The Cambridge scholar returned to the continent as a representative of Henry VIII, and even pastored an English Lutheran congregation in Germany for a while. Seeking diplomatic alliances with many Protestant princes, Barnes represented the King throughout the 1530s, with uneven results. Without theological compatibility, however, the Lutherans would not join Henry in political alliance. The King remained wedded to Catholic doctrine, but to his wives, not so much.
“Barnes and His Fellow-Prisoners Seeking Forgiveness”, from an 1887 copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
In 1539 Barnes returned to an England in which the strong Catholic party, especially bishops, were in the ascendency. It was a dangerous environment which Barnes should have avoided, but, “he had all the impulsive excitement which throws discretion overboard, and memory was seldom to prevent him from making the same mistake twice.” His public criticism of the bishops and continued evangelistic preaching from the pulpit made him a marked man. His supporters at court could not save him, and some of them, in fact, went down with him, and Robert Barnes, with the King’s approval, was burned at the stake as a heretic July 30, 1540. Luther called him Saint Robert and Henry VIII an “incarnate devil.” The loyal heretic who had outlived his usefulness had nonetheless won many to Christ and helped pull down the stronghold of Satan which had held England in thrall for centuries.
An illustration from a 16th century edition of Foxes’s Book of Martyrs, with the inscription: “The death and burning of the most constant Martyrs of Christ, Doctor Robert Barns, Thomas Garret, and William Hierome [Jerome], in Smithfield, an. 1541.”