CHAPTER I. RELIGIOUS CONDITION OF ENGLAND BEFORE THE REFORMATION
That the people of England as a body hearkened to the instructions of their pastors is clear enough from the testimony of foreign visitors, from the records of the episcopal visitations, the pilgrimages to shrines of devotion at home and abroad, from the anxiety for God's honour and glory as shown in the zeal which dictated the building or decoration of so many beautiful cathedrals and churches, the funds for which were provided by rich and poor alike, and from the spirit of charity displayed in the numerous bequests for the relief of the poor and the suffering. The people of England at the beginning of the sixteenth century were neither idol-worshippers nor victims of a blind superstition. They understood just as well as Catholics understand at the present day devotions to Our Lady and to the Saints; Images, Pictures and Statues, Purgatory, Indulgences and the effects of the Mass. Nor were they so ignorant of the Sacred Scriptures as is commonly supposed. The sermons were based upon some Scripture text taken as a rule from the epistle and gospel proper to the Sunday or festival, and were illustrated with a wealth of references and allusions drawn from both the Old and New Testament sufficient to make it clear that the Bible was not a sealed book either for the clergy or laity. The fact that there was such a demand for commentaries on and concordances to the Scriptures makes it clear that the clergy realised sufficiently the importance of Scriptural teaching from the pulpits, and the abundant quotations to be found in the books of popular devotion, not to speak of the religious dramas based upon events in biblical history, go far to show that the needs of the laity in this respect were not overlooked.
It is said, however, that the use of the Scriptures in the vernacular was forbidden to the English people, and a decree of a Synod held at Oxford in 1408 is cited in proof of this statement. The Synod of Oxford did not forbid the use of vernacular versions. It forbade the publication or use of unauthorised translations, and in the circumstances of the time, when the Lollard heretics were strong and were endeavouring to win over the people to their views by disseminating corrupt versions of the Scripture, such a prohibition is not unintelligible. It should be borne in mind that French was the language of the educated and was the official language of the English law courts and of the Parliament till after 1360. The French or Latin versions then current were, therefore, amply sufficient for those who were likely to derive any advantage from the study of the Bible, while at the same time the metrical paraphrases of the important books of the Old Testament and of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, and the English prose translation of the Psalms, went far to meet the wants of the masses. From the clear evidence of writers like Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and one of the best informed men of his time, of Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Foxe the author of the so-called Martyrology, it can be established beyond the shadow of a doubt that prior to the Reformation there existed an English Catholic version of the Scriptures, which was approved for use by the ecclesiastical authorities. It is true, indeed, that the bishops of England made extraordinary efforts to prevent the circulation of the versions made by Tyndale and Coverdale, but considering the glosses, the corruptions, and the mis-translations with which these abound no fair-minded person could expect them to have acted otherwise. Their action was not dictated by hostility to the reading of the Scriptures but by their opposition to heretical doctrines, which it was sought to disseminate among the people by means of dishonest versions of the Scriptures. The English bishops were not content merely with prohibiting the use of these works. They were most anxious to bring out a correct translation of the Scriptures for general use, and were prevented from doing so only by the action of Henry VIII. and of the heretical advisers, who urged him to make it impossible for the bishops to carry out their design.