The Trial Of Jerome
Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis
On May 23rd, 1416, Jerome was taken to the cathedral church, where the Council had assembled to proceed with his cause.
He had previously refused to answer his accusers in prison. The Priests, exceedingly fearing Jerome‘s eloquence, zealously limited his defences to a simple "Yes" or "No". "What injustice! What cruelty!" exclaimed Jerome. "You have held me shut up three hundred and forty days in a frightful prison, in the midst of filth, stench, and the utmost want of everything. You then bring me here , and lending ear to my mortal enemies, you refuse to hear me. If you be really wise men, and the lights of the world, take care not to sin against justice. As for me, I am only a feeble mortal; my life is but of little importance; and when I exhort you not to deliver an unjust sentence, I speak less for myself than for you."
Uproar ensued . Many shook but Jerome remained firm, his face lit with peace and noble courage amongst a sea of darkened scowling visages. When the storm had subsided a full hearing was agreed, set for 26th of May.
Poggio of Florence
On 26th May his defence in an oration worthy of his cause became the occasion and his sealing martyrdom. Following humble prayer upon his knees he eloquently admitted the true and rebutted the false, now with a pleasantry, now with biting sarcasm drawing admiration and rage from his. Judges. "Not once", says Poggio of Florence, the secretary, "during the whole time did he express a thought which was unworthy of a man of worth".
Many wondered how the incarcerated prisoner unable to see to read or write for months could so widely quote authorities and testimonies in support of his opinions.
Jerome recalled Huss . "I knew him from his childhood. He was a most excellent man, just and holy. He was condemned not-withstanding his innocence. He has ascended to heaven, like Elias, in the midst of flames, and from thence he will summon his judges to the dread tribunal of Christ. I also - I am ready to die. I will not recoil before the torments which are prepared for me by my enemies and false witnesses, who will one day have to render an account of their impostures before the great God whom nothing can deceive. Of all the sins that I have committed since my youth, none weighs so heavily on my mind, and causes me such poignant remorse, as that which I committed in this fatal place, when I approved of the iniquitous sentence recorded against Wicliffe, and against the holy martyr John Huss, my master and my friend. Yes, I confess it from my heart, and declare with horror that I disgracefully quailed when, through a dread of death, I condemned their doctrines. I therefore supplicate Almighty God to deign to pardon me my sins, and this one in particular, the most heinous of all. You condemned Wicliffe and Huss, not because they shook the faith, but because they branded with reprobation the scandals of the clergy - their pomp, their pride, and their luxuriousness."
Cries of "Obstinate heretic" broke out.. Jerome was returned to his dungeon to face even greater rigours. His feet, his hands, his arms were loaded with fetters not to retain but simply torment him. Some admiring bishops visited him to entice a retraction. Jerome always replied, "Prove to me from the Scriptures that I am in error". The Cardinal of Florence, Zabarella extolled the extravagant riches of church office. He said that there was no position of influence, to which Jerome might not aspire by obeying the Council. Why ruin his prospects by immolating himself on the heretic's pile? Jerome was unmoved. He simply replied to the purple clad tempter "Prove to me from the Holy Writings that I am in error, and I will abjure it". "The Holy Writings!" scornfully replied the cardinal; "is everything then to be judged by them? Who can understand them till the Church has interpreted them?" Jerome retorted at once "Are the traditions of men more worthy of faith than the Gospel of our Saviour? Paul did not exhort those to whom he wrote to listen to the traditions of men, but said, ‘Search the Scriptures'. "Heretic," said the cardinal, fixing his eyes upon him and regarding him with looks of anger, "I repent having pleaded so long with you. I see that you are urged on by the devil."
On the 30th of May, 1416, Jerome was brought to receive his sentence. The grandees of the Empire, the dignitaries of the Church, and the officials of the Council filled the cathedral. What a transition from the gloom of his prison to this brilliant assembly, in their robes of office and their stars of rank! But neither star of prince nor miter of bishop was so truly glorious as the badges which Jerome wore - his chains. The troops were under arms. The townspeople, drawn from their homes by the rumour of what was about to take place, crowded to the cathedral gates, or pressed into the church. Jerome was again asked to retract. He simply repeated his sorrow at once approving the burning of John Huss and declared his own sentence unjust. "In dying," said he, "I shall leave a sting in your hearts, and a gnawing worm in your consciences. And I cite you all to answer to me before the most high and just Judge within all hundred years."
A cheerful countenance
A paper miter was now brought in, with red devils painted upon it. When Jerome saw it he threw his cap on the floor among the cardinals, and put the miter upon his head, accompanying the act with the words which Huss had used on a similar occasion: "As my Lord for me did wear a crown of thorn, so I, for Him, do wear with joy this crown of ignominy." The soldiers now closed round him. As they were leading him out of the church, "with a cheerful countenance," says Foxe, "and a loud voice, lifting his eyes up to heaven, he began to sing, ‘Credo in unum Deum,' as it is accustomed to be sung in the Church."
As he passed along through the streets his voice was still heard, clear and kind, singing Church canticles. These he finished as he came to the gate of the city leading to Gottlieben, and then he began a hymn, and continued singing it all the way to the place of execution. The spot where he was to suffer was already consecrated ground to Jerome, for here John Huss had been burned. When he came to the place he kneeled down and began to pray. He was still praying when his executioners raised him up, and with cords and chains bound him to the stake, which had been carved into something like a rude likeness of Huss. When the wood and faggots began to be piled up around him, he again began to sing, "Hail, happy day!" When that hymn was ended, he sang once more, "Credo in unum Deum," and then he addressed the people, speaking to them in the German tongue, and saying, "Dearly-beloved children, as I have now sung, so do I believe, and none otherwise; and this creed is my whole faith."
The wood was heaped up to his neck . But his Saviour was with him at the stake. The courage that sustained his heart, and the peace that filled his soul, were reflected upon his countenance, and struck the beholders. As Jerome stood upon the pile, he looked as one who had gotten the victory over death, and was even now tasting the joys to which he was about to ascend. The executioner was applying the torch behind, when the martyr checked him. "Come forward," said he, "and kindle the pile before my face; for had I been afraid of the fire I should not be here. "When the faggots began to burn, Jerome with a loud voice began to sing "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit." As the flame waxed fiercer and rose higher, and the martyr felt its scorching heat, he was heard to cry out in the Bohemian language, "O Lord God, Father Almighty, have mercy upon me, and be merciful unto mine offences, for Thou knewest how sincerely I have loved Thy truth."
When Jerome had breathed his last his bedding, his boots, his hood, all were thrown upon the still smouldering embers and consumed. The heap of ashes was then carefully gathered up, and put into a cart, and thrown into the Rhine. Now, thought his enemies, there is an end of the Bohemian heresy. We have seen the last of Huss and Jerome. The Council may now sleep in peace.
How short-sighted the men who so thought and spoke! Instead of having stamped out this heresy, they had but scattered its seeds over the whole face of Christendom; and, so far from having erased the name and memory of Huss and Jerome, and consigned them to an utter oblivion, they had placed them in the eyes of the whole world, and made them eternal. (This, says Wylie is why he recounted both burnings in such detail - for they became the pattern for all the future noble martyrs.)
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis