Admiral Gaspard de Coligny Is Born, 1519

2024-02-13T14:31:34-06:00February 13, 2024|HH 2024|

“The arm of the Lord had been stretched out indeed, and a mighty man of war was on their side. Coligny was to be the Joshua of the chosen people.”—Pierre Viret (French Protestant Theologian)

Admiral Gaspard de Coligny Is Born,
February 16, 1519

In times of persecution, many of our heroes of the faith proved they were men of perseverance, men who mounted eloquent apologetics, who defended the innocent from slaughter and often formed a rallying point for an entire movement. It is rare for those men to find time during such upheaval to dream; rarer still to promote those dreams to reality. But such is the legacy of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, military leader of the Huguenots, hero of the Reformed Church in France. While perhaps most famous for being violently assassinated during the despicable Saint Bartholomew’s Eve massacre, de Coligny’s legacy of faith and vision carries on to this day, not only amongst the Protestant church but also more tangibly in the history of the New World.

Admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572)

On our tour of northern Florida, exploring the oldest city in America—St. Augustine and its northern settlements—we learn much of the vision of Admiral de Coligny, his ambitions towards discovering new lands, and his vision to create a place where his persecuted fellows might establish themselves.

The palisades at Fort Caroline in Florida

Born the third son of the Marshall of France and belonging to the powerful Châtillon family—Gaspard II de Châtillon, Count de Coligny being his full name—became heir of his family at the age of five. His mother was a devout Protestant with incredible strength of character which she passed to her sons. His eldest brother died young and the next became an Archbishop who converted to Protestantism. His devoted younger brother served as his comrade during the many wars in which he fought.

The Coligny brothers: Odet (1517-1571), Gaspard (1519-1572) and François (1512-1569)

In his youth de Coligny distinguished himself in the service of King Francis I of France, warring with the Hapsburg’s Spanish forces and with the English. Around this same time a young lawyer named John Calvin was penning his Institutes of Christian Religion, setting forth Reformed and gospel-centered tenants of faith, and dedicating them with rebuffed zeal to that very same King Francis I. While Francois de Guise—of the prominent and zealously Catholic de Guise family—won notoriety and influence during this campaign, it was de Coligny who was entrusted with the powerful position of Admiral of France.

King Francis I of France (1494-1547)

Francis de Guise (1519-1563)

In a strange twist so familiar to those who note providences, around this time a military defeat led to Admiral de Coligny’s imprisonment at the hands of the enemy. I remind the reader that in 16th century France, Catholicism was the state religion, a practice required of all citizens and devoutly adhered to by the Admiral. That said, due to the Protestant influence of his mother, years of personal correspondence with John Calvin, and the reading of an outlawed copy of the Holy Scriptures in French, de Coligny emerged from his captivity a convert to Protestantism and the next champion of the faith.

John Calvin (1509-1564), from an edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion

King Charles IX of France (1550–1574)

With the new king, Charles IX, and his court growing ever more hostile to the Reformed faith, de Coligny initially kept his conversion quiet, though this informed his burden to expand Protestant influence and provide refuge for impending persecution should the tentative peace break. With this in mind, in 1562, de Coligny commissioned a force led by two Protestants, Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière, to establish a settlement in Florida. They named it Fort Caroline and their choice of land was only miles north of Spanish St. Augustine and the ruthless Spaniard Admiral stationed there, Pedro Menéndez.

René Goulaine de Laudonnière (c. 1529–1574)

Jean Ribault (1520-1565)

On orders from Menéndez, the Spaniards attacked Fort Caroline, massacring the French garrison and carrying off the remaining women and children as slaves. Impermanent as de Coligny’s settlement was, and unsuccessful as the hoped-for-haven for their kindred to flee to, its example resounded amongst those English Protestants who would eventually establish Jamestown and Plymouth. The impact on the natives of the area was also significant. A peaceable and trade-centered settlement, the Huguenots’ Fort Caroline was in stark contrast to their Spanish predecessors. Generations later a historian recorded that from the dense tropical forests of Northern Florida could be heard the singing of Psalms in French, a leftover of the gospel’s impact on the few tribes who came in contact with de Coligny’s expedition.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-574)

The Massacre of Vassy was the murder of Huguenot worshippers and citizens in an armed action by troops of Francis, Duke of Guise, in Vassy, France, on 1 March 1562 and is identified as the first major event in the French Wars of Religion.

Back in France, the situation between Catholics and Protestants erupted into all out civil war—later referred to as France’s Wars of Religion. In 1562 the bloody Massacre of Vassy occurred in which the Duke of Guise and his soldiers brutally murdered more than sixty Huguenots at a private church gathering. Such mounting persecutions prompted de Coligny to publicly display his commitment to the Reformed cause. He was the one to bravely present the demands of the Protestants to the King, while also expressing his growing displeasure towards the initiatives of the Guise family, his opposition to their cruel policy and vindictive governance at court. These appeals were not heeded for long and violence became the negotiator of the day with Admiral de Coligny seen as the undisputed leader of the Huguenot forces.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) French Reformer

Pierre Viret (1509/1510-1571) Swiss Reformer

Despite many Princes and grand figures rallying to the Protestant side, it was de Coligny who embodied the soul of the struggle. A brilliant and at times brutal commander, at his own personal expense he kept the disadvantaged Protestant armies motivated, formidable and eventually victorious. He communicated with such theologians as Calvin, Beza and Viret, passing on their encouragements to his troops, but always emphasizing the irreplaceable fount of courage that is God’s written word.

Admiral de Coligny in armor

Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589)

After ten years of sporadic fighting and endless reprisals between both sides, a truce was called on the high note of a Protestant victory. To have a vantage point at all from which to negotiate with Queen Catherine de Medici and her son was impressive enough. To have it be so considerable that the Queen would offer her daughter in a marriage pact to the Protestant Prince Henry of Navarre was due almost entirely to de Coligny’s wartime genius and tenacity.

Henry IV of France and III of Navarre (1553-1610)

Margaret of Valois (1553-1615)

But where open war and outright persecution had failed, the Catholic court of France turned to subterfuge and dishonor to rid themselves of the pest of Reformed religion. The great unifying event that the marriage was supposed to represent devolved into a bloodbath. Lured into Paris to celebrate and make peace, the most notable of French Protestants were at the mercy of the Guise henchmen when on the evening of August 23, 1572, the King’s Council launched the massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Eve. The abode of Admiral de Coligny (who had survived an assassination attempt the previous day) was the first to be targeted by the death squads, personally lead by the Duc de Guise.

Henry I, Duke of Guise (1550-1588)

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred during the night of August 23–24, 1572

As his murderers were closing in, de Coligny declared to his attendants: “I have long been prepared to die. Save your lives if you can: you cannot save mine.” Among those with him was his young daughter Louise. Her beloved father and husband would be butchered that night along with no less than 15,000 fellow believers. How she escaped is still unknown but after the terrible massacre—which produced echoing massacres across all the larger cities of France—she sought asylum at the court of Prince William the Silent, leader of the Protestant Dutch and her father’s close ally. Louise was given Prince William’s protection and was incorporated into his household.

Catherine de’ Medici emerges from the gates of the Louvre to view bodies of Protestants murdered during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Affection bloomed between them and in 1583 Louise de Coligny became Prince William’s wife, and through her descendants the blood of Admiral de Coligny runs through centuries of Protestant royalty. What France lost in the collapse of Protestantism after the Admiral’s death was America’s gain. The resulting influx of Huguenot tradesmen and churchmen built much of the Carolinas and New England, a stalwart Calvinistic backbone for our own revolution two centuries later.

William “The Silent” of Orange (1533-1584)

Louise de Coligny (1555-1620)

The noble selflessness portrayed by this great man of faith is well summarized in his own words, written to his children three years before his death:

“We must follow Jesus Christ, our Captain, who has marched before us. Men have stripped us of all they could; and if this is still the will of God, we shall be happy, and our condition good, seeing this loss has not happened through any injury we have done to those who have inflicted it, but solely through the hatred they bear toward me, because it has pleased God to make use of me to aid his Church. For the present, it suffices that I admonish and conjure you, in the name of God, to persevere courageously in the study of virtue.”

King Edward I of England Steals the Title “Prince of Wales”, 1301

2024-02-13T16:07:54-06:00February 5, 2024|HH 2024|

“Thou great Creator of the world,
Why are not thy red lightnings hurled?
Will not the sea at thy command
Swallow up this guilty land?
Why are we left to mourn in vain
The guardian of our country slain?
No place, no refuge, for us left,
Of homes, of liberty, bereft;
Where shall we flee? to whom complain…”
“The Dirge of Llywelyn”
—By Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch (Meaning: Gruffudd Son of the Red Judge, Welsh Bard, late 1200s)

King Edward I of England
Steals the Title “Prince of Wales”,
February 7, 1301

The reign of King Edward I of England was made notable and is recalled for many things. His nicknames—those of “Longshanks” and “Hammer of the Scots”—suggest what an imposing figure he was personally while the chronicles of his time tell us of legendary exploits in the Crusades, his conflicts with the French, and his eventual last days spent at enmity with the Scottish hero William Wallace. Considered by many historians to be one of England’s greatest kings—a bold statement regarding a country that produced so many—Edward I was impressive in a ruthless way: wise but also bold, and undeterred by the impossible. He left his mark on the nation he ruled but also on the nations he crushed, often enshrined in history and song as a tyrant.

Edward I (1272-1307)

Talley and the Beacons, Wales

For Wales—one of his more forgotten conquests—the legacy of their subjugation lives on to this day with the stolen title of “Prince of Wales” being passed to incumbent sons in line for the English throne. King Edward I was responsible for this.

Before Edward’s time, the country of Wales—that westward outcrop of Great Britain—was a wild place with a formidable history. It was ruled by various native kings and princes and made up of many separate tribes. Comprised of Briton and Celtic peoples, many of whom had been driven westward by the invasion of the Angles and the Saxons, they had close ties with Ireland and Scotland. They shared attributes with these countries more than with England and predominantly retained their Celtic form of Christianity when the rest of Briton fell back into paganism after the withdrawal of Roman governance in the fifth century.

Celtic village Din Lligwy (pre-Roman) in present-day Anglesey, Wales

When Christianity retook the island of Great Britain, the Welsh could often be found aiding such heroes of the faith as Alfred the Great against the Vikings in the 800s. But this aid was an exception made for fellow Christians to help defeat a barbaric invasion; it did not suggest amiability towards being incorporated into King Alfred’s dream of a unified England.

By the time of the Norman invasion of 1066, Wales had gotten quite comfortable in ruling itself. Divided into four main kingdoms, peace between them was wobbly, yet the Welsh remained self sufficient, formidable and most importantly, distinctly non-English. The Welsh considered their new Norman invaders as “gratuitously cruel” and under the leadership of Irish-born ruler Gruffudd ap Cynan—an erstwhile invader himself—they liberated themselves and were granted autonomy by the Anglo-Norman King Henry II, at the price of paid homage. The following years were filled with infighting and various betrayals. Incursions were made by both Scots and Normans at the invitation of various Welsh princes, and power grabs were common amongst the divided kingdoms. However, any attempt at complete subjugation failed.

Gruffudd ap Cynan (c. 1055 –1137)

Llywelyn ab Iorwerth “The Great” (c. 1173-1240)

Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (1223-1282)

The Northern kingdom of Gwynedd was the largest and most powerful in Wales, and a few of their Princes began to use the title “Prince of Wales” starting in the late 12th century, less as an act of defiance against England than a means to assert their supremacy over other Welsh rulers. It was in 1194 that the Welsh became truly united under Prince Llewelyn the Great, who drove the English out and kept them out for the entirety of his reign.

Gwynedd following the division of 1247 at the kingdom’s maximum extent

His grandson, Llewelyn II ap Gruffydd, worked to expand his family’s authority in Wales. He forcefully bound together the southern and western kingdoms, uniting them with his northern one, making the unified principality of Wales a political reality and himself their first acknowledged overlord. His reign was further legitimized when the English King Henry III formally recognized his title and authority as Prince of Wales in the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267.

Map of Wales after the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267

The death of King Henry sounded the death knell for this age of Welsh independence and respectful interrelations. In 1272, Henry’s warrior son, Edward I, ascended to the throne of England and soon made clear he had no intention to honor his father’s treaties.

The Welsh prince and his family had become too powerful, accumulating allies and land in England, not always diplomatically. Following Prince Llewelyn’s inflammatory marriage to a lady of the rebellious Monfort family, King Edward demanded Prince Llewelyn’s homage at court in Chester, offering an exchange of ruling Wales for a position as an English lord. Prince Llewelyn and his brother both refused to give up their birthright. Thus, King Edward instigated his crushing invasion of Wales.

Caernafon Castle, Gwynedd, Wales, where Edward II was born and titled “Prince of Wales”

It began in 1277: his armies overwhelmed the poorly equipped Welsh and erected an impregnable line of castles to enforce their occupation. King Edward slew Prince Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Prince Dafydd, and after their deaths Welsh resistance crumbled. Like any conqueror worth his salt, Edward I had a taste for the theatrical and was keenly aware of the symbolic importance of titles, heraldry and culture to the populace he had subjugated. Just as he took Scotland’s Stone of Destiny back to Westminster as a trophy, Edward’s last crowning touch to his conquest of the Welsh occurred on this day in 1301 when he bestowed the title “Prince of Wales” upon his effeminate son, later King Edward II. Edward II’s own crushing defeat at the hand of Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce thirteen years later at the battle of Bannockburn, and his subsequent overthrow by his own wife, came too late to cheer or liberate the Welsh. Despite various revolts and political movements since, it remains an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Edward I bestowing the title of “Prince of Wales” upon his son, Edward II

England’s Coronation Throne—with a space below for Scotland’s Stone of Scone to be mounted—was commissioned by Edward the I for his coronation as a meaningful statement of Scotland’s subjugation

The title of “Prince of Wales” is now synonymous with British royalty. The position is currently held by Prince William, next in line to the throne. In 1969, King Charles—who himself was Prince of Wales at the time—had his investiture televised with great pomp and symbolic pageantry at the pleasure of the late Queen Elizabeth. He was the 21st heir to the British throne to hold the title. It took place at Caernarfon Castle (birthplace of Edward II, for whom the title was originally stolen) and to the pleasant surprise of his new subjects, Prince Charles addressed the staunchly nationalist crowds in their native Welsh tongue.

A 2019 march for Welsh Independence in Cardiff, Wales

Today the Welsh Nationalist movement is far from dead and has seen many iterations over the generations. The street movement is stronger than ever: September of 2023 saw 10,000 people rallying in support of Welsh independence in the city of Bangor. Like with Ireland’s and Scotland’s own independence movements, however, much of Wales is both influenced and diluted by EU politics. As for the culture, like with Ireland, there has been a resurgence of pride and interest by many in the younger generation—a relief, as even the national language was predicted to be extinguished by the 21st century. According to official statistics, some 880,000 people now speak Welsh in Wales, and the country is well on track to hitting the target of a million speakers by 2030. Younger generations have never known a Wales without Welsh at the forefront, and have a confidence and pride in a language almost unheard a century before.

Population of Wales who speak Welsh, according to the 2011 census

American Statesman Gouverneur Morris Is Born, 1752

2024-02-13T15:00:44-06:00January 29, 2024|HH 2024|

“The education of young citizens ought to form them to good manners, to accustom them to labor, to inspire them with a love of order, and to impress them with respect for lawful authority. Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man towards God.” —Gouverneur Morris

American Statesman Gouverneur Morris Is Born,
January 31, 1752

Writer of the preamble to our constitution, leading patriot of our revolution, esteemed member of the Continental Congress, wartime minister of the Treasury and American Ambassador—to name only a few of his notable stations—Gouverneur Morris is one of our forgotten founding fathers.

Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)

Born in New York City at Morrisania Manor house to prosperous and staunchly Tory parents, Morris came from Huguenot and Welsh stock. Although derisively labeled an “aristocrat” by many patriots during the Revolution and a traitor by his old social circle, Morris became convinced of the cause of independence and used his own genius and experience to warn of power imbalances in the Congress and Senate until his death. A colorful figure of great stature and personality—in no way impeded by the necessity of a peg leg to replace a tragically crushed limb—Morris swam in the inner circle of our nation’s founding nexus until his last days, and was both witness to and actor in some of its greatest scenes.

Morris’ wooden leg

There is no more frank telling of our revolution and the days of our establishment than can be found in Morris’ often terse, sometimes exhaustive, but always witty journals. Added to that are the extensive archives of his correspondence, much of which sheds light on dire national struggles as well as the intimate friendships and rivalries that comprised the motley network of soldiers, statesmen and foreign nobles who were instrumental in America’s founding.

The opening page of a letter from Morris to Thomas Pinckney

The closing page of a letter from Morris to Thomas Pinckney

His decline in popularity was a result of both personal antagonism to any form of diplomacy which might endear him to chroniclers, and the purposeful besmirching of his character by political opponents. The latter reached new heights during the vicious fractioning of the Republican and Federalist parties in the 1790s. But perhaps it is best explained by one of his contemporaries, John Jay, who wrote of him:

“Honor obliges me to say that he deserves well of New York and America in general. Yet it has been the uniform policy of some from the beginning of the contest to depreciate every man of worth and abilities who refused to draw in their harness.”

In his own words Morris freely admitted, “I am not a cautious man and zeal always gets the better of Prudence.” Yet still his momentous contributions to our country, driven by that very same zeal, are undeniable and often cost him dearly. His pen wrote not only our preamble but also the final draft of our Constitution. He was called upon by James Madison to exert the full extent of his prodigious vocabulary in prettifying the document, as it was deemed essential for the wording to be not only binding and accurate but also inspiring.

Gouverneur Morris signs the Constitution in the 1925 painting, Foundation of the American Government

He was present at the deathbed of Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, and wrote movingly of Mrs. Hamilton and the children’s despair. He also wrote and delivered the eulogy for his controversial friend:

“Far from attempting to excite your emotions, I must try to repress my own, and yet I fear that instead of the language of a public speaker, you will hear only the lamentations of a bewailing friend. But I will struggle with my bursting heart, to pourtray that Heroic Spirit, which has flown to the mansions of bliss…”

He was required by President Washington at the height of the French Revolution to abandon his personal pursuits in France and replace William Short as American ambassador there. Morris was crucial in establishing precedent for sanctuary and asylum at his embassy where many of America’s French allies flocked at the height of the Terror. Despite the daily threats to his life by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety and the abandonment of almost all other diplomatic envoys, Morris doggedly remained at his post through the worst of it. He wrote to Congress begging for clearer direction regarding his assignment and confirming his dedication to it:

Bust of Gouverneur Morris, from a life mask taken June 6, 1792

“I presume that when the President did me the honor of naming me to this embassy, it was not for my personal pleasure or safety, but to promote the interests of my country. These, therefore, I shall continue to pursue to the best of my judgment, and as to consequences, they are in the hand of God.”

These are only a fraction of the events Gouverneur Morris took part in. His ardent appeals against slavery, his prophetic warnings regarding the impending war of 1812, and his work on the Erie Canal all deserve note and further discussion.

The final resting place of Gouverneur Morris—St. Ann’s Church, Bronx, New York, built by his son, Gouverneur Morris, Jr.

For now I will leave you with this testament to his character written by another great American, Theodore Roosevelt, who found Morris worthy of a place in his compiled Hero Tales.

“There has never been an American statesman of keener intellect or more brilliant genius. Had he possessed but a little more steadiness and self-control he would have stood among the two or three very foremost. He was gallant and fearless. He was absolutely upright and truthful; the least suggestion of falsehood was abhorrent to him. His extreme, aggressive frankness, joined to a certain imperiousness of disposition, made it difficult for him to get along well with many of them with whom he was thrown in contact. In politics he was too much of a free lance ever to stand very high as a leader. He was very generous and hospitable; he was witty and humorous, a charming companion, and extremely fond of good living. He was strictly just; and he made war on all traits that displeased him, especially meanness and hypocrisy. He represented better than any other man the clear-headed, practical statesman, who is genuinely devoted to the cause of constitutional freedom. He was essentially a strong man, and he was an American through and through.”

Robert Burns Is Born, 1759

2024-01-25T12:03:27-06:00January 25, 2024|HH 2024|

Robert Burns Is Born,
January 25, 1759

On this date, all over the globe, in royal grandeur and in humbler abodes, “Burns Night” is celebrated. Toasts are drunk, verses recited, odes offered to the famed haggis, and Scotland’s Bard is remembered.

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

In doing so, there is recalled another time when prosperity almost drowned out the echo of past heroism and a legacy worth dying for, when one man’s literary contributions to his nation’s fast-diluting culture became integral to its current identity. When you think of Scotland’s lore, for good or ill—be it noble Celts or staunch Covenanters, lost causes or tenacious engineering, majestic, mist-draped Highlands or the fertile, lush Lowlands—the imagery is greatly due to Burns’ own pen.

River Nith at Ellisland Farm, home to Robert Burns

For a country so ardently poetic and proudly lyrical, it is distinction indeed for one to ascend above all others in the national esteem and celebration. Every bit as crucial for his nation’s reputation, Burns’ work has found the same laud in the international sphere. Two thousand five hundred international “Burns Supper” events were recorded to have been held last year, up to nine and a half million people participating, many in countries as dissonant and far removed from heather and claymore as Russia, India, Sri Lanka, Fiji and Kazakhstan.

The traditional spread for a Burns Supper: haggis, neeps and tatties

Program from a ‘Birth of Burns’ Supper, Newcastle, England, January 25, 1859

The very first Burns Night was held by his close friends at his birthplace, Burns’ Cottage, a few years after the poet’s untimely death in 1796. It has continued on ever since, moved only to mark his birth, spreading in popularity while keeping much of the humble form and close camaraderie of the original. Essential to a Burns Night is the reading and singing of his work and the sharing of biographical tidbits of his life—a life too large and tumultuous to be summarized, and rightly overshadowed by his legacy of verse. If ever a poet understood the character of his nation, it was Robert Burns.

Burns Cottage & Museum, birthplace of Robert Burns in Alloway, Scotland

In Burns we see a fierce pride for his country warring with disdain for many of its foundational attributes. We see swelling tributes to Christian principles sitting side-by-side on the page with scathing renouncements of the constraints of morality. Rarely was a man so torn in his admiration, so viciously uncomfortable in his love, or so successful in capturing Scotland’s own torn history. But there is no debate that the Scotland which Robert Burns captured in his writings was a noble, vivid, Christian country.

A 1787 manuscript of ‘Address to Edinburgh’ in Burns’ hand

A young Sir Walter Scott, reading and adulating Robert Burns, was keenly aware of the service the man had rendered his country in his brief life. Burns made it a crusade to preserve old tales and rhyme in their original Broad Scots dialect and get them published. He also wrote new compositions of such genius that even the icy English critics over the border praised and consumed his works with ardor. This crucial revival of Scottish heritage came not half a century after the defeat of the last Scottish king’s attempt to regain the throne. This defeat resulted in the violent suppression of all cultural trappings—the tartan, bagpipes and that old pesky clan system which had proven impenetrable to centuries of invaders.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland was built by Queen Victoria as a royal residence, and one of her favorite places

Where his “romantic” contemporaries and protégés would soon become renowned for their written work and poetry—names such as Scott, Shelley, Byron and Keats among them—Burns’ genius advanced in part due to his astounding ability to combine evocative music with his verse. Between the influence of the two of them—Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott—the effects of this romantic revival reached even to Queen Victoria. Being a young and impressionable woman, she carried her passion so far as to purchase an estate near Lord Byron’s childhood stomping grounds of Aberdeenshire. There she and her husband, Prince Albert, erected the grand Balmoral Castle, the better to spend her holidays amongst what Burns called “the birthplace of valor, the country of worth.”

This watercolor of the new Balmoral Castle under construction—designed by Prince Albert to resemble his native German castles—was painted in 1852 by Queen Victoria

A song sheet for ‘Scots Wha hae’ with lyrics by Robert Burns, the one-time unofficial national anthem of Scotland

John Wycliffe Begins Translation of the Scriptures into English, 1382

2024-01-15T14:54:45-06:00January 15, 2024|HH 2024|

John Wycliffe Begins Translation of the Scriptures into English, January 16, 1382

An Oxford Don possessing great academic prowess and enjoying the perks of royal patronage—the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, as he became known—was an unlikely figure of subversion, and his weapon was none other than the Word of God. It is perhaps testament to both Wycliffe’s doctrinal triumph and his own personal humility that the movement his arguments and translation produced loomed large over his own reputation and fame.

John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384)

As a new decade dawned in the latter half of the 14th century, worldly prospects were bleak. The Black Death had decimated nearly a third of the world’s population and the Western church was torn apart by the Great Schism with multiple popes laying claim to Saint Peter’s Chair.

A page from the Ellesmere Manuscript edition (c. 1410) of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a portrait of Chaucer in the page embellishments

John Wycliffe’s own native England had long been consumed with the bloody Hundred Years War against France. The cost of this conflict left England drained of resources and moral surety, governed by a child King whose uncle acted as Regent. So while Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in an effort to reignite some spark of the old chivalry, and Dante imagined his nine circles of hell, John Wycliffe became convinced the anecdote to the despair and collapse all around him was reliance upon the Divine promises of God. Yet how was the Word to be a universal comfort—much less used as a foundation for living—when the general populace and their preachers had no intimate contact with it? Except for the few and privileged, men educated fluently in Greek, Latin or Hebrew and positioned in places such as Oxford where the venerable text was housed, few in that generation had ever seen a copy of the entire canon.

A map of the nine levels of Hell, as imagined by Dante in his Inferno

The beginning of the Gospel of John in a copy of John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, from a pocket-sized copy which was made in the late 14th Century

While there is much contention regarding what extent of the now eponymous Wycliffe Bible was translated by the man himself or by his students and fellow Lollards, his endeavors brought forth the first complete Bible to be written into middle English, predating William Tyndale’s own extraordinary translation by over one hundred and forty years. Drawn from Jerome’s Vulgate translation, Wycliffe’s Old and New Testaments were completed two years after the project began, although further updated versions were done by Wycliffe’s assistant John Purvey and others in 1388 and 1395, after Wycliffe’s death.

1 John 5 from the 9th Century Vulgate

By that time, and despite being too early to employ the prolific distribution by printing press that Tyndale’s Bible had profited from, these hand-written testaments were spread widely throughout England and eventually Europe.

The opening page to the Gospel of John in a 1526 edition of William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible—cleanly mass-produced with the help of the printing press

The established church was infuriated by these Bibles, and felt threatened by the doctrine their common language suggested. In Wycliffe’s own words the Bible taught:

“Neither place nor human election makes a person a member of the church but divine predestination in respect of whoever with perseverance follows Christ in love . . . Go and preach, it is the sublimest work; but imitate not the priests whom we see after the sermon sitting in the ale-house, or at the gaming table . . . After your sermon is ended, visit the sick, the aged, the poor, the blind and the lame and succour them.”

Wycliffe Giving ‘The Poor Priests’ His Translation of the Bible, by artist William Frederick Yeames (1835-1918)

Wycliffe followed these translations with sharp polemics, calling for the renouncing of sin, reliance solely on Christ for salvation, condemnation for the superstition of transubstantiation and immorality of the clergy, and his denial of the Pope’s authority. All of these later became indisputable tenants of the Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries. Wycliffe’s readers agreed and, driven by the holy zeal of the freshly-awakened, spread what they insisted were not new doctrines but ancient ones—those assurances of Saint Paul and the reasonings of Saint Augustine that had been too long buried under pomp and ignorance.

For more than a hundred years, the bishops harried these Christians out of their parishes, seized their fragments of manuscript Bibles, attempted to force them to recant, forfeited their property and burned many of them at the stake. Wycliffe himself was allowed a peaceful death, despite severe harassment in his lifetime. But his grave was given no such clemency.

The Trial of Wycliffe A.D. 1377, by Ford Madox Brown, a mural at Manchester Town Hall

In 1415, more than thirty years after his death, the Council of Constance formally condemned the forty-five “errors” of Wycliffe, decreeing that all his works were to be burned along with his bones. To quote the eloquent words of a seventeenth-century writer:

“They burned his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighbouring brook running hard by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wycliffe are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.”

Exhumation of John Wycliffe, from The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, vol. 3, 1837 edition

Unearthing those figures who lit a torch during the “dark ages” is one of the most fascinating and hopeful areas of Reformed study. And while in no way discounting the impact of giants such as Luther, Calvin and Knox, it is emboldening to learn of those who, like Wycliffe and Hus, did not enjoy having the popular tide of opinion on their side but were drawn to the truth centuries before those rewarding days of the Reformation. Their sacrifices, translations and guardianship of the Gospel is indeed our precious inheritance to maintain and defend.

Detail of the Luther Memorial below, portraying John Wycliffe seated at the back right corner of Luther’s pillar, from the viewer’s perspective

Martin Luther Memorial (Lutherdenkmal) in Worms, Germany: Luther’s central statue is surrounded by the figures of his lay protectors and earlier Church reformers including John Wycliffe

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