CHAPTER VI. HENRY VIII (ii), 1509-32 - BIRTH OF THE REFORMATION
To these general considerations we have also to add the direct positive evidence in connexion with Cardinal Morton's visitations of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VII. It was neither shown nor attempted to be shown that the Religious houses en bloc were hotbeds of vice. But it was shown beyond question that even among the great Abbeys there were to be found appalling examples of corruption and profligacy, where the heads were the worst offenders and the rank and file imitated their superiors; and that small houses were not infrequently conducted in the most scandalous manner - for the simple reason that, when once corruption had found an entry, there was no supervising external authority sufficiently interested to intervene vigorously.
Mutatis mutandis, what was true of the Monasteries was also true of the Mendicant Orders. The class of men who had no desire to dig, and no shame about begging, found the friar's robe a useful adjunct to the latter occupation. Long after enthusiasm had ceased to draw any large numbers into the ranks of the friars, they were increased and multiplied by crowds of ignorant and idle rogues, who were subjected to no adequate control.
[Corruption of doctrine]
But the corruption of the clerical body fostered also the degeneration of popular religious conceptions. The actual teaching of the clergy was a grotesque distortion of the doctrines they professed to expound. The intelligible doctrine of absolution following on repentance and confession, and accompanied by penance, had been transformed into that of absolution purchasable by cash. Reverence for the relics of saints and martyrs had been degraded by their spurious multiplication. The belief that such relics were endowed with miraculous properties had been utilised to convert them into fetishes, and pampered by fraudulent conjuring tricks. The due performance of ceremonial observances was treated as of far more vital importance than the practice of the Christian virtues. The images of the Saints had virtually come to be regarded not as symbols, but as idols possessed of various degrees of power, the assistance of one and the same saint proving more or less efficacious according to the shrine favoured by his suppliant.
[Evidence from Colet and More (1512-18)]
These facts are not disputable. They were fully recognised by Reformers of the type of Colet and More, who would have had the Church reform herself by reverting to the primitive and orthodox expression of the doctrines of which these deformities were a corrupt latter-day misrepresentation, and to the ideals of life and conduct which had been overlaid by ceremonial observances. The primitive doctrines they accepted without question; as regarded the ceremonial observances, they objected to them not in themselves but only so far as they obscured in practice the much higher value of moral ideals. In the view of such men the remedy for heresies lay in the hands of the clergy: would they but bring their lives into some conformity with primitive ideals, surrendering the pursuit of place, profit, or pleasure to tread in the footsteps of the apostles, heresy would perish of inanition.
When Colet was preaching at St. Paul's, when More was imagining the Utopia, when Erasmus was preparing his Praise of Folly and his edition of the Greek Testament, the name of Luther was still unknown. Their aim was the active propagation of reform; not to exercise thereon a restraining influence, which at that time would have seemed superfluous. The only reason they could have had for understating the existing corruption would have been fear of the authorities, a fear from which both Colet and More always showed themselves conspicuously free. Colet's most vigorous exhortations were addressed to prelates and persons in high places; More never throughout his career hesitated to oppose Chancellors, or even Tudor Kings, when a principle was involved. We are therefore entitled to assume that they neither over-coloured nor deliberately toned down the prevalent conditions. A decade later, when fanaticism had broken loose, the anathemas hurled at the clergy by irresponsible pamphleteers, or zealots who were sheltered in the Lutheran States of Germany, were of a much more sweeping character. Later, again, the reports of the Commissioners for the suppression of monasteries formed an appalling indictment. Later still, when the Protestant party won the upper hand after a season of relentless and embittering persecution, the pictures they painted of the past were lurid in the extreme. But the evidence of such witnesses could not be other than passionately biassed, just as the evidence of persecuted monks and nuns must have been biassed on the other side: whereas the evidence of Colet, of More in his earlier days, and, with certain reservations, of Erasmus, is that of honest and high-minded men of great intellectual capacity, speaking without prejudice of conditions with which they were in direct contact. Their assertions, and the fair inferences from their assertions, are a safe basis from which we can ascertain both the gravity and the limits of the corruption which existed in England.