Robert Barnes’ Lives of the Popes [1]


Rand Winburn

 Prior to the publication of his Lives of the Popes in 1536, Dr. Robert Barnes laid groundwork with his 1534 edition of A supplycacion unto the most gracious prynce H. the viii.[2] Barnes followed the footsteps of William Tyndale in calling attention to the not-so-saintly history of the Papacy and Church of Rome, particularly with England.

 “The purpose of Barnes’ polemical use of secular history was to demonstrate that the [Catholic] clergy always had been and still were a subversive element in every realm, with particular emphasis on England. His strategy was to trace the development of temporal papal power with its increasing infringement on, and subsequent domination of, the authority of civil rulers. For evidence he turned to English and continental chronicles, as well as to papal laws.”[3]

Tyndale, with Barnes, Foxe and, later Bale, were all skeptical as to the veracity of the histories because of the obviously biased Roman Catholic sources from which they came. The truth, they believed, lay under the surface, discerned only by reading between the lines, as it were.

 “In order to emphasize the initial relationship of power between Empire and papacy, Barnes points out that originally the election of a pope had to be confirmed by the Emperor. As Barnes sees it, the beginning of papal interference in the affairs of European princes began with Pope Gregory III’s deposition of Leo III for opposing the veneration of images, so that the pope, who previously had to have his authority confirmed by the Emperor, now exercised that authority to deprive the Emperor of his throne.”[4]

Barnes then traces the history of an ongoing alliance between the Papacy and French kings. The enthronement of Pepin as King of France was the direct result of the intervention of Pope Zacharias I, who deposed French king, Childeric III, banishing him to a monastery. Martin II was the first Pope to hold the Pontificate without the approval of the Emperor.

 “[This event drew] the comment from Barnes that thus, gradually, the papacy was freeing itself from the jurisdiction of the Emperor, whom it was to eventually dominate completely.”[5]

In fact, we see this very thing when Pope John XII compelled Otto I to swear loyalty to the Papacy before he was crowned. Once in control, the Popes were more than able to sway European politics to their gain.

 “To illustrate the clergy's control of power within England, Barnes says he will "recite some of their practices, both out of Autenticke crownycles, and out of their owne law" (Workes, p. 186). He tells Henry the story of the Bishop of Salisbury's servant in the reign of Richard II. A London baker, says Barnes, was carrying a loaf of bread when one of the bishop's servants met him and by force took the loaf. When the baker asked why he did this, the bishop's servant in answer hit the baker over the head. The baker cried out and a crowd assembled to keep the king’s peace and the servant had to hide in a house nearby. But the people sent for the constable and the servant was imprisoned, only to be released shortly by the Mayor and Sheriff. Nevertheless, the Bishop of Salisbury and the Archbishop of York were so angry at what had happened to the Bishop's servant, that they caused the king to remove both the Mayor and the two sheriffs (Ibid., p. 192). Barnes comments that if the clergy can do open violence, break the king's peace, rob men of their goods, "yea & that in the king’s chamber, and also in the king’s high street, to the great disdain of justice, to the rebuke of the king, and to the great displeasure of his subjects, and yet... can pack the matter so, that they be white sons[6], and other men must suffer for it. I can believe none otherwise, but that they have bewitched the world, that men could neither hear nor see" (Ibid).”[7]

Barnes reminds King Henry of further examples of the clergy’s power in England by citing that of King John, driven from the throne by means of excommunication, his subjects absolved from further obedience to him, his country given to France. To regain control of England, John was forced to pay dearly. The proceeds were split between the pope, the papal legate, and the English bishops.

 Furthermore, Barnes warned, the clergy are sworn to the pope, vowing to reveal state secrets if necessary to protect the welfare of the pope and Church.

 “According to Barnes, the clergy have two related tactics intended to cover up their treasonable activities: suppression of a vernacular Bible, which would reveal to the people that God commands all subjects, both lay and clerical, to obey the king; and accusations of treason against the reformers, so that under the cloak of patriotism their own treason should go unobserved….. Is not this a subtle craft of Antichrist, Barnes exclaims of the pope, to warn other men of heretics and of traitors, and in the mean season, while men stand looking for traitors, cometh he in and playeth the part of an open traitor saving onely he coloureth his name, and calleth himself a true Byshop, & is ready to accuse other men of treason, that he might escape himself...[8]

To deflect attention to himself and confuse issues, the Antichrist and his members accuse all others of heresy, including the true Christians, Barnes tells us. In his supplycacion, Robert Barnes traced the growth of the ecclesiastical power of the Papacy, highlighting papal immorality, as well as proving the origins of Church customs to be the traditions of men. This history was enlarged in his work, Lives of the Popes.[9] In it, he reveals that the magnitude and expanse of the crimes committed by the Popes left him overwhelmed and speechless.

  “Barnes traces the evolution of papal power from the days when the Bishop of Rome was merely one important bishop among others, through the struggles between the Bishops of Rome and those of Constantinople and Ravenna, until Rome emerged preeminent. His point is that the papacy, far from being a divinely created institution, is rather the tyranny of one bishop over his fellows…

  The character of these chief rulers of the Church is also investigated by Barnes. He tells his readers the story of Pope Joan, for instance, the girl who came to Rome disguised as a man and was chosen Pope, the secret of her sex not being detected until she gave birth to her chaplain's child in a public place. He recounts the life of Pope Sergius III who, driven out of Rome, returned and desecrated its sepulchers, and of Pope Boniface VII, who took his rival John XV prisoner, put out his eyes, and starved him to death in prison. In Barnes's treatment of ecclesiastical custom, the institution of clerical celihacy receives by far the major share of attention. That clerical celibacy is not an Apostolic or primitive institution Barnes seeks to establish by asserting that both Peter and Philip had wives (Workes, p. 325), as did many of the dignitaries of the early Church (Lives). As further evidence of the recent origin of clerical celibacy, Barnes supplies his readers with a list of popes who were the sons of priests (Workes, p. 326.)…… That clerical marriage was permitted in England until 1101 Barnes seeks to prove on the basis of the fact that in that year Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a decree against such marriages (Workes, p. 327). In order to leave no doubt as to just how and when compulsory clerical celibacy was introduced into the Western Church, Barnes traces the evolution of that institution.

Nicholas I, about 860 A.D., tried to enforce clerical celibacy, says Barnes, but because of strong opposition was unsuccessful (Ibid., p. 328), as were Pelagius II, Siricius, and Gregory I, the last repenting of his decree on clerical celibacy and revoking it. Innocent II's decree on the matter had no universal effect, says Barnes, and nothing further was done until Gregory VII, a man of evil lying, as the chronicles testifieth, and also a great necromancer... And as chronicles saith, a man that had poisoned 4 or 5 popes before, that he might come the sooner to it, in 1074 successfully began to enforce clerical celibacy (Ibid., p. 331).”[10]

Not willing to let the public think such evils existed in the far past, Barnes cites a recent example of clerical criminality – a murder of an innocent by clergyman. It seems a priest had killed a man’s daughter because he had impregnated her. Pineas quotes Barnes:

  “I could recite a great many of abominable, and detestable facts, if I were not more ashamed to tell them, then priests hath been to do them... But this I promise them, if any of these protectors of this filthy chastity doth take in hand to defend it against me, I will not be ashamed to write that [which] they have not been ashamed to do. Nor I will not keep secrete how certain bishops of England... doth let whores to [be kept by] priests….Yet here will I tell you one pretty tale. There is a bishop now living in Germany- I could tell his name if I would, adds Barnes­ who found that he needed a large sum of money and asked one of his friends how he might obtain it. The friend advised him to command all the priests in his diocese to get rid of their whores and after that secretly to inform each priest individually that for a certain sum of money his whore could be retained. The advice was followed, Barnes recounts, and the bishop gathered a fortune.”

Pineas his of the opinion that Barnes’ writings were instrumental in the anti-clericalism which arose in the days of King Henry VIII. It is this editor’s wish that Christians were more apprised of the wicked history of the popes and clergy. Had they been informed and not ignorant, perhaps the current ecumenical climate would abate.




[1] All quotes are from Rainer Pineas, Robert Barnes’ Polemical Use of History, (Biblioteque d’ Humanisme et Renaissance, 1964), vol. 26, pp. 55-69; unless otherwise noted.

[2] The same ‘gracious’ King Henry VIII was to burn him seven years later for not holding to the Six Articles.

[3] Pineas, op. cit.

[4] Pineas uses, as his source, Barnes’ 1536, Wittenberg edition of Vitae Romanorum Pontificum, aka, Lives of the Popes.

[5] Pineas, op. cit.

[6] I.e., ‘innocent.’

[7] This editor has substituted modern spelling when Barnes is quoted, unlike Pineas, from whom this quote is taken.

[8] Pineas, citing Barnes.

[9] William Clebsch states, “…..he dedicated his Lives of the Popes to Luther…and bore his preface…The book was an ambitious and pretentious undertaking, providing biographical sketches of some 175 pontiffs between Peter and Alexander III (1159-1181), including some who are no longer regarded as having been true popes.” England’s Earliest Protestants 1520-1535 (New Haven: Yale, 1964), p. 73.

[10] Pineas, op.cit.