Protest from beyond the grave

Protests was a key part of the Reformation in England, as we explored in our Thursday Late a couple of weeks ago, ‘Protest in Print‘. Of course, protesting against the religious status quo always carried its dangers, as those depicted in the popular Foxe’s Book of Martyrs soon learned (along with those Catholic martyrs not depicted in this propaganda work). Some forms of protest and of temporal punishment lasted well beyond the grave.

A 16th century engraving of William Tyndale, religious radical responsible for the first printing of the Bible into English.
A 16th century engraving of William Tyndale, a religious radical who probably discussed his views with William Tracy.

William Tracy, a prominent member of the Gloucestershire gentry, might have been forgotten to history if not for his death in 1530. More specifically, his will made him infamous for showing his strong Protestant beliefs at a time when England was still officially Catholic.

Tracy was a member of the establishment, serving as Justice of the Peace and as Sheriff in his local area. He was also related to a number of religious radicals, and in the 1520s it is likely that his paths crossed with William Tyndale who would later gain his own infamy for the first printing of the New Testament in English.

By the time of his death, Tracy had a clear theology which he expressed in his will by emphasising belief in salvation by faith alone, the remission of sins through Christ rather than a priest and refusing to leave any of his worldy goods to the Church for the good of his soul. The plainly Protestant declaration caused Church authorities to refuse the will when it came to be proved after Tracy’s death. Such was the horror at these sentiments amongst the ecclesiastical lords that Tracy was declared a heretic after death, and his body was removed from consecrated ground. This punishment was intended to reinforce the power of the Church and discourage people from making such direct challenges to authority from the relative safety of death. The chancellor of the diocese of Worcester went a step further, however, and had Tracy’s exhumed body burned. He was later fined £300 for his overzealous actions.

It is possible that Tracy was the first to leave such a religiously radical will as a statement of his beliefs, but he was not the last. Far from dissuading quiet revolutionaries from expressing their beliefs in death (and removing valuable income from the Church), Tracy’s ‘Testament’, as it came to be known, sparked interest across England.

An image of the opening of William Tracy's will, published as 'Tracie's Testament'
Tracy’s will was published in 1535 with commentaries by Protestant reformers.

Four years after Tracy’s death and posthumous execution, his will was published in Antwerp as The Testament of Master William Tracie with commentaries by William Tyndale and John Frith, both important Protestant figures. The Church’s condemnation did not stop others in England from mimicking Tracy’s will in their own last testaments, sometimes using almost exactly the same words, suggesting that they were copying from the book.

Wills had been used before as literary devices to make particular points or in satire, for example an ass leaving its bray to the priest. But Tracy’s Testament encouraged ordinary people to make a stand at their death; not just to proclaim their beliefs with minimal fear of retribution, but also to confront the Church head-on in a very public way.

Tracy’s protest, finally put into print by other radicals, encouraged further protest and left us with tangible remains of the battle for beliefs and ideals which changed peoples’ lives 500 years ago.

An original copy of The Testament of master Wylliam Tracie esquier (Antwerp, 1535) is on display in The Reformation exhibition which is open to the public at the John Rylands Library until 4 March 2018.

With thanks to Ester Camilla Peric, Università degli Studi di Udine.

Further reading:

Craig, J. and Litzenberger, C. (1993) ‘Wills as Religious Propaganda: The Testament of William Tracy’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 44(3), pp. 415-431.

2 comments on “Protest from beyond the grave

  1. Peter S Farley

    Thank you for posting ‘Protest from beyond the grave.’ I found the article to be very well structured and most informative. It has left me with a desire to read more about the subject. I shall certainly visit the ‘Reformation exhibition’ in the New Year.

    • Jane Gallagher

      Thanks, Peter – I hope you enjoy your visit to the exhibition in 2018.

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