Robert Barnes was an Augustine monk from Norfolk who received his doctor of divinity from Louvain. He returned to Cambridge and was appointed prior of his monastery in 1523. He was a teacher who taught without the inspiration of Holy Spirit. The great Thomas Bilney, who converted Hugh Latimer, saw his potential and set out to convert him. He prayed for several days first and then sought Barnes out to have conversation with him. After some conversations and after some prayer together, Barnes was converted, although there remained in him something undecided in his character.
Barnes displayed new zeal, and on hearing that his friend Latimer was banned from preaching, he said, ‘The bishop has forbidden you to preach, but my monastery is not under Episcopal jurisdiction. You can preach there.’ It was here that Latimer delivered some of his best sermons.
Early in February 1526, Cardinal Wolsey sent two of his agents to Cambridge to arrest Barnes and to take into custody other notable men who were in possession of books from Germany. Fortunately, the men were able to remove the books from their rooms and so nobody, except Barnes, were arrested. Barnes was taken to London and deposited at Wolsey’s palace at Westminster. He was interviewed by Wolsey and then by sundry bishops. His friends Gardiner and Fox made every effort to persuade him to support the Church, pointing out that death was the alternative. Barnes was scared and he finally signed the document that he was given. Barnes was forced to publicly ask for forgiveness for his heresy, before Wolsey at a ceremony at St Paul’s. He was then kept in prison until August when he was released, although confined at an Augustine monastery.
By September Barnes’ courage had grown again and he studied Tyndale’s Bible avidly. It came to the ears of the clergy that he was selling the forbidden New Testament, so he was arrested and moved to Northampton to be burned, but he escaped to Germany. While in Germany Barnes became a friend of Martin Luther and made connections with Lutheran princes. With the political climate changing in England, Barnes was recommended to Thomas Cromwell, and he returned to England.
Over the next few years Henry used Barnes as an intermediary with Lutheran Germany, and he was involved in the marriage negotiations between Henry and Anne of Cleeves. In 1540 Cromwell believed that the king was ready to hear the Gospels preached, and so he lined up Robert Barnes, Thomas Garret, curate of All Saints’ Church in Honey Lane and William Jerome, vicar of Stepney and they were asked to preach at the Lent service at Paul’s Cross. Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester preached a sermon antagonistic to the new teachings and he was followed by Barnes. Unfortunately, Barnes insulted Gardiner in his sermon and Gardiner took advantage by complaining to Henry. Barnes, Garret and Jerome were commanded to read a prepared retraction at a service the following Sunday. Barnes read out the statement and then apologised to the bishop of Winchester, asking for his forgiveness. He then preached powerfully the doctrine of salvation by grace, the very doctrine for which he was persecuted by Gardiner. Garret and Jerome preached similarly and Henry had them taken to the Tower of London.
The Catholic party was on the rise. Anne of Cleeves was divorced and Thomas Cromwell fell with her. Cromwell was executed and from that moment the three evangelists were doomed. They had unfortunately been prominent at a time when power was changing and they paid the price. On the 30th July they were taken to Smithfield and with no trial, no hearing, they were burned at the stake. Henry was keen to show that he favoured neither the Catholic or Protestant side and so he burned three Catholics at the same time. One Catholic and one Protestant were tied to a wooden hurdle and dragged to Smithfield. Not having any opportunity to be heard each evangelist took the opportunity to speak to the crowds. In the middle of Barnes’ speech he said, ‘Have ye any articles against me for the which I am condemned?’ The sheriff answered: ‘No.’
After they had each spoken they shook hands, embraced one another and were tied at the same stake. At the same hour and the same place the three Catholics were hanged.
This is taken from 'The Reformation in England' by Merle d'Aubigne.
The following is taken from 'Foxe's Book of Martyrs.'
'Soon after the execution of Cromwell, Dr Cuthbert Barnes, Thomas Garnet, and William Jerome, were brought before the ecclesiastical court of the bishop of London, and accused of heresy.
Being before the bishop of London, Dr Barnes was asked whether the saints prayed for us? To this he answered, that "he would leave that to God; but (said he) I will pray for you."
On the thirteenth of July, 1541, these men were brought from the Tower to Smithfield, where they were all chained to one stake; and there suffered death with a constancy that nothing less than a firm faith in Jesus Christ could inspire. '