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Pembroke and the Reformation

Guest blog by Jonathan Reimer

Nearly five hundred years ago, in October 1517, a professor at the little-known University of Wittenberg sparked an explosive debate about the nature and meaning of Christianity.  His ideas reinterpreted many of the core questions of Christian belief: how did God save believers, how were they supposed to live together in charity, and upon what textual and traditional sources were they to base their religion?  The name of this German professor was Martin Luther, and the religious, social, and political upheaval that he caused across Europe is known as the Reformation.

The Reformation spread outward from Germany, dividing Europe into two camps: Protestants, who followed Luther and other reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, and Catholics, who retained allegiance to the spiritual bureaucracy of the Western Church, centered on the Pope in Rome.  For the next fifty years, England was pulled back and forth between these two camps.  Henry VIII broke with the papacy and dissolved the monasteries within his realm, but rejected Luther’s cardinal doctrine of salvation by faith alone and retained the Mass, the ritual heart of medieval Christianity.  During the reign of his son, Edward VI, Protestants ruled England; throughout the rule of his eldest daughter, Mary Tudor, Catholics returned to power.  While Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth I, enacted and enforced a Protestant religious settlement, the ideological tensions of this tug of war continued to shape English politics and society.

The Reformation profoundly shaped Pembroke Hall, as the College was known in the sixteenth century.  As early as the 1520s, not long after Luther’s initial protest against the sale of indulgences, members of the College started to read Protestant literature and to convert to this new understanding of Christianity.  George Stafford, a Fellow of Pembroke and the University Reader in Divinity, delivered a series of lectures on the Pauline Epistles during the later 1520s, which drew upon Protestant ideas and revealed his connections to other Protestant sympathisers, such as the London merchant, Humphrey Monmouth, who financially supported the biblical translator, William Tyndale.  These talks drew ire from Catholics in Cambridge, who reported Stafford to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the highest-ranking religious figure in England.  However, they also inspired the small, but growing, Protestant community at the University.

Bradford John (c 1510-1555)

Portrait of John Bradford

Within Pembroke, the fledgling Protestant community included several of the best and brightest minds in Cambridge, such as John Thyxtill (the renowned theologian), John Chekyn (the tutor to Thomas Cromwell’s son), and Nicholas Ridley (later both the Bishop of London and the Master of Pembroke).

The teaching and action of these Fellows shaped the lives of younger members of the College, such as William Turner, who became ardent Protestants.  While it is hard to say with certainty, it seems that before Henry VIII’s break with the papacy in 1534, something like 15% of the College membership showed leanings towards the new faith; a striking fact given that such beliefs were illegal and considered to be heretical.

Simultaneously, other members of the College resisted the religious and political innovations brought by the Reformation.  The Fellow, John Addison, served as a chaplain to John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester and the Chancellor of Cambridge, and supervised the printing of his confutation of the teachings of Martin Luther.  Likewise, his colleague, Robert Cronkar, spoke out against both Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the rupture with the papacy.  Thus, for most of the sixteenth century, Pembroke was a community divided by faith and politics.  This does not mean, however, that all fraternity was abandoned.  When, for example, the Catholic master, John Young, was deprived and imprisoned at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign, the Fellows continued to speak well of him, even when writing to his Protestant replacement.

The Rescuying of the Romishe Fox by William Turner

The Rescuying of the Romishe Fox by William Turner (Bonn 1545)

Not only did the Reformation impact Pembroke, but also this College significantly shaped the English Reformation.  Members, like John Rogers and Turner, wrote books of biblical translation and religious polemic.  Fellows, including John Bradford and Thomas Sampson, were popular preachers.  Several Valencians even rose to elevated ecclesiastical office: Ridley became the Bishop of London and both Edmund Grindal and John Whitgift served as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Thus, throughout the sixteenth century, this College punched well above its weight in terms its contributions to religious literature, preaching, and church governance.  Moreover, as several members of the College, such as Bradford, Rogers, and Ridley, were burned during the reign of Mary, their lives and writings have loomed large in the memory of English Protestants.

Ridley Nicholas (1502-1555)

Portrait of Nicholas Ridley

Writing from prison during the last year of this life, Ridley recalled with fondness the   intellectual and spiritual home of much of his adult life:

Farewell Pembroke Hall, of late mine own college, my cure and my charge: what case thou art in now God knoweth, I know not well.  Thou wast ever named since I knew thee (which is now thirty years ago) to be studious, well learned, and a great setter forth of Christ’s Gospel and of God’s true word: so I found thee and blessed be God, so I left thee indeed.  Woe is me for thee mine own dear college, if ever thou suffer thy self by any means to be brought from that trade.  In thy orchard (the walls, the butts and trees, if they could speak would bear me witness) I learned without book almost all Paul’s Epistles, yea and I ween all the canonical Epistles, save only the Apocalypse.  Of which study although in time a great part did depart from me, yet the sweet smell thereof I trust shall carry me into heaven: for the profit thereof I think I have felt all my lifetime ever after.

Ridley knew that Pembroke had not only played a significant role in his own life, but also in the religious revolution that he was living through.

The five hundredth anniversary of the start of the Reformation, therefore, provides current members of Pembroke as well as alumni with a chance to rediscover the part that this College played in the English Reformation.  To help those interested in this reflection, Pembroke College Library has put together a new display, entitled ‘Pembroke College and the Reformation’.  The downstairs display case features books specifically linking the Reformation to members of the College.

It includes two beautiful texts by Turner as well as a haunting account of a Pembroke Fellow describing the burning of another Cambridge reformer to a younger member of the College.  The upstairs display case presents several gems of the College’s collection of early printed books.

The first text is a polyglot psalter that was owned by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester.  The second is a book on the lives and writings of the late medieval heretics, Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, owned by John Foxe and used in the writing of his famous tome, Acts and Monuments, popularly known his Book of Martyrs.  It is the hope of Pat Aske, Natalie Kent, and myself that this display will help viewers to encounter a pivotal moment in Pembroke’s history.


John Foxe’s copy of a book on late medieval heretics (Nuremberg 1558)

Polyglot psalter (Genoa 1516)

Polyglot psalter (Genoa 1516)

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