Robert Barnes was born in Bishop's Lynn in about 1495. According to John Bale, Barnes entered the house of the Austin friars in Cambridge while still a boy. He travelled to the University of Louvain where he studied under Desiderius Erasmus and developed humanist sympathies.
On his return to England "he became prior of the Austin friars there and initiated a series of reforms which centred on the introduction into the curriculum of such classical Latin authors as Terence, Plautus, and Cicero, and the replacement of scholastic authors with a course on the letters of St Paul." (1)
According to John Foxe through his reading, discussions, and preaching. Barnes became famous for his knowledge of scripture, always preaching against bishops and hypocrites, yet he continued to support the church's idolatry until he was converted by Thomas Bilney to the ideas of Martin Luther. (2)
On 24th December 1525, Barnes preached a sermon in St Edward's Church, in which he attacked the corruption of the clergy in general and that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in particular. He was arrested on 5th February 1526. Miles Coverdale helped him prepare his defence. Taken to London, Barnes appeared before Wolsey and found guilty. He was made to do public penance by carrying a faggot (a bundle of sticks bound together as fuel) on his back to Paul's Cross. The faggot was a symbol of the flames around the stake. (3)
Barnes was sent to Fleet Prison. In 1528 he was moved to the Austin House in Northampton, where he was kept under close guard. Robert Barnes now staged an elaborate escape to rid himself of the unwanted attention from the authorities. Leaving a suicide note for Wolsey, a pile of clothes on the river-bank, and a letter to the mayor of Northampton, asking him to search the river. Although they did not find a body it was reported all over Europe that Barnes had killed himself." (4)
Barnes disguised himself as a pauper and fled to London. He then sailed to Antwerp before travelling on to Wittenberg where he became a good friend of Martin Luther. In 1530 Robert Barnes published (under the Latin name Antonius Anglus) a book in from a vigorously protestant perspective.
Thomas Cromwell made contact with Barnes in the summer of 1531 and asked him to discover Luther's opinion on the divorce proceedings between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Luther's response was unfavourable to the king, but Barnes's seemed to be willing to compromise his views in order to return to England. He produced Supplication unto King Henry VIII and sent a copy to Cromwell who then showed it to Henry.
In early 1532 Barnes travelled to London under the protection of Cromwell and was granted a private audience with the king. As David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013) has pointed out: "Although his supplication was offensive to the monarch in the sense that it advocated justification by faith alone, it also explained a number of Lutheran tenents in terms which were acceptable to his sovereign. The king would have been looking for some endorsement of his position on his marriage, and over that it is likely that Barnes was non-committal." (5)
Sir Thomas More considered Barnes a heretic and protested about his meeting with the king. He pointed out that in Barnes's writings he had said that if his king ordered him to violate God's law, he must disobey and passively suffer martyrdom, though even then he must not resist the king by force. Barnes had also said that if the king ordered a man to burn his copy of the Bible, he would be justified in disobeying. More argued that Henry had ordered the burning of Bibles in English and therefore he was acting in a seditious manner. (6)
Barnes was in danger of being arrested and so he returned to Antwerp. He continued to be used by Cromwell for negotiations with Lutherans in Europe. He regularly visited London and in 1534 he was granted permission to publish a much revised edition of Supplication unto King Henry VIII that reflected the anti-papal stance of current English policy. (7)
In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (8)
Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. In May 1535, Pope Paul III created John Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and the following month he was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to be executed. On Tuesday 22nd June, 1535, the seventy-six year old Fisher was decapitated on Tower Hill. (9)
Henry VIII decided it was time that Thomas More was tried for treason. The trial was held in Westminster Hall. More denied that he had ever said that the King was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. The prosecution cited the statement that he had made to Thomas Cromwell on 3rd June, where he argued that the Act of Supremacy was like a two-edged sword in requiring a man either to swear against his conscience or to suffer death for high treason. (10)
The verdict was never in doubt and Thomas More was convicted of treason. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley "passed sentence of death - the full sentence required by law, that More was to be hanged, cut down while still living, castrated, his entrails cut out and burned before his eyes, and then beheaded. As he was being taken back to the Tower, Margaret Roper and his son John broke through the cordon of guards to embrace him. After he had bidden them farewell, as he moved away, Margaret ran back, again broke through the cordon, and embraced him again." (11)
Henry VIII commuted the sentence to death by the headsman's axe. On the night before his execution, Thomas More sent Margaret Roper his hairshirt, so that no one should see it on the scaffold and so that she could treasure that link that was a secret between the two of them. He wrote to her saying: "I long to go to God... I never liked your manner toward me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love, and dear charity, hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven." (12)
On 6th July, 1535, Thomas More was taken to Tower Hill. More told his executioner: "You will give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short; take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty." (13)
More's family were given the headless corpse to the family and it was buried at the church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Thomas More's head was boiled, as usual, to preserve it and to add terror to its appearance before exhibiting it. It was put on the pole on London Bridge which Fisher's head had occupied for the past fortnight. After a few days, Margaret Roper, his daughter, bribed a constable of the watch to take it down and give it to her. She hid the head in some place where no one found it. (14)
With the death of his main enemy, Sir Thomas More, Barnes felt free to live and preach in England. As Carl R. Trueman has pointed out: "From now on Barnes's career would be inextricably intertwined with the fortunes of Cromwellian domestic and foreign policy. In July 1535, as a royal chaplain, he was dispatched to Wittenberg for the purpose of persuading Melanchthon to abandon a planned trip to France and to come instead to England. Having at least induced Melanchthon to abandon his French expedition, Barnes then met up with Johann Friedrich, the elector of Saxony, opening the way for a formal embassy, headed by Edward Fox (now bishop of Hereford) and Nicholas Heath, which arrived in the following December." (15)
In 1539 Barnes travelled to Copenhagen to discuss Anglo-Danish relations, in particular the prospect of an anti-papal alliance that might involve Henry VIII marrying Anne of Cleves, the daughter of John III. This was an idea suggested by Thomas Cromwell. He thought this would make it possible to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. An alliance with the non-aligned north European states would be undeniably valuable, especially as Charles V of Spain and François I of France had signed a new treaty on 12th January 1539. (16)
As David Loades has pointed out: "Cleves was a significant complex of territories, strategically well placed on the lower Rhine. In the early fifteenth century it had absorbed the neighbouring country of Mark, and in 1521 the marriage of Duke John III had amalgamated Cleves-Mark with Julich-Berg to create a state with considerable resources... Thomas Cromwell was the main promoter of the scheme, and with his eye firmly on England's international position, its attractions became greater with every month that passed." (17)
Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England.
Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the leading religious conservative in England, made an attack on Lutheran opinions on 15th February, 1540. (18) In the following weeks Robert Barnes, Thomas Garrard, and William Jerome attacked Gardiner's views. On 3rd April, Henry VIII gave orders for the three men to be sent to the Tower of London. Two days later Barnes was summoned to appear before Henry VIII and Gardiner. Barnes begged forgiveness but continued to preach against the religious conservatives. (19)
Thomas Cromwell retaliated by arresting Richard Sampson, Bishop of Chichester and Nicholas Wotton, staunch conservatives in religious matters. He then began negotiating the release of Barnes. However, this was unsuccessful and it was now clear that Cromwell was in serious danger. (20) The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. Although he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley he did not lose his power and on 18th April the King granted him the earldom of Essex. (21)
Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". (22) On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. (23) Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (24)
With Thomas Cromwell unable to protect them, Barnes Thomas Garrard, and William Jerome were once again taken into custody. (25) On 22nd July, 1540, Garrard, Barnes and Jerome, were attainted as heretics, a procedure which denied them the chance to defend themselves in court, and sentenced to death; their heresies were not specified. At the stake, on 30th July, Garrard and his fellows maintained that they did not know why they were being burnt, and that they died guiltless. Richard Hilles, who observed the executions, commented that the men "remained in the fire without crying out, but were as quiet and patient as though they felt no pain". The men were burnt at the same time that three Catholics, Thomas Abell, Edward Powell, and Richard Fetherstone, were hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason. (26)
David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013), has argued: "None of these men was guilty of the radical heresies with which they were charged, but it was deemed necessary as part of the campaign against Cromwell to represent him as the controlling force behind a dangerous heretical conspiracy - and these were the other conspirators, or some of them. Like him they were condemned by Act of Attainder, and Barnes at least proclaimed his innocence in his last speech to the crowd. He had never preached sedition or disobedience, and had used his learning against the Anabaptists. He did not know why he was condemned to die, but the true answer lay not in his own doings or beliefs, but in his association with Thomas Cromwell." (27)
The following months saw the return to the council of the three leading conservative bishops, Gardiner, Tunstall, and John Clerk of Bath and Wells; then, with the arrest of Cromwell on 10 June, the fate of Barnes and company was effectively sealed. On 22 July the three men were attainted as heretics, a procedure which denied them the chance to defend themselves in court, and sentenced to burn at Smithfield; their heresies were not specified. Finally, on 30 July 1540, Barnes, Garrard, and Jerome were taken to Smithfield, where they were burnt at the same time that three Catholics, Thomas Abell, Edward Powell, and Richard Fetherstone, were hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason.
Two days later, three of Cromwell's more obvious clients, who had been in prison since Barnes retracted his recantation on 30 March - Robert Barnes himself, William Jerome and Thomas Garrett - were burned at Smithfield. Barnes was certainly a Lutheran, but that had not prevented Cromwell from using him as a diplomatic agent no further back that the beginning of 1540. None of these men was guilty of the radical heresies with which they were charged, but it was deemed necessary as part of the campaign against Cromwell to represent him as the controlling force behind a dangerous heretical conspiracy - and these were the other conspirators, or some of them. Like him they were condemned by Act of Attainder, and Barnes at least proclaimed his innocence in his last speech to the crowd. He had never preached sedition or disobedience, and had used his learning against the Anabaptists. He did not know why he was condemned to die, but the true answer lay not in his own doings or beliefs, but in his association with Thomas Cromwell.