Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Becon, Thomas

BECON, THOMAS, D.D. (1512–1567), protestant divine, was of Norfolk, as he expressly states in the general preface to the folio (1564) of his works. Strype, in his 'Life of Cranmer,' calls him a Suffolk man, but in his later 'Life of Aylmer' says he was of Norfolk. We gather from the age inscribed upon his successive portraits which accompanied his 'Governance of Virtue,' 1566, 'Ætatis suæ 41, anno Domini 1553,' and in the folio and collected edition of his works, 'Anno ætatis suæ 49, 1560,' that he must have been born in 1511-12. His mother had married again, and a second time become a widow at the close of Henry VIII's reign, as he himself informs us.

Of his school education nothing whatever is known; but before he was sixteen he proceeded B.A. (1530) at St. John's College, Cambridge. He ultimately graduated D.D. During his residence at the university he was a 'diligent hearer' of Hugh Latimer; and he also names gratefully George Stafford, 'reader of divinity.' He quotes a saying that had passed into a proverb: 'When Master Stafford read and Master Latimer preached, then was Cambridge blessed.'

Becon was not ordained until 1538 (on 17 Jan. 1564 he speaks of himself as having then been twenty-six years in the ministry). His first living was the vicarage of Brenzett, near Romney in Kent, which still remains a small village. He appears to have formed fast friendships in the neighbourhood, judging by the epistles-dedicatory of his 'Early Writings.' Probably he was over-studious, as his health was extremely infirm. One illness he designates 'mine so grievous and troublous sickness' (New Year's Gift, preface). He was also speedily 'troubled' on account of his pronounced opinions and sentiments in favour of the Reformation. His pseudonym of Theodore Basil did not hinder his being 'presented' in London in 1541, along with Robert Wisdom, and made at 'Paul's cross to recant and to revoke' his doctrine, and 'to burn his books' (Foxe, Acts and Mon. 1684, ii. 450; and Strype's Eccles. Mem. 1721, i. 367). Bale informs us that Becon's offence was writing against 'their images, their chastity, and their satisfactions.' He was again compelled to abjure his opinions at St. Paul's Cross in 1543. He retired to the Peak of Derbyshire, meaning to support himself by pupils. He met with a gentleman named Alsop at Alsop-in-the-Dale, who gave him much assistance. Finding that his bosom friend Robert Wisdom was in Staffordshire, Becon joined him, and was entertained with him by one John Old, 'a faithful brother,' afterwards prebendary of Lichfield. Wisdom was called away, and Becon after about a year removed to Warwickshire, still with Old, who also had removed thither. But the most memorable of all events to him at this time was daily intercourse with the revered Hugh Latimer. Whilst in Leicestershire, whither he again removed, and where the Marquis of Dorset, and John Aylmer, bishop of London, received him hospitably, Becon received the unlooked-for tidings of the death of his stepfather, and he felt constrained to return to his mother now again widowed. Throughout he had earned 'daily bread' in a lowly way by his teaching of youths. His pen had also been busy during this fugitive period. His 'Governance of Virtue,' he tells us, was written 'in the bloody, boisterous, burning time, when the reading of the holy Bible, the word of our soul's health, was forbidden the poor lay people.' His books were all successively 'proclaimed ' as 'heretical' (Foxe, ii. 496).

With the accession of Edward VI fortune returned. He was 'instituted' 24 March 1547-8 to the rectory of St. Stephen, Walbrook. He was also made by Cranmer —to whom he was chaplain—one of the 'six preachers' in Canterbury cathedral. He was further chaplain to the protector, Somerset, at Sheen. During the duke's imprisonment in 1549, daily prayers were offered for him by his household; and when, on 6 Feb. 1549-50, he was liberated, there was a form of thanksgiving which was 'gathered and set forth by Thomas Becon, minister there ' (Bishop Kennett, Collections, xlvi. No. 12). He is likewise stated to have 'read' at Oxford during this reign (Lupton, History of Modern Protestant Divines, 1637, p. 331).

But on 6 July 1553 Edward died. Becon was committed to the Tower by an order of council, as a 'seditious preacher,' 16 Aug. 1553. He was in confinement till 22 March 1553-4. He was also 'ejected' from his 'living' as being 'a married priest.' On his release from the Tower he repaired to Strasburg, and thence addressed an 'Epistle to the afflicted people of God which suffer persecution for the testimony of Christ's gospel.' This epistle was read in the scattered little gatherings of those who still dared to meet together. There was appended to it a 'Humble Supplication unto God for the restoring of His holy Word unto the Church of England.' Spite of the present distress he was hopeful of 'deliverance.' Whilst abroad he also wrote his 'Displaying of the Popish Mass' (Basel 1559, London 1637). But as he was thus actively occupied his enemies at home were busy. A proclamation issued 13 June 1555 against heretical books denounced a severe punishment against any who should (among others) 'sell, read, or keep' any of the books of 'Theodore Basil, otherwise called Thomas Becon' (Foxe, as before, iii. 225-6; Strype, Eccles. Mem. c. xxxii. iii. 250).

On Elizabeth's accession, Becon returned to England. He was restored to his London benefice, and was also replaced at Canterbury. A little later he was presented to the rectory of Buckland, in Hertfordshire, where he was admitted 22 Oct. 1560. He was also appointed to Christ Church, Newgate Street, and on 10 Aug. 1563 to the rectory of St. Dionis Backchurch (Kennett, as before, xlvi. 12). At the outset he had scruples as to certain 'regulations' and 'ritualisms,' but after a time acquiesced. He preached at Paul's Cross and elsewhere on great occasions, with wide popular acceptance. In 1566 he published his latest work—his 'Postils,' or lectures on the gospel of the day. The preface to this, as well as to the folio edition of his works two years earlier, is dated from Canterbury. It would seem that the later years of his life were spent in his prebendal house, and there in 1567 he probably died (Newcourt, Repert. i. 320, 330).

Of his wife and children little has been transmitted. A Theodore and a Christophile both died before 1560; a second Theodore, Basil, and Rachel outlived him. His surviving son Theodore was of St. John's College, Cambridge, B.A., 1576; fellow, 1579; M.A., 1580; M.D. 1587. He was a correspondent of Burghley in 1578 (Burghley Papers, Lansdowne MSS. xxvii. No. 78). A collected edition of his works, including many unpublished, appeared in 3 vols. folio in 1563-4. In the 'Athenæ Cantabrigienses' (i. 247-9) will be found a full catalogue of the many writings of Becon, to the number of forty-seven. The Rev. John Ayre, M.A., has edited the works of Becon for the Parker Society, and has brought together all that has been transmitted. His 'Biographical Notice' before 'The Early Works' (1843), with its authorities and references, must be the main source of every succeeding biographer and historian. The Religious Tract Society and others still circulate 'Selections' from his works.

Woodcuts of Becon are prefixed to his 'Reliques of Rome' and to his own collected edition of his works.

[Ayre's Biogr. Notice, as before, in Works, three volumes, 8vo, 1843-4; Cooper's Ath. Cantab, i. 246-50; Foxe, as before; Strype's Cranmer, Aylmer, Parker, Grindal; Churton's Life of Nowell, p. 21; MS. Chronology, i. 48, 221; Brook's Lives of the Puritans, i. 166-70—Ayre does not name Brook, but he was largely indebted to him throughout, albeit Brook, like Dr. Bliss (in Athenæ Oxon.), confounds another Becon with Thomas Becon; Le Neve's Fasti, i. 50; Anderson's Annals of the Bible, ii. 154; Haweis's Sketches of the Reformation, 135; Maitland's Essays on the Reformation, 107, 108, 146, 190, 196; Baker's Hist. of St. John's, by Mayor, 366; Warton's History of English Poetry; Ellis's Shoreditch; Machyn's Diary, 216, 231, 288; an excellent paper on Thomas Becon, by Dr. Alexander, will be found in the (American) Princeton Review, v. 504.]

A. B. G.