Nicholas Shaxton

Nicholas Shaxton was born in Norfolk in about 1485. He studied at Cambridge University and achieved a BA in 1506. (1) It has been argued that as a student he was a regular visitor to the White Horse tavern that had been nicknamed "Little Germany" as the Lutheran creed was discussed within its walls, and the participants were known as "Germans". Those involved in the debates about religious reform included Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Matthew Parker and Miles Coverdale. Shaxton also went to hear the sermons of preachers such as Robert Barnes and Thomas Bilney. (2)

Shaxton became a fellow of Gonville Hall. According to his biographer, Susan Wabuda: "In the 1520s many members of Gonville Hall became deeply involved in the theological ferment developing at Cambridge.... Gonville Hall, with Pembroke and Peterhouse, had among its members... Edward Crome (who was a fellow with Shaxton) and John Skip (later chaplain to Anne Boleyn). The royal physician William Butts (an influential advocate of reform at court) was also a Gonville man. Shaxton's devotion to his college remained a great constant throughout his life." (3)

Nicholas Shaxton and Martin Luther

The main issue discussed by the reformers concerned the doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine became in actual fact the body and blood of Christ. The Catholic Church believed because it is impossible, it is proof of the overwhelming power of God. Martin Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, but denied that he was there "in substance". Luther believed in what became known as consubstantiation or sacramental union, whereby the integrity of the bread and wine remain even while being transformed by the body and blood of Christ. Eventually, Shaxton, accepted the interpretation of Luther. (4)

In August 1531 Shaxton's friend, Thomas Bilney, was burnt at the stake for heresy. John Foxe later described his execution at Norwich: "Bilney approached the stake in a layman's gown, his arms hanging out, his hair mangled by the church's ritual divestiture of office. He was given permission to speak to the crowd and told them not to blame the friars present for his death and then said his private prayers. The officers put reeds and wood around him and lit the fire, which flared up rapidly, deforming Bilney's face as he held up his hands." Foxe claimed he called out "Jesus" and "I believe". (5)

Anne Boleyn

Shaxton was distressed by this event and along with his friends attempted to convert others to their beliefs. This included Henry VIII . Along with Hugh Latimer and Matthew Parker, Shaxton joined these preaching campaigns to promote the royal supremacy and attack "superstitious" practices associated with the cults of saints and the doctrine of purgatory. This pleased Anne Boleyn and become one of the queen's chaplains. Shaxton was a strong opponent of people visiting religious shrines. He urged the destruction of all "stinking boots, mucky combs, ragged rochets, rotten girdles, threadbare purses, great bullocks' horns, locks of hair, and filthy rags, gobblets of wood under the name of parcels of the holy cross." (6)

As Susan Wabuda has pointed out: "Anne Boleyn's enemies dismissed her as a Lutheran, but the importance of her dedication to the cause of evangelism cannot be overstated. Her patronage became the cornerstone of Latimer's rise to prominence, and he owed his most important promotions to her influence...Anne's influence brought Latimer promotion to the rectory of West Kington in Wiltshire, a valuable living, where he was diligent in his cure, saying mass, preaching, and keeping hospitality. It started him in a lifelong association with the cause of reform in the west country, and gave him a springboard from which to respond to invitations to preach in London, Kent, and elsewhere." It has also been claimed by Wabuda that "at the queen's request Latimer tried to persuade Henry not to confiscate the goods of the religious houses, but to re-found them or distribute their wealth in fulfilment of their ultimate potential as centres of learning and preaching, and continual relief of poverty." (7)

By the beginning of 1534 Nicholas Shaxton had risen to become Queen Anne's almoner. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced Shaxton, who he called "my old acquainted friend" and Hugh Latimer onto the court's preaching schedule. "The court had rapidly become a testing ground for doctrinal change with Henry's supremacy over the English church. In Anne's evangelical household religious discussion was a fixture, especially at dinners, and the supreme head himself sometimes engaged in debates and arguments." (8)

Bishop of Salisbury

In 1535 Nicholas Shaxton was appointed as Bishop of Salisbury. Shaxton joined forces with Thomas Cromwell to introduce religious reforms. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they wanted to use was that of Miles Coverdale, an edition that was a reworking of the one produced by Tyndale. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (9)

Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (10) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (11)

The Six Articles

In May 1539 the bill of the six articles was presented by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk in Parliament. It was soon clear that it had the support of Henry VIII. Although the word "transubstantiation" was not used, the real presence of Christ's very body and blood in the bread and wine was endorsed. So also was the idea of purgatory. The six articles presented a serious problem for Shaxton and other religious reformers. Shaxton had argued against transubstantiation and purgatory for many years. Shaxton now faced a choice between obeying the king as supreme head of the church and standing by the doctrine he had had a key role in developing and promoting for the past decade. (12) The act also prohibited clerical marriage and upheld vows of chastity, and lapses were considered felonies, punishable by death. This was a problem for Shaxton was a married man. (13)

Bishop Nicholas Shaxton and Bishop Hugh Latimer both spoke against the Six Articles in the House of Lords. Thomas Cromwell was unable to come to their aid and in July they were both forced to resign their bishoprics. For a time it was thought that Henry would order their execution as heretics. He eventually decided against this measure and instead they were ordered to retire from preaching. However, Latimer's close friend and mentor, Robert Barnes was burnt at the stake on 30th July, 1540. (14)

Recantation of Nicholas Shaxton

Shaxton retired to Hadleigh in Suffolk. Over the next few years he and his wife had at least three children. In February 1546 conservatives in the Church of England, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy the radical Protestants. (15) Shaxton was arrested and accused of giving sermons attacking the Six Articles. He was found guilty and condemned to be burnt. After further discussions he recanted.

To test his new beliefs he was sent to speak to Anne Askew. Bishop Gardiner instructed Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine Parr and other leading Protestants as heretics. Kingston complained about having to torture a woman (it was in fact illegal to torture a woman at the time) and the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (16) Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. (17)

Askew was removed to a private house to recover and once more offered the opportunity to recant. Nicholas Shaxton went to see her in an attempt to save her life. It is reported that Askew told Shaxton that she wished he had never been born. (18) When she refused to recant she was taken to Newgate Prison to await her execution. On 16th July 1546, Agnew "still horribly crippled by her tortures" was carried to execution in Smithfield in a chair as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain. (19)

It was reported that she was taken to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, on which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck. (20) Nicholas Shaxton presided when she was burnt. "Two weeks later he appeared at Paul's Cross to recant formally, weeping copiously for his errors. It was about this time that he put away his wife. In November his reconciliation to the regime became complete when the king gave him a new licence to preach." (21)

Shaxton now supported the conservatives led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner. He never retracted this recantation, he never apologized to his former allies and he was not reconciled with his wife. His position improved under Queen Mary and in 1555 he received a pardon from Cardinal Reginald Pole for his illicit marriage and the heresies he had encouraged under Henry VIII. The following year he was involved in the persecution of John Hullier, who was burnt at the stake on 16th April, 1556. (22)

Shaxton died on 9th August, 1556.

Primary Sources

(1) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Shaxton was arrested and condemned to be burnt. Then a panel of theologians was sent to persuade him, with even greater success than in 1531. He accepted the six articles with no further reservations, and wrote an abject letter of apology to the king. As part of his submission he was sent to persuade Anne Askew, who had similarly denied the real presence... and he presided when she was burnt with three others in Smithfield on 16 July. Two weeks later he appeared at Paul's Cross to recant formally, weeping copiously for his errors. It was about this time that he put away his wife. In November his reconciliation to the regime became complete when the king gave him a new licence to preach.

From 1546 Shaxton's alienation from reform was total. He never retracted this recantation, he never apologized to his former allies, he was not reconciled with his wife, and he remained conservative in opinion for the rest of his life. Under Edward VI he seemed like a dangerous backslider to the new protestant regime, and he was the focus of many vituperative printed attacks, by John Bale (who said he fell from Christ) among others. The most damaging one, edited by Robert Crowley, carried an anonymous letter of criticism by Taylor, and even the simple rhyming admonition against sexual incontinence that Shaxton had written to his wife when he had separated from her.

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(1) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 27

(3) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 141

(5) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 83 of 2014 edition.

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 125

(7) Susan Wabuda, Hugh Latimer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 294

(10) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 190

(11) John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (2011) page 227

(12) Susan Wabuda, Hugh Latimer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Carl R. Trueman, Robert Barnes : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) C. D. C. Armstrong, Stephan Gardiner : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Anne Askew, letter smuggled out to her friends (29th June, 1546)

(17) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 517

(18) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 387

(20) Elaine V. Beilin, The Examinations of Anne Askew (1996) page 191

(21) Susan Wabuda, Nicholas Shaxton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(22) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 232 of 2014 edition.