4 October 1556 – Sir John Cheke’s Public Recantation

Oct4,2013 #Mary I

John ChekeOn this day in 1556, Sir John Cheke, one time tutor to Edward VI, Secretary of State for Lady Jane Grey and the first Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University, made a public recantation of his Protestant faith in front of Mary I.

Cheke had been imprisoned in the Tower of London by Mary I for his part in Lady Jane Grey’s ‘usurpation’ of the throne in July 1553 but was released just over a year later. He then travelled to the continent but was arrested between Brussels and Antwerp in Spring 1556, along with Sir Peter Carew, and taken back to England, where he was once again imprisoned in the Tower.

In fear of being burned at the stake for his Protestant beliefs, he professed his Catholic faith in a letter to Cardinal Pole in July 1556. This was not enough. Cheke had to formally submit to the Cardinal, be accepted back into the Catholic Church and then make a public recantation in the presence of the Queen and court. On 4th October 1556, he stood before them and made the following recantation:

“The acknowledging of an error is the right entry into a truth. For even as in life, the first degree [of goodness] is to avoid evil, and then to do good; so in faith errors must be avoided, that the right religion may take place. Wherefore, as before I made my humble submission unto my Lord Cardinal’s good Grace, who first accepted the same well, and so received me as a member of Christ’s Catholic Church; so now, before your Majesty, whom God hath marvellously brought unto your noble and due place of government under him, I do profess and protest, that whatsoever mine opinion of the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, and of the sense of Christ’s words spoken of the same, hath been heretofore; I do now, after conference had with certain learned men, your Majesty’s Chaplains, and especially the right worshipful Master Dean of Paul’s, believe firmly the real presence of Christ’s very body and blood in the Sacrament, and none other substance there remaining: moved thereunto by invincible reasons of the Catholic Doctors against the Arians, of Christ’s very true and natural being in us, and also by the consent of Christ’s Catliolic Church. Unto the which, both in these and in all other matters of my faith, I most humbly submit myself. Wherein, [as] for the success, [so] I do most humbly thank God for the manner and the clemency thereof, shewed in drawing me with mercy thereunto. I do most humbly give thanks unto the ministers of mercy in Christ’s Church, whereof I do acknowledge the Pope’s Holiness to be head; and especially my Lord Cardinal’s good Grace, Legate of England from the Pope’s Holiness, and Primate of the same. Unto whom I made my submission; not moved by policy and worldly respects, but persuaded by learning and conscience, when otherwise I could have been contented to yield myself to the contrary. And also I do give most humble thanks to your Majesty for your great mercifulness towards me; who as in other excellencies do follow your heavenly Father, so in this precise quality of mercifulness do express his holiness, that commandeth you to be merciful. Your Majesty herein hath great cause to give God thanks, as in all other your princely gifts, that ye need not under God to seek no example of mercifulness to follow, but yourself: who, daily inclining to follow God in mercy, shew great evidence whose heavenly child your Majesty is.

And, as I beseech God, your Majesty do continue the same grace to others that have need of mercy, so I trust God our Saviour will work the like in others, that he by your Majesty hath wrought in me. For as they may well learn of me to beware of singularity, and trusting unto certain sayings of Doctors, rather than to the Church, and preferring private judgments before the Catholic consent of Christ’s Church; so shall they easier be led from error to truth, when they see them drawn by your Highness’s mercy, and not plucked by extremity; and that their life and mendment is sought, not their [death] and shame. In the which lesson they shall find, I doubt not, as I do, much contentation of mind and quietness of conscience. Which I trust, for my part, continually to keep in all matters pertaining to Catholic Faith of Christ’s Church : and hope to shew myself, in the residue, so faithful a subject to your Highness, as my bounden duty serveth me for; and in matters of religion so obedient, as becometh a Christian man.

According unto the which my doings, I most humbly beseech your Highness to shew your clemency and favour; none otherwise. And I shall pray unto God, according to mine humble duty, that as he hath trodden down errors, and set your Highness marvellously in this your high state of your most lawful kingdom, so he will preserve your Majesty with the same providence, to the increase of his glory, and honour both of your Highness and of the noble King and Prince, King Philip, your Majesty’s dear husband; and the quietness of your Majesty’s subjects.”1

Cheke was released from prison but he was a broken man. The shame he felt regarding his cowardice seems to have affected his health, and he died on 13th September 1557.

Also on this day in history…

Notes and Sources

  1. Strype, John (1821) The life of the learned Sir John Cheke, first instructor, afterwards Secretary of State to King Edward VI, p115-117

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9 thoughts on “4 October 1556 – Sir John Cheke’s Public Recantation”
  1. It is easy for people of the present age to be dismissive of the seriousness which people of the sixteenth century viewed the dispute between the protestant and catholic faith. Their world view was quite different to that of ours and they deeply believed that the consequence of wrong doctrine was an eternity in hell. I read once a suggestion that burning so called heretics was seen as an act of mercy because as the flames burnt the victim’s body it would give them a foretaste of hell and a chance of a last minute repentance.
    This would account for the devastating guilt felt by Sir John Cheke after he recanted.

    1. Very true and most interesting. Now, in our “pick and mix” society, we tend to believe all branches of Christianity are pretty much the same.

  2. Having both been involved in the treason of Lady Jane Grey and pardoned and released both Sir John Cheke and Sir Peter Carew seem to have been amongst a small few people who were able to convince the powers that be that they were no longer a threat and so could be pardoned. However, there was always the issue that someone may not be the right denomination; depending on who happened to be on the throne: in this case; Protestants of varying degrees in a Catholic country in a Catholic reign; or should I say a recanted lapsed Catholic country now recanted and reconciled again under Mary. This could be a problem if you were in a position to teach or influence others and so were open with heretical beliefs. Peter Carew had gone abroad despite being pardoned and it was even more fishy if you stated beliefs of a political or religious nature that were contrary to the state belief and then went abroad: in fact the later was an offense in itself. Fleeing abroad to avoid the heresy or treason laws in England could be a risky business and the government had spies all over the place.

    It is obvious however to me that this gentleman had in fact changed his mind about his once held Protestant beliefs and was anxious to appear as a loyal Catholic subject and his recantation and return to the true faith was sincere. He had obviously gone abroad and must have encountered the different opinions flashing around Europe on the sacraments and on his return after he was arrested, probably for contacting another previous traitor; and suspected of falling back into those habits, his letter was voluntary. We cannot be sure it was just fear of the flames as people blew hot and cold on religion quite a bit in the 16th century. I am not surprised however that his recantation this time had to be public and with submission as the state must have been suspicious about his motives abroad and contacting Peter Carew.

    As someone who had been in royal service and tutored Edward, his recanting was a prize for the state and they are going to make the most of it. It is also normal for high profile recantations and reconciliations to be made formally and in public. His words above do not show someone merely doing it out of fear; they read as if he was sincere in his decision to return to the Catholic Church. Having probably broken with the Catholic Faith he would also need to be received back into the Church on a personal and a formal basis. It is not unusual. Today if someone is baptised into the Church we would not have them make a formal reception, but they can still make a declaration that they wish to return to the Catholic faith and will then be confirmed in the faith. If someone is baptised in another branch of the church we recognise any sacrament that they have; other than confirmation and they receive this as a sign of them being received into the Catholic Church. If someone has not been baptised, they can be baptised as an adult, receive instruction and then they receive confession, confirmation and of course communion and are received. They do not have to recant of course!

    I have read his declaration and to me it comes from the heart and this is a case of someone returning to the Catholic Faith as they believed it to be the true faith and not as they are merely afraid of the fire. His initial declaration after all was also volunatary. It was a passionate declaration and it seems to me that he had finally come around to the truth. The state must have been very happy as well.

  3. Men DO change their minds about religion; significantly so. In our age, Atheist Philosopher, Sir Anthony Flew, famously recanted his atheism and became a Deist (though he still thought Sir John Cheke’s God a ‘cosmic Saddam Hussein’!). People have described Sir Anthony as ‘ageing’ and Sir John as ‘broken’ and that may have affected their thought processes, however brilliant they both were.

  4. “Voluntary declaration” written in the Tower! He was trying to escape the most terrible death. So his recantation is understandable, although I can imagine his feelings of humiliation and contempt for himself. But I don’t find any excuse for his presecutors. They were religious fanatics, they could not leave the man whose only fault was faith different from theirs leave in peace abroad. His arrest was illegal. Fortunately their reign did not last long.
    And it’s wrong that burning was an act of mercy even according to fanatics’ irrational twisted logic. The victims were seen as the worst sort of criminals. They of course saw themselves as martyrs.

  5. We cannot look on the past with 21st century eyes nor can we try to interpret the words from our modern time. Speculation is the only tool we have for the most part and when speculating there is always more than one side – sometimes even more than 2. Only those living through the trials and tribulations of their time truly know what is in their hearts and although some tried – through written word – to convey a message to the future, our customs are so vastly different we can never be sure. Did he truly return to the Catholic faith or was he seemly saving his life and later regretted his cowardice? No one knows for sure. And that is wonderful because it gives us in the modern age plenty of ammunition to argue for either!

  6. I don’t believe that he was a coward for recanting. After all that would also make Thomas Cranmer, a coward, as he recanted six times to please those sent to persuade him that he was wrong, his jailors or those from whom he could gain better treatment as a result. I don’t believe that Cranmer was a coward either. I recently read Beth von Staats article on how Cranmer suffered from a form of Stockholm Syndrome and found another article with work done in modern prisons that also seems to support the idea that people in extreme cases of close captivity to relieve the harshest aspects of their capacity or with the promise of reward, hope of relief, better food, freedoms, give their captors what they want. I still think that in the case of Sir John Cheke he was genuinely persuaded and changed his mind, not merely escaping possible execution. Even had he recanted just to save his life, he was not a coward, he was a normal human being.

  7. Let us learn the lesson – to judge not and work for a world where no one is persecuted for their beliefs or the lack thereof. The rest is speculation.

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