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John Skelton, Thomas More, and the 'lost' history of the early Reformation in England* At some time during 1528 the poet John Skelton and the lawyer and politician Sir Thomas More turned their literary attentions to the same subject, the trial for heresy of a young scholar, Thomas Bilney, which had taken place during the last week of November and the first week of December, 1527. Both writers attacked Bilney in print, although neither named him outright, in texts which justified his prosecution and eventual recantation, More in a prose work, the Dialogue concerning Heresies (published in 1529), Skelton in a much neglected verse diatribe, the Replycacion Agaynst Certayne Yong Scolers Abjured ofLate (published by Pynson, almost certainly in 1528). What could have brought about this unlikely coincidence of interest? William Nelson, writing earlier this century, seems to provide the most plausible answer with the suggestion that Skelton and More were consciously writing 'in tandem' as two elements in 'an officially inspired, concerted, attempt to destroy the heretical movement in England with the weapon of Eloquence'.1 But, if this was indeed the case, it only raises further related questions. W h y should 'officialdom' (whether in the form of Cardinal Wolsey, the de facto head of the Church in England, Cuthbert Tunstal, the Bishop of London, or even Henry VIII himself) have focused its attention upon the fate of one lone scholar who had, after all, already renounced the heretical beliefs alleged against him and done penance before the Cross at St Paul's on 8 December 1527? W h y should they have felt that commissioning More and Skelton to attack Bilney would have the effect of 'destroy[ing] the heretical movement in England'? And what significance might this have for our understanding of the early years of the Reformation in England? What follows will suggest answers to each of these questions in turn. * A version of this paper was originally given at the 'Piety and Dissent in Late Medieval England' session of the 25th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May, 1990. I am grateful to the session organisers, Dr John J. McGavin and Dr Brian J. Golding of the Wessex Medieval Centre, for the opportunity to air these ideas in that forum; and to the Department of English, University of Queensland, for a grant towards the cost of attending that conference. Thanks are also due to an anonymous Parergon reader, whose helpful comments have helped to clarify a number of the ideas contained in the paper. 1 W . Nelson, John Skelton, Laureate, Columbia, 1939, pp. 217-19. The best treatment of Skelton's Replicacion is V.J. Scattergood's 'Skelton and Heresy', in Early Tudor England, ed. D. Williams, Woodbridge, 1989, pp. 157-70. 76 G. Walker As I have argued elsewhere,2 Bilney's case and the problems it created were a product both of the peculiar character of the defendant himself and the circumstances under which he was brought to trial. Had Bilney been tried even three years earlier, his case would have aroused far less concern than it did in the final months of 1527. For in 1526-27 the minds of the ecclesiastical authorities were collectively concentrated upon the question of heresy in a way in which they had not been in previous years. Until that time the heretical problem had largely been confined to scholarly circles and to isolated pockets of practical dissent. What changed things was the publication, in 1526, of William Tyndale's English translation of the N e w Testament with its contentious Lutheran glosses and overtones, which threatened to open up heretical ideas to the unprotected laity, and the discovery of what appeared to be a substantial cell of heretical students at Wolsey's Cardinal College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, in the summer of 1527. So at the very time when it seemed most necessary to combat the spread of heretical ideas, it seemed that the young clerks who would, by and large, have to spearhead the Church's efforts in that direction, were wavering in their loyalties and threatening to exacerbate the problem. Bilney's trial, then, provided the Church with something of...


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