During James I’s reign, an extraordinary text found its way into England. It had originally been written centuries earlier, probably by a monk in a monastery in the Frankfurt area. It was especially unusual in that it had been written in German (as opposed to Latin) and was ‘rediscovered’ by a Wittenberg theologian who took it instantly to heart: none other than Luther shortly before he rocked Rome’s world. As Luther tried to gain control of the wild notions that flowed so freely following the break with Rome and threatened to splinter the Reformation into a hundred and one irreconcilable factions, he quietly buried his influence from it. It was simply too radical and controversial a basis upon which to build any kind of new consensus.

Prior to Luther, the sparse number of extant copies would indicate that relatively few people had read the ‘Theologia Germanica’. But subsequently it began to circulate amongst those who were to become Luther’s harshest critics – Spirituals and certain obscure wings of Anabaptism – as well as amongst others on the Protestant fringe and even Catholic mystics (who might legitimately have claimed it to be their own). Over the remaining years of the sixteenth century several translations into Latin and other languages were made by eminent scholars.

The version that arrived in England was in Latin, the work of Sebastien Castellion. That was precious little use in England. True, Latin still operated as an effective medium amongst the educated and ecclesiastic. Across a wider spectrum of society, the English tradition from Wycliffe onward had encouraged reading and this was particularly the case amongst the ‘godly’ Puritans. But it was categorically reading in English. There was at that time no English translation of the text and, until recently, it was assumed that the first such translation had not been undertaken until sometime in the mid-1630s (or 1628 if Rufus Jones is to be believed) by the great English heretic-mystic, John Everard (who also appears in the London part of this novel). It now appears that Everard was actually beaten to it by a man who some suspect was a close friend and associate of his, Roger Brierley, possibly with the help of an assistant, Richard Tennant: a man from a very different background from Brierley but also from an isolated Northern settlement (Malham at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales) and seemingly also brought up within the confines of Northern Puritanism. As a result it is now possible at least tentatively to identify two translations of the Theologia as Everard’s and one as the ‘Breirley-Tennant’ version. This fact alone would make Brierley a character worthy of a good deal of new research.

However, a significant body of separate documentation confirms that over the period commencing in 1615 and lasting for several years, Brierley was known to be preaching some kind of radical, Non-Conformist Protestantism infused with a thoroughly atypical mysticism based around the ‘motion of the Spirit’. It might also be suggested that the gap between what his (much later) recorded sermons say and what his congregation seems to have understood in the fifty charges levelled against him by the High Commission of York in 1617 is evidence that he lost control of what he had started in Grindleton. However, the respect afforded to him by his congregation within those fifty accusations does imply that he was absolutely central to the ‘Grindletonian heterodoxy’, no matter how much he might have attempted to distance himself from it from that point onward and no matter how much he protested that he was just some ordinary, Northern godly curate. Evidently, he was not!

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that the real secret of the Reformation’s roots now rested not with some great academic Divine in one of the great university cities but rather with the grammar school-educated son of a farmer from Rochdale , a complete backwater prior to the Industrial Revolution.

This novel is inspired by this extraordinary man and by his own unique – and frequently, unfathomable – theology which briefly illuminated a small, dark corner of Northern England in the years before the Civil Wars and which almost certainly had a profound influence on some later Non-Conformist traditions such as the Quakers and doubtlessly upon other ‘sects’ which fared less well in terms of survival and adaptability, their names often lost to posterity.

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32 thoughts on “The Theologia, Brierley & the Grindletonians

  1. We’re left to wonder just how many similar small groups existed hidden in England before the Quaker movement advanced their thinking and practice. The fact the Grindletonians were set so close to Pendle Hill, where George Fox had his great vision in 1652, has long fascinated some Quaker historians. Your extended details are welcome.

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    1. It is likely that Fox actually had that vision further north in fact; nearer the Three Peaks area. But that had a legacy of being a Royalist area. Another possibility is that Fox either went out of his way or wanted to suggest that he had been up on Pendle in homage to Roger Brierley – a very genuine possibility. An increasing number of ‘Seeker’ Quakers are now being deemed to have had previous ‘Grindletonian’ associations (whatever that is understood to mean) – even those outside the currently understood geographical sphere of Brierley’s influence. Therefore, it may actually have been to Fox’s strategic advantage to emphasise some sort of continuity.

      There were of course a whole load of sudden heterodoxies and particular characters who ma have had some impact. let’s just take 1: Giles Wigginton who was born in Oundle in Northamptonshire.

      He matriculated from Trinity, Cambridge in 1564, gaining a B.A. in 1569, then becoming a Fellow in spite of the forceful opposition of Whitgift who found his extreme Puritanism distasteful. He commenced his M.A. in 1572 and in 1579 found himself with pastoral responsibility for Sedbergh (then in Yorkshire, now in Cumbria but still within the Yorkshire Dales National Park). His strain of Calvinism was initially most unpopular there so he headed for London where he thought prospects might be better. However, with his old Cambridge adversary, Whitgift, by then the Archbishop of Canterbury, he ended up in Gatehouse Prison, all attempts at intervention in order to facilitate his freedom undertaken by Ambrose Dudley and Hastings having proved useless. For refusing to take oaths under investigation he was deprived of his living and spent time in White Lion Prison. On his release he returned to Sedbergh (in the NW corner of the Yorks Dales) but without permission to preach. By this time he seemed to have enough of a following there for he was able to take to preaching in small conventicles both in his own home and in those of others. Whether this sudden appearance of a following represented a change in his teaching or a change in the views of his local audience is unclear. He was arrested by a pursuivant at Boroughbridge and taken to Lancaster Castle. He was released but subsequently arrested again in the capital and brought before the High Commission. Lambeth Palace seems to have suspected him of authorship of the Martin Marprelate tracts – which seems a most unlikely scenario. But refusing to take the oath, he found himself back in Gatehouse Prison. It is not clear whether this period caused some kind of further transformation of Wigginton or whether he had kept his interests secret up until this point, but in Gatehouse he seems to have become a disciple of Edmund Coppinger. In 1591, William Hacket, a fanatic who claimed that he was the Messiah and demanded the removal of Queen Elizabeth (and who also claimed some sort of invincibility) came to visit Wigginton in prison. Like Wigginton, he had been born in Oundle and they presumably must have known each other through this shared heritage. Wigginton introduced Hacket to Coppinger. Hacket was hanged, drawn and quartered whilst Coppinger effectively committed suicide through a ‘hunger strike’ in Bridewell Prison. None of this might have mattered to us (no matter how interesting it might be) had not Wigginton proved to be the exception of these fates with Lord Burghley having him released and allowing him to be restored to ministering in Sedbergh somewhere around 1592. There is some evidence to suggest that when he returned he preached a Spiritist religion not altogether different from that of the Grindletonians and yet heavily influenced by Hacket. Unfortunately, any clearer details seem to have been lost to history. His legacy may have been at least partly responsible for the later propensity of Seekerism and Quakerism in the immediate vicinity of Sedbergh.

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  2. Simon,

    I think you need to refer to my “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’ “(San Francisco, CA.: Inner Light Books, 2012), pp. 9 (and see note 41), 280, 282. if you can’t access it, it is available from the Inner Light Books website: at US$25 (20 UK pounds). I refer, inter alia, to the possibility of Johannes Tauler being the author of the TG. Naturally, I make reference to Brierly, Everard and Castellio. Best wishes.

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  3. Fascinating, Simon, well done. I knew absolutely nothing of this period, until I read your blog. I suppose the closest thing I am familiar with are the historical / detective novels of C J Sansom – The Shardlake Series – which begin with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the break from Rome. What a can of worms was opened then!
    Cheerio
    Serkeen

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