Forbidden Protestant Books in Tudor Cambridge

July 5, 2018
By Jonathan Reimer

It is a commonplace to say that the University of Cambridge was a significant seedbed for the early English Reformation. During the 1520s, new theology spread among its members. According to John Foxe, early evangelicals met at the White Horse Tavern, soon dubbed ‘Little Germany,’ and the Austin Friars, the local branch of Luther’s order, revised their curriculum to include classical authors, like Terence, Plautus, and Cicero, and to replace scholastic commentary with the letters of St. Paul. Before long, undercurrents of reformist thought bubbled over into vociferous public debate, particularly in the wake of George Stafford’s Lectures on the Pauline Epistles (1524-1528), Robert Barnes’ Christmas Eve Sermon (1525), and Hugh Latimer’s Advent ‘Sermons on the Card’ (1529). However, neither these private discussions nor public debates would have been possible without the importation and sale of illegal Protestant books. Unfortunately for scholars, little evidence survives about the circulation of forbidden texts in Tudor Cambridge. The university Grace Books reveal that heretical works were burned during the promulgation of Pope Leo X’s bull against Luther (1521) and, once again, a decade later when a bookseller named Sygar Nicholson was arrested and tried for heresy (1531). Sadly, in neither instance do we know which books were destroyed. Similarly, it is challenging to determine which Protestant theological writings were sold in Cambridge since dealers, such as Garrett Godfrey, did not include banned publications in their records and smugglers, like Thomas Garrard [or Garrett], were not apprehended here as they were in Oxford (1527).

Sometimes a chance comment offers a clue to what was read: William Turner remembered ‘secretly’ procuring a copy of Hermann Bodius’ Unio dissidentium (1527), a tendentious collection of patristic quotations, for his roommate, William Taylor. The book lists from probate inventories supplement such serendipitous evidence, providing a fuller picture of the ownership of prohibited publications. For example, John Chekyn, a Fellow of Pembroke Hall, left behind a personal library that included texts by Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and several other Protestant authors (d. 1535). As Chekyn and Turner were members of the same college and Chekyn owned Unio dissidentium, one wonders if Chekyn helped Turner secure this treatise (or even lent his own copy) to help proselytise Taylor. Though these traces furnish tantalising glimpses of the spread of forbidden Protestant books, they tell us nothing of their sale.

New evidence of the sale of illegal Protestant books has been found in the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Discovered among a box of papers dealing with Thomas Allen (BA, 1521; MA, 1524), a Fellow of Pembroke Hall and later of Corpus Christi (1536), is the copy of a letter soliciting a fellowship for him at the latter college This letter was written on the back of what appears to be a pre-existing receipt, whose three lines of text read: bowght of m[aster] Tolwyn the xj day of Marche 5 bokes of moyses ij s the new testament ij s iiij d a testament xii d fyfte & 6 of matheu vj d.’ To understand the historical value of this receipt, it is necessary to identify both the individual named and the four books that he sold. The seller of these works was William Tolwyn (BA, 1520; MA, 1524), a Fellow of Corpus Christi (1523) and the Rector of St Antholin in London (1535-1556; 1558-1562).Later evidence reveals that he was either an avid collector of Protestant books or else played some role in the sale and distribution of these prohibited texts.  In 1541, he was arrested for allowing Alexander Seton, the evangelical chaplain of the Duke of Suffolk, to preach a polemical sermon in his parish without a licence from Edmund Bonner, the conservative Bishop of London. A search of his possessions uncovered eighteen unorthodox publications by Lutheran, Reformed, and (to the horror of London authorities!) Anabaptist writers. As a result, he was made to recant publicly at Paul’s Cross, among other things, his ‘custody’ of ‘bokes of heresy and other unlauful works forbidden by the kynges maiesties proclamations and ordinaunces.’ His recantation was published twice as a pamphlet and drew a literary reply from the English exile John Bale

This event probably took place at least six years after Tolwyn’s sale of books in Cambridge. Tolwyn’s move to London in 1535 to become the Rector of St Antholin in place of Dr. Edward Crome, another Cambridge reformer, for whom Anne Boleyn had secured the lavish living of St Mary Aldermary, gives us a terminus ante quem for this document. Likewise, the earliest known publication in 1533 of one of the books sold provides us with a terminus post quem.This dating accords with the content of the copied letter, which solicits the fellowship at Corpus Christi that Allen received in 1536. Moreover, the location of the receipt on the back of a manuscript in Allen’s hand suggests, though does not prove, that these works were sold to him or one of his evangelical colleagues. Allen certainly fits the profile of someone interested in reformist works. According to John Foxe, he brought the news of Thomas Bilney’s refusal to recant before his execution in Norwich (1531) to Pembroke Hall where he told a student, the previously mentioned William Turner.

The four books that Tolwyn sold were likely all Protestant works, printed in Antwerp and forbidden by royal proclamation (1530). The only early English publication matching the title ‘5 bokes of moyses’ is William Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch (1530). Likewise, the closest title to ‘fyfte and 6 of matheu’ is his biblical commentary, An exposition vpon the v. vi. vii. chapters of Matthew (1533).Though the ‘testament’ might be William Tracy’s Testament (1535), it is more likely William Thorpe’s Testament (c. 1530), a Lollard treatise edited by either Tyndale or George Constantine, another English exile. Finally, considering both its early dating and its grouping with other works by Tyndale, it is probable that the ‘new testament’ was Tyndale’s English translation (1526; revised 1534). That it was a translation is suggested by the fact that this book is referred to as the ‘new testament,’ not the ‘novum testamentum.’

The discovery of this receipt, therefore, provides unique evidence of the sale of prohibited Protestant books in Tudor Cambridge. These texts were illegal and remained so until the accession of Edward VI. Not only does this manuscript reveal that the writings of Tyndale were circulating in Cambridge well before they appear in probate inventories (after 1543), but also it confirms that the sale and distribution of reformist books were not left simply to professional booksellers. In his survey of the English Reformation Heretics and Believers (2017), Peter Marshall reflects that new ‘ideas are rarely encountered as abstract propositions; more commonly, they are introduced and advocated in circles of acquaintance. This was a trump card of the emerging movement: converts trusted the ideas because they trusted the people espousing them’. As with ideas, the sale of novel and forbidden books was helped by a relationship with the buyer. Tolwyn was well-known among evangelicals in London and Cambridge, eventually serving as a witness during the consecration of Archbishop Matthew Parker (1558). Thus, while only thirty-three words long, his receipt furnishes valuable insight into both which forbidden works were sold in Cambridge and, just as significantly, how they were sold during the early years of the English Reformation.


 Jonathan Reimer is SRS Postdoctoral Fellow, 2017-18.

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