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TRAITORS ALL July 7, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Internet Age, Modern History.

Interesting to reflect in an age of supposed traitors and a fugitive (but not from justice) that on this day 478 years ago another alleged traitor, Thomas More, was beheaded. All martyrs, despite their differences have some similarities

For instance. there was communication revolution. Printing took its time over two centuries. The internet and information technology has been grown rapidly over twenty to thirty years. Human nature has remained the same. At first printing made pornography and playing cards available. Printing the Bible in languages other than Latin made it available as well as developing formal language. Tynedale’s Bible in English was a significant development.

Tynedale (b. 1495) and More (b. 1478) were contemporaries. More was executed for treason in 1535. Tynedale was burnt for heresy in 1536. More had earlier in his career been responsible for approving a similar fate for heretics. Melvile Bragg observes:

For considerable stretches of his short life, Tyndale was hounded across Western Europe by spies and agents from the hypocritical king of England, Henry VIII, the Pope and by the Holy Roman Emperor. It was the Emperor’s net which closed in on him in the end. By then, even to have known Tyndale let alone to have read his New Testament back in England was to make you liable to torture and often death by fire.

His story embraces an alliance with Anne Boleyn, an argument covering three quarters of a million words with Thomas More, who was so vile and excrementally vivid that it is difficult to read him even today. Tyndale was widely regarded as a man of great piety and equal courage and above all dedicated to, even obsessed with, the idea that the Bible, which for more than 1,000 years had reigned in Latin, should be accessible to the eyes and ears of his fellow countrymen in their own tongue. English was his holy grail.

We are all in his debt. He grounded our language. He gave to Protestantism a subtlety and fury which blazed its message across continents, most spectacularly among the American slaves who took songs and sentences from it around which they formed their campaign for freedom (Let My People Go is from Tyndale, Exodus 5:1, “And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go.”)

William Tyndale too was a fugitive. Melvyn Bragg notes:

When I and producer Anna Cox and our crew of two followed in his footsteps in below-zero Germany and the Low Countries in winter, we discovered the daring of this quiet scholar. He hunted down printers, he escaped with his life, he saw his work lost and re-did it. This quiet, reclusive English scholar seemed perfectly capable of assuming the character of a 16th-century James Bond. He moved around Germany and the Low Countries, outwitting the spies until a Judas figure from Oxford trapped him. This was Harry Phillips, employed by the Holy Roman Emperor, a wastrel whom Tyndale met in a safe house in Antwerp and took his flattery for friendship.

Eighteen months’ imprisonment followed, during which he practically starved but continued his translation of the Old Testament. Somehow in his exile he managed to find printers bold enough to work with him and the resources to smuggle into London in wine casks and bales of wool the New Testament which had a claim to be one of the founding texts of our language.

The fury of the then Establishment is difficult to credit. The Bishop of London bought up an entire edition of 6,000 copies and burned them on the steps of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. More went after Tyndale’s old friends and tortured them. Richard Byfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him. And among others there was John Firth, a friend of Tyndale, who was burned so slowly that he was more roasted.

Anne Boleyn took Tyndale’s side and for a time it seemed that she had reconciled Henry and the scholar whose support of his claim for a divorce he so longed for. But Tyndale’s deeper studies convinced him that the King had no case in Divine Law and the flames leapt higher. Yet still the Tudor court wanted Tyndale on their side and Thomas Cromwell sent an ambassador. Tyndale longed to come back to his own country but despite all the promises and despite being willing to brave the dangers from the maddened More back in London, he still would not return unless Henry VIII sanctioned a Bible in English. Which he did, but too late for Tyndale.

Fast forward to 1611, after the death of Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, and the publication of the authorized version of the bible. This should have been obvious. I did not appreciate the specifics. Howard Brenton,in The Guardian (8/7/11):

The King James Bible was a brilliant, inventive political manoeuvre. The text was largely based on Tyndale’s translation subtly amended to enhance the authority of the state and downgrade personal faith (Tyndale’s “congregation” became “church”, “elder” became “priest” and “love” became “charity”.) Now controversy could end. The word of God was clear for all to read.

The establishment rebalanced, pushing the trouble makers to margins, but who would in turn reappear, for example a century later in the English Civil War, an so to cause more trouble by banishment to the New World.

Meanwhile. Thomas More who was holding to the old order of legitimacy, party to innovations in the developing of law. He was as well a contemporary of Martin Luther.The former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby considers the pros and cons, concluding:

It is in circumstancessuch as we face today, as never before, that we have reminders of the leaders of principle who went before us. Brave people – braver than we are usually called upon to he. Reminders of the vivid image of Martin Luther nailing his propositions to the church door [1517]. Or Thomas More offering the return of the great seal of the Kingdom to King Henry VIII. Leaders who stood by principle as they understood it whilst the world about them was in turmoil. Their steady example
should inspire us, even today. nearly half -a millennium later. Martin Luther inspiring Catholic lawyers for his honesty and courage love of principle. Thomas More inspiring Protestant lawyers for his
conscience and lesson in the independence of mind that is essential to the office of a judge. All of us reaching out to serve every person, Christian and non-Christian alike. in a living reflection of these two remarkable contem,poraries of long ago who showed what a powerful thing is conscience ‘when allied to law.

Thomas More would not agree to the Oath required by Henry VIII, he knew would result in his certain death. (Where did he draw his courage). He resisted making any comment, until his trial. In relation to “the King’s marriage, the Act of Supremacy or the Act of Supremacy” he said [“Hereto, I gave no advice on one point or another, and nor did I offer advice or counsel on one position or another. Often to the anger of those who questioned me”]. There is an account of the trial. The trial dramatically developed into a climax. More had argued:

“Inasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part
thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to
the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior Himself, personally present
upon the earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, bishops of the same See , by special
prerogative guaranteed, it is therefore in law among Christian men insufficient to charge any
Christian man.”

To which, after some consultation and consternation a counter-argument was succinctly put by the presiding judge:

“My lords all …, I must confess that if the Act of Parliament is not unlawful, then is not the indictment in my conscience insufficient.”

One has to stop and reflect on the conditional clause and the double negative in this response to
understand clearly what Fitz-James said. He did not say More was wrong in his legal opinion.
Instead, he posed a hypothetical statement to his fellow judges: If this Act of Parliament is
lawful, then the indictment is sufficient according to his conscience. Yet this statement wholly
avoids More’s challenge. More argued that this Act of Parliament was not lawful, because it
stood in conflict with the entire weight of tradition and with the most revered laws of the realm .

Followed by the further comment from Gerald Wegemer, Portrait of Courage:

If Fitz-James or any other of the judges had been another John Markham, 22 King Henry’s tyranny could have been checked, or at least deprived of legal justification. Once again, however, tyranny succeeded not through war, but through law. 23 It succeeded not through the force of evil, but
through the simple negligence of those who considered themselves good.

So there is in play an foreshadowed the meaning of the independence of the judiciary and the sovereignty of parliament, or perhaps the Constitution.

Working out the implications took hundreds of years, and large social transformation. Now we live when we do not have time anymore. Climate change is happening. The denials are in effect now allegations of scientific incompetence, not conspiracy – although it does not pay to under-estimate the effectiveness of expert propaganda. Further delay in taking effective, global action is now unconscionable. The evidence and explanation is there to see. There are the related problems of a world population peaking at 10 billion within the foreseeable future and the continuing failure to control nuclear weapons and prevent nuclear war.

While it may not be the case that a scientific paradigm shift takes some time to work out, it is quickly accepted. New social paradigms are more difficult to establish because the vested interests move against them. Religious beliefs systems are social paradigms as well. As Chomsky points out they have been known to undergo radical transmogrification.

Anyhow, when it was the sixth of July – and it still is in London – marked the 478th anniversary of Thomas More’s death. I did not know much about him, except he had written Utopia. I had not expected his life and death to be so interrelated with others, including Tyndale and Luther, or for that matter the then young Elizabeth, who was born in 1533. Information overload and the inability to mark sensefor some of us kicks in. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, among others, conscious of what is right are smart enough not to have that problem. In that sense,they are both prophets and whistle blowers. The extent of the internet technology may prove a very significant factor in paradigmatic change, whether positive or not.



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