The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation

The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation

The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation

The Gospel and Henry VIII: Evangelicals in the Early English Reformation

Excerpt

In 1537 the vicar of Yoxford in Suffolk, a man named Thomas Wylley, wrote to Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. The ostensible purpose of the letter was to complain about his parishioners and neighbours, who had responded with open hostility to the reformist Gospel which he was preaching. Despite that Gospel’s official backing, Wylley protested, ‘the most part of the prystes of Suffolk wyll not reseyve me yn to ther Chyrchys to preche’. Instead, he was reputed to be ‘a gret lyar’. And so he appealed for Cromwell to support him against these local obscurantists: ‘The Lorde make you the Instrument of my helpe Lorde Cromewell, that I may have the lyberty to preche the trewthe.’

The bulk of the letter, however, was given over to demonstrating exactly how Wylley had been preaching the truth. He was an aspiring playwright, and had been using the stage as a propaganda tool. At least one of his plays had already been performed. He enclosed the text of a second, ‘a Reverent Recyvyng of the sacrament’, with his letter, emphasising that he had dedicated it to Cromwell. Clearly, his hope was less for the liberty to preach in and around Yoxford than for the liberty to leave Suffolk altogether and enter Cromwell’s service. His feelings for his flock can perhaps be guessed from the title of one of his plays: ‘a Rude Commynawlte’.

We know nothing more about the ambitious vicar of Yoxford. His story could be retold almost endlessly from the state papers of the late 1530s, and scholars of the English Reformation since the mid-1970s have done just that. This is a story of evangelical reformers, the forerunners of English Protestantism, struggling to make themselves heard in a country where loyalty to traditional religion ran deep, and where the new Gospel which they preached met with widespread hostility—not least because of its very novelty. It is a story of a new religion being forced on an unwilling people by the power of

PRO SP 1/116 fo. 158 (LP XII (i) 529).

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