Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

For want of a male heir to the throne of England, tens of thousands of people were murdered when Henry VIII, defying the Pope, divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn and declared himself head of the Church in England. Among the dead were, ironically, two diametrically opposed people: John Frith, a Protestant reformer who advocated religious toleration, and Thomas More, Henry’s Lord High Chancellor, a staunch Catholic who deplored Henry’s break with the Pope. A theological argument between Frith and More is laid out in A Boke Made by John Fryth, Prysoner in the Tower of London, written just before Frith was burned at the stake in 1533. Thanks to the volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenberg, this important piece of Reformation history – a revised edition published in 1546 – is available with its original orthography intact.

Frith burning

Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce a son for Henry. He became infatuated with the young and beautiful Anne Boleyn and decided to make her his Queen in hopes that she would bear him a male heir. The sticking point was that divorce was impossible under Catholicism, then the official religion of England. In 1527, Henry asked the Pope to annul his marriage on the ground that Catherine was his brother’s widow, but the attempt failed. By 1531, Henry had had enough and began forcing the clergy to recognize him as the supreme head of the Church in England.

Despite Henry’s break with the Pope, persecution and execution of Protestant reformers in England continued. As Henry’s Lord High Chancellor, Thomas More was a vehement opponent of the Reformation and favored burning Protestants to root out heresy. More was also concerned that some of these “heretics” – like Frith – were rather well educated and well informed on religious doctrine, making them dangerous adversaries.

Frith, the son of an innkeeper, became acquainted with Protestant ideas while attending Cambridge University. In 1525 he had the honor of being invited to study at Cardinal Wolsey’s new Cardinal College (now Christ Church) at Oxford University. But the honor didn’t last long. In 1528, Frith and a number of other students were accused of possessing Protestant books and were imprisoned in the college’s fish cellar for six months. Four students died in the horrifying conditions, but Frith managed to survive. After his release, he fled to Antwerp.

While abroad, Frith wrote treatises criticizing the Pope and Catholic doctrines. Among them was a pamphlet, A christen sentence and true iudgement of the moste honorable sacrament of Christes body [and] bloude (available at Early English Books Online), outlining arguments against the Catholic concept of transubstantiation, i.e., the transformation of the Communion bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. Frith unwisely returned to England in July 1532. Because England was still nominally a Catholic country in spite of Henry’s dispute with the Pope, Frith was arrested for heresy and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Thomas More, meanwhile, had already resigned as Lord Chancellor in May 1532 because he could not in good conscience sign an oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church in England. But More remained concerned about the advance of the Protestant Reformation. After Frith’s arrest, More got hold of a copy of A christen sentence. Realizing that Frith’s theories on transubstantiation were buttressed by impressive scholarship, More wrote a Letter against Frith refuting Frith’s arguments (available as a PDF from Thomas More Studies). Frith, despite his imprisonment, managed to get a copy of More’s Letter and wrote A Boke Made by John Fryth to rebut More’s points.

Frith’s argument was essentially that the sacrament of Communion at the Mass was merely symbolic of Christ’s death. It could not be an actual transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, because it was impossible for a physical being to be in more than one place at once.

The rationality of this argument posed a problem for More, who was a lawyer, not a clergyman. But More shrewdly couched his own arguments in his Letter against Frith in terms that laymen could understand. And because Frith’s pamphlet was in English, More wrote his rebuttal in English, not Latin as a Catholic clergyman might. Both Frith and More understood that this would give them the widest possible audience in England. The essence of More’s argument was that Christ’s physical body can be in many places at once (multilocation) because God, being omnipotent, can make it so. What might seem unreasonable to a human would be perfectly reasonable to God, who in his almighty wisdom can make anything happen.

Frith did not accept this position. In his Boke, he did not deny God’s omnipotence. His first argument rested on science: “Christe had a naturall bodye, euen as myne ys (savynge synne) and that yt coulde no more be in two places at ones then myne can.” His second rested on the fundamental Scriptural concept of Christ as human, asserting that those who argue for transubstantiation “do take awaye the truthe of hys naturall bodye, and make it a very fantastycall bodye: from the which heresye God delyuer hys faythfull.” Thus Frith, accused of heresy, turned the tables on his opponents by calling them the heretics. He even suggested that they were cannibals, for they believed that “hys very fleshe is present to the teth of them that eate the Sacramēte, and that the wycked eate hys verye bodye.”

Frith’s Boke appends an account of his examination at trial, written while he was in Newgate Prison awaiting execution. Although he was questioned on several aspects of his theological beliefs, he baldly states that “The cause of my deathe is thys, because I can not in conscyence abiure and swere, that our Prelates opynyon of the Sacramente (that is) that the substaunce of breade ād wyne is verely chaunged into the fleshe and bloode of our sauyoure Iesus Christ is an vndoubted artycle of the faythe, necessarye to be beleued vnder payne of dampnacyon.”

While Frith languished in prison, the royal divorce crisis had rapidly come to a head. In 1533, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, got his new and compliant Archbishop of Canterbury to annul his marriage to Catherine, then had Anne crowned Queen Consort in June 1533. On July 9, 1533, the Pope excommunicated Henry. But it was too late for Frith, who had already been burned at Smithfield on July 4 at the age of 30. He was commemorated in John Foxe’s famous Fox’s Book of Martyrs.

Almost exactly two years after Frith’s execution, Thomas More himself became a martyr. As depicted in the play and film A Man for All Seasons, More once again refused to sign an oath denying the Pope’s supremacy. This time, Henry had him arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. Though given many chances to change his mind, More refused to do so. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535. Four centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church canonized him as a saint.

Frith closes his Boke with Christ’s advice to his Apostles: “Be wyse as Serpentes, and innocent as Dooues.” The full quote from the King James Version is, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Frith became a sacrificial sheep, but he was certainly wise: His position on Communion was later officially adopted by the Church of England.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

2 Responses to Wise as serpents, innocent as doves

  1. genknit says:

    This is an interesting post, Linda. Thanks. I had not heard of this particular book. Frith must have been influenced by Calvin at least to some extent–or perhaps it was the other way around. My Reformation era dates need to be refreshed. Anyway, I am in awe of the reformers. They believed something, and they kept their faith to the end. I hope, should my faith ever be tested that severely, that I could do the same.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    Frith slightly preceded Calvin. The treatment of the Eucharist as symbolic of Christ’s death sounds more like he was influenced by Zwingli.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: