Book: THE OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN & How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern

In the last paragraph of his Practice of Prelates, dated 1530, and published some time before the end of that year, Tyndale says: ‘Let them remember, that I well toward three years agone sent forth the True Obedience of a Christian Man. This gives probability to what Ames mentions in an irregular way, namely, that there is an edition of the Obedience of the date of Dec. 11, 1527. It was about that time that Tyndale removed from Worms to Marburg in Hesse, a city on the Lahn, where the landgrave Philip, the bold and uncompromising friend of the Reformation, had just founded an university, and Hans Luft had just established a printing press.

On the 8th of May, 1528, this Hans Luft sent forth an edition of the Obedience in 4to, of which Mr Offor has a copy; and on the 2nd of October in the same year, there came out another edition from his press in small 12mo, of which the Parker Society possesses a copy, which the editor has used for collation with the reprint in Day’s folio of 1573, prepared by Foxe the martyrologist.

In the introductory notice to the treatise on the parable of the Wicked Mammon, the reader has had evidence that the Obedience shared in its circulation and influence, and in the consequent hostility of the ruling church. There are, however, two instances of its separate distribution and influence, which should not pass unnoticed. One of the meekest and holiest of the martyrs of Henry VIII.’s reign was Thomas Bilney, a fellow of Trinity hall, Cambridge. In 1529, he had been terrified and tempted by bishop Tonstal into abjuring the faith he really held: but his friend, bishop Latimer, tells us that this brought him ‘into such anguish and agony, that nothing did him good, not even the communication of God’s word, because he thought that all the whole scriptures sounded his condemnation, till God endued him with such strength,’ that he took leave of his Cambridge friends, and said that he would go to Jerusalem; and departing into Norfolk, he there preached publicly the doctrine which he had abjured.

Having done this, he entered Norwich, and ‘gave to an anchoress, whom he had converted to Christ, a New Testament of Tyndale’s translation, and the Obedience of a Christian Man; whereupon he was apprehended and carried to prison, there to remain till the blind bishop Nix sent up for a writ to burn him.’ It seems to have been about the time of Bilney’s abjuration, that Anne Boleyn had well nigh been brought into difficulty, by lending the Obedience to one of her attendants. As Strype tells the story from a MS. left by Foxe, and now in the British Museum, she had ‘lent it for perusal to a fair young gentlewoman in her service, named Mrs Gainsford; from whose hands it was playfully carried off by the young lady’s suitor, a Mr George Zouch.’

Cardinal Wolsey had about the same time ‘given commandment to the prelates, and especially to Dr Sampson, dean of the king’s chapel, that they should have a vigilant eye over all people for such books; that so, as much as might be, they might not come to the king’s reading.’ But Mr Zouch was so delighted with what he read, that he could not refrain from reading it, not even in the king’s chapel. His close attention to his book caught Dr Sampson’s eye; and at length the dean called him up, took the book from him, and required to know what was his name, and ‘whose man he was.’

The book was presently delivered over by the dean to the cardinal: but, in the mean while, ‘the lady Anne asketh her woman for the book. She on her knees told all the circumstances. The lady Anne shewed herself not sorry, nor angry with either of the two: but, Well, said she, it shall be the dearest book that ever the dean or cardinal took away. So she goes to the king, and upon her knees she desireth the king’s help for her book. Upon the king’s token, the book was restored. And now, bringing the book to him, she besought his grace, most tenderly, to read it. The king did so, and delighted in the book: for, saith he, this book is for me, and all kings to read.’ Strype’s Eccles. Mem. ch. 15, Vol. 1, p. 173. Oxf. Ed. 1822.

This story has received confirmation from Wyatt’s Memoir, printed from a MS. in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, by Singer, Vol. 2, pp. 202-5. Wyatt indeed represents the cardinal as bringing the book to the king, to point out what he thought Henry would dislike, and to complain of those who countenanced such books. But this is obviously not irreconcilable with the account given in Foxe’s MS. Nor is the king’s continued hostility to Tyndale incompatible with his being pleased for a time with a powerfully written book, pressed upon his notice by the lady Anne; nor yet with his clearly perceiving that the author had justly rebuked the inroads made upon the authority of princes by an usurping priesthood.]