Researched and written by Library volunteer Ken Smith
We can only imagine the thoughts that Edmund Geste must have had, during the summer of 1553, when King Edward VI died unexpectedly. Edward was followed by the brief, tragic, reign of Lady Jane Grey and then by Edward’s half–sister Mary.
Mary was a pious woman and determined to bring her new kingdom back into the fold of Catholic Europe. Prominent theologians who had publically stated their anti-Catholic views, as Geste had, would now be marked men. Geste’s mentor and the Provost of King’s College, Sir John Cheke, was arrested and imprisoned whilst Geste was removed as vice-provost in the autumn of 1553. Early in the following year, he lost his fellowship following his refusal to attend the college chapel under the restored forms of Catholic worship.
The reactions of Geste’s colleagues to the new regime, reflect the wide spectrum of religious opinion at this time. On one extreme, a King’s college fellow named Robert Glover was burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. Others, perhaps having never been fully reconciled to the protestant reforms, quickly welcomed the return of Catholicism. Yet others, whilst having their reservations, were able to accommodate the return of Catholic ways and continued to hold office.
Geste was under no illusions as to his likely fate and to avoid probable arrest, he went into hiding. It was not recorded where he went but it is believed that he stayed in England rather than fleeing to the continent as others did. Research suggests that he was able to take a portion of his personal library – some 350 books, with him. It is unclear whether these books stayed with him or if they were kept for him in some safe place.
His whereabouts, during his years of exile are unknown and whether he spent the time in one place or a series of “safe houses” is conjectural. Wherever he was at this time, it must have been an anxious period of his life, for he must always have feared a knock on the door or a hand on his shoulder, consigning him to arrest, prison or worse.
In spite of his changed circumstances, Geste’s customary bibliophile and scholarly interests did not fade. It seems likely that during the years of Mary’s reign, he was able to acquire some forty additional books. It is notable that a significant percentage of the books he collected at this time were by Catholic authors. It must have been with considerable relief that Geste heard of the death of Queen Mary in 1557. With the accession of Elizabeth, Geste’s fortunes rapidly improved. His scholarly reputation and track record as a reformer must have helped his advancement. Firstly, he became chaplain to Archbishop Matthew Parker and then accepted, successively, the living of Cliffe in Kent and then the Archdeaconry of Canterbury in 1559. He became Bishop of Rochester in 1560. In addition, he was also appointed to a position at court as the Queen’s Lord High Almoner.
Geste and Liturgical reform
Geste’s only published work: “A Treatise Against the Prevee Masse” published in 1548, showed his interest in that most contentious issue of the English Reformation – Transubstantiation. Geste’s views on this were, no doubt, coloured by the liturgical changes to the Eucharist, proposed but never implemented, in Cologne. These innovations suggested by the then Archbishop Hermann Von Wied, were influenced in turn by the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer. We know that Geste was aware of Hermann’s ideas as his collection in the Cathedral library includes an English translation of the proposed reforms.
These reforms may have been again in Geste’s mind when, in 1559, he was involved in the events connected with the making of the Elizabethan Settlement. There are no records of the deliberations over the liturgical changes and it is not known what part the Queen herself played in the process or what her preferences were at this time. David Selwyn in his authoritative study of Geste and his books* suggests that the Queen favoured a step-by-step approach once her own position had been consolidated and the Royal Supremacy established.
It is thought that, initially, the Queen hoped that the 1549 Prayer Book would be adopted. However the diversity of religious opinion in England at this time meant that she would have to find a middle way. Any religious settlement would have to accommodate the views of returned reformers often with Calvinistic ideas as well as those still wedded to the Catholic practices of Mary’s reign.
Geste, was more comfortable with the 1552 Prayer Book although he took issue with some of its aspects and rulings. Elizabeth herself eventually came round to the view that a modified version of the 1552 Prayer Book would command the greatest support, particularly of those clerics she would need to lead her Church in the future. Although Geste’s views differed in some aspects from the Queen’s, he remained in her favour, perhaps because she valued his integrity and his skill as a “compromiser”. These skills came into play when the Elizabethan thirty-nine articles were being agreed. Geste was able to come up with a form of words in article twenty-eight that successfully bridged the gap between reformers and conservatives over the crucial issue of Transubstantiation.
In 1568, Geste was also involved in the production of the “Bishop’s Bible” and contributed to the translation of the Psalms. There is evidence, in his books at the Library, of his painstaking research. This must have included teaching himself Hebrew. One book - a Latin-Hebrew dictionary - shows his practicing of Hebrew letters on the end-papers.
Geste, on occasion, preached sermons to the Queen and court. One of these indicates his views on the grim Calvinist belief in Predestination**. Geste showed himself to be a free-will man when he said “all men might not be saved… not because God would not but because we would not”.
Geste’s “middle way” Protestantism continued to influence his actions when, on becoming Bishop of Salisbury, he supported Archbishop Parker in upholding the Elizabethan Settlement by insisting on the wearing of surplices by clergy and suppressing the voluntary gatherings of clergy termed “prophesyings” as potential disrupters of Church discipline.
Geste died in Salisbury in late February 1577 and his collection of over 900 books was bequeathed to the library where the majority remain to this day.
*”Edmund Geste and his books”, David G. Selwyn, The Bibliographical Society, London, 2017.
**This was the belief that God ordained a select few people to accompany him to heaven. If you were not one of these “elect”, you would be destined for hell whatever good actions you carried out in your lifetime. This negates any idea that people have free will to make their own decisions, right or wrong.