Remembering Martin Bucer

Stephen Tong is an Australian in his third year of PhD research at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which is partly funded by the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. He is investigating evangelical ecclesiology during the Edwardian Reformation with a particular focus on developments in liturgy. At the 2016 EHS summer conference (for which he was awarded a bursary), Stephen presented a paper on Bishop John Bale of Ossory, Ireland, and his attempts to export the Edwardian reforms into Ireland between 1552 and 1553. This post is a reflection on Martin Bucer, one of the most prominent continental figures who took refuge in England.

On the right-hand side of the chancel floor of Great St Mary’s Church, in the centre of Cambridge, lies a small brass plaque. The Latin inscription, its obscure location, and small size do not make it a very accessible tourist attraction. However, as X marks the spot for pirates’ treasure, this plaque commemorates one of the most influential sixteenth-century reformers: Martin Bucer.

stmarys
Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge

Although Bucer was born in Sélestat, Alsace, and spent a quarter of a century as a minister in Strasbourg, he died in Cambridge on 28 February 1551 at the age of fifty-nine. He was a religious refugee, did not speak English, and did not appreciate the English climate or cuisine.[1] Before coming to England, Bucer already considered himself a feeble old man, and complained that his ‘bowels are in an obstinate state’.[2] Despite these setbacks, Bucer had been Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University since December 1549.[3]

After Bucer died, a great outpouring of grief swept the university town.[4] A crowd of 3,000 attended his funeral, including the University dignitaries, town mayor, and other civil representatives.[5] King Edward VI himself made an entry in his personal journal noting these events.[6] Bucer had clearly won a reputation as a leading evangelical scholar and reformer. This was ironically consolidated during the next reign.

 

In 1556, the Roman Catholic monarch of England, Queen Mary (1553-1558), exhumed Bucer’s remains from Great St Mary’s. His bones were chained to a stake in the town marketplace and burnt along with any available works of the German theologian.[7] It was a symbolic act of ecclesiastical retribution and excommunication.

The unceremonious treatment of Bucer’s remains was overturned by Queen Elizabeth I in a formal act of rehabilitation on 22 July 1560. And a brass plaque was placed on the location of Bucer’s original grave.

memorial

This unremarkable plaque is somewhat representative of the way in which Bucer’s legacy has been remembered by successive generations since his death in 1551. In his lifetime, Bucer played an active hand in shaping the evangelical character of the fledging Protestant institution of the Church of England, let alone exercising a great deal of influence on the development of ecclesiastical reform throughout the continent. Yet until recently English-speaking scholars have generally viewed him as a reformer in the wings.[8]

There are at least two reasons for this academic trend. First, other reformers eclipsed Bucer’s reputation soon after his death in both Strasbourg and England. The German reformer had fled his native country in 1548 due to the Augsburg Interim. But rather than Roman Catholics, it was Lutherans who did most to obscure Bucer’s legacy in Strasbourg in the second half of the sixteenth century. In England, the theological insights of Calvin and Bullinger (both still alive) increasingly outweighed those of Bucer from the beginning of the Elizabeth’s reign.

Second, Bucer’s surviving manuscripts continue to confound and frustrate scholars to this day. His handwriting and Latin style have been described as ‘notoriously difficult and unattractive’.[9] I know from personal experience with some of these manuscripts held by the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, just how indecipherable some of Bucer’s work is.

These two factors have combined to push Bucer from the forefront of our minds. However, just as the memorial plaque is representative of our memory of Bucer in that it is rather inconspicuous, its permanence is also illustrative of his legacy.

foxebookofmartyrs
John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments

 

As the preeminent theologian of Cambridge under Edward VI, Bucer commanded great respect amongst the students and staff. However it is difficult to accurately gauge the full extent of his impact. John Bradford is often seen as Bucer’s most devoted student. But Mary burnt him as a heretic in 1555. We do know that Bucer had established intimate friendships with three Archbishops of Canterbury: Cranmer, Parker, and Grindal. This alone should spark interest in the ways the Strasbourg reformer helped shape the Church of England.[10] As a starting point, there are at least two aspects worth considering briefly.

The first is to state the obvious. The development of Protestantism in England was an international movement. Historians have never really denied this. However, as Diarmaid MacCulloch has so clearly explained, Bucer’s arrival to England was highly anticipated by Cranmer as a key figure in his plans for a Grand Protestant Council to rival the contemporaneous Council of Trent.[11] Other marquee signings for the English Church included Peter Martyr Vermigli, the Italian refugee appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1548. Ironically, the input of these international theologians contributed significantly to the creation of a national Church in England. This leads us to our second observation.

Perhaps the most prominent way Bucer influenced the English Reformation was via liturgical reform. The Strasbourg reformer had been interested in expressing his Protestantism through the liturgy from the earliest stages of his career in the 1520s. He continued to see the purification of liturgy as necessary right up to his death. 1550 was spent, among other projects and lecturing responsibilities, reviewing the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Bucer’s Censura was a thorough critique of Cranmer’s first attempt to revise the form of public worship in England. The result was a much more conspicuously evangelical liturgy in the 1552 edition. The two subsequent editions of 1559 and 1662 were by and large reiterations of the second Edwardian Prayer Book.

In time, the Book of Common Prayer became the flagship of British religion. It was exported around the world wherever the British Empire spread. And is still being used in many quarters of the Anglican Communion today. On this basis, one could argue that Bucer has had a more continuous influence on English Protestantism than many other theologians, national or international. By the same token, it can be argued that this German reformer played a vital hand in creating one of the foundational documents of the national ecclesiastical institution in England. This liturgy, along with the 39 Articles, gave the Church of England a confessional identity distinct from other centres of Reformed theology such as Geneva.

2017 is already awash with publications, conferences, and celebrations of Luther. No doubt 2018 will see much the same treatment of Calvin (or at least his theology) in commemoration of the 400 anniversary of the Synod of Dort. It is unlikely that Bucer will ever have similar treatment. But as my current doctoral research has underlined (to me at least), paying attention to lesser known figures of the past often reaps great rewards.

The insights into the Edwardian Reformation I have gained by investigating Bucer have proven to be highly valuable. Most significantly, it has forced me to see developments in the sixteenth-century English Church within the wider European context. Although historians know that the ‘English’ Reformation was a continental affair, Anglican writers from the seventeenth century to the present have tended towards a wilful amnesia about continental influences. It has also given me a renewed appreciation of the value of looking beyond the accepted geographical and chronological boundaries of previous studies. While Bucer lived and died in Edwardian England, one cannot fully grasp his importance for that specific period without understanding his previous career in Germany. Taking such a broad view of the past can only benefit historians in our attempt to comprehend those who have gone before us. Bucer’s relevance for the English Reformation is but one example of this.

 

 

 

[1] Bucer complained about the living conditions in England in a letter sent to Strasburg from Cambridge, 26 December 1550, Bucer to Strasbourg Ministers, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation II (Parker Society: Cambridge, 1847), 550-51. See also H. J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer (Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press at Truman State University, 1999), trans. John Vriend and Lyle D. Bierma, 126-7 esp. fns. 60-3.

[2] Bucer to Calvin, Original Letters II, 548. Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1990, trans. 2004) trans. Stephen E. Buckwalter, 248.

[3] All official communication at the two Universities was conducted in Latin during this period.

[4] Cheke to Parker, 9 March 1551, Correspondence of Matthew Parker (Parker Society: Cambridge, 1853), ed. John Bruce, 44.

[5] Constantin Hopf, Martin Bucer and the English Reformation (Blackwell: Oxford, 1946), 28-31. The estimated population size of Cambridge in 1550 was 25, 000.

[6] The Chronicle and Political Papers of King Edward VI, W. K. Jordan (ed.) (Allen & Unwin: London, 1966), 53-4.

[7] The remains of Paul Fagius were also subjected to this treatment.

[8] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981), 121-32. MacCulloch has done much to rehabilitate Bucer’s influential role on the English Church in Thomas Cranmer: A Life (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1996).

[9] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed. rev., 1997), 246.

[10] See for interest Patrick Collinson’s essay, ‘The Reformation and the Archbishop: Martin Bucer and an English Bucerian’, in idem Godly People (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), 19-44.

[11] MacCulloch, Cranmer, 394-5.

 

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