The martyrdom of St. Robert Barnes, July 30, 1540
This Dr. Robert Barnes we certainly knew, and it is a particular joy for me to hear that our good, pious dinner guest and houseguest has been so graciously called by God to pour out his blood and to become a holy martyr for the sake of His dear Son… He always had these words in his mouth: Rex meus, regem meum [“my king, my king”], as his confession indeed indicates that even until his death he was loyal toward his king with all love and faithfulness, which was repaid by Henry with evil. Hope betrayed him. For he always hoped his king would become good in the end. Let us praise and thank God! This is a blessed time for the elect saints of Christ and an unfortunate, grievous time for the devil, for blasphemers, and enemies, and it is going to get even worse. Amen.
Thus wrote Martin Luther about Robert Barnes- a renegade Augustinian friar, a diplomat in the service of King Henry VIII, and an eloquent, if rash and impulsive, Lutheran- who 478 years ago today was tied to the same stake as fellow Protestants William Jerome and Thomas Gerrard, and burned for heresy at Smithfield, outside London.
I've always had a particular interest in Barnes, not only because he was, just as I am, a Lutheran with an unusually non-Germanic surname, but because we share so many of the same personality flaws. I, too, tend at times to be less tactful than I ought to be, and a bit too rash and impulsive. I, too, sometimes let myself get carried away with zeal for what I believe to be a righteous cause. I only hope that, if I were ever put to the test, I would prove also to share his virtues, including his courage and his confidence in his Savior.
Born in King's Lynn, Norfolk, in 1545, Barnes studied at Cambridge and Leuven Universities. He was granted the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Cambridge in 1523 and made prior of the local Augustinian monastery. He was one of the future reformers who gathered at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge for theological discussions which often included the expression of opinions not looked upon with favor by the ecclesiastical authorities.
Recruited by Thomas Bilney to preach a Christmas Eve sermon at a Cambridge church, Barnes tactlessly departed from his text to criticize the practice of Christians suing one another, basing his objections on I Corinthians 6:1-8. This did not go over particularly well at a university famous for its law school!
Barnes was convicted of heresy in a trial before Chancellor Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and chose to recant rather than be burned at the stake. He nevertheless remained imprisoned, and eventually was returned to his monastery- but under close guard. Not close enough, though; he apparently made a habit during this period of quietly distributing copies of the Bible in English!
He staged a rather clever and elaborate fake suicide and fled to the Continent, where he made Luther's acquaintance, Barnes was a guest in Luther's home and formed a personal friendship with the Reformer. It was during this time that Barnes published his most important work, A Supplication to King Henry VIII. In it, he wrote:
Scripture says that faith alone justifies because it is that through which alone I cling to Christ. By faith alone I am partaker of the merits and mercy purchased by Christ’s blood. It is faith alone that receives the promises made in Christ. Through our faith the merits, goodness, grace, and favour of Christ are imputed and reckoned to us.
Meanwhile, Wolsey had fallen from King Henry's favor and shortly thereafter died. His last words were, "Would God I had served Him half so faithfully as I served my king!" He was replaced by Thomas More, and thereby hangs a tale.
In 2010, Dame Hilary Mantel, an English writer, published a novel about More's successor as chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, named Wolf Hall after her subject's residence while in office. In 2015, the BBC produced a miniseries based on the book which was broadcast in the United States by PBS. It caused something of a stir because of its depiction of another Henrician martyr, Thomas More, who had been canonized by the Roman Catholic church and by popular culture through Robert Bolt's magnificent if one-dimensional play A Man for All Seasons, twice made into movies starring Paul Scofield (1966) and Charleton Heston (1988). More's heroic death for refusing to betray his faith and his principles by acquiescing in King Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon is what most people remember about him.
But Wolf Hall drew a defensive reaction from Roman Catholics because of its depiction of another, lesser-known aspect of More's career: his enthusiasm for getting Protestants burned at the stake. More's Catholic defenders pointed out that More, during his period as chancellor, was legally obligated to prosecute cases of heresy. They failed to take note of his active and quite energetic attempts to get individual Protestants suspected of it strongly enough that he could prosecute them. The most famous martyr of Henry VIII's bloody reign was also a martyr-maker, and an avid one, at that. Barnes was one of those whom More actively sought to have executed not only on grounds of heresy but of sedition since Barnes had publicly stated that if the king ordered him to burn a Bible, he would refuse. It was a telling point because Henry had, in fact, ordered copies of the English Bible to be burned.
More was beheaded five years before Barnes was burned, and thus obviously cannot be directly blamed for the latter's death. But it wasn't because More hadn't tried.
Anyway, Cromwell, a blacksmith's son and a protege of Wolsey who was secretly sympathetic to the Reformation, succeeded More. One of the new chancellor's agents, a man by the name of Stephen Vaughn who was himself a secret Protestant, met Barnes, read A Supplication, and passed it along to Cromwell together with his recommendation that Barnes be employed in the chancellor's service, remarking, "Look well upon Dr. Barnes' book. It is such a piece of work as I have not yet seen any like it. I think he shall seal it with his blood."
In 1531, under the protection of the new regime, Barnes returned to England and was employed as a diplomat by Cromwell and entrusted with carrying King Henry's case for a divorce to Luther, asking for his approval, and then returning with the reformer's reply. That reply was, to say the least, unfavorable. Barnes returned to Germany, where he continued to be employed by Cromwell as a diplomat, notably in the doomed attempts to forge an alliance between England and the Lutheran powers of the Smalkaldic League (membership in the League would have required that Henry subscribe to the Augsburg Confession) and in negotiations arranging for the King's fateful marriage to Anne of Cleves.
Henry definitively rejected Lutheran theology in 1538. In June of 1539, the Statute of Six Articles, which reinforced heresy laws and established Roman Catholic doctrine as definitive despite the King's break with Rome, was adopted by Parliament. In 1540, everything came unraveled, and events moved quickly toward their denouement.
Barnes preached an openly Lutheran sermon attacking Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the head of the Catholic party, setting off a bitter sectarian quarrel in the king's council. Barnes was forced to apologize and, once again, to recant. But when one of Gardiner's associates was sent to the Tower, Barnes- for some reason believing himself to now be safe- cast caution to the winds and publicly recanted his recantation. His timing could not have been worse.
Henry had actually met and married Anne of Cleves in January of 1540. Interestingly, Barnes appears as a character in the episode about Anne in the 1970 miniseries The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth, in which he is portrayed (probably accurately) as a brilliant, sincere, well-meaning, but tactless man more attuned to ideas than to people. But Henry found his new queen so unattractive that the marriage was never consummated and in July, he had it declared null and void.
With that, Cromwell's fate was sealed. Before the month was out, Cromwell fell from power and was sent to the block- and, deprived of his protector, Barnes went to the stake without actually being given a trial. In a show of even-handedness, Henry hanged three Roman Catholics the same day for treason in denying the King's title as Supreme Head of the Church in England.
Barnes met his death with such courage that according to Carolly Erickson, who wrote a biography of Henry, large numbers of witnesses to his death were converted to the Reformation by his demeanor.
There are several versions of his last words. The one quoted in Foxe's Book of Martyrs is as follows:
I am come hither to be burned as an heretic, and now hearken to my faith.
I believe in the blessed Trinity, three Persons and one God, that created the world, and that this blessed Trinity sent down the second person, Jesus Christ, into the womb of the Virgin Mary. I believe that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and took flesh of her and that he suffered hunger, thirst, cold, and other passions of our body, sin excepted, according to the saying of St. Peter, ‘He was made in all things like to his brethren, yet without sin.’ And I believe that this his death and passion was the sufficient ransom for sin. And I believe that through his death he overcame sin, death, and hell, and that there is none other satisfaction unto the Father, but this his death and passion only; and that no work of man did deserve anything of God, but his passion only as touching our justification, for I know the best work that ever I performed is impure and imperfect.
Wherefore I beseech thee, O Lord, not to enter into judgment with me, according to the saying of the prophet David. Wherefore, I trust in no good work that ever I did, but only in the death of Christ. I do not doubt but through him to inherit the kingdom of heaven. But imagine not that I speak against good works, for they are to be done, and verily they that do them not shall never come into the kingdom of God. We must do them, because they are commanded us of God, to show and set forth our profession, not to deserve or merit, for that is only by the death of Christ.
I've often wondered why we Lutherans don't make more of our martyrs, the way the Catholics and the Mennonites do. Patrick Hamilton, another of my favorites who shared my Lowland Scottish blood as well as my Lutheran faith, is probably out of luck, having had the misfortune to be burned on February 29. But I'm happy that at long last, the Lutheran Service Book mandates a commemoration on this day of Dr. Robert Barnes, Confessor and Martyr.
The Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, heavenly Father, You gave courage to Your servant Robert Barnes to give up his life for confessing the true faith during the Reformation. May we continue steadfast in our confession of the apostolic faith and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.