We must not wonder that the exuberance of classical scholarship in the Italy of Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici awoke only a timid echo in an England whose merchants cared little for letters, and whose nobles were not ashamed of illiterate wealth. Sir Thomas More, at the outset of the sixteenth century, reckoned that some 40 per cent of the English people could read.51 The Church and the universities which she controlled were as yet the sole patrons of scholars. It is to the credit of England that under these circumstances, and amid the waste and violence of war, men like Grocyn, Linacre, Latimer, and Colet were touched by the Italian fire, and brought enough of its heat and light to England to make Erasmus, Europe’s arbiter litterarum, feel at home when he came to the island in 1499. The humanists, devoted to the study of pagan as well as Christian culture, were denounced by a few ingrown “Trojans,” who feared these “Greeks” bringing gifts from Italy; but they were bravely defended and befriended by great churchmen like William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and, later, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Chancellor of England.
From the time when Manuel Chrysoloras visited England (1408), some young English scholars caught a fever whose only cure, they felt, was study or lechery in Italy. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, came back from Italy with a passion for manuscripts, and collected a library that afterward enriched the Bodleian. John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, studied under Guarino da Verona at Ferrara and John Argyropoulos at Florence, and returned to England with more books than morals. In 1464–67 the monk William Tilley of Selling studied at Padua, Bologna, and Rome, brought back many pagan classics, and taught Greek at Canterbury.
One of his fervent pupils there was Thomas Linacre. When Tilley went again to Italy (1487), Linacre accompanied him, and remained twelve years. He studied under Politian and Chalcondyles in Florence, edited Greek works for Aldus Manutius in Venice, and returned to England so accomplished in diverse fields of learning that Henry VII summoned him to tutor Arthur, Prince of Wales. At Oxford he and Grocyn and Latimer constituted almost an Oxford Movement toward the classic languages and literatures; their lectures inspired John Colet and Thomas More, and attracted Erasmus himself.52 Linacre was the most universal of the English humanists, at home in Greek and Latin, translating Galen, promoting scientific medicine, founding the Royal College of Physicians and leaving his fortune to endow chairs of medicine at Oxford and Cambridge. Through him, said Erasmus, the new learning was so established in Britain that no Englishman need any longer go to study in Italy.53
William Grocyn was already forty when he joined Linacre in Florence. Returning to England in 1492, he hired rooms in Exeter College, Oxford, and lectured daily on Greek, over the protests of conservatives who trembled lest the original text of the New Testament should upset the thousand-year-old authority of Jerome’s Vulgate Latin translation. But Grocyn was reassuringly orthodox in doctrine and rigidly upright in his moral life. English humanism never developed, as in some scholars of the Italian Renaissance, even a concealed hostility to Christianity; it treasured the Christian heritage above all intellectual refinements, and its most famous disciple found no embarrassment in being dean of St. Paul’s.
John Colet was the eldest son of Sir Henry Colet, a rich merchant who begot twenty-two children and served two terms as mayor of London. At Oxford the youth caught the humanist fervor from Linacre and Grocyn, and “eagerly devoured” Plato, Plotinus, and Cicero. In 1493 he traveled in France and Italy, met Erasmus and Budé in Paris, was strongly moved by Savonarola in Florence, and was shocked by the levity and license of cardinals and Alexander VI in Rome. On his return to England, having inherited his father’s wealth, he might have risen to high place in business or politics, but he preferred scholastic life in Oxford. Ignoring the tradition that only a priest might teach theology, he lectured on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; he replaced Scholastic dialectic with criticism and elucidation of the Vulgate text; and his large audiences felt refreshed by the novelty of his method, and by his stress on the good life as the best theology. Erasmus, who saw him at Oxford in 1499, described him as a saint perpetually tempted to lust and luxury, but “keeping the flower of his virginity till his death,” scorning the easygoing monks of his time, and dedicating his fortune to pious uses and charity.54
He was a loyal opposition in the Church, loving her despite her faults. Fie questioned the literal truth of Genesis, but accepted the divine inspiration of the Bible. He foreshadowed the Reformers in stressing the authority of the Scriptures as against ecclesiastical traditions and forms, in rejecting the Scholastic philosophy as an intellectual dilution of simple Christianity, in doubting the confessional powers of priests and the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread, and in denouncing the worldliness of the clergy:
If the highest bishop, whom we call the pope... be a lawful bishop, he of himself does nothing, but God in him. But if he do attempt anything of himself, he is then a breeder of poison.... This has now indeed been done for many years past, and has by this time so increased as to take powerful hold on all members of the Christian Church, so that unless... Jesus lay to His hand with all speed, our most disordered Church cannot be far from death.... Oh, the abominable impiety of those miserable priests, of whom this age contains a great multitude, who fear not to rush from the bosom of some foul harlot into the temple of the Church, to the altars of Christ, to the mysteries of God! On them the vengeance of God will one day fall.55
In 1504 Colet was appointed dean of St. Paul’s. From that high pulpit he preached against the sale of bishoprics, and the evil of plural benefices held by one man. He aroused an angry opposition, but Archbishop Warham protected him. Linacre, Grocyn, and More were now established in London, free from the conservatism and scholasticism of Oxford, stimulated by the visits of Erasmus, and soon to enjoy the support of the young Henry VIII. Everything seemed prepared for an English Renaissance that would move hand in hand with a peaceful Reformation.