On this date 470 years ago, John Lambert was burned to death at London’s Smithfield market for heresy.
One possible way to read the early progress of the English Reformation is as an initial flowering of Protestantism followed — after the execution of Anne Boleyn — by a reactionary crackdown by the monarch.
John Lambert cooked his goose by picking a theological dispute with a pastor in London. He didn’t buy into transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine (still extant today) that the bread blessed on the altar became the literal body of Christ.
Though the Anglican church would ditch this belief soon thereafter, it came down hard on Lambert in a show trial attended by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and all the Tudor big wheels whose heads were at that point attached to their shoulders.
The king himself — who here reminds one of the the stout defense of the sacraments that in his early Catholic period had earned him the papal honorific “defender of the faith” — debated theology with the accused, though mostly he left it to his august councilors.
John Lambert disputing before Henry VIII. Early 19th c. illustration.
But the crowned head made his doctrine as plain to the audience as the consequences of crossing it.
The pro-Lambert account from which this extract is drawn is available free on Google books:
At length [Lambert] was worn out with fatigue, having been kept five hours standing …
Night coming on, the King being desirous to break up this pretended disputation, said to Lambert, “What sayest thou now, after all this pains taken with thee, and all the reasons and instructions of these learned men? Art thou not yet satisfied? Wilt thou live or die? What sayest thou? Thou has yet free choice.” Lambert answered, “I yield and submit myself wholly unto the will of your Majesty.” Then said the King, “Commit thyself into the hands of God, and not unto mine.” Lambert replied, “I commend my soul unto the hands of God, but my body I wholly yield and submit unto your clemency.” Then said the King, “If you do commit yourself unto my judgment, you must die, for I will not be a Patron unto heretics.” And then turning to Lord Cromwell he said, “Cromwell, read the sentence of condemnation against him:” which was accordingly done.
A few months later, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Act of the Six Articles, essentially establishing Catholic doctrine — sans Pope, obviously — as the basis for the Church of England and criminalizing dissent.
What to make of this trial and the policy it represented is open to dispute. In a simple telling, Henry realizes his Reformation is running away from him, or becomes wise to discomfiting reforms that Cranmer or Cromwell are pushing. Too, the ebb and flow of Henry’s “Reformation” has sometimes been seen as a product of the shifting balance between reformers and conservatives advising the crown; Protestant martyrologist John Foxe favored this approach since it enabled him to celebrate a John Lambert without indicting the monarch by blaming advisors.
Lambert’s death is also sometimes interpreted in light of the international situation, as the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire had made peace, potentially (along with Scotland) encircling England with Popish foes who might conceivably be less belligerent with a move towards traditional doctrine.*
But maybe that’s all a good deal more explanation than is needed for the old defender of the faith. G.W. Bernard’s consideration of The King’s Reformation argues that Lambert isn’t so pivotal after all:
[H]istorians who see … the trial of Lambert as some sort of turning point are greatly mistaken. There was absolutely nothing new in Henry’s policy in November 1538. Ever since radical — Zwinglian — notions on the mass had come to influence some within England, Henry had reacted firmly and boldly. This was not something that only came late in the 1530s, when he supposedly woke up to what Cromwell and Cranmer had been doing in his name but without his knowledge. It was there from the start. As early as March 1535 a proclamation fiercely denounced strangers who had presumptuously rebaptised themselves and who denied that the blessed and most holy sacrament of the altar was really the body of Christ. If there was a novelty in autumn 1538, it was the perception that such heresies were spreading through the realm and that heretics with a high profile, such as Lambert, needed to be dealt with publicly so that others might learn from their unhappy example. … Henry surely blasted against sacramentarians for the straightforward reason that he sincerely believed them to be wicked.
As for Lambert himself, he met an especially cruel version of the none-too-pleasant sentence of burning alive, allegedly being lifted by pikestaffs from the flame when his legs were burned off to prolong his suffering. He is said to have continued to call out the inspirational last words, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”
* It was against this alliance that Cromwell would arrange the king’s ill-fated marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves, a debacle that helped Cromwell lose his own head.