But the mailer gentry shared in the general enrichment of the landed proprietors, and the new energy of the Lords was soon followed by a display of fresh political independence among the Commons themselves.
But it was above all in the new energy which the religious spirit of the people at large drew from the ecclesiastical changes which he had brought about, that the policy of Cromwell was fatal to the Monarchy. Lollardry, as a great social and popular movement, had ceased to exist, and little remained of the directly religious impulse given by Wyclif beyond a vague restlessness and discontent with the system of the Church. But weak and fitful as was the life of Lollardry, the prosecutions whose records lie scattered over the bishops' registers failed wholly to kill it. We see groups meeting here and there to read "in a great book of heresy all one night certain chapters of the Evangelists in English," while transcripts of Wyclifs tracts passed from hand to hand. The smouldering embers needed but a breath to fan them into flame, and the breath came from William Tyndale. He had passed from Oxford to Cambridge to feel the full impulse given by the appearance there of the New Testament of Erasmus. From that moment one thought was at his heart. "If God spare my life," he said to a learned controversialist, "ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost." But he was a man of forty before his dream, became fact.
Drawn from his retirement in Gloucestershire by the news of Luther's protest at Wittemberg, he found shelter for a time in London, and then at Hamburg, before he found his way to the little town which had suddenly become the sacred city of the Reformation. Students of all nations were nocking there with an enthusiasm which resembled that of the Crusades. "As they came in sight of the town," a contemporary tells us, "they returned thanks to God with clasped hands, for from Wittemberg, as heretofore from Jerusalem, the light of evangelical truth had spread to the utmost parts of the earth." In 1525 his version of the New Testament was completed. Driven from Köln, he had to fly with his sheets to Worms, from whence six thousand copies of the New Testament were sent to English shores. But it was not as a mere translation of the Bible that Tyndale's work reached England. It came as a part of the Lutheran movement; it bore the Lutheran stamp in its version of ecclesiastical words; it came too in company with Luther's bitter invectives and reprints of the tracts of Wyclif. It was denounced as heretical, and a pile of books was burned before Wolsey in St. Paul's Churchyard. Bibles and pamphlets however were smuggled over to England and circulated among the poorer and trading classes through the agency of an association of "Christian Brethren," consisting principally of London tradesmen and citizens, but whose missionaries spread over the country at large.
They found their way at once to the Universities, where the intellectual impulse given by the New Learning was quickening religious speculation. Cambridge had already won a name for heresy, and the Cambridge scholars whom Wolsey introduced into Cardinal College which he was founding spread the contagion through Oxford. A group of "Brethren " which was formed in Cardinal College for the secret reading and discussion of the Epistles soon included the more intelligent and learned scholars of the University. It was in vain that Clark, the centre of this group, strove to dissuade fresh members from joining it by warnings of the impending dangers. "I fell down on my knees at his feet," says one of them, Anthony Dalaber, "and with tears and sighs besought him that for the tender mercy of God he should not refuse me, saying that I trusted verily that He who had begun this on me would not forsake me, but would give me grace to continue therein to the end. When he heard me say so he came to me, took me in his arms, and kissed me, saying, 'The Lord God Almighty grant you so to do, and from henceforth ever take me for your father, and I will take you for my son in Christ.'" The excitement which followed on this rapid diffusion of Tyndale's works forced Wolsey to more vigorous action; many of the Oxford Brethren were thrown into prison and their books seized.
But in spite of the panic of the Protestants, some of whom fled over sea, little severity was really exercised; and Wolsey remained steadily indifferent to all but political matters.
Henry's chief anxiety, indeed, was lest in the outburst against heresy the interest of the New Learning should suffer harm. This was remarkably shown in the protection he extended to one who was destined to eclipse even the fame of Colet as a popular preacher. Hugh Latimer was the son of a Leicestershire yeoman, whose armour the boy had buckled on ere he set out to meet the Cornish insurgents at Blackheath field. He has himself described the soldierly training of his youth. "My father was delighted to teach me to shoot with the bow. He taught me how to draw, how to lay my body to the bow, not to draw with strength of arm as other nations do, but with the strength of the body." At fourteen he was at Cambridge, flinging himself into the New Learning which was winning its way there with a zeal which at last told on his physical strength. The ardour of his mental efforts left its mark on him in ailments and enfeebled health, from which, vigorous as he was, his frame never wholly freed itself. But he was destined to be known, not as a scholar, but as a preacher. The sturdy good sense of the man shook off the pedantry of the schools as well as the subtlety of the theologian in his addresses from the pulpit.
He had little turn for speculation, and in the religious changes of the day we find him constantly lagging behind his brother reformers. But he had the moral earnestness of a Jewish prophet, and his denunciations of wrong had a prophetic directness and fire. "Have pity on your soul," he cried to Henry, "and think that the day is even at hand when you shall give an account of your office, and of the blood that hath been shed by your sword." His irony was yet more telling than his invective. "I would ask you a strange question," he said once at Paul's Cross to a ring of Bishops, " who is the most diligent prelate in all England, that passeth all the rest in doing of his office? I will tell you. It is the Devil! of all the pack of them that have cure, the Devil shall go for my money; for he ordereth his business. Therefore, you unpreaching prelates, learn of the Devil to be diligent in your office. If you will not learn of God, for shame learn of the Devil." But he was far from limiting himself to invective.