Bishop John Hooper, who died at the stake in Gloucester on 9 February 1555, was one of the early Marian martyrs. His close personal involvement in the Protestantism of the Continent made a distinctive contribution to English church life. His death in the city where he once ministered must have made a deep impression – in an area not noted for its acceptance of the Reformation.
Few details of John Hooper’s early life have survived. A West Countryman, almost certainly born in Somerset, he went to Merton College, Oxford, graduating BA in 1519. He spent several years in the Cistercian monastery of Cleeve in Somerset. His stay there came to an abrupt end when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.
Hooper returned to Oxford. It is not clear when his doubts about traditional religion surfaced, but during this second stay at the university he fell foul of Richard Smith, Regius Professor of Divinity and a zealous Romanist.
Probably he was already reading Protestant literature. Deeming it expedient to move away, he became steward in the household of Sir Thomas Arundel, one of the king’s courtiers.
While there he was certainly reading the writings of Zwingli and Bullinger, whose Protestantism was more advanced than anything taught in England. The development of Hooper’s thought alarmed his employer, who reported him to Stephen Gardiner, the conservative Bishop of Winchester.
Gardiner questioned Hooper but could not shake his convictions. He was sent back to Sir John Walsh but with uncertain prospects.
Strasbourg and marriage
By now Henry VIII, who had broken the power of the pope in England, was intensifying the persecution of Protestants. In 1539 Parliament passed the Act of the Six Articles, a law against ‘heresy’ more savage than anything before. Hooper decided to go abroad.
In January 1546, in Strasbourg, he fell seriously ill and was taken in by a sympathetic Englishman, Richard Hilles. Also sheltered in the house were two sisters, Flemish refugees from the de Tserclas family. As Hooper convalesced, romance blossomed and he asked Anna de Tserclas to marry him.
Before marriage he returned to England to consult his father and to gain financial support, but Hooper was a marked man. He escaped illegally, travelling via Ireland without a passport and narrowly escaping drowning.
On his return to Strasbourg in 1547 he married Anna and travelled with his new wife to Zurich, where Bullinger welcomed him warmly.
Filling the churches
With fresh opportunity for study, says John Foxe, he ‘applied very studiously to the Hebrew tongue’. An obscure controversy between Bartholomew Traheron and Hooper suggests that around 1550 Hooper was questioning Calvin’s teaching on predestination, possibly influenced by Melanchthon’s writings.
In 1547 Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward, who came to the throne surrounded by men of Protestant sympathies. It was two years before Hooper returned to England with Anna and their little daughter Rachel.
Bullinger asked him to keep in contact by letter. Hooper agreed, but warned that he would be unable to send the last piece of news – that he had been burned to ashes!
Back in London he had opportunities to preach and was soon filling the churches. His reputation as a literary advocate for Protestantism gained him ready acceptance among leading reformers. He became a chaplain first to the Duke of Somerset and then to the Earl of Warwick.
In 1550 the bishopric of Gloucester fell vacant and Hooper seemed an ideal candidate. Immediately he found himself in difficulties. The Reformation under Edward VI, led by Archbishop Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, was moving along slowly – but in Hooper’s eyes still had a long way to go.
He objected to the oath that bishops were expected to take at their consecration because it invoked the saints as well as God. Because of their popish associations he also objected to the traditional episcopal vestments.
Edward VI was sympathetic and personally cancelled the offensive wording of the oath. But Cramner and Ridley (who was a stickler for discipline) would not move on the question of clerical dress.
The debate was furious. Hooper went into print to explain his objections and was eventually imprisoned. At one stage it even seemed that his life was threatened. These tragic disputes can only have weakened the Reformed cause at a critical time.
Eventually a compromise was hammered out and Hooper was allowed to dispense with the offensive dress except on special occasions. However, nearly a year of Edward’s short Protestant reign had been lost in debate. Finally Hooper was consecrated in March 1551.
Shortly after that, Nicholas Heath, bishop of the adjoining diocese of Worcester, was deposed for resisting the reforming measures. Hooper was asked to take charge of Worcester as well as Gloucester.
He proved to be a model pastor, preaching and always showing care for the poor and needy. He faced tremendous ignorance among the clergy and hostility towards the Reformation.
During a visitation of his diocese he discovered that of 311 clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the Ten Commandments (31 having no idea where to find them in the Bible), and 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written (31 not knowing who was its author).
He complained of the ignorance of senior clergy who staffed his two cathedrals, and sought to counteract it by embarking on an intensive preaching campaign, speaking three or four times daily.
In a letter his wife expressed fears that he was undermining his health. Perhaps Hooper, aware of the fragility of the king’s life, realised that time was short.
Edward VI died in July 1553 and the Duke of Northumberland hatched his plan to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne instead of Mary, Edward’s half sister. Northumberland won the support of Cranmer and many leading Protestants but not of Hooper, who was convinced that the law was being broken.
He called on the citizens of his two dioceses to declare their support for Mary. His loyalty to the new queen was harshly rewarded. Summoned to London early in August 1555, he was urged to flee. He refused, but sent Anna and Rachel abroad.
There was still no law against Protestantism but Mary was using her headship of the church to dismiss married clerics. Hooper was accused of supplanting Bishop Heath of Worcester and falsely charged with financial irregularities.
Hooper and other prominent Protestants were held in custody until the heresy laws could be re-enacted. During these months of detention, Ridley acknowledged that Hooper’s stand against vestments had been right. Hooper, for his part, seems to have resolved his problems with predestination.
With other Reformers, he signed an affirmation which included a clear statement of the Reformed teaching on election. By January 1555 all was ready for the heresy trials. Hooper was among the first to face the courts.
He found himself before Stephen Gardiner, who had debated with him years before but was now Lord Chancellor. As a married former monk, the authorities were determined to deal with him promptly.
Appearing before the commission which enquired into his beliefs, he was constantly shouted down. Cuthbert Tunstall called him a beast. Condemnation was a foregone conclusion. He was condemned to suffer in Gloucester, the scene of his ministry.
On 5 February he left London for the three-day journey to Gloucester. His execution was set for Saturday 9 February – market day, when a large crowd could be expected.
His conduct on the journey so impressed his guards that they decided not to lodge him in the city gaol as planned, but to let him spend his last two days under guard in a private residence.
Here he received a number of visitors, including a blind boy converted under his preaching, a penitent knight whom he had rebuked for adultery, and the Mayor and Aldermen of Gloucester. To the Mayor he affirmed his loyalty to Queen Mary, but insisted that he rejected ‘the wicked papistical religion of the Bishop of Rome’.
On Saturday morning he was led out to die before a great crowd. Forbidden to address the people, he prayed at length. Sadly, the burning was badly bungled and he suffered long, but his last recorded words were, ‘Lord Jesus receive my spirit’.
It is impossible to gauge the immediate effect of the death of John Hooper. The people of Gloucester must have been affected by the patient suffering of their pastor. Many had not appreciated his teaching, but he had loved them and been zealous for their souls.
In church practice Hooper was a proto-puritan. Already the wider European Reformation was influencing English exiles. These men would return and become the leaders of the English Puritans in the reign of Elizabeth.
Within ten years of Hooper’s death, his ideals were being discussed and in some measure implemented. They would continue to work among English Christians and bear rich fruit over the next 150 years.