Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 5. Latimer’s directness, story-telling and denunciation of social wrongs

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. The English Pulpit from Fisher to Donne

§ 5. Latimer’s directness, story-telling and denunciation of social wrongs

No complete sermons of Latimer’s Cambridge days have survived. In the Sermons on the Card we have only “the tenor and effect of certain sermons made by Master Latimer in Cambridge about the year of our Lord 1529.” They are justly famous for their originality and promise and for their outspoken denunciation. But they do not compare, at least in the form in which they have come down to us, with the sermons which he delivered before king Edward VI twenty years later. Of the intervening period, there remain only two sermons: a short one preached at the time of the insurrection of the north, and the convocation sermon delivered in 1536, just after he had become bishop of Worcester. The latter shows a great advance on the Card sermons, and, in consideration of the occasion, was probably composed with greater care than any other sermon which we have. It contains the fine contrast between dead images, covered with gold and clad with silk garments, and “Christ’s faithful and lively images … an hungred, a-thirst, a-cold.” The rest of Latimer’s surviving sermons, thirty-eight in number, those upon which his true fame depends, belong to his old age. In them, he describes himself as “thoroughe age, boethe weake in body and oblivious.” Yet this “sore brused man,” as if to make up for the years of enforced idleness, since the Six Articles had driven him out of active ministry, devoted the remaining years entirely to the pulpit; he was happier there than in the bishop’s throne, and “he continued all Kyng Edwardes tyme, preaching for the most part every Sunday two Sermons.” He was a preacher first and last, and he achieved such popular success as came to no other English preacher till Whitefield and Wesley. Here, at least, was a ploughman who set forward his plough, and ploughed manfully with all his strength.

It is characteristic of his entire absorption in his pulpit work that even the business of publishing his sermons does not seem to have concerned him directly. Latimer’s sermons have a place in literature, but few books have had a less literary origin. These free and easy discourses, good talking rather than set speeches, have been written down by other hands, probably without revision by their author. We recognise unmistakably the ready speech of a debater, who can turn interruptions or unforeseen accidents to account. “I came hither to day from Lambeth in a whirry,” and what the wherryman said serves for an argument. If, in the course of a sermon, which he has threatened to continue for three or four hours, his hearers grow impatient and try to cough him down, he can make a joke of it at their expense. He goes backward and forward with his subject, and does not hesitate to be discursive (“I will tell you now a pretty story of a friar to refresh you withal”), or to say a good thing while he can remember it; “peradventure it myght come here after in better place, but yet I wyll take it, whiles it commeth to my mind.” Even when he has worked up to a formal peroration, and ended with a text, he breaks in with “There was another suit, and I had almost forgotten it.” There are repetitions, sometimes of great length, which must have been tedious even to hear. If he is pleased with a word, he will work it to death; in a Good Friday sermon he uses the word “ugsome” eight times. He can be plain, even to coarseness. Martin Marprelate might take a lesson from him in calling names: “those flattering clawbacks,” “pot-gospellers,” “these bladder-puffed up wily men,” “flibberjibs,” “upskips,” “ye brain-sick fools, ye hoddy-pecks, ye doddy-pols, ye huddes.” The Pharisees are represented as saying to Christ, “Master, we know that thou art Tom Truth.” The Father did not intervene to save the Son but “suffred him to bite upon the brydle a whyle.” No word or illustration is too homely for him to use. Latimer needed to have no thought for the dignity of literature or the conventions of reverence. He was not writing a book, but trying to keep the attention of a boy of eleven and a crowd of idle courtiers. Latimer the preacher cared for “no great curiousness, no great clerkliness, no great affectation of words, nor of painted eloquence”; he aimed only at “a nipping sermon, a rough sermon, and a sharp biting sermon.”

These conditions were hardly favourable to the production of literature, but Latimer did valuable service in testing the possibilities of the language. None of his predecessors ever carried the art of story-telling to a higher point. He can take the most familiar narrative in the Bible and retell it with pointed allusions to current events. During the weeks that Latimer preached first before Edward VI, the lord high admiral, lord Seymour of Sudeley, lay in the Tower under sentence of death. Latimer hated the man and did not spare him. His hearers must have recognised in an instant what was his purpose when he began telling the story of Adonijah, “a man full of ambition, desirous of honour, always climbing, climbing.” This “stout-stomached child” had Joab to help him, “a by-walker, that would not walk the king’s highway.” And so he went on climbing till, after David’s death, he aspired to marry queen Abishag. The story, as told by Latimer, fills several pages, and yet the interest is throughout intense and dramatic, without ever a direct mention of Seymour and queen Catherine Parr.

Latimer reveals very little of the poetry and imaginative feeling which are conspicuous in Fisher’s writing. There is seldom any illustration from nature, or any flights of what can be called eloquence. The personification which he makes of Faith—“a noble duchess with her gentleman usher going before her, and a train after her”—is not a characteristic feature of his style; but he is seemingly pleased with it, and uses it again a few weeks later to the same audience. The allegories which had been the stock-in-trade of earlier preachers he explicitly rejects; if he wants illustration, he draws from his experience of the market-place and the court. He prefers the wherryman’s “good natural reason” to the arguments of the whole college of cardinals. Ever since his conversation with little Bilney, he “forsook the school-doctors and such fooleries.” At the end of his great Lenten course, he claims that he has walked “in the brode filde of scripture and used my libertie.” He has no taste for theological subtleties; “as for curiouse braynes nothinge can content them.” There is some rough sledge-hammer controversy with papists and anabaptists, but his real bent is towards practical questions; and that is one reason why he continues to interest readers of a later day. No one to-day stands where Latimer did in doctrinal theology but bribery is still bribery. One cannot imagine a more telling point in a discourse on bribery than when the preacher said, “He that took the silver basin and ewer for a bribe, thinketh that it will never come out; but he may now know that I know it.”

It is his passionate desire to right social wrongs which gives Latimer his highest claim to be called a great preacher. He is never belabouring sin in the abstract but accurately diagnoses and fearlessly exposes the injustices of his time. The decay of discipline and reverence, and the wholesale spirit of greed, which accompanied the breaking up of the old order, are faithfully dealt with by the prophet of the new order. The lay landlords who have supplanted monastic landowners he calls step-lords; rent-raising, enclosures, idleness, covetousness and all the other faults of the rich are denounced to their faces: “be you never so great lords and ladies,” the preacher “will rub you on the gall.” The impoverishment of schools and universities, the corruption of judges, and the tricks of the trades are unsparingly treated, and Latimer has the preacher’s best reward of seeing some wrongs redressed as a result of his agitation. The poor and the oppressed have had no truer friend at court than Latimer preaching before Edward VI.

Bishop Hooper, who succeeded Latimer as court preacher, had equal courage, but less human sympathy. For his Lenten course in 1550, he chose “a very suitable subject, namely the prophet Jonas, which will enable me freely to touch upon the duties of individuals.” His chief aim was to urge the king to use the arm of the law against unpreaching clergy, covetous lawyers, thieves, adulterers, swearers and other offenders. The king must show no “preposterous pity.” The ship of the commonwealth cannot sail in quiet waters, until the mariners cast out all Jonases. “Into the sea with them,” cries this vehement orator. There is a native vigour about his denunciations, but he takes no pains to make his message attractive. His grammar is often faulty and his illustrations are trite: he uses the stock story of Cambyses and the judge’s skin, which Latimer used to the same audience the previous Lent, and which Fisher used before either of them. His humour, when he shows any, is of the broadest kind; if the newly-ordained priest according to the first reformed ordinal is to be given the chalice to hold, why do they not as well give him the font?