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Between Country and City: John Colet, Thomas More, and Early Modern Perceptions of London

Dan Lochman

Since the nineteenth century, the reputation of John Colet (1467?-1519) has taken wild turns, from Frederic Seebohm’s and J. H. Lupton’s nineteenth century promotion of him as an enlightened proto-reformer to twentieth-century representations of him as a humanist advancing new exegetical methods, Christian humanism, and Florentine Neoplatonism, as an anti-humanist puritanical ascetic, or as theologically and methodologically medieval. Recent studies by John B. Gleason and Jonathan Arnold have taken a skeptical stance, viewing Colet as temperamentally inflexible and irascible, ineffectually abstemious in his dealings as Dean with the chapter at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of interest to Erasmus and other well-known humanists largely due to his potential as a patron.[1] Although these revisions add to knowledge about Colet and early Tudor England and reveal much about theoretical assumptions of earlier writers, I will focus instead on Colet’s situation as regards London in 1504-1505, the time when he left behind his student life to take his position at St. Paul’s in London. In his extant writing, mostly reacting to works by St. Paul and Dionysius, Colet does not name London, emphasizing instead the society of the mystical body as a representation of a true Christian societas or res publica — the figurative city on a hill seasoned by Augustine’s spiritual idealism — in contrast to the sinful corruption endemic to lapsed human society (Matt 5:14; Colet, ExR 3.239; ER 12. 175-76, 12.183-84, 13.204; EH VI. 1. 249; CC 1. 78, 80, 12. 236; Augustine 15). Revisiting his situation at the time he decided to move back to London permits study of the consequences, contingencies, and broad social and cultural cross-currents related to that choice. Doing so demonstrates the complexity of what Jürgen Pieters describes as the multiple social ‘zones’ that shaped early modern life and offers insight into perceptions of London at the outset of the sixteenth century (233-34).

In 1504, Thomas More invited Colet to return to London. In one of his earliest extant letters, a twenty-six-year-old More seems to employ pastoral conventions to contrast the rural and the urban, but, as I will emphasize below, he unexpectedly shifts ground by making the principal justification for the move Colet’s role as spiritual therapist to a corrupt and immoral city whose claustrophobic urban space posed a moral danger as grievous as that of the physical danger of plagues among urban populations. Although Christopher Harper-Bill has shown the error of assuming widespread impropriety and laxness among the clergy in pre-Reformation rural England, he does allow that Colet’s complaints against ecclesiasts in the 1512 Convocation Sermon may be accurate insofar as they apply to early Tudor London. There the density of an urban population and the close physical juxtaposition of high and low among both laity and clergy fostered tensions evident in conflicts between common lawyers and ecclesiasts who advocated clerical immunities and jurisdictions or between those who brought to the city expectations rooted in agrarian tithing and those whose ecclesiastical support derived from the profits of urban commerce, markets and trades. Other tensions emerged from the physical proximity of a growing, restive citizenry to what seemed prelatical opulence, akin to the wealth and power of the royal court. Rural ideals of pastoral ministry were at odds with the religious experience of established Londoners, who would have witnessed clerical abuses close at hand and at many hierarchical levels (Brigden 43-68). Harper-Bill confirms the attraction of London to ‘the least worthy of the lower clergy, that very small minority in the country as a whole who sought to evade their responsibilities,’ and he suggests that this group may have prompted specific charges of clerical misbehavior such as that in 1487, when Archbishop John Morton rebuked clergy who inhabited taverns (29-30). Concerning London, Harper-Bill asserts that Colet at the 1512 Convocation had ‘properly assessed’ the need for ecclesiastical reform (30).

Below I will consider Colet’s critiques of early Tudor institutions and practices, More’s invitation and the personal and cultural contexts that shaped Colet’s decision to accept the challenges of the deanship and life in a physically and spiritually oppressive city, and the shadow-effects of Colet’s decision upon his later career.


Born in London circa 1467, Colet should have completed around 1504 a long educational preparation that included bachelor’s degrees in arts and divinity, a master’s in arts, and a doctorate in divinity. His education apparently included several years of study in Italy and France, during which he cultivated a conviction of the need for trained Latinity as a means of communication and a curiosity about the historical situation of the primitive church. He expresses these humanist interests in a pure Latinity in the statutes he formulated when, between 1508 and 1512, he reestablished the boys’ school at St. Paul’s (Gleason 220-02). An interest in Latinate rhetorical expression characterizes his writings about Paul’s epistles, the pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies, and treatises on subjects such as the sacraments and mystical body (Margolin 151-57). To say so much does not mean that he duplicated the sophisticated Ciceronian Latinity of the professional humanists circulating through England during the reign of Henry VII: Filipo Alberici, Pietro Carmeliano, Bernard André, Andrea Ammonio, Polydore Vergil, and after 1499 Erasmus (Carlson 20-101; Trapp, Erasmus 1-38). Rather, his Latinity modulates between a utilitarian, plain style and an impulsively passionate one, seasoned with moments of contemplative eloquence. In expositions on Paul and Dionysius, Colet pauses often to insert abrupt contemporary applications that reveal his tendency to query received nostrums while revering what he understood as apostolic tradition and the practices and thinking of the early church.

In 1504 Colet was the advantaged, sole surviving son among twenty-two children of Dame Christian Colet, his Knyvet mother, and Henry Colet, a successful, ambitious merchant and civil official (twice elected Lord Mayor) who died 1 October 1505 soon after the election of his son as Dean. Perhaps because of the accidents of his mother’s established family and his merchant father’s accumulated wealth, Colet seldom evinces the ecclesiological pragmatism or the concern for his career evident in the correspondence of other Tudor ecclesiasts and humanists, such as the more prominent Erasmus or More. Instead, he often takes the role of an outsider set against what he portrays as corrupt or degraded ecclesiastical, economic and political structures, including at times those that, ironically, had helped him advance to his position as Dean (Carlson 15-16).

Challenge of contemporary authorities is a theme throughout Colet’s life. It unites many otherwise little-related events, including his public admonitions to the English ecclesiastical hierarchy gathered at Convocation in 1512 and his conflicts with Richard Fitzjames, Bishop of London, that led to an apparently unprosecuted charge against Colet of heresy (Gleason 235-37). Challenge to received custom seems also to lie behind the resentment of him by the minor clergy at St. Paul’s, their complaints shadowing Erasmus’s praise of Colet’s correction of immoral behavior at the chapter and the remark of an anonymous annotator of a 1611 manuscript of Colet’s revision of the statutes governing the chapter, indicating that the Dean lost Fitzjames’ and Wolsey’s backing for the changes because he was ‘out with the Chapter’ (Gleason 243; Arnold, ‘John Colet’ 183-87). More dangerous were Colet’s implicit challenges to Henry VIII’s war with France in two sermons preached against the morality of warfare (Harper-Bill 20-28; Lupton 180-84, 131-33, 188ff, Gleason 181-84, 240-44, 257-60; Arnold, ‘Lost’ 187-92). Again, according to a summary transcribed by Sir Edward Walker in 1664, Colet preached in 1515 at the installation of Wolsey as cardinal, praising the spiritual duty of the office as a demonstrative challenge to Wolsey — like himself a product of the rising yeomen — to spurn vices precisely of the sort that later were attributed to the prelate: improvident care of the flock as well as ambition and pride (Lupton 193-98).

To be sure, one may question whether Colet always held to the high standards he set for others. Both Gleason and Arnold argue that Colet’s strident idealism, realized sometimes in abstemious or tactless personal conduct, conflicted with statements in the correspondence of Erasmus and More hinting at the unusual material advantages Colet enjoyed as the son of a wealthy London merchant (Gleason 242-43; Arnold, ‘Lost’ 191-92). Although he accepted the fruits of several non-incumbent livings, he demanded others’ strict adherence to rule and even the need to surpass it, maintaining a household frugality that, if one so reads Erasmus’s tone, bordered on incivility toward guests and subordinate clergy at the deanery (Gleason 242-43). Some references by Erasmus and the fore-mentioned seventeenth-century copy of the revised statutes suggest that Colet earned the hostility of his subordinates by insisting on detailed circumscription of their behavior and by withholding from chantry priests much of their traditional ‘hospitality,’ the subsidies of food intended to relieve the poverty of those who in many instances received minimal support from their benefactors (Gleason 242, Arnold, ‘Lost’ 185-92).

Colet also made a point of undermining the cathedral’s control over the school by replacing its traditional governor, the chapter’s chancellor — at this time William Lichfield — with secular governors of the Mercers’ Company, including according to the school’s statutes ‘the Maister and all the Wardens and all the assistence of the feloshipp’ who would ‘haue alle the Cure and charge rule and governnaunce of the scole’ and appoint from among themselves annually two ‘Surveyours’ charged with maintaining ‘all the charge and besynese aboute the scole’ (Lupton 280). Colet specifies that the surveyors, compensated for time and travel related to the school’s affairs (281), would receive and disburse all income from various rents, and he entrusts to the Company rather than to any ecclesiast responsibility to maintain any ‘over plus of money,’ to distribute funds to pay the school’s staff, and to provide for maintenance (281). That Colet petitioned Pope Julius II in 1512 to codify this scheme of lay governance suggests that the transfer of authority may have met with local resistance, despite Lichfield’s voluntarily yielding supervisory authority in 1511 (Gleason 221-22, Lupton 161). The change in governance undoubtedly added to wounds incurred already due to the chapter’s revised statutes, the reduction in hospitalities, and renewed duties, such as the chancellor’s obligation to offer divinity lectures for the instruction of the clergy of St. Paul’s and London (Gleason 220-22, Lupton, 139-40). That the school constituted the principal beneficiary of the ‘charitable objects’ Erasmus cited in reference to the inherited fortune of Colet — and another source of tension between Colet and the chapter — offers a more likely reason for perceptions of his excessive frugality than the concupiscent hoarding some have suggested (Allen 4. 520, Ep. 1211; CW 8. 23-36; Arnold, ‘Lost’ 191).

However Colet’s ideals may have influenced his financial decisions, his writings and life records, as well as the Convocation Sermon, show him openly challenging political and religious hierarchies that seemed to threaten scriptural truths and authentic ecclesiastical tradition. He reacted to what he saw as institutional flaws not only in the prescribed governance of the school and chapter but also in his comments about erosion in ecclesiastical practices, duties, and rules among all clerical ranks, about secular infringements of ecclesiastical rights, about abuses of legal authority, and about failures to maintain the integrity of Christianity’s original sacraments, community, and scripture (EH 5. 3. 246-48; ExR 2. 226-27, 4. 256, 263-65, 5. 279-81; CC. 6. 120-26, 12. 236; Kaufman 59-106). In one instance, although Colet did not feel bound to adhere to a medieval ecclesiastical formula that had required one third of the clergy’s beneficed income to be spent on hospitality and alms for the poor, in the Convocation Sermon he called for a temperate use of episcopal income, with fully one-fourth dedicated to support of the poor, an amount equal to that for the support of ‘the bysshoppe and his householde’ (Lupton 301-02; cf. ER 14. 218-20; Heath 141-2; Heal 14, 225-26, 246-54). Arnold asserts that such admonitions deviated so widely from early Tudor practice that they were doomed (‘Lost’ 190). Yet one can imagine Colet dwelling amidst the urban swirl of law and commerce surrounding St. Paul’s and still spurning any temporizing rooted in custom or popular opinion that might, in his view, compromise authorities he deemed authoritative: the Bible and the precedent of the prima ecclesia.


Humanist revisions of cultural institutions fostered tensions between reverence for ancient traditions and disdain for later accommodations that reverberate across many social ‘zones,’ including the religious and political. One such tension, evident also in the rhetorical strategies in More’s letter to Colet, stems from the commonplace humanist opposition between negotium and otium, in this case between a wish to reform urban corruption and a wish to seek refuge from it. Contrasts between the urban and rural are familiar in the writings of early modern England, with roots in Greco-Roman pastoral. Decades ago Raymond Williams drew attention to Renaissance pastorals’ distinctive cultural appropriation of classical pastoral and emphasized its idealized wish for ‘untroubled rural delight and peace.’ More recently Paul Alpers has observed that later pastoral inherited from classical models a modal trait of ‘suspension,’ by which Alpers refers to pastoral’s refusal to accept a ‘permanently achieved new relation’ or resolution. Instead it revels in its ‘absorption in the moment’ with a ‘poised, even secure contemplation of things disparate or even ironically related,’ resisting the idea that ‘disparities or conflicts are fully resolved’ (Williams 18; Alpers 68). Just such a suspension haunts More’s invitation and Colet’s decision to move to London. When Colet did arrive in London in 1505, he resided in a city increasingly perceived as the commercial, political, and cultural hub amidst other less powerful English urban centers, towns, markets, villages, and country houses. Yet he never seems to have submitted fully to the demands of London as an urban power.

More’s invitation assumes that London is becoming a city in the sense of an organized and cognitively distinct space, as described by Michel de Certeau. De Certeau observes that the emergence of ‘the city’ as a totality coincided with the early modern emergence of thinking evident in utopian modeling of communities (like More’s Amaurot in Utopia) that expressed ‘the ambition of surmounting and articulating the contradictions arising from human agglomeration or accumulation.’ Such cities flattened the differences among individuals and classes that defined early Tudor London. According to de Certeau, early concepts of ‘the city’ implied a ‘twofold projection of an opaque past and an uncertain future’ that produced ‘the transformation of the urban fact into the concept of the city’ (93-4). The growing Tudor perception of London as England’s preeminent ‘city’ therefore implies a suspension between its experiential existence as a set of independent sites and times defined by contingency and difference and its constructed identity as a unified center increasingly estranged from other market, cathedral, university towns, and the countryside with which it was inextricably networked (Sacks 24-6).

The interest of English Renaissance writers in the pastoral mode may be linked to a cultural resistance to London as a simultaneously idealized and actualized ‘city,’ particularly when the drive to differentiate London from smaller centers became a prop for centralizing royal power. Late in the sixteenth century, Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry justified pastoral as a covert means of framing political critiques of just such an urban hegemony. Sidney singles out Virgil’s exiled shepherd Meliboeus in the first Eclogue as figuring ‘the misery of people under hard lords or ravening soldiers’ in contrast to Tityrus, conventionally identified with Virgil as imperial poet, who enjoys an urban patron’s protection, revealing ‘what blessedness is derived to them that lie lowest from the goodness of them that sit highest’ (87-88). In Sidney’s representation, the ‘city’ of Rome is both the experience of authoritarian power and injustice that disrupts pastoral stasis and a conceptualized totality of royal largesse that promises a future in which a cooperative shepherd may be absorbed into the totality of ‘Rome,’ conceived as a unified center of wealth and power. Just such a suspension must have been experienced by London citizens as they negotiated between their conception of London as ‘city’ and their atomized experience of everyday, local contingencies within its material grid of streets demarcated by economic value, social status, and physical appearance. Although the size of the population had changed little between Chaucer’s time and Colet’s, More’s Utopia demonstrates an early Tudor awareness of the causes and effects of the social, demographic and economic differences underlying practices such as enclosure. In contrast Hythloday’s imaginative projections of the potential of the ‘city’ offered a blueprint for London’s emerging identity and explosive growth during the sixteenth century (Sacks 22; Roberts 89). The conception of London as a self-conscious city in de Certeau’s sense becomes evident during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the growing popularity of civic antiquarianism and urban literature. Yet this emerging idea of London coexisted with the disorderly contingency and personal vulnerability characteristic of urban life, the latter fostering an ambivalence that has its mirror-image in early modern concepts of ‘the country’ (Merritt 17).

Such an ambivalence is sometimes evident in the writings of Petrarch, who proclaimed the pleasures of the pastoral retreat in writings such as De vita solitaria but yearned in others, like Africa, for a revival of Roman power centered in an ideal imperial city. During his residence at Avignon, Petrarch’s letters offer oscillating points of view about the idea of escape from urbanity and the papal court when he takes refuge at rural Vaucluse, alternately represented as an idyllic haven and a site of unsophisticated coarseness. On 15 February 1353, for example, Petrarch wrote to console the seriously ill Niccolò di Paolo di Vetuli, Bishop of Viterbo, by praising Vaucluse as a retreat from the corruption and ambition of the urban court:

Here is no threatening tyrant, no insolent layman, no foul-mouthed Detractor; here no wrath, no political factions, no complaints, no perfidy, no clamor and shouting men, no sound of bugles and clashing of arms; furthermore, here you will find no greed, envy, ambition, or thresholds of arrogant men to be crossed with fear, but instead joy and simplicity and freedom, that desirable state between wealth and poverty, a temperate and gentle rusticity, a harmless folk and unarmed people, a peaceful region whose bishop is an excellent man. … (16. 6, 306)

Less than two years earlier (19 July 1351), however, Petrarch instead had written to his old friend Luca Cristiani to bemoan and defend the vanity of his wishes. He berates the coarse rusticity of the peasantry and their alien countryside, employing the language of complaint and pastoral idyl to describe his refuge from public fame and a ‘life of glory’:

No hope drew me here [to Vaucluse], no need or pleasure except the austere and rustic kind, indeed not even my love for my friends, which is one of the most honored of earthly reasons. What friends could I have here where no one understands the meaning of friendship? The common people, intent as they are on working their sterile clods, their flourishing vineyards and olive trees, or their lines and nets in the river, can have no kind of fellowship in my life and in my conversations. Indeed only after careful consideration have I returned … being fully aware of what I was leaving and what I was choosing. (11.12, 112)

Like de Certeaus’s concept of the city in reverse, these descriptions of the country represent ambivalently the experience (‘austere and rustic’ pleasure) and the concept (the ‘desirable state’) of rural retreat. Both passages hold in calm suspension the ideal of otium and experiential, work-a-day contingencies, the urbane writer’s possibility of private gain offset by absence from the city and its community, the happy oxymoron of ‘gentle rusticity’ marred by alienation from the ‘common’ inhabitants and material pursuits that allow no ‘fellowship’ in life or conversation. Given so balanced a suspension of feelings and wishes, how could Petrarch determine the value of either the urban or rural? And, in Colet’s case, what would a choice between the two mean?

In 1504 Colet had to choose the direction of his ecclesiastical career by deciding whether to move back to London, his birthplace and residence for the thirteen years or so before he began his university education. For most of the twenty years prior to his receiving the deanship at St. Paul’s, he had lived outside London. Yet his childhood roots were in the city. As a child he had lived on Budge Street and had probably attended the nearby Hospital School of St. Thomas of Acon, operated by the Mercers’ Company (Gleason 25, 36). A rising star in that company during the 1470s, Henry Colet pursued a career built upon his fortunate marriage, ambitious energy, and wise investments. In his maturity he gained civic distinction by serving as the Company’s alderman, warden and after 1480 five-time master, by serving two non-contiguous terms as Lord Mayor of London in the 1480s and 1490s, and by sitting as a member of Parliament (22, 24-25, 32). Gleason theorizes that John’s younger brother, Richard, had been groomed to carry on the family’s worldly connections in London, culminating in his study at Lincoln’s Inn, while the older John — seemingly by his own preference — pursued a clerical career (15). Richard apparently died about 1503, following upon the early deaths of twenty other siblings, leaving the less secular-minded John the sole surviving child and chief beneficiary of his father’s considerable estate (16).

By 1504 dedication to learning and his religious formation had distanced him from the family’s trade and London roots. When his father was first installed as master of the Mercers’ Company in 1480, John may already have left the city, aged about thirteen, to study at Cambridge (39). During the years Cambridge typically required for bachelor’s and master’s of arts degrees, together with the subsequent ‘necessary regency,’ Colet would have had little chance to reside in London, perhaps less than a quarter of each year, from circa 1480 until circa 1490 (39-42). Even those stays may have been cut short by excursions to his father’s family home near Wendover, Buckinghamshire and to the center of his mother’s family, the Knyvets (Lupton 1-2, 13-14; Gleason 18-19; 26-7) at Ashwellthorpe, Norfolk — both parents having preceded their son in having made the transition to life in London.

Although Colet’s whereabouts from 1490 to 1492 remain unknown and the pertinent grace books at Oxford are unavailable, Gleason suggests that Colet proceeded directly from his arts degree and regency at Cambridge to study of divinity at Oxford before beginning several years of travel and study on the continent (43). S. L. Greenslade, however, has shown that an individual’s progress through the university (in this case Oxford) cannot easily be traced because patterns of matriculation varied widely among the colleges and determination of any student’s residency depended upon many contingencies. Records extant for students in religious orders show that few stayed in residence during studies after the bachelor’s in divinity and even fewer were resident when working toward the doctorate (298, 305). Similarly, one cannot easily determine an average number of years of study since the case for each student ‘was judged independently,’ with faculty deliberating to determine the number of years in non-residence each could apply toward the degree (299). Contra Gleason, the faculty may well have allowed Colet to substitute his stay on the continent in Italy and France (c. 1492-c.1496) for a portion of the seven years of study usually required to earn a bachelor’s in divinity. If so, he would have completed his degree close to his date of ordination (25 March 1498) as was typical, even though Erasmus, writing more than twenty years after the fact, recalled that at their first meeting in 1499 Colet had as yet ‘taken no degree whatever’ (Allen 4. 515, Ep.1211, CW 8. 233). While completing the doctorate, Colet would have been expected to maintain ties to the university even if non-resident, since he would have been obliged to fulfill requirements to lecture, preach, serve as responder and questioner at disputations, and attend some lectures (Greenslade 296-97). Before receiving his doctorate around 1504, then, Colet could have spent little of the preceding twenty-four years in London, despite its dominant place in his fortunes and career.

Colet’s situation with respect to London had grown more complicated because in 1499 he had accepted a new, substantial living as vicar of St. Dunstan’s in Stepney (then called Stebunhith), a benefice in the exurban region two-and-one-half miles east of London’s walls. Colet retained this living until 1505 when he settled into St. Paul’s as Dean. According to the nineteenth-century historian Walter Thornbury, the vicar at Stepney in 1372 earned a substantial twelve marks annually; in 1650, the annual income was seventy pounds. This valuable living had been held before Colet by upwardly mobile ecclesiasts, notably in the 1480s Richard Fox, bishop of several successive sees and founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (chartered 1516) (140). Presumably, the successful Henry Colet followed the common practice of purchasing the ‘right of next presentation’ at St. Dunstan’s for the benefit of his son, with the intention that John might use it as a stepping-stone to further ecclesiastical preferment (Heath 32-33).

figure1Stepney’s mediating role in the life of Colet — between his family and religious vocation, between his education and ordination and his administrative career — is linked to its other associations with his family. At some point Henry had purchased a Stepney house known as Great Place, located at the intersection of White Horse and Salmon Lane near St. Dunstan’s churchyard on Stepney Green, the latter near the Bishop of London’s Wood and Hall (Lupton 118-19). It was just one among Henry’s many properties to the east and north of London. This dwelling, known to John Stow as the site of a 1299 parliament wherein Edward I had to confront a group of disaffected nobles, was in an area London’s mayors and leading clergy still considered a refuge from the city (1. 54). Thornbury speculates that the Dean’s own house in the village of Stepney — still called ‘Colet House’ in the nineteenth century and located ‘at north end of White Horse Street’ (140-41) — may have been the same ‘place with gardens’ that the Statutes had conveyed to the Mercers to help support St. Paul’s School (Lupton 283, n3). If this property had been conveyed already to the Mercers as early as 1512, the date of the Statutes, some agreement must have permitted Henry’s wife, Dame Christian, to reside there as a widow until her own death in 1523. After becoming Dean, John too seems to have used the family’s house in Stepney as a refuge from the city. He and his mother entertained Erasmus there during 1504-1505 and 1511-1512. Arguably, they may have done the same in 1510 for the twenty-four-year-old Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, who with Colet as tutor ‘worked hard on the epistles of St. Paul’ (Gleason 146l Trapp ‘Dame Christian’ 103-05). The idea of Stepney as a refuge is conveyed visually in contemporary landscapes of the area around London Tower and the region to the east. Anthony Van de Wyngaerde’s 1543 pen-and-ink drawing, for instance, manages to include both London and Stepney but separates the city’s wall, ditch, and suburbs from exurban agricultural lands and the village of Stepney, marked by St. Dunstan’s tower, barely visible on the horizon (Figure 1). Claes Janszoon Visscher’s 1616 panoramic engraving of London, with Stepney again on the horizon and still separated by open fields from the walled boundary of the city, offers a clearer but later image (Inwood Plate 13). Colet’s clerical and familial connections with Stepney must have attracted him to the London area even as his activities at Oxford and elsewhere seemed to draw him away from it.

By 1504, then, Colet must have been envisioning futures both within and outside the city. Such a suspension is confirmed by More in his letter, dated 23 October and customarily assigned to 1504. The young More’s concern for Colet’s decision may in some measure represent a projection of his own indecision about a career since he had emerged in 1501 as a young yet morally conflicted barrister. Richard Marius has argued that this period was for More a time of acute ‘spiritual crisis,’ suspended between thoughts of marrying and entering public life and continuing the monastic seclusion he had sampled at the London Charterhouse. Around this period he lectured at St. Lawrence Jewry on The City of God (34-43). Yet Marius portrays More as ‘always a Londoner, a city man to the marrow of his bones’ and refers to the letter to Colet as an exception, ‘a youthful effusion in the bucolic tradition of the later Middle Ages’ (3; Guy 26-37). But it seems perverse to see the letter’s portrait of the corrupt city as a youthful anomaly when More had so recently studied Augustine’s concept of the earthly city of man, linked to Cain, from which Augustine’s Christian is to flee and undertake a spiritual pilgrimage to the heavenly city of God (15. 1. 412-14).

On the surface More’s letter seeks to ameliorate reservations that may have impeded Colet’s return to life in London. It opens with a jest about the writer’s alienation from the London law courts, a place where More alone stood ‘unbusy while everyone else was busy’ (Rogers 4). Whatever ambivalence this statement may imply about his view of the profession, More states that he recently had met Colet’s (unnamed) servant at the courts and had inquired why he was not with his master. Learning that Colet did not intend to return from the country ‘for a long time,’ More writes that, dejected at his friend’s absence, he wished to persuade him to return to London so they might renew their ‘delightful intimacy’ and so that he might again hear Colet’s ‘powerful sermons’ and profit from his holy ‘example and life’ (4).

The reference to Colet’s residence in ‘the country’ raises interesting but uncertain possibilities as to his location. Since More subsequently invites Colet to spend time at Stepney, Colet could not have been residing there, presumably relying upon the services of a curate to tend to St. Dunstan’s. More states that he learned Colet intended to be in the ‘country’ for some time. He may have been still pursuing his studies at Oxford, residing at one of his family’s country houses, and/or tending to clerical duties at another of his benefices, perhaps the one attached to St. Mary’s in Dennington, about forty mile south of Norwich. Colet had held this vicarage since 1485, when he was still working toward an arts degree at Cambridge (Lupton 117, 145 n2). [2] Colet may have felt obligated to tend to this parish after his 1498 ordination, while he pursued his doctorate. If so, he would have lived less than fifty miles southeast of the Knyvett family stronghold at Norfolk’s Buckenham Castle and only about ten miles from the restive Middlesham, a town still dominated by the Knyvetts in 1530 when the discovery there of one hundred radical ‘Christian Brethren’ reputed to be sympathetic to reformed belief shamed the loyal Catholic Edmund Knyvett and the rest of the Knyvett family (MacCullouch 178, Davis 45-49). If Colet did reside for a time in this area, he may have become familiar with (if not sympathetic to) the spiritual concerns and fractious iconoclasm of the reform-oriented yeomen in Norfolk and Suffolk — an experience perhaps underscoring Erasmus’s opinion that Colet was less opposed to lay dissenters and heretics than to predatory clergy (29-30; Allen 4. 521-22, Ep.1211; CW 8. 239-40). In any case, More writes of Colet’s residence in the countryside as a desirable alternative the letter must counter if he is to persuade his friend to return to London.

To this end, More employs the highly counterintuitive rhetorical tactic of opposing the vices and physical closeness of the city to rural innocence and openness in order to play upon Colet’s wish to improve the degraded moral and spiritual character of the city he had long known. Though drawing as Marius suggests on pastoral topoi that oppose the urban to the rural, More nevertheless makes his contrast neither simple nor focused on rural pleasure by highlighting the stark, grim realities of the city. Alpers alludes to the ambivalence essential to Virgilian pastoral when, in the first Eclogue, the still naïve Meloboeus, being forced into exile, offers envious praise of the pleasant place he is being forced to leave: ‘here amid the well known streams, and sacred fountains, you [Tityrus] shall enjoy the shady cold.’ In reply, Tityrus couches his praise of rural leisure (haec otia) not in reference to pastoral space or objects but as the product of an abstract libertas he opposes to the enslavement experienced in Rome, a place vested fully with de Certeau’s concept of ‘the city’ in that, personified, she ‘has raised her head among other sites as much, as the cypresses used [to do] among the slender shrubbery.’ In place of subjection to civil and imperial authority, Tityrus enjoys rural freedom that is ironically dependent upon the patronage of Amaryllis, his urban protector in Rome (166-67). In the Eclogue, the shepherds represent the paradox of Rome, a site of enslavement and liberty, guarantor of otium through negotium. Whereas Amaryllis is an urban insider who liberates rural Tityrus, More reverses the polarity by casting the outsider Colet as the prospective protector and healer of the morally enslaved, physically cramped city.

More’s letter reveals how London might be perceived and framed for this persuasive rhetorical purpose. More appeals to Colet to return to help its citizens live well despite physical and spiritual pollution:

… [I]n the city what is there to move one to live well? but rather, when a man is straining in his own power to climb the steep path to virtue, it turns him back by a thousand devices and sucks him back by a thousand enticements. … Wherever you turn your eyes, what else will you see but confectioners, fishmongers, butchers, cooks, poulterers, fishermen, fowlers, who supply the materials for gluttony and the world and the world’s lord, the devil? Nay, even houses block out from us I know not how large a measure of light, and do not permit us to see the heavens. And the round horizon does not limit the air but the lofty roofs. I really cannot blame you if you are not yet tired of the country where you live among simple people, unversed in the deceits of the city: wherever you cast your eyes, the smiling face of the earth greets you, the sweet fresh air invigorates you, the very sight of the heavens charms you. There you see nothing but the generous gifts of nature and the traces of our primeval innocence. (4-5)

An odd argument this, to lure Colet back to London. More establishes two central binaries, both privileging rural life: 1) the physical pleasures of the country opposed to the material oppression of the city and 2) a natural, spiritual, and moral portrait of the countryside as a shadow of Eden, opposed to a Boschean mélange of trades devoted to base appetites and buildings that occlude the heavens. The boundary-defining walls of London, so evident in artists’ panoramic renderings of the city, not only enclose and imprison the two dimensions of streets and partitions of the city devoted to trades and neighborhoods but also shut out heavenly illumination, literally and symbolically. More’s binaries emphasize the importance of sight. Visualizing London stimulates base worldly appetites and encourages sight directed away from the spiritual journey on the ‘steep path to virtue.’ In contrast, rural vision exposes the pleasures of a ‘smiling’ earth and a heavenly vision that expansively drifts from space to time, from sinfulness to the sight of ‘traces of our primeval innocence.’ More conveys rural freedom by referring to an unrestricted ‘round horizon’ in contrast to London’s claustrophobia-producing ‘lofty roofs’ that ‘limit the air.’

figure2As a London native with memories of London’s complex commercial, political, and cultural networks, Colet could hardly be expected to succumb to a conventional opposition of rural to urban. As always, citizens locked socially and economically within the enclosures of buildings must have felt most keenly urban oppression, the impoverished having been ‘stuffed in the rapidly proliferating alleys and subdivided tenements’ (Archer 183). The clergy and middle class, too, were bound to the city by their professional and economic networks. Tensions endemic to urban life in a city soon to be the most populous in Europe were, as Susan Brigden observes, circumscribed physically by ‘ancient walls’ that enclosed within one square mile a labyrinth of ‘worlds within worlds’ (2). When he began his service as Dean at St. Paul’s in 1505, Colet encountered an enclosed churchyard both physically and symbolically crowded, the old cathedral and its precincts nested within the successively larger enclosures of London, the English church, and the nation. In a diagram of St. Paul’s churchyard in 1572, Peter W. M. Blayney outlines some sites not yet present in 1504, such as Stationers’ Hall adjacent to the Deanery (located on Milk Street before 1553), and omits others, such as the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary built over the old charnel house and converted in 1549 for the book traders around St. Paul’s. But he conveys well the oppressive crowdedness More and Colet would have identified with the churchyard, including the independent parishes of St. Gregory’s and St. Faith’s (in the crypt), the Bishop of London’s Palace, the Chapter House, and the College of Petty Canons — all attached to the Cathedral — and the residences of the Dean, Vicar, Treasurer, and other canons (see Figure 2 — reproduced with kind permission from Peter W. M. Blayney, ‘The Bookshop That Never Was,’ Material London, ca. 1600, ed. Lena Cowen Orlin, Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000, p. 324)). He conveys too, the press of shops and urban businesses, some adjacent to the Cathedral’s walls, and locates near Paul’s Cross the school Colet would construct in 1512 (324). Some of the minor clergy residing in the churchyard in 1504 were the same who would later test Colet’s authority, principles, and patience.

By recalling unpleasant images of the city, More’s letter heightened awareness of the totality of London as a city of men and of the obstacles facing an ecclesiast dwelling in a setting averse to the city of God. More’s persuasive efforts ultimately have little to do with the conventional pastoral representations of urban and rural life Marius claims they do. Instead, More inverts the conventional pastoral values of rural and urban as a means of appealing to Colet as a spiritual healer. Among rural people a spiritual physician of nearly any quality may suffice, More opines, in that they are ‘not ensnared in great sins,’ but the people of London have ‘great numbers’ of sins and ‘long-standing habits of vice’ that require a ‘most skillful physician’ whom they must trust to ‘treat their wounds,’ and Colet is said to have enjoyed such trust ‘in the past’ (5). Lupton speculated that Colet had substituted for his predecessor, Robert Sherborne, during the latter’s travels in this period, perhaps lending point to More’s mention of Colet’s former service in London, but More’s first line of argument is figurative, emphasizing Colet’s needed service through metaphors that compare him to a physician just as The City of God had described Christ’s doctrine of forgiveness and the Spirit’s internal medicine as the cures for sinful citizens in the earthly city (15. 6. 432-34; Lupton 120 n4, 14). More concludes his letter on a personal note, appealing to Colet to alleviate the suffering caused by his absence, and More reminds Colet rather archly of the ‘care’ he owed the congregation at St. Dunstan’s in Stepney, the latter offered as a rural substitute for the place ‘where you now dwell’ (5). In a single brief hint at the conventional pastoral valorization of the rural, More describes Stepney as a place ‘whence you can sometimes turn aside… [from the inconveniences of] the city’ (5). Elsewhere, however, More invites Colet to endure London’s physical discomforts and moral temptations in order to help it become less an earthly city and more like the ‘city of the saints’ (Augustine 15 .1. 414).


Colet’s reply, if any, to More’s letter is lost, but the difficulty of the task More enjoins may well have given Colet reason to weigh his decision carefully. A relatively young nominee of 37 or 38, with no administrative experience other than rectorships held mostly in absentia, he may well have had second thoughts about his ability to administer perhaps the greatest of England’s cathedrals together with its supporting canons, vicars, canons minor, chaplains, and all the others required for its liturgical and physical operation. He may have been reluctant, too, to cross from his learned and religious life outside London to the administrative concerns he would have to endure. To help end this suspension (in Alpers’ sense), More offers Colet supportive friendship, challenge built upon dire need, and a frank forecast of the oppression he must expect should he substitute London’s lofty buildings for the ‘round horizon’ of the rural landscape.

By 5 May 1505 Colet had made the decision that seemingly ended that suspension. He returned to London to join the chapter at St. Paul’s Cathedral and accept the prebend of Mora, a necessary preliminary to his election as Dean on 2 June. He took on his formal duties by 21 June (Gleason 32 and n111). From this point until his death in 1519, Colet served as Dean. He made occasional expeditions to places such as Stepney and Oxford but ordinarily he remained close to St. Paul’s and the school he would establish, build, and endow between 1508 and 1512. Gleason describes Colet’s election to the deanship as a product of Henry Colet’s political maneuvering on his son’s behalf, the deanship being assured by the father’s political and financial support of Henry VII’s trade agreements with the Low Countries in 1496, with the cathedral chapter in 1504 ‘obediently’ following the will of a grateful king (32). Arnold cites the appointment as a likely source of resentment toward Colet among clergy attached to the chapter and later for Richard Fitzjames (named Bishop of London in 1506), all of whom may have seen the appointment via the King’s pronouncement as a secular intrusion upon the regular election of the dean by the chapter and the bishop (‘John Colet’ 187-9). Rather than becoming the spiritual healer More had envisioned, Colet seems often to have been viewed as a stern outsider, one willing to make bold yet impolitic attacks upon the great and powerful as well as those of lesser status, applying his spiritual medicine with a conviction sometimes perceived as arrogance.

During his tenure as Dean, Colet does seem to have accepted some elements of a new civic life. Around the time of his election as Dean, he enrolled in Doctors’ Commons, an association of civil and canon lawyers then situated on Paternoster Row, opposite the area near Paul’s Gate on the northeast edge of St. Paul’s Courtyard, amidst a group of public buildings and ‘private houses, tenements, and shops’ (Blayney 323; Squibb, 19, 124; Trapp CE 329). His activities in the cause of education, ongoing ties with the Mercers, and political connections that grow in fits and starts after his 1512 Convocation Sermon reveal his connectedness to life in London. Over time, however, the distance and objectification implicit in More’s metaphor of London as the physician’s ‘patient’ prefigures Colet’s alienation from it, yielding a suspension no longer defined by the boundaries of country and city but by public prominence and private spirituality. In Colet’s later years, one finds a spiritual analogy of that subliminal yearning for physical escape Stow expressed later in his Survey — what Patrick Collinson calls ‘nostalgic antiquarianism,’ an idea that embodies the ‘potent urban myth’ of ‘nostalgia for the raped and now distant countryside’ that shaped Stow’s descriptions of gardens, traditional customs, and rural rituals brought into the city (34-35). Although Colet no doubt derived much satisfaction from his position as Dean, his reputation for active virtue, his contacts with learned and influential men, and in later years his ability to influence government on the Privy Council, the moral and spiritual suspension between earthly and heavenly cities of More’s letter informs both Colet’s persistent idealism and fantasy of escape from the city’s constraints behind an alternative set of walls — the cloistered Charterhouse at Sheen. Located near the Brigettine monastery of Syon at Richmond on the Thames and linked to reform circles within English monasticism, the Sheen Charterhouse was apparently the site of a construction intended for Colet’s refuge (Gillespie 92). Scarred by ongoing conflicts with the chapter and recently accused of heresy by Bishop Fitzjames, Colet writes on 20 October 1514 from London to Erasmus in tones that range from irony to sincerity:

Your friends here are all well: the archbishop of Canterbury [Warham] is as sweet and good as ever; my lord of Lincoln [Wolsey] now reigns as archbishop of York; he of London [Fitzjames] still plagues me. I think daily of retiring and taking refuge among the Carthusians. My nest is nearly finished. When you return to us, as far as I can guess, you will find me there dead to worldly things. (CW 3. 48, Ep. 314)

Tui hic omnes valent; Cantuariensis semper est solita suauitate, Lincolniensis regnant nunc Eboracensis, Londinensis non cessat vexare me. Cotidie meditor meum secessum et latibulum apud Cartusienses. Nidus noster prope perfectus est. Reuersus ad nos, quantum coniicere possum, illic mortuum mundo me reperies. (Allen 2. 37)

The Latin nidus conveys both the idea of ‘nest’ as translated or of a less comforting pigeon-hole, compartment, or cell. Whatever the translation, the word denotes a place set apart and a place that, so far as evidence permits, Colet never actually inhabited, at least for any length of time. Rather than achieving death to the world at Sheen, Colet recovered from the ecclesiastical skirmishes with Fitzjames and remained firmly bound to London as Dean and to the court through royal appointments to commissions and, by 25 January 1517, to the Privy Council. But even in these last years, echoes of the nostalgic suspension More had framed in 1504 seem to have haunted Colet. No doubt like many fellow-Londoners, he sought refuge in a fantasy of flight from urbanity even as he remained fixed within the city walls and refused to abandon his identity as spiritual healer.


[1] See Gleason, 3-14, for Victorian reactions to Colet. Readings emphasizing the relation of Colet’s writings to Renaissance philosophy, especially to Ficino and Pico, are indebted to the books by Jayne and Leland Miles. Readings that see Colet as an inflexible moralist and stern theologian include those by Eugene Rice and H. C. Porter. Gleason examines the consistency of Colet’s Platonism and hermeneutic with the Franciscan tradition after Bonaventure. Jonathan Arnold, in ‘Lost,’ focuses on Colet’s largely ineffectual dealings with his subordinate clergy at St. Paul’s and, in ‘John Colet,’ analyzes attacks upon the minor clergy and bishops in the Convocation Sermon, downplaying their historical significance while linking them to a personal ‘zeal of reform’ stemming from Dionysius’ ‘idealistic ecclesiology’ (462).

[2] The extent and even the fact of Colet’s residence at Dennington is uncertain. Because the eighteen-year-old Colet was still about fourteen years from ordination when he received the living, he must have followed the practice outlined by Peter Heath, who refers to the case of Lawrence Hosky, vicar of St. Wendron in Cornwall, a ‘beneficed clerk…[who] would farm his church to a parish priest, though it could be to a layman and even to an illiterate so long as the services were adequately performed and a competent proctor left to answer for him’ (80). If he was consistent with his convictions about the need for an educated clergy, Colet would have ensured his curate would be literate, but a stand-in nonetheless.

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To Cite This Article:

Dan Lochman, ‘Between Country and City: John Colet, Thomas More, and Early Modern Perceptions of London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access].