Dean Colet, of St Pauls Cathedral (1467-1519)

Dr John Colet  was the son of Sir Henry Colet of Wendover,  a member of the Mercers Guild and twice  Lord Mayor of London.  John was the sole surviving child of an allegedly very large family of ten sons and ten daughters. Coming from a reasonably well off family he received a good education at an eminent free school in Threadneedle Street (where Sir Thomas More, and archbishops Heath and Whitgift were also educated)  and, as so many did in those times, prepared to go into the church. He went to Oxford university in 1483 where he studied logic, philosophy and the classics of Plato, Tully and Plotinus. Following the completion of his studies at Magdalen College, he spent some time on the Continent  and especially in Italy. He returned in 1496 full of enthusiasm for the  burgeoning Renaissance in both literature and religious reformation.  An open minded person, he was aware of, and possibly influenced by the Lollards , but he was not one of them. He may well have met Savonarola when in Italy. As an enthusiast of the Renaissance he began the teaching of Greek and started a series of lectures  on the Epistles to the Romans made novel by his explanation of the whole, rather than selected texts. This gained for him a wide and mixed auditory that included priests and monks eager to learn, and some seeking to denigrate. His enthusiasm for the Scriptures was the main theme in his lectures to students telling them :

"Keep firmly to the Bible and the Apostles Creed, and let the divines , if they like, dispute about the rest."

While at Oxford, Colet was friend and tutor to many influential people, including Sir Thomas More, William Tyndale and the German divine Erasmus who had yet to make his mark on the Reformation. Colet had quite an influence on Erasmus and in many ways conditioned the whole course of his mental and spiritual development. A contemporary of his at Magdalen College was Thomas, later Cardinal, Wolsey. As a friend of many of the learned of his day, and a generous host at his home he entertained and had wide ranging discussions on all matters.  As well as providing a focus for the Reformers in London, his good works included the founding of St Paul`s school in 1509 which, influenced by his Reforming friends, taught both Latin and Greek.  He was the first to set aside the claims of the priests to be responsible for training the young. He directed that the governing body of his school should be `married citizens of established reputation`. The first headmaster was William Lily,  a very learned man in his own right and a grammarian of repute. One of Colet`s contributions at this time was a simplified Latin Grammar that children might find more easy to use. One effect of this was that there were more grammar schools founded in the next thirty years than there was in three hundred years previous.

 He would already be known to Henry VII as Dean of St Pauls but very nearly blotted his copy book when he preached at St Pauls on Good Friday, 1511. Enthused with zeal from his discussions with the Reformers he delivered a sermon that included "Whoever takes up arms from ambition fights not under the standard of Christ.."  This was an unfortunate, although innocent phrase, as Henry had just decided to go to war against France. In a remarkably good natured meeting afterwards Henry chided Colet lest his words be misunderstood by his soldiers and invited him to clarify the next time he preached. Which he did to Henry`s great approval and public commendation remarking to his attendant nobles

" Well, let every one choose their own doctor; but this shall be mine."

Colet was highly respected and to some extent an adversary of the priests; at least he was disliked by the Bishops including a very elderly Fitzjames of London who was over 80 years of age.  The only person who dared argue with him on an intellectual level was Sir Thomas More who, although a layman, stoutly defended the Catholic church. Fitzjames would complain at the slightest excuse and often about minor issues. Sir William More was of the opinion that the bishops would complain of heresy because Colet had translated the Pater Noster into English. Colet was not, however, a man to be bullied and delivered a sermon on conformation and reformation to the Convocation of the Church at St Pauls.

" We see strange and heretical ideas  appear in our days , and no wonder. But you must know there is no heresy more dangerous to the church than the vicious lives of its priests. A Reformation is needed; and that reformation must begin with the bishops and be extended to the priests. The clergy once reformed, we shall proceed to the reformation of the people."

He was immediately denounced to Archbishop Warham , by Fitzjames and his cohorts, Bishops Bricot and Standish. They complained because Colet sought reform of the dissolute behaviour among the friars, monks and priests.  Warham eventually explained Colet`s view to the complaining bishops (since the man himself would not appear) and the storm passed. The disdain the church held for Colet was reflected in the fact that at least one martyr was charged because he went to hear Colet preach. 

His foundation of St Paul`s school , for all practical purposes the first pre Reformation Protestant school, was effected in 1509 or 1510 at the incredible expense (for those days) of 4,500. being a free school for the poor men`s children in London ( it was in fact open to any child in the kingdom and even from abroad). Provision was originally made for 153 students  and he particularly laid the oversight and management of it to lay persons in the shape of the Mercers Company of London. As teachers he appointed  William Lilly and John Righthouse, diligent men of good learning and manners. When asked why he had not placed the supervision in the hands of the church he  explained somewhat prophetically - " he found less corruption in such a body of citizens, than in any other body of men." A neat side swipe at the clerics of the day who would have dearly liked to have charged him as a heretic.

He suffered several bouts of the `sweating sickness`  during 1519 although he is said to have died from dropsy on sixteenth September 1519 at his retirement home in Sheen, Surrey. He was brought to London for burial in St Pauls. His passing was lamented by very many learned men in Europe, notably by Erasmus who wrote to Bishop Fisher

I write now in tears for the decease of dean Colet : I know his state is happy: but, in the name of the world, I must deplore the loss of such an admirable example of Christian piety, such an excellent preacher  of the gospel of Christ: and even, in my own name,  I must lament the loss of a constant friend, and incomparable patron."

18/07/2011

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