|Thomas Stapleton’s edition of Bede’s
Ecclesiastical History (1565)
Recently I’ve been looking into the Roman Catholic apologist Thomas Stapleton’s translation and publication of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. I’m mainly looking at it for what he, himself, has to say about the protestant reformers whose writings he was directly attacking. The work of Matthew Parker and his circle in promoting the Elizabethan church settlement was made all the more difficult therefore, in 1565 when Stapleton’s publication came to light. Here are a few of my ramblings.
In the sixteenth century Bede’s notoriety as a man of learning was already well established, but for Protestants his work represented something of a difficulty. Bede was very much in support of the Christianisation of England by Augustine, and thus made for a difficult translation to protestant revisions to their past. Although attempts were made by the likes of John Foxe and John Bale, they never really managed to place Bede at the centre of any Protestant history of the Anglo-Saxons. Foxe, for example, banished Bede to the side lines in favour of other later and alternative accounts. Bale, meanwhile, caused scandal and consternation even among other Protestant scholars by reading into Bede a sexual scandal befitting of a tabloid newspaper headline.
Bale’s approach, in particular, was to prove fertile ground for Thomas Stapleton’s preface to Bede’s ecclesiastical history. But, before I go into all of that, it is worthwhile, I think, recalling a little about the man himself. Stapleton was named by his father after the famous Lord Chancellor and humanist scholar Sir Thomas More who had at that time recently been sent to the executors axe. This gives you some idea of the Stapleton family position on the emerging reformation, and Thomas himself was not to waver from this stance. He was trained as a theologian at Oxford in the 1550s and then ordained as priest in early 1558. His resistance to protestant reforms led to his exile to Louvain in 1559 and he was never again to set foot in England. Up until the mid-1560s he wrote various works in English setting out his disagreement with the Elizabethan regimes religious policy. All of these publications were considered controversial in England, and whilst his translation of Bede was perhaps the least of these, it was inconvenient as far as Parker’s plans went for establishing a reformed chronicle tradition in England.
At the front of the new edition Stapleton explains clearly his reasons for undertaking such work; so that the Queen might clearly see “the misse information of a fewe for displacing the auncient and right Christian faith”. Indeed, the claim of misinformation by Bale, Foxe and others is exactly what Stapleton bases a good part of his arguments upon. Stapleton accuses Bale of being like a “venomous spider” in his reading of Bede.
Bale made his accusations in his The Actes of Englysh Votaryes (published 1546), basing it upon a short paragraph in Bede’s ecclesiastical history. Here is the passage from Bede:
“Nor must we pass by in silence the story of the blessed Gregory, handed down to us by the tradition of our ancestors, which explains his earnest care for the salvation of our nation. It is said that one day, when some merchants had lately arrived at Rome, many things were exposed for sale in the market place, and much people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and saw among other wares some boys put up for sale, of fair complexion, with pleasing countenances, and very beautiful hair. When he beheld them, he asked, it is said, from what region or country they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, and that the inhabitants were like that in appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism, and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, “Alas! what pity,” said he, “that the author of darkness should own men of such fair countenances; and that with such grace of outward form, their minds should be void of inward grace.” He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an angelic face, and it is meet that such should be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven. What is the name of the province from which they are brought?” It was replied, that the natives of that province were called Deiri. “Truly are they De ira,” said he, “saved from wrath, and called to the mercy of Christ. How is the king of that province called?” They told him his name was Aelli; and he, playing upon the name, said, “Allelujah, the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.” (Bede, EH, 82-3)
Bale repeated this story making a play on Bede’s choice of words to suggest that Pope Gregory had sexual desires on the English boys. Bale notes that Catholic Bishops have no wives and are thus seeking ‘other spirytuall remedyes’. Whilst the accusation is not direct it is very obvious from the context and notes that Bale makes just before retelling the story from Bede. The play on words enacted by Pope Gregory – Angles, Deiri and Aelli – are transformed in the Votaryes as signs that he and the other Bishops were lusting after these slave boys with angelic faces and beautiful hair:
“So how curyose these fathers were, in the wele eyenge of their wares. Here was no cyrcumstaunce unloked to, perteynynge to the sale” (Votaryes, 20)
It is therefore no surprise that Stapleton sought to attack Bale as ‘filthy and uncleane’ and that he had ‘sucketh out a poisoned sence and meaning’ when reading Bede ‘charging that holy man [Gregory I] with a most outrageous vice and not to be named’.
If this was all that Stapleton argues then we could more or less dismiss it as a simple, but obvious, rebuttal to Bale. In itself, it is not all that interesting or unexpected. However, Stapleton is making a larger point here about the nature of Christian faith, belief, and charity. He asks his readers to:
“gather honny lyke bees oute of this comfortable history of oure countre, not venim like spiders. Reade it with charitable simplicitie, not suspicious curiosite, with virtuous charite, not with wicked malice.” (Stapleton, Bede, preface)
What is Stapleton trying to say here? Placing this sentence into its wider context it becomes obvious that Stapleton is making a distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic opinion about Christian charity. Stapleton appeals to his readers to read Bede’s history with a Christian heart and furthermore to note how John Bale has read it with malicious intent. Surely, Stapleton argues, “none can think evill of other, which is not evill him selfe”. By appealing to people’s better natures, Stapleton has found a weakness in the Protestant arguments that attempt to portray Catholic activity in the past as seedy, traitorous and un-Christian. Whilst far from watertight (Protestants could and did argue that they were only untangling the lies and deceits of the enemy) it was perhaps enough to make some pause and think.
A second line of attack that Stapleton makes follows a line that every undergraduate historian should be familiar with: the primary source vs. the secondary source debate. He points out that Bede was not only an Englishman but was also alive at the time or near enough to that of which he wrote about. He is therefore an eyewitness, but also one who has no knowledge of later arguments, such as those between Protestants and Catholics, and as such has no agenda. Whilst Stapleton is wrong to suggest that Bede had no agenda, it nonetheless works as a powerful statement against those like Foxe, Bale, and Parker writing some 900 years later. Through Bede, Stapleton is presenting a genuine voice from the past, unspoilt by later judgements and arguments. Thus, in Stapleton’s words:
“There is no suspicion of partes taking, no prejudice of favouring either side, no feare of affection of missejudgement to be gathered upon him. We have good cause to suspect the reports of Bale, of Fox, of Beacon and suche other, whiche are knowen to maintaine a faction and singular opinion lately spronge up, who reporte thinges passed many hundred yeares before their dayes. No such suspicion can be made of S. Bede, who lyved above eight hundred yeares paste, and reporteth the planting of Christen religion among us Englishmen, partly by that whiche he sawe him selfe, partly by the reporte of such who either lived at the first coming in of Christendom to our countre them selves, or were scholers to such.” (Stapleton, Bede, preface)
In all then, Stapleton’s preface to his translation of Bede talked about the differences between Protestant and Catholic faith and charity, and attempted to present Protestant scholars as horrid men and slanderers. There is much here for the historian to pick up upon, more than what I have talked about here even. There are also plenty of quotation opportunities – Stapleton is not shy about his attacks. What this work does help to show us, however, is the difficulty protestant scholars had in making the Anglo-Saxons something respectable in their new world order. Bede’s writings favoured the Roman Catholics in terms of argument much better than they ever would for the early reformers.