Tyndale and the Religious Orders

1536 saw the martyrdom of Tyndale and the onset of the Dissolution of the monasteries. Given Tyndale’s criticisms of monks and friars one must assume that he would have approved of the Dissolution if not entirely of the motivations behind it.

Erasmus in his Praise of Folly (1511) had inveighed against priests and monks, superstition and cults of the saints, and Tyndale frequently denounced (in, for example, his Obedience) the ‘swarms of begging friars’. Although one must perhaps be wary of drawing too strong conclusions from the satirical tone of the likes of Chaucer whose Summoner compares a friar to a blue bottle, and Langland who

fonde there freiris, alle the foure ordres, 
Preched the peple for profit of hesmselven,
Glosed the gospel as hem good lyked,
For coveitiise of copis construed it as thei wolde.' [1]

The clear impression is that from the end of the 13th century onwards, much had changed for the worse in the direction and aims of the religious life. How much of what Tyndale observed of the religious as he grew up influenced his growing conviction of the need for the vernacular Bible for all believers can only be surmised, but the role of the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages to shrines and relics, the developed doctrine of purgatory, the maintaining of orthodox Catholic doctrine within the monasteries must be seen to play a large part in the formulation of his beliefs.

The history of the changing function of the religious life exemplifies to a certain extent the wider movement in religious thought which led ultimately to the Reformation, indeed the Dissolution of the Monasteries has come to represent the apotheosis of the Reformation in England. It is the purpose of this paper to look briefly at the development of the religious orders in their wider social setting and examine the changes in their function and effectiveness up to the early sixteenth century, and to indicate their place in the society in which Tyndale grew up.

The word monk derives from the Greek monos meaning ‘alone’ and the original monasticism originated with the anchorites and hermits of 3rd century Palestine who withdrew into the desert to fast and pray, whether to escape persecution or to harden their Christian resolve in the face of the perceived slackening of the fervour of Christians after Constantine’s peace with the Church is open to doubt, though probably it was a combination of the two. The religious life, then, was an individual exercise of seeking the spiritual through withdrawal and isolation. Gradually, however, monks came together to live in organised communities. By the 4th century monasticism had moved to the West and was established in Gaul under Martin of Tours, but the founding father of the religious life that became current in England was Benedict (c.480–547), an obscure Italian abbot whose Rule provided the standard of monastic observance: life in a community, in obedience under an established head, living a life of prayer, observing a constant round of offices and celebrating the mass, in celibacy and poverty, which in practise meant having little or no personal wealth, as some of the communities came to own a great deal of wealth as a result of generous benefactions. It is the practise of benefactions, indeed, which presents us with the key to one of the main roles of the medieval religious communities in relation to the outside world, concerning what D. C. Lawrence calls the ‘economy of salvation’, [2] which included the notions of vicarious merit and the need for reparation for sin. Although repentance resulted in divine forgiveness, this was not enough without compensation being paid to the wronged party, which, in religious terms, meant God. An elaborate scale of canonical penances was developed for the expiation of wrongdoing, but the medieval mind was haunted by the fear that death might occur before the necessary penance had been paid. Linked with this was the notion of the individual being subsumed into the Christian body of souls, whereby each was collectively responsible for the other. Intercession for the soul of one already dead could effectively pay the penance for that soul. By endowing a monastery, the donor could ensure an endless fund of prayer and penance for him and his entire family both before and after death. A religious order was a permanent entity and the service would therefore be rendered in perpetuity. This service was also extended to the realm, and the prayers of the monks were seen as spiritual warriors defending against moral, spiritual and heathen threats, as well as averting God’s wrath and ensuring victory in battle. (One of the assertions of the sixteenth century was that the founders of religious orders had intended them to serve the needs of the realm and their failure in this respect was posited as one of the reasons to dissolve them).

Monasteries were also convenient havens for members of the family for whom provision in the world was not available. This covered younger sons who could not be provided for from the family lands without diminishing estates, and unmarried daughters and widows who could live in a religious house without loss of rank or prestige. The Abbot of St. Peter’s in Gloucester from 1131–39, had been the chaplain of the previous Abbot for eleven years, and had been in the monastery since he was seven years old. His parents had ‘offered him to God and St Peter at the very tender age of about seven years because of their devotion to religion and the monastic way of life; and he acquired much wealth for the church from his father as well as from his mother Emma’. [3] The illegitimate offspring of princes and nobles were frequently dumped in the monasteries, as were fallen women into the nunneries. [4] This abuse of the religious vocation is clearly a factor in the spiritual decline of the enclosed orders.

By as early as the twelfth century the number of benefactions had started to decline, however, as the general growth in population put pressure on the land, and families became more intent on preserving the family inheritance than on endowing religious houses. Nevertheless the monasteries continued to own large properties across the country. Paradoxically it was the success of the monasteries in attracting benefactions of large tracts of lands and buildings that had led to one of the reasons for the decline in the spiritual strength of the monasteries, as Abbots became more and more embroiled in the problems of administering large properties with all the economic and legal complications attendant on being a great landowner. Indeed the properties in Gloucestershire where Tyndale grew up would have been largely owned by the great Abbeys. Abbot Parker, the last Abbot of St. Peter’s Gloucester, presided over a monastery of some 50 monks and some 200 household servants, enjoying various country houses such as Prinknash, the Vineyard at Over, and Highnam; he attended parliaments, and acted within the county as royal administrator and commissioner – a far cry from the desert anchorite. R.B Dobson’s study (1973) of Durham Priory in the 15th century gives a vivid depiction of what life was like, with descriptions of Prior John Wessington’s palatial state bedroom and his dinners of salmon and oysters washed down with Malmsey.

In all their many building projects the Abbeys employed master craftsmen and builders, and still today we can see examples of the great flowering of Gothic architecture which developed through the great building campaigns of the 12th and 13th centuries. The early medieval monasteries were inextricably linked to the life of the townships in which they were situated. They were the biggest employers of the area, as much of the daily life of the monastery was serviced by the lay community, indeed many towns grew up because of the needs of the Abbeys. Large numbers of the houses were owned by the monasteries and the rents afforded them substantial income, and the medieval monasteries, at least where the black monks were masters, were the repositories of precious artefacts, books and art treasures. Although their role in the life of the area was lessened in the intervening centuries, the monasteries of the 15th and early 16th centuries were seen as sponging off the greater community whilst no longer serving any useful purpose.

Although there had been an undeniable moral decline in the monastic life, with vows of chastity blatantly disregarded, even by the heads of the houses, accusations of drunkenness, gambling and riotous conduct, the religious vocation was still held in respect into the beginning of the 16th century. Henry VII founded three religious houses in his quest for a reputation of piety; Thomas More had lived with the Carthusians as a young man, though he decided on an active rather than a contemplative life; Luther, Robert Barnes and William Roye were all Friars (though the latter will not have improved the image of the order of Friars in Tyndale’s mind).

The orders of mendicant friars had developed in the 13th century, representing a radical change from the enclosed tradition of the past. The Mendicant Orders believed that the apostolic way was to go out and preach and teach relying on the charity of others for their subsistence. Space does not allow here to examine the nascence of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders which represented the two main strains of these mendicant preachers, but their role from the 13th century onwards played a large part in the religious life of the people. The growing urban population was where they found their support. Here they performed the role of teacher and confessor. Their task was enabled by the production of handbooks and concordances and a large literature was developed. Lawrence says of them: ‘It was not only their methodology that enabled the friars to talk convincingly to city congregations: their message was just as important a factor in their success. There is a sense in which they pioneered the idea of the devout life for the laity; a Christian life, that is, not modelled upon that of monks or dependent upon the vicarious merits acquired by professional ascetics, but one lived fully in the world. They offered a new theology of the secular life, which had its intellectual roots in the discoveries of the Schoolmen who were reappraising the relationship between grace and nature.’ [5] They provided some of the current which was moving the religion of the people from a community of believers the majority of whom depended on professionals for their spiritual welfare both here and in the afterlife, to one of individual responsibility which found its expression in the Reformation.

But within the practice of the friars’ policy of poverty and dependence on others, rooted in the example of Jesus and his disciples, lay the basis of the abuses highlighted in the works of Chaucer, Langland and Gower who in his Mirour de l’Omme says ‘If we look ... at the estate of the friars mendicant, then ... this Order goeth from bad to worse even beyond all the rest’, as well as by less literary figures such the Dominican John Bromyard. [6]

Many of the great names of medieval divinity, however, grew in the advanced schools of theology which were established by the Dominican and Franciscan Orders – Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Alexander of Hales, Duns Scotus and Bonaventure. Many of the enclosed orders also established colleges at universities. Gloucester Abbey founded Gloucester College at Oxford for the education of its monks. Magdelen College and its attached grammar school, however, were founded in 1448 by William Waynflete who set Wolsey an example by dissolving a number of religious houses to meet the cost. Wolsey later dissolved 30 houses to found colleges at Oxford and Ipswich. Nevertheless, David Daniell tells us in his biography of Tyndale that about half the thousand or so theologians known to have been at Oxford in the last half of the 15th century were monks or friars. [7]

Another primary function of the early medieval monastery had been the creation and copying of texts. A large part of a monk’s work was performed in the scriptorium where valuable books and treatises were laboriously copied by hand. They provided grammars for the education of the boys in the cloister, and approved texts were duplicated and housed in their considerable libraries. This was a costly process both in time and money. The parchment required for a complete Old Testament would use up a whole flock of sheep. The great cloister in Gloucester Abbey, finished in 1400, was used as a scriptorium whenever a number of copies of a work were needed for teaching or liturgical purposes, with up to twenty monks writing the text to the dictation of another. This control, amounting almost to a monopoly, over the production of scholarly material no longer pertained in the world of the printing press, the world into which Tyndale was born. Now books could be made available to all who were able to benefit from them. Now was the time for the ploughboy to be able to peruse the Scriptures for himself without the benefit of interpretation and explication from priests or mendicant preachers.

One can then chart the movement in the religious life from an essentially individual search for the divine, to one where the monasteries became the centres of corporate Christianity, performing as we have seen, an intercessory role for the greater community, being the centres for theological study and establishment of doctrine, until these functions ceased to have relevance in the context of the developing trend, culminating in the Reformation, in favour of a personal spiritual responsibility and experience, towards which Tyndale contributed so much in his enabling the individual to found his own faith on the words of Scripture, to attain his salvation without recourse to penance and pilgrimage.

When the royal visitations to the smaller monasteries began in 1535, the visitors’ reports focused in large measure on the role of the monasteries in the encouragement of pilgrimages and the cults of the saints. Long lists of the relics held in the monasteries lent fuel to Cromwell’s condemnation of the religious houses. Tyndale inveighed in the Obedience against these very cults and the idolatry and superstition thus promoted by the monks, provoking More’s heated defence in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529). Gloucester Abbey housed the relics of Edward II, and both the Abbey and the town derived great financial benefits from the hordes of pilgrims visiting his shrine, since it was established in 1327: John Thokey, or Chokey, the 17th Abbot at St Peter’s Gloucester ‘ook care that the unfortunate King Edward II, who had been barbarously murder’ at Bokley [Berkeley] castle, in the county of Glocester should be honourably bury’ in this monastery. The memory of this unfortunate King was in few years in so great esteem among the people, that the Town of Glocester could not contain the Numbers that came thither on account of his relicks, and the south part of the church was built out of the Alms given by those who resorted to his Tomb.’ [8] Hospitality was provided for the pilgrims either at the monastery itself or in local inns. The New Inn at Gloucester which was established about 1455 was said to be much used by the pilgrims visiting the tomb of Edward II. This inn was only one of the Abbey’ extensive properties in the town. In 1508 it was leased by the Abbey to one Robert Hawardyne, a merchant. Tyndale, then, will have grown up accustomed to the sight of these pilgrims as well as those who tramped the routes to Hereford and Worcestershire, and we can speculate on his thoughts about the simple folk who he came to see as being cozened and duped by a system which brought them no nearer to their God.

In the space of this paper there is no room to explore the doctrine of Purgatory and the role it played in the late medieval mind, but the wills of the 15th and 16th centuries evidence the general preoccupation with provision for the speeding up of the soul through the pains of Purgatory. The fear that those left behind would not honour their role in this respect is highlighted in Thomas More’ assertion that the first pain of Purgatory was the anguish and shame of the soul newly arrived ‘to loke his olde frendes in the face here whom he remembered him self to have so foule forgotten while he lived.’ The place of pilgrimage in this set up was no small one and the Abbeys which housed the relics and where chantries were established for the constant prayer and intercession by the monks for those who were passing through Purgatory, gained considerable financial benefit.

No one here needs reminding that it was the sale of indulgences by Friar Tetzel, authorised by Pope Leo X to raise moneys for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which finally prompted Luther (himself a Augustinian monk) to post his 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, an act which the Pope initially dismissed as ‘a mere monk's quarrel.’ The practice of selling indulgences for the remission of penances in this life by the time of Tyndale had extended to the reduction of the time the soul must spend in Purgatory. In granting such indulgences the church drew on the accumulated ‘Treasury of Merits’ from the good works of Christ and the saints which could be redistributed to relieve others of the pains of Purgatory. People were granted indulgences not only in return for financial contributions to the Church, which valued this source of income, but also in return for pilgrimage. Urban II had preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095: ‘Whoever from devotion alone, and not for the purpose of gaining honours or wealth, shall set out for the liberation of the Church of God at Jerusalem, that journey will be reckoned in place of all penance.’ These indulgences could be carried out by a deputy and people made provisions in their wills for others to carry out a pilgrimage for their souls. Thomas More wrote a defence of pilgrimages in 1529, and Henry VIII and Emperor Charles V went to Canterbury in 1520. Erasmus visited the place, though he had complained in his Coloquies that home was neglected during pilgrimage and deplored the superstition surrounding the relics and the cults of the saints. Tyndale is typically pithy in his denunciation (in the Prologue to his Answer to More’s Dialogue): ‘Judge whether it be possible that any good should come out of their dumb ceremonies and sacraments into thy soul. Judge their penance, pilgrimages, pardons, purgatory, praying to posts, dumb blessings, dumbe absolutions, their dumbe pattering, and howling, their dumb strange holy gestures, with all their disguisings, their satisfactions and justifyings.’ [9]

Fashions in saints changed over time and the fostering of certain cults benefitted the monasteries who housed the relics. Eamon Duffy tells us: ‘The custodians of shrines like that of St Edmund. at Bury or St Werburge at Chester commissioned openly propagandist verse lives, explicitly linking devotion to the saint with loyalty to the interests of the monastery where the relics rested.’ Henry Bradshaw’s Life of Werburge reminded various beneficiaries of the saint’s power of the blessings they had received, each stanza concluding ‘Wherefore to the monastery be never unkynde’. The printer Richard Pynson published a number of these propagandist legends to promote pilgrimage to particular shrines, including the Holy Blood of Hailes and Walsingham, one of the many shrines which arose from the increasing veneration of the Virgin Mary from the 14th century onwards. One of Pynson’s ballads contains the lines:

Many seke ben here cured by Our Lady’s myghte
Ded agayne revyved of this no dought
Lame made whole and blynded restored to syghte
Lo here the chyef solace agaynst all tribulacyon
To all that be seke bodely or goostly
Callin to Our Lady devoutly.'

The popular belief in the efficacy of the indulgence when Tyndale was growing up is illustrated in the frontispieces of the primers which were printed in the 15th century. The folk were encouraged to meditate on, kneel before and kiss devotional woodcuts, images which frequently included indulgences. An example was an image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows which carried the assurance that ‘To them that before this ymage of pyte devoutly say fyve Pater noster fyve Aveys & a Crede pytously beholdyng these armes of Christ’s passyon ar graunted 32,755 yeres of pardon’. This circulated as a separate woodcut, sold at pilgrimage centres or hawked about by preaching friars and pardoners. [10]

The opening of St John’s Gospel In Principio was prescribed as part of the ritual for the blessing of the holy bread at the main Mass of Sunday, and was recited as an additional or last Gospel by the priest after Mass each day. There was a widely held belief that anyone who crossed themselves during this recitation would come to no harm that day. This belief was strengthened by the fact that in the early 14th century Pope Clement V had granted an indulgence of one year and forty days to everyone who attended to the last Gospel and who kissed something – a book, a sacred object, even their thumbnail – at the words Verbum care factum est. This indulgence was publicised in the standard instructional texts on devout hearing of the Mass, and contributed to the awe associated with the text. Tyndale complained that:

Thousands whyle the prest patereth Saynt John’s Gospel in Latine over theyr heedes crosse them selves wyth I trow legyon of crosses behynde and before and wythe reverence on the very arses and (as Jack off napis when he claweth him selfe) ploucke up theyr legges and crosse so moch as their heeles and the very sole of their fete and beleve that if it be done in the tyme that he readeth the gospell (and else not) that there sall no mischaunce happen them that daye because only of those crosses.

The monasteries in the early 16th century also acted as houses of correction for those who were showing signs of heretical attitudes. In the parish of Burford on the borders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire in 1521 twelve local men and nine women were convicted of heresy because they had been reading the Bible together without permission, while one of them was charged with having told a Witney man not to go on pilgrimage but instead ‘to go offer his money to God’s own image which was the poor people, blind and lame.’ All were branded and forced to do public penance, whilst some were also imprisoned in the monasteries – a cruel and lengthy fate. Later in 1530 a young man was found to possess the Gospels in English. One is tempted to think these might have been in Tyndale’s translation, because on the east wall of Burford church is a mural, written in a 16th century hand. The words, except those at the foot, are from Romans, ch. 13 and are part of the epistle for Advent Sunday. They are in Tyndale’s translation. ‘The night is passed and the day is come nigh. Let us therefore cast away the deeds of darkness, and let us put on the armour of fight. Let us walk honestly as it were in the daylight.’

In many ways the religious orders stood as barriers to the daylight. From the early beginnings when the devout withdrew from the world to pursue a life of piety and prayer away from the pressures and demands of the world, they had become the bastions of orthodoxy, centres of cults, and houses of correction for those who were in their turn wishing to find their own way with God, based on the message of the Bible unfettered by tradition and superstition, the way expounded so simply in Tyndale’s Prologue to the Romans:

The sum and whole cause of the writings of this epistle, is, to prove that a man is justified by faith only ... . And by justifying, understand none other thing than to be reconciled to God and to be restored unto his favour, and to have thy sins forgiven thee. As when I say God justifieth us, understand thereby, that God for Christ’s sake, merits and deservings only, receiveth us unto his mercy, favour and grace, and forgiveth us our sins.

- the triumphant trumpet call of the Reformation.

Hilary Day


  1. Langland, Piers Plowman, Prologue, lines 58?60.
  2. D.C. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, p.69.
  3. Quoted in Welander, The History, Art and Architecture of Gloucester Cathedral, pp.76?77.
  4. Coulton, Five Centuries of Religion, Vol. 11, p.62
  5. op. cit., p.257.
  6. Coulton, pp. 576 ff.
  7. Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, p. 3 1.
  8. Quoted from the Historia in Gloucestershire Notes & Queries Vol. VII 1, Part 1 Jan?March 1896.
  9. Quoted in Daniell, p.270.
  10. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p. 214. paperback, hardback

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