Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt
Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt

The following is an excerpt from my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown

On the 2nd April 1536, Anne Boleyn’s almoner, John Skip, preached an incredibly controversial sermon on the Old Testament story of Queen Esther. This sermon did not help Anne’s already troubled relationship with Cromwell.

As well as serving as a clarification of Anne Boleyn’s reformist religious stance, the sermon acted as “Anne’s call to courtiers and counsellors alike to change the advice they were giving the king and to reject the lure of personal gain.”1 In this sermon, as Eric Ives points out, Henry VIII was characterized as King Ahasuerus.2 The latter was deceived by his adviser, Haman (Cromwell) into ordering the killing of the Jews (the English clergy in this case). The Jews were saved when the King’s mind was changed by his wife, the good Queen Esther (Anne Boleyn).

As Anne’s almoner, John Skip must have had Anne’s permission and blessing to preach this sermon, and it is likely that it was actually her idea. Anne had just quarrelled with Thomas Cromwell over the dissolution of the monasteries. It was not that she disagreed with this reform; she simply felt that the proceeds should be used on education and on charitable causes rather than to make the King richer.3 There was no mistaking that this was a public attack on Thomas Cromwell, the King’s main adviser.

John Skip did get into trouble for his words. Letters and Papers has records of his sermon and the following record:

“A paper of singular moderation and ability, entitled “Interrogatories and articles to be administered to the preacher who preached the sermon in the Court on Passion Sunday,” on these words: Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato? [which of you will convince me of sin?] for preaching seditious doctrines on these words, and slandering “the King’s highness, his counsellors, his lords and nobles, and his whole Parliament.”
Inc.: “First, whether this was his theme, Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato?
Ends: “Item, finally, be it required of the preacher to bring forth and show his sermon in writing; and if he refuse so to do, or say he hath it not in writing, then be it inquired whether he did never write it, or never showed it to any man in writing before or since it was preached.”4

Primary Source Reports on Skip’s Sermon

“A sermon preached by Mr. Skyppe, in the King’s chapel, upon Passion Sunday, in the year of Our Lord 1536, on the text Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato? defending the clergy from their defamers and from the immoderate zeal of men in holding up to public reprobation the faults of any single clergyman as if it were the fault of all. He insisted upon the example of Ahasuerus, who was moved by a wicked minister to destroy the Jews. He urged that a King’s councillor ought to take good heed what advice he gave in altering ancient things, and that no people wished to take away the ceremonies of the Church, such as holy water, holy bread, &c. That alterations ought not to be made except in cases of necessity. That in the present Parliament there were men of the greatest learning and ability, and perfect freedom and moderation in discussion. He described the character of the debates in Parliament, lamented the decay of the universities, and insisted on the necessity of learning.”5

“The preacher insisted on the strict following of God’s Word:—that Christ chose ignorant followers, to teach men that nobility standeth not in worth but grace; and he cited the example of Solomon to show that he lost his true nobility towards the end of his life, by taking new wives and concubines. He insisted on the need of a King being wise in himself, and resisting evil counsellors who tempted him to ignoble actions, by the history of Rehoboam; observing that if a stranger visited this realm, and saw those who were called noble, he would conceive that all true nobility was banished from England. He warned them against rebuking the clergy, even if they were sinful, as rebukers were often rebuked, like Nebuchadnezzar, who was God’s instrument to punish the Jews, “and yet was damned for his labour.” Against evil councillors, who suggested alteration in established customs, he instanced the history of Haman and Ahasuerus. He then explained and defended the ancient ceremonies of the Church (as above). He concluded with a complaint on the moderation of the High Court of Parliament.”6

The full text of John Skip’s sermon can be read in The National Archives, reference SP6/1 “Folio 8 Sermon preached by John Skip in the King’s Chapel on Passion Sunday 1536”, although the handwriting is rather challenging!

(From The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway)

Notes and Sources

  1. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p309
  2. LP x. 308
  3. Ives, p309
  4. LP x. 615.5
  5. Ibid., 615
  6. Ibid., 615.4

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