Tudor vicar who stood with Thomas More against Henry VIII

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: In his latest trawl through the Minster’s archive, DAVID MORGAN has discovered a Vicar of Croydon who is part of the long tradition of ‘meddlesome priests’

When Jonathan Gullis, the Conservative MP, vented his anger with the bishops in the House of Lords because they were “using the pulpit to preach from” (Bishops? Preaching? From pulpits? Whatever next??!), many expressed surprise at his remarks.

Outspoken: Dr Martin Luther King Jnr is among a long tradition of priests challenging those in power

The bishops were commenting on the shame they felt about the government’s divisive policy to send refugees seeking asylum in this country to Rwanda.

The surprise shouldn’t just be about what Gullis said. It should be that people have forgotten what impact preaching has had on both individuals and groups over the years. Speaking truth to power has long been a preacher’s aim.

Croydon Minster is dedicated to John the Baptist, one of the great Biblical preachers. There is a tiny statue of him on the west door of the church. Preaching about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah might have made him unpopular in some quarters, but in saying that Herod’s marriage to Herodia was unlawful, John touched such a nerve that Herodia’s daughter, Salome, demanded the Baptist’s head on a platter. And she got it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, was executed in April 1945 after standing up to the Nazis, telling them that what they were doing was abhorrent and contrary to the teachings of the Christian church.

Cardinal offence: Wolsey wqs influential in the church career of Rowland Philipps

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was the pastor of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. It was in this church where he began his Civil Rights activism. King changed the lives of millions, but lost his own life when he was assassinated.

Over the centuries Croydon Parish Church, what is known now as Croydon Minster, has had many wise and thoughtful preachers, as well as some outspoken ones. For centuries, the Croydon church had particular significance because it was where the Archbishop of Canterbury, the country’s leading religious figure, would worship most Sundays because it was closest to his palace.

Rev Rowland Philipps was the Vicar of Croydon in Tudor times, from 1497 until 1538, when religious reformation caused much dissent and turmoil.

Rev Philipps became nationally recognised for his preaching. He was described in Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1577, as being “esteemed as a notable preacher”.

Entries from the accounts of Henry VIII reveal that Philipps was often brought in to churches and chapels to preach at services where the king was present. In March 1510, while Henry was at Greenwich, Philipps was paid 20 shillings for his preaching. He preached when the king was at Richmond a year later, too.

No record remains of what Philipps preached to King Henry. Contemporary reports on other sermons delivered in those pre-Reformation days suggest that Philipps was probably chosen because of his intellectual abilities as well as his commanding voice. The sermon wouldn’t have lasted beyond 15 minutes, as a longer sermon would have extended the time of the Mass too much. In those early years of Henry’s reign, everything in the country was optimistic, so there was probably little controversy in the sermons.

Remembered: the brass plaque in the Minster that commemorates the Vicars of Croydon, including Rowland Philipps

By the early 1520s, Philipps’ stock was rising. He was appointed as a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and was elected as the Warden of Merton College Oxford. In 1524 he was made Precentor of Hereford Cathedral. From 1517 he was also the Rector of St. Michael’s, Cornhill. Everybody, it seemed, was trying to have their piece of Rev Philipps, the preacher to the king.

Then, in 1523, Henry planned a tax to raise money for his war against France. Great discussions took place among the clergy in the House of Convocation. The Bishops of Winchester and Rochester spoke out against it, but it was the Vicar of Croydon who was the most vehemently opposed to the idea.

It took a personal intervention from Cardinal Wolsey to convince Philipps to change his mind. The Cardinal’s impact on Philipps was so strong, though, that he never appeared again at a meeting of the Convocation.

As Henry’s life changed in the 1530s, so did Philipps’. With the king desperate to have a son and heir to continue the Tudor line, he began the tumultuous changes in the country with the divorce of Queen Catharine and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Philipps firmly supported the Vatican, which opposed the divorce, against the new order brought forward by the king’s new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

Henry and Cromwell imposed the Oath of Succession. This required all those asked to say that Anne Boleyn was Henry’s lawful wife and that their children would be legitimate heirs to the throne.

Doomed: Antoine Caron’s painting of the arrest of Thomas More, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Blois

The clergy who opposed this arrangement dwindled, but there remained a significant number of priests in London who refused, and they were summoned to Lambeth Palace. Among them were Rowland Philipps and Thomas More.

More, the former Lord Chancellor, kept a diary and it is fascinating that he records the fact that “Maister Vicar of Croidon” together with the remnant of priests in London went in to see the council before he did. Those priests, he noted, were given all the courtesies possible and Philipps was seen to be provided with some liquid refreshment from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Buttery Bar.

Philipps and the other London priests signed the Oath, while  More refused. This brought his execution one step nearer.

More was a great writer and is remembered for his novel Utopia. It is said that one of the characters in the book, the pious theologian, was based on the Vicar of Croydon.

Funeral service: a painting of the service for Abbott John Islip, when Philipps preached the sermon in Westminster Abbey

Despite his brush with the authorities, Philipps retained his place in public life as a spokesman for the “old ways”.

When Abbott John Islip from the monastery at Westminster died in 1532, it was Philipps who was asked to preach the sermon at his funeral in the Abbey.

When Bishop Latimer, later to become an Anglican martyr burned at the stake, was asked to preach each Wednesday for the king during Lent in 1534, it was Philipps who was tasked with providing an opposition in the debate which ensued.

Age and controversy finally got the better of Philipps. In May 1538, he was pensioned off with a generous £12 a year, to be paid from the income of the Croydon vicarage. It isn’t clear either when or where he died, but accounts suggest that he didn’t live to see the new year. The preacher, who during his lifetime had been both hero and villain, had gone to meet his maker.

I don’t think MP Gullis would have been very happy with Philipps’ contribution to public life if he had been a politician back then, either. Even the Prime Minister is apparently unhappy with some of the modern day clergy. Rishi Sunak is quoted as saying that he wants officials to perform “more due diligence” before bishops are appointed, as too many criticise government policy.

Tsk! These pesky preachers putting over their views in complete contrast to what the politicians want to hear. Will no one rid Rishi of these meddlesome priests?

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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4 Responses to Tudor vicar who stood with Thomas More against Henry VIII

  1. Annabel Smith says:

    Interesting article showing Philipps career teetering very close to tragedy if he had not signed the Oath of Succession. Also notable that he held tenure as vicar of Croydon for so long despite Archbishop Cranmer, very much a reformer and chief ally of Thomas Cromwell, spending all his spare time next door (Croydon was his favourite palace). Perhaps this shows the power of Philipps legendary skills at the pulpit. The bronze eagle that still gleams from the pulpit to this day is the same lecturn that was there in Philipps time I believe.

  2. John Cheetham says:

    Another cracking article David.

    Long may the occupants of CPCs’ pulpit continue to speak truth to power

  3. Croydon Labour would expel him.

  4. Lewis White says:

    The article really makes one face the human drama — kow tow, and sign the Oath, or do a More, and get your head chopped off.

    Was the hospitality of the Arcbish of Cant’s Buttery bar too good? No doubt some Eccelesiastico-politocal whip popped in and said

    ” Hi Will, how’s it going?. Great to see you, Vicar!. Long time, no see . Ha ha.. geddit..no See?? Hh ha ha ha. But there could be!

    This one’s on me…. a red wine? …..or is it an ale? Mead?
    Great.. a large one please for my friend, buttery keeper!


    Will, you know this oath thing. ?.. it would be cool if you could give us your support and sign.

    By the weay, you know that Bishop position you mentioned to me a while back?
    Well, I hear it’s going be vacant soon ! Your CV looks just the ticket … if you see what I mean ??

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