Project Canterbury

Herbert Thorndike, 1598-1672
by T.A. Lacey

London: SPCK, 1929.

Chapter V. Tribulation

THORNDIKE'S two treatises were published when the nation and the Church stood on the edge of a precipice. The second had hardly appeared when the Civil War broke out. The political affairs with which the Short Parliament attempted to deal, and into which the Long Parliament plunged from the moment of its first meeting, are not my province except so far as they affected the Church; but that aspect of them was prominent and almost predominant. Never were the peculiar relations between Church and State introduced by the Tudor legislation more conspicuous, and never again have they been equally disastrous. It is not strictly accurate to call them relations of Church and State. That antithesis was not proper to the time. Of all the parties preparing for a fierce struggle, or drawn into it against their will, the Papists and the Independents alone had any use for it. The former, or most of them, had learnt from the great Spanish Jesuits to regard Church and State as two distinct associations, each of them a societas perfecta in the sense derived from Aristotle, though inevitably interpenetrating. The latter were compelled by their doctrine of the "gathered church" to recognize the same distinction; it was not without reason that opponents drew attention to their agreement on this head with the Jesuits, and then went beyond reason with fantastic stories of Jesuits masquerading as Independent preachers for the purpose of disseminating doubt by extravagances. It stands to Thorndike's credit that he would not listen even to "sober and knowing persons" who told these fairytales. [Epilogue, III, xxv, 12, "I confess it is none of my sense."] The Presbyterians, on the other hand, held as firmly as Richard Hooker himself to the conception of the commonwealth-church, of which the spiritualty and the temporalty were, at most, distinct functions. In Scotland, it is true, many of them came under the influence of Andrew Melville; and his distinction of two kingdoms in that distracted country, "the kingdom of James Stewart, and the kingdom of Jesus Christ wherein James Stewart is a seely vassal," had lasting effect. But in England, from Cartwright onwards, they adhered more closely to the platform of Geneva; their constant aim was to reduce the whole kingdom to their pattern of religion, their nonconformity was always provisional and for the most part surreptitious. They were now put in good heart by the recent success of their Scottish sympathizers in overthrowing the compromise which for thirty years had imposed a diocesan episcopate on a constitution fundamentally Presbyterian, and this the more because that revolution began with the rejection of a liturgy based on the one to which they themselves had long been fruitlessly opposed. The Scots army, flushed with victory over the King both in the kirk and in the field, was intervening in English politics with a view to effecting a similar revolution there. Presbyterians had the upper hand in the Commons of the Short Parliament, and in the Long Parliament they were from the first completely dominant, though jealously watched by a contingent of Independents; they had also a strong hold on a House of Lords irritated alike by the virtues and by the temperamental defects of Laud.

As long as the King stood firm, no legislative changes affecting the Church were possible; but Charles, having surrendered in Scotland, was weakened in England; the impeachment of Laud and the attainder of Stratford robbed him of his chief advisers, and compelled him to find ministers of another temper. He could have saved himself and most of his prerogatives by repeating the Scottish surrender; but he would not now secure his Crown rights, as seven years later he would not save his life, by sacrificing the root-principle of episcopacy. It is pitiful to reflect that some months earlier the adoption of Thorndike's scheme of synodal government, backed by the weight of Ussher's learning and not unacceptable to the puritanism of Baxter, might have procured peace. Now it had too much taste of compromise for the temper of the time, and there were astute politicians fanning the flames of religious discord to serve their own ends. As soon as the King definitely appealed to arms the alliance of the Parliament with the Scots was sealed in the Solemn League and Covenant, by which both parties pledged themselves to set up and maintain a strict Presbyterian establishment in the two kingdoms; the commonwealth-church was to have that form, and no other practice of religion was to be tolerated; a personal adherence to the Covenant would be required of all persons holding office, ecclesiastical or secular. But first the King had to be conquered, and by the time that was done there were other forces in the field before which the Covenant crumbled to pieces.

I am concerned with the fortunes of an obscure student at Cambridge in this time of confusion. In June 1642 Thorndike was presented, again by the Crown, to the rectory of Barley, in the diocese of London and the county of Hertfordshire. It must have been almost the last effective exercise of a Crown right in these parts. True to his principles, he surrendered Claybrook, and went at once into residence on his new benefice, retaining, however, his fellowship. Barley is only thirteen miles distant from Cambridge, and he was able to fulfil some duties in the college, becoming Senior Bursar at the end of the year. The war was now begun, and he was concerned with the other members of the foundation in the secret removal of their plate, convoyed with much address by Sir John Cotton of Madingley, the High Sheriff of the county, to the King at Oxford. In March 1643 an ordinance of Parliament for sequestering the estates of persons supporting the King specially mentioned such gifts of plate as acts of "delinquency," and in the following July Thorndike was thrust out of his rectory, probably on this account, the seques-trator put in charge retaining it until the Restoration. Such an ordinance obviously had no legal value, but was an effectual act of war, enforced in case of need by military execution. Where the Parliamentary forces held the ground, as always in the eastern counties, resistance was vain.

The colleges had a short respite. An incident of September 1643, of which too much has been made, and the accounts of which are clearly marked with prejudice, has been used to illustrate their precarious condition. The Earl of Manchester, a neighbouring magnate, and Oliver Cromwell, Member of Parliament for the town, made Cambridge their headquarters for organizing the army of the Associated Counties which was to be the deciding force of the war. The master of that very Puritan foundation, Sidney Sussex College--he was Samuel Ward, one of the English theologians at Dort--is said by Fuller to have been expelled by them. This seems improbable; what is certain is that he died on September 6th, and that within seven days the fellows of the college assembled to elect a successor. The story goes, not without variations, that Thorndike was on the point of being elected when a file of soldiers sent by Cromwell, who was himself a member of the college, burst in and forcibly removed one of his supporters, so as to secure the election of Richard Minshull. The defeated party is said to have appealed to the King, who replied "prohibiting any further molestation of the said Richard Minshull." So Haddan narrates, with some heat, and notes this as one of the occasions on which "Charles sacrificed his friends in the vain hope of conciliating his foes." This remark is curious in view of his further statement that Minshull's chief supporter was Robert Bertie, brother of the Earl of Lindsey, then in the King's service at Oxford. [Mr. G. M. Edwards, in his history of the college, gives the name of the defeated candidate as Robert Thorndike. But in transcribing from some handwritings of the period, that is a misreading of Herbert not unlikely to be made, and it appears again in a list of members of the Convocation of 1661.--White Kennet, p. 480.] Whatever may have been the actual circumstances on this occasion, such scenes of violence were certainly occurring, and in Christmas week the notorious Dowsing went through the college chapels on his usual work of defacement.

In January came the ordinance of Parliament for "regulating the University." The Earl of Manchester was now authorized to administer the Covenant to all students and graduates, and to eject any heads of houses, fellows, or scholars who were found on enquiry to be "scandalous in their lives or ill-affected to the Parliament." Then ensued the great purge, described three years later in the Querela Cantabrigiensis. For some reason Thorndike was not actually expelled from Trinity College until May 1646, but Haddan shows ground for thinking that he had voluntarily withdrawn himself at an earlier date. He must now have had very slender resources, and it is not clear how he lived at all. He is mentioned as one of the distressed Royalists aided by the bounty of Lord Scudamore, and it is good to know that on four occasions compassionate grants were made to him on a not ungenerous scale out of the revenues of his old college. He does not seem to have found anywhere the sort of peaceful shelter which Henry Hammond enjoyed in a country house of Worcestershire, and one may doubt whether it would have suited his temperament. It appears from a letter written to Sancroft in 1658 that he had for a time thought of qualifying himself for the practice of medicine. [Haddan, vi, p. 130.] It seems quite clear that throughout the troubles he never complied with the times, like Sanderson, Jeremy Taylor, Brownrigg, John Pearson, and many others, so far as to enable him to hold a benefice or any ecclesiastical promotion, and in a letter to Gilbert Sheldon he commented caustically on Sanderson's trickery in so doing. [Ibid., p. 116.] In some way he managed to live, and to continue his studies.

The cessation of the state of war brought no relief to him and his like, but rather increased their anxieties, for the personal surrender of the King to the Scots army might be taken as a prelude to acceptance of the Covenant and a further surrender to the Presbyterians of the English Parliament. It would certainly have been the most politic course for Charles to take. The House of Commons, alarmed at the growing independence of the army under Cromwell's guidance, and needing the Crown to put all its proceedings on a sure legal basis, would have made terms securing his dignity with some measure of executive authority. For more than two years fruitless negotiations went on, the Parliament meanwhile continuing to function in the same irregular fashion. The establishment of Presbyterianism by law was impossible without the royal assent, but preparations could be made for it, and the Parliament could at least prevent the functioning of the episcopate. The Westminster Assembly of Divines was a makeshift; its Confession and its Directory of Worship were but provisional, to be formally authorized as soon as the system of presbyterian synods should be complete. That stage was never reached. The movements of the King's mind were always apt to be tortuous, and it is not clear with what design he submitted to some chosen theologians, in the year 1647--if, indeed, it was done on his behalf--a question about the lawfulness of tolerating dissent from the established form of religion. [Sanderson's Works, ed. Jacobson, p. 459.] It is possible that he had some thought of winning the support of the army by such a policy, combining the retention of the establishment still existing by law with entire liberty for Independents and other sectaries. In the latter part of the following year he was closely engaged in discussion with representatives of the Assembly of Divines. Acting, perhaps, like a politician, he argued like a theologian, asking for scriptural proof either that episcopacy was contrary to God's Word written, in which case he must abandon it, or that on the supposition of its not being so forbidden he might still be freed from the obligation to maintain it in accordance with his coronation oath. Replies to his questions drew further questions requiring longer replies, after the manner of such controversy, without bringing the parties nearer to agreement. Any reader of the weary debate can see that no conclusion was possible unless by force of external circumstances. [The whole debate can be read in The Works of King Charles the Martyr, 1687, pp. 612.] But the heads of the army knew what was going on, and were gravely concerned. Cromwell made up his mind to stop it. Hence the seizure of the King; hence the violent expulsion of the Presbyterian majority from the House of Commons; hence the travesty of justice in the trial and execution of the King.

During the period of obscure intrigue I think we must place the composition of Thorndike's third treatise Of the Right of the Church in a Christian State. It is true that this was not issued, according to the imprint, until the year 1649; but even if we have not here a case of postdating, it was clearly written much earlier; for there was added an elaborate review of the contents, with references to the pages, which must therefore have been already printed but withheld from publication. Nor have I found, even in the Review, any allusion to Cromwell's purge of the House of Commons or to the tragic events of the year of publication, except a curiously worded reference to "the papers which passed between his late majesty, of happy memory, and Master Alexander Henderson, lately published." These papers were of the year 1646. To the same year belong the ordinances of Parliament setting up congregations and presbyteries, which he mentions in the preface as his immediate occasion for writing. These acts he challenged--waiving the point of legality--as contrary to the fundamental laws of the Christian Church, but he would not let the particular occasion cramp his argument. "My reasons," he explained, "are general to all states, and all parts of the Church." We therefore have here something more abstract than his previous writings, approaching nearer to a thesis formally treated. A brief summary shall be given later; meanwhile I follow the course of his other activities.

In 1650 his first two treatises were reprinted, these also with a Review, strengthening and in some places correcting the argument. One interesting point taken is that the Commissioners of the Parliament, negotiating with the King at Carisbrooke, had thrown aside the claim of divine right put forward by the Presbyterians, and urged only that episcopacy was equally an institution of human law, which might be varied. A passage in which viri ecclesiastici had been mentioned leads him to utter a warning against "the notion that prevailed in after ages, in which churchmen and clergymen are all one." It is the earliest instance that I have found of this verbal distinction, now well established. [The earliest O.E.D. citation of "churchman" in the modern sense is dated 1677.] He greatly enjoys turning against Blondel and De Saumaise their argument that the divine right of a bishop was but a step towards the Papacy by showing that the more extreme Papalists at the Council of Trent denied that divine right; but the reply is clearly sophistical, for a power which has grown out of the aggrandisement of one bishop may be ready to throw down the ladder by which it has reached its apex. There is a curious reason, founded on strong common sense, for preferring a frequent Eucharist to frequent preaching, "because, not requiring those abilities to the right, it shows not that appearance of scandal in the wrong performance of it." With excellent reason he ridicules the interpretation of St. Augustine's words "accedit verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum" to mean that preaching is a necessary adjunct of the Eucharist. The Review is almost one-fourth as long as the original tractates. This costly venture of printing implies a continuing demand for what had been originally no more than occasional pamphlets.

In 1652 came great relief. Thorndike was asked to join the band of scholars who under the leadership of Brian Walton were preparing the great Polyglot Bible. His own work lay chiefly in the Syriac texts, but he had a considerable part in the general management of the undertaking. It occupied him, and supplied his wants, for five years, which he seems to have spent chiefly at Cambridge. In 1656 was printed anonymously a "Letter," which he afterwards acknowledged, "concerning the Present State of Religion." It was an exhortation to avoid and reject the ministrations of those appointed to parish churches by the "Triers" set up under an ordinance of that year. The reason alleged is that "the effect of these laws is to nullify and make void one article of the Creed which hitherto we profess; to wit, the belief of 'one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.' "An acute distinction is drawn: "Supposing for the present, though not granting, that the power which makes these laws is from God; yet can it not be pretended to be from our Lord Christ and his apostles." Therefore "you cannot acknowledge such men for your pastors." He then becomes very vigorous: "Being by their creation schismatics, and their profession not clearing them of misprision of heresy, they can no more be acknowledged by those that pretend to adhere to the Church of England, than Belial by Christ, or darkness by light." The plea is rather encumbered than strengthened by a far-fetched argument throwing doubt on the efficacy of baptism administered by such men, and on their power to consecrate the Eucharist, though he had to admit that many of them would in fact be qualified by ordination. But Thorndike never knew when he had said enough. It was his passionate desire that no man of right principles should in the smallest degree render that compliance which he himself resolutely refused. A fragment of manuscript, preserved in the Chapter Library at Westminster and published by Haddan, shows that he regarded the current predestinarianism as the chief present danger. "The churches are possessed for the most part with those which either teach this or will not disown it, and have broken the Church in pieces for it. Fear of temporal penalties, and difficulty of finding what course to take, makes even those who detest this profession own them for their teachers by frequenting their sermons, and that for the service they owe God with his Church." Evelyn's Diary is evidence that his remonstrance fell on deaf ears, even where it might have been supposed to take effect. The general compliance, as I have remarked, is a feature of the time which we find it hard to understand; it is well matched by the sulky acceptance of violent religious changes in the middle of the sixteenth century. An Englishman's attachment to his parish church probably had much to do with it. That attachment still exists, but perhaps it is now more often shown by resentful objection to novelties than by acquiescence.

Thorndike's few extant letters show that by the end of 1657 he was again in great straits for money, but was meditating the immense task of an edition of Origen. He had procured a transcript of the Greek manuscript in the Bodleian, which he presented to the Library of Trinity College, and he was hoping for another transcript from "the library at Florence." Some months later he was thinking of a journey to Italy with Sancroft, now in exile at Utrecht, with what financial resources does not appear, and he hoped to spend some time at Rome, there also, no doubt, in search of manuscripts. But these schemes came to naught. He was at this time finishing, with long delays, his great work, the Epilogue, which gathered up in more massive form all that he had previously written. This appeared in 1659. Cromwell was then dead, and all England was in confusion. Thenceforward the rush of events carried the two friends elsewhere than to Rome.

Project Canterbury