erring Luther. So Erasmus presented him with two alternatives to Luther as examples of Christian piety: Vitrier and Colet. Wouldn't Jonas be better off following one of their examples, of these two saintly individuals who stayed within the fold of the Roman Catholic Church? Of course, Erasmus completely failed in his attempt and Jonas became a life-long, dedicated Lutheran.

But a question remains: why did Erasmus even include the references to charges of heresy in this biographical account if, as it has often been asserted, Erasmus was playing a little fast and loose with the factual details in order to win back young Jonas? Wouldn't the picture of Colet be more attractive if he weren't portrayed as an accused (even falsely) heretic, who had to do battle with ecclesiastical leadership that had impure motives? Doesn't that come dangerously close to how Jonas may have perceived Dr. Luther as well? If so, doesn't that fail as a rhetorical device put to use by the prince of humanists? Then why even mention it?

The simplest answer would seem to be that Erasmus included the heresy accusation story because it actually happened. Of course, that alone might not be reason enough for Erasmus to include it. However, it might also have been true that Jonas may have heard that the late Dean of St. Paul's had been charged with heresy. Perhaps Erasmus needed to acknowledge that fact, then try to lessen its impact on Jonas by ascribing impure motives of envy, etc. to those who pursued the downfall of the righteous Colet. And just possibly Erasmus may have watered down slightly the nature of the charges against Colet — which fits in nicely with Gleason's observations that the charges Erasmus asserts were not in themselves all that serious and unlikely to have generated a full scale response by the Church against Colet.

There is another tantalizing reference in one of Erasmus's letters, however, that may cast some light on this mysterious area of darkness. On All Saints' Eve 1513 Erasmus wrote to Colet. The letter opens with the line: ‘I cannot tell you how much I congratulate you on recovering your quiet'.[16] This has been the subject of much speculation, although most interpreters believe it to be a reference to troubles with FitzJames. What are even more interesting for us, however, are the concluding sentences of the letter:

I congratulated you in my last letter and now congratulate you again for having returned to preaching, the holiest, most beneficial task of all. Yes, I think that brief interruption will even be turned to good account; men will listen more thirstily to one whose voice they have missed awhile. May the supreme Lord Jesus guard and keep you. (emphasis added)

Why was Colet absent from preaching? Three possibilities exist. First he may have been travelling. However, there is no record of a journey elsewhere and, should he have been on the Continent, Erasmus would have either mentioned his joy in visiting him or berated him for not doing so. Second, he may have been in poor health. In this case, though, we might expect Erasmus to say something about regaining his health and how to maintain it. Third, and most likely, Colet has been suspended from preaching by ecclesiastical authority pending the outcome of some sort of investigation. This explanation makes the most sense in the context of this letters of Erasmus, especially in light of the opening line (‘recovering your quiet’). It is also suggested by the other references we have to Colet having difficulty with FitzJames and at least two other unnamed associates. The timing is right in terms of Erasmus's biographical letter to Jonas, too, as he suggests FitzJames was attacking Colet in 1513,[17] just before Colet delivered a Good Friday sermon in the presence of Henry VIII.[18] If Erasmus's chronology is correct, the crunch between Colet and FitzJames came in the spring of 1513, Colet may have been suspended from preaching for a ‘brief’ time awaiting completion of whatever process was set in motion, and the matter was resolved by early autumn.[19] New of its positive resolution was received by Erasmus by the end of October, upon receipt of which he penned this congratulatory letter. What we still do not know with any certainty, though, was the precise nature of the charges against Colet, how they were handled and by whom (although Erasmus and Tyndale both tell us that the Archbishop's intervention is what saved Colet)[20] and the official conclusion of the whole affair.

So did Tyndale get it right? Was Colet indeed charged with heresy for translating the Pater Noster into English? Certainly there is ‘room’ within the facts as presented thus far for Tyndale's assertion to have been correct. But can we do better than this?

One more issue and one more piece of evidence need to be considered. The issue is this: was it in fact heretical to translate the Pater Noster into English in the opening, pre-reform decades of the sixteenth century in England? The answer to this question is unclear. Gleason says ‘no’ and that Tyndale's assertion must consequently, be ignored. In fact, Gleason argues that the church was taking quite the opposite stance, encouraging the teaching of the Lord's Prayer to the people in English.

Other scholars are not so sure. Admittedly, various versions of the Pater Noster in English existed and were circulated, apparently quite openly, during the late middle ages. The exact position of the church on this, however, is subject to some controversy. Florent Aarts makes the point that until the Reformation in England, even though English versions existed, the church clearly taught that ‘as a rule the language to be used is Latin’.[22] But would violation of this preferred practice have constituted grounds for an accusation of heresy, as in Colet's case? This is the key point of the debate. Might not the issue, though, have been less the existence of such a translation and more who had done it and who was encouraging its use? If that were the case, then perhaps such an act by Colet would have been at least part of his bishop's case against him, a case which may have included additionally the charges listed by Erasmus. We know from church history more generally that bishops and ecclesiastical subordinate.

Until a complete analysis and possible revision is made of the categories regularly used by historians, this tidbit from Colet's life must be recognized for what it is, with all its limitations: just one tantalizing insight into one event of one portion of his life. Nevertheless, this one small example was what Tyndale recalled in the heat of battle with More. And, it may be asserted based on the foregoing inquiry, Tyndale probably recalled quite accurately. Tyndale thought he recognized in Colet at least the dim outline of a predecessor. In so doing, Tyndale not only strengthened his confidence in his own vocation but perpetuated the memory of Colet, whose proper role in that turbulent time may still be only imperfectly surmised by historians from a distance of almost five centuries.

Barry T. Ryan

  1. David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, New Haven and London:Yale University Press (1994), p. 261, fn. 42.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Professor Daniell has ably captured the spirit of this work: 'This "Dialogue" sets itself out as a Socratic, humanist debate. It does not come over as anything so rational; its intention is slaughter'. Ibid. p. 262. He goes on to describe in summary the basic content and argument of the four books that constitute the Dialogue.

  4. And then not again until 1927 when, Professor Daniell points out, it is aptly retitled A Dialogue Concerning Tyndale, Ibid., p. 265, fn. 49.

  5. William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More Cambridge: Parker Society (1850), p. 168.

  6. The friendship was not, however, as Frederic Seebohm romanticized in the nineteenth century, that of the so-called 'Oxford Reformers'. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that Colet, More and Erasmus shared much in common and certainly considered each other dear friends. See, e.g. the letter to John Colet from Thomas More, quoted in J.H. Lupton, A Life of John Colet, Hamden, CN: The Shoe String Press (1961), pp. 14546.

  7. He was not in a position of sufficient public prominence to warrant attention as a supposed heretic before the appointment. And, even if he had been suspected of heretical thoughts prior thereto, Colet certainly would not have received the honor of the Deanery from Henry VII, with the apparent support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

  8. J.H. Lupton (e.) The Lives of Jehan Vitrier and John Colet, London: George Bell & Sons (1883).

  9. 'However, when the animosity of the old bishop ... was too virulent to be suppressed, he took as his coadjutors two other bishops, as wise and as acrimonious as himself, and began to give Colet trouble ... (H)e laid an information before the Archbishop of Canterbury (i.e. William Warham), specifying certain articles taken from his sermons. One was, that he had taught that images ought not to be worshipped. Another, that he had done away with the hospitality commended by St. Paul (in reference to John 21.16 17, in comment upon Colet supposedly differed from traditional interpretations by claiming that Christ's command to 'feed my sheep' did not include a requirement that the impoverished apostles provide the material needs of their flocks) ... A third article was that, having said in the pulpit that there were some who preached written sermons the stiff and formal way of many in England he had indirectly reflected on his bishop who, from his old age, was in the habit of so doing. The Archbishop, to whom Colet's high qualities were perfectly well known, undertook the protection of the innocent; and, as Colet himself disdained any reply to these and still more frivolous charges, he became a protector instead of a judge', Lupton, The Lives of Jehan Vitrier and John Colet , pp. 4401.

  10. Erasmus goes on to mention that FitzJames was determined to pursue Colet's downfall even after being frustrated on the heresy accusation. The remainder of the account ranges beyond our area of concern, however, and concerns Henry VIII's relationship with Colet.

  11. John B. Gleason, John Colet, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 235-257.

  12. Ibid., p. 236.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Of course, if such charges were so weak, would not a trained theologian like Jonas also have realized how unlikely they were, if Gleason is right? Ibid., p. 237.

  15. Ibid., p. 237.

  16. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson (trans.), The Correspondence of Erasmus, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1975), v. II, pp 259-260. See P.S. Allen (ed.) Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, Ep. 107.

  17. FitzJames was on a bit of a crusade against Lollards throughout this time period. According to Foxe, cited in A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation, New York: Schocken Books (1964), p. 28, FitzJames ‘prosecuted at least forty (Lollard) offenders in 1510 and another thirtyseven in 1517’, two of whom in each instance ended up at the stake. Was Colet caught up in the net FitzJames had cast for Lollards? There is also a reference in Foxe, cited frequently, to a certain accused Lollard, as part of the evidence against him, as having caused another person to go to London to hear Dr. Colet's preaching. See Lupton, Life, p. 144, referring to Foxe, Acts and Monuments (Townsend ed.), vol. IV., p. 230.

  18. But see Gleason, p. 256, who believes that the correct date for the Good Friday sermon must have been 1515.

  19. P.S. Allen, ‘Dean Colet and Archbishop Warham’, English Historical Review, XVIII (1902), pp. 303306.

  20. And, in a 1552 or 1555 sermon, so does Latimer. The story is either repeated or told independently in Grafton's Chronicle (1569), p. 955.

  21. Gleason, p. 237.

  22. Florent G.M.A. Aarts, The Pater Noster of Richard Ermyte: A Late Middle English Exposition of the Lord's Prayer, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1967, pp. cvi cvii.

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