As a prior, Barnes’s reforms included the introduction in the friars’ curriculum of a course on Paul’s epistles, in an attempt to bring Scriptures back to the center of their education. Another indication of his discomfort with Roman Catholic practices is the fact that, during his priory, the popular request for masses in Rome was discontinued.
The early 1500’s was an exciting time for young intellectuals. Scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Lefèvre and religious Reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli fueled many stirring discussions in the European universities. The growing discontent with the church and its doctrines seemed to have reached its highest pitch and the increasing consensus provided hope for a change.
As a young Augustinian prior with a promising career in the academy and the church, Robert Barnes shared this hope and excitement. The English historian John Foxe numbers him among those who met regularly for discussions at the Cambridge’s White Horse Inn. As a prior, Barnes’s reforms included the introduction in the friars’ curriculum of a course on Paul’s epistles, in an attempt to bring Scriptures back to the center of their education. Another indication of his discomfort with Roman Catholic practices is the fact that, during his priory, the popular request for masses in Rome was discontinued.
A Fiery Sermon and a Clever Escape
It was with this fervor that he preached in St Edward’s Church, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve of 1525. The circumstances leading to this important sermon are uncertain. Some have suggested he was specifically invited in order to stir the waters. And stirring he did, with a violent attack on ecclesiastical corruption in general and on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in particular.
As a result, he was arrested, tried, and found guilty. After a forced display of public penance through the streets London, he was asked to abjure his heresies (even if his sermon had not attacked any theological teachings of the church).
Through the help of powerful friends (possibly some of his White Horse Inn companions), he was moved after six months from the Fleet Prison of London to the Augustinian friary in London, where he was kept on house arrest. There, he was able to take active part in the promotion of Tyndale outlawed translation of the New Testament – so much that he apparently turned the place into a distribution center.
When his activities were discovered, he was moved to the Austin House in Northampton, where he was supposed to stay under closer supervision “as in a perpetual prison.” According to Foxe, this imprisonment would have probably ended in execution.
Aware of his precarious situation, Barnes hatched an elaborate plan of escape. He would flee to Germany, but not before leaving a suicide note for Wolsey. He gave credibility to his suicidal story by displaying a deeply despondent mood for some time before his flight.