He Who Comes Nearest To The Truth?

He Who Comes Nearest To The Truth? October 23, 2020

Last time I talked about a remarkable book published by Thomas Bayly in 1650 under the title of Worcester’s Apothegmes, which is a fine source for Early Modern social and religious history. Let me offer some more stories, focused on the Protestant-Catholic struggles of that era. The author, Thomas Bayly, was accompanying the great aristocrat the Marquess of Worcester, in the 1640s. In each case, he reports an encounter or incident in which the Marquess was involved, and notes the wise remarks that grew out of the situation. Many of the sayings have a religious or spiritual tone, and reflect the Marquess’s devout Catholic beliefs (in a very Protestant-dominated society). And as I noted, Bayly himself was writing as a Catholic convert.

The first story reflects the basic religious division of the time about the nature of authority. Obviously, Protestants and Catholics were separated by many things, many of which were political or economic, but at the core was the question of how people knew God’s will. Protestants believed in the Bible and the Bible alone, which informed the individual believer. Catholics objected that if that were true, then why did Protestants themselves have so many divisions and sects? Clearly, they said, the Bible alone could not give any answers by itself, unless it was interpreted by an authoritative church or institution. If everyone read the Bible unaided, they would come up with every manner of bizarre or even sinister teaching. In the context of the England of the 1640s, radical sects were indeed proliferating at a worrying rate.

Debating Truth and Authority

Bayly reports such a debate over authority. The dialogue here really is impressive, and does suggest a genuine conversation that actually took place. This is not just the polemic of pamphlet wars. It gives an authentic idea of how real people actually did discuss faith, and choose between the various options on offer. These are all good questions, and good answers.

There was a Roman Catholike who had bin converted to the Protestant Religion (and giving the Marquess of Worcester a visit) the Marquess question’d him (very seriously) concerning his revolt, and the ground of his desertion, the convertite told him that the ground of his departure from the Church of Rome, was, because she had departed from her self.

You say very well, (said the Marquess) but how do you prove that?

to which demand the convertite made this reply, viz.

The Scriptures tell me so.

whereupon the Marquess called for a Bible, giving command it should be a Bible Cum privilegie Regis, [that is, an Anglican version, presumably the King James] which being brought unto him, he said unto the Gentleman

I will see whether it will tell me any such thing.

and (holding it in his hands a pretty while) at last he opened the Bible, and held it open as long: then, he protested unto the foresaid Gentleman,

that the Bible told him no such matter, and that he believed it to be so full of truth and sincerity, and that it respected the salvation of men’s souls so much, that if there were any such thing, it would in charity (with which it was so fully fraught) do no less then acquaint him also with it:

to which the Gentleman reply’d;

My Lord, it is not the letter, cover, or paper, that tells me so, it is the sense and meaning.

I cry you mercy (said the Marquess,) who shall be judge of that meaning, you or I?

to whom the Gentleman gave his Lordship this answer,

He who comes nearest to the truth.

Then (said the Marq:) how shall we know who comes nearest the truth?

We shall know that (said the Gentleman) by the word itself.

I have told you (said the Marquess) that the word itself saies nothing.

Then (said the Gentleman) there is a perswasive spirit, that directs every man, and leads them into all truth, who are seekers of her, merely for love of her self,

Indeed (said the Marquess) I have heard of such a Sect that is newly sprung up, which go under the name of Seekers, but I had rather be on the finders’ side;

to which the Gentleman made answer, Seek and ye shall find.

to which my Lord reply’d, You must have day-light or candle-light, or else your own eyes will do you no good.

The Gentleman made answer, that Christ was so easily to be found of all that sought him, that if we did but grope after him we should find him.

I (said the Marquess) You say well, but not when there is a light in the room.

and thereupon the Marques entered into a large discourse, persuading the Gentleman to return to his Mother again, whose arms were always open, ready to embrace all that should return into her bosom, to whom the Gentleman thus spake:

My Lord, if I should turn now, I shall be despised on all sides, by the Protestants, because I have left them: by the Papists, because I sometimes left them too, and they will repose no confidence in me hereafter, fearing that I may do the like again:

O (said the Marquess) if that be all, then all is nothing, for what can any man say more to you than thus? you have been abroad, and you are come home again.

I like the remark about trying to be a Finder in religion, rather than a Seeker.

Learning to Read Clearly

On another occasion, the party traveled past an ancient preaching cross with its inscription close to obliterated. Even so, the Marquess managed to read and reconstruct it, to everyone’s amazement. He explained his technique of reading the writing, the “scripture,” which very much applied to matters of faith:

He told us, Look you now, I without my spectacles and ill eyes could read it sooner then all you, that needed none, and had good eyes; it is not a good eye, but a good Faith, that attains to the knowledge of such things, whilst you pore so much upon the like, you loose the meaning, now I will tell you, how I came to find it out: I considered what had been told me, with the help whereof, I came to understand what the words might signifie, so that in this, I am sure tradition was a means to help me, to the true understanding of the Scripture.

By the way, Worcester maintained a large body of soldiers and servants, equally mixed between Protestants and Catholics. They lived in perfect friendship, because Worcester strictly forbade any religious disputation within his household.

A Voice From the Religious Past

One other story suggests some of the popular undercurrents that survived in that Protestant England. Worcester was traveling through some more remote parts of Wales, and they came to the ancient ruined monastery of Strata Florida (the name leads him to protest that he thought he was seeing Wales, not the West Indies). Although the monastery had been dissolved in 1539, Worcester is introduced to a very old woman who claimed to have remembered its religious life before it actually fell into ruin, which would place her at well over 100.

We can doubt whether she actually remembered the actual services in the 1530s, which would place her age at over 110. Still, it was reported that she gave a very convincing account of those old Catholic services and rituals. More probably she was recalling the Catholic services as they were restored briefly under Queen Mary in the 1550s, possibly even in the old abbey precincts, but in any case, she was very aged. Might we date her life as c.1550-1645? If so, she was close to the age of Worcester’s own long-deceased mother Elizabeth Hastings, born in 1556, and that parallel might help explain Worcester’s excitement at discovering this living relic of an earlier time, and an older religious order.

The woman was still a Catholic, who had never accepted the Reformation. The Marquess, a very public Catholic. asks,

And what when the Religion altered, you altered with the Religion?

She answered no, in truth Master, I stay’d to see, whether or no, the People of the new Religion would be better then the people of the old; and I could see them nothing, but grow worse and worse, and charity to wax colder and colder, and so I kept me to my old Religion, I thank God, and by the grace of God mean to live and die in it:

A local gentleman confirms that she had always been known as a Papist, “and that she would oftentimes, steal into the Church alone with her beads, and there she would be praying by herself.”

Worcester asks,

How she did do to serve God, and when she had seen a Priest last, when she had been at Mass, or received the Sacrament?

The woman answered that she had not seen a Priest, not in 60 years; but she did her Office daily, and never mist, and once a year upon good Friday, she received the Sacrament at the Parsons hands, praying to God, that since she could not attain unto the means that God would make the Parson a Priest to her at that day: which she believing God Almighties goodness to be such, as that he did hear her prayer.

The woman could not afford to pay the brutal recusancy fines that she would suffer for avoiding the official church, so she has to attend and take Communion, with whatever internal reservations. If she had really seen a Catholic priest sixty years before, in the mid-1580s, it would have been in circumstances of life-threatening danger, for him at least.

The Marquess fell into such a fit of laughter, and thence into such expressions of admiration, that I never saw any man so transported between such extreams, in my life, till at the last they both ended in pity, and commiseration, which wrought in the Marquess this effect, and to the poor woman this intended advantage:

The Marquess gave her 10. pieces of old gold (which so glistered in the woman’s eye, that it would have been both a loss to her self, and an undervaluation to her Benefactor to have taken them for Angels) telling her that if she would go with him to Raglan [his castle], and spend the remainder of her days with him, she should be welcome, and there enjoy the means of bringing her thither, where now she had but a little way to go, meaning Heaven, and that she should want for nothing, neither whilst he lived nor afterwards, and if there were any friends of hers that were poor, she should give that 10 pounds amongst them, and she should have more:

the woman fell a crying, saying, over, and over again, constantly, God had sent him, God had sent him; he was a good man.

Worcester was offering to take her to Raglan, where he lived a full Catholic liturgical life, and where she would have access to priests and sacraments. These would bring safely her to her final Heavenly home. By the way, the ten pounds in gold he gave her would have been a vast sum for someone of her class and background.

And so she departed, resolving to go as soon as possible, towards Raglan: the next news that we could hear in the morning, was, that the poor woman was dead. Whereupon the Marquess excessively griev’d and wept: all concluding that she dyed with excess of joy; whereat the Marquess said thus unto us. If this poor soul died for joy, that she should come into a place, where she might serve God: how joyfully, will she serve him, where she comes into a place, when she shall never die.

It’s a moving story, which raises a question about the nature of surviving Catholic belief in this era. In her mind, the woman is still living before the Reformation, leading the kind of inner life that would otherwise make next to no impact in the official record.

As I have suggested, that particular book offers many insights into attitudes that otherwise would be hard to reconstruct from any official records.




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