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date: 06 February 2023

Erasmus circle in Englandfree

(act. 1499–1521)

Erasmus circle in Englandfree

(act. 1499–1521)
  • Seymour Baker House

Erasmus circle in England (act. 1499–1521), was a network of some twenty men united by their devotion to and admiration for the great Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Some of his friends were writers and teachers like himself, able to co-operate with him in the editing or translating of texts, but many were closely involved in public life, either as bishops or as courtiers, diplomats, and agents of government. Sir Thomas More, certainly his most famous English friend, was active in both spheres. Several of his friends received the dedication of a book by Erasmus; many more were praised in his letters. Almost without exception they were university graduates, and although they mostly proved to be conservative in religion, this did not prevent their responding ardently to the humanist scholarship of which in the first decades of the sixteenth century Erasmus was regarded as the foremost exponent. With him they cultivated a close familiarity with classical Latin and Greek texts, and with the values and culture expressed in them, hoping thereby to reform and renew contemporary Christianity by rediscovering the purity of its ancient origins. Erasmus made extended visits to England in 1499–1500, 1505–6, and 1509–14 (this last with a short break in 1511), staying principally in London, Oxford, and Cambridge. He also made some short visits to England between 1514 and 1521, before he left Brabant for Basel. In periods of absence personal contacts with English friends were reinforced by correspondence, preserved in a vast and cosmopolitan collection.

In 1499 Erasmus paid his first visit to England on the invitation of his pupil William Blount, Lord Mountjoy. There he met not only Thomas More, but also John Colet, the celebrated headmaster of St Paul's Cathedral school, the scholars William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, and Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, and by them was drawn into a circle of well-connected friends who would inspire and inform his life's work. Among the happiest consequences of these relationships were the portraits of many members of this English circle painted by the younger Hans Holbein, himself the beneficiary of letters of introduction sent by Erasmus to potential patrons; the artist's sketch of More and his family (c.1527, now in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel) was a particular consolation to Erasmus in his later years.

Erasmus was the epitome of the peripatetic scholar. His search for a sustaining community of like-minded individuals to replace the monastery he fled came to fruition, albeit briefly, in England where he lived variously with Mountjoy and More. John Fisher, who was both chancellor of Cambridge University and bishop of Rochester, secured a post for him at Cambridge, where he taught Greek and lectured on Jerome, and Archbishop William Warham conferred on him two church livings (both of which the archbishop converted to fixed pensions that were—on the archbishop's death—honoured by his successor, Thomas Cranmer). Through Erasmus, More met other continental humanists, notably Guillaume Budé (1467–1540) and the Spaniard Juan Luis Vives, both of whom were drawn into the expanding circle whose centre was Erasmus. His English friends repeatedly pressed him to settle in England during the opening decade of the sixteenth century, but his financial insecurity and what he admitted was an immoderate love of liberty led him away. The patronage of his own prince, the emperor Charles V, was eventually to provide, from the early 1520s, what England could not.

When he arrived in England in 1499 in Mountjoy's train, Erasmus had been tutoring young English pupils—Mountjoy, Thomas Grey, Robert Fisher, and Richard Whitford (as a Bridgettine monk seemingly the only member of Erasmus's circle to belong to a religious order)—in Paris while pursuing his own studies. For Mountjoy he began compiling a compendium of classical rhetoric, and to him Erasmus dedicated the first edition of his Adages. On meeting Colet and More during this visit their friendship was so quickly cemented that Erasmus later penned glowing portraits of each for the benefit of a wider European audience. In Colet he recognized a pattern of Christian living which, as captured in his Enchiridion, persisted throughout his life and inspired his own devotion to education and humane letters; writing to Johannes Sixtinus, Erasmus described Colet as 'the defender and champion of the ancient theology' (Ferguson and others, 1.230), noting in the wake of Colet's death that 'I never met a more fertile mind' (Erasmus to Justus Jonas, 13 June 1521, ibid., 8.238). In Thomas More meanwhile he found a sweetness of both wit and character that were born for friendship. Colet's Oxford lectures on St Paul, despite his lack of Greek, breathed the new spirit to which Erasmus was drawn and embodied the biblical humanism that became Erasmus's hallmark.

After his initial visit Erasmus wrote jubilantly to his sometime pupil Robert Fisher: 'I have never found a place I like so much', mentioning England's 'intellectual refinement … profound and learned and truly classical, in both Latin and Greek' (Erasmus to Fisher, 5 Dec 1499, Ferguson and others, 1.235). To a continental friend, Fausto Andrelini, he gushed that this English 'world is full of kisses' (Erasmus to Andrelini, ibid., 1.193). Indeed it was. Through Mountjoy, More, and Colet, Erasmus met a group of friends, both lay and cleric, that was as hospitable as it was appreciative. On other occasions these encounters derived from his own solicitations; as he wrote to More on 28 October 1499: 'If there are any enthusiasts for sound learning where you are now, your function shall be to provoke them to write to me, of course with the object of completing the circle of friends' (Ferguson and others, 1.227). England was remarkably compact—by the end of his visit in early 1500 Erasmus could count on a welcoming circle of friends that encompassed both the capital, London, and the principal intellectual centres of Oxford, where he stayed until January 1500, and later Cambridge, which he apparently first visited in April 1506, lodging at John Fisher's college of Queens'. By the end of his first visit in 1500, at least partly due to Colet, he was determined to work on the letters of St Jerome.

Erasmus returned to England in January 1505 after five years of itinerant study on the continent, and immediately began expanding his English circle. He moved into More's house at Bucklersbury, in the parish of St Stephen Walbrook, and both began translating the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata. In the previous year Erasmus had published his first piece of biblical criticism in Paris: the Lucubratiunculae, containing an account of his engaging dispute with Colet over the nature of Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane—a topic to which More would turn in the Tower thirty years later. For the next year and a half Erasmus worked from More's house on translating Greek poets and dramatists, and in preparation for his work on Jerome and his sacred letters. He dedicated his works to various friends and would-be patrons—Richard Fox, Thomas Ruthall, the king's secretary, Christopher Urswick, the king's almoner, Richard Whitford, John Fisher, and William Warham. Of these individuals, Warham became his most consistent patron, and the dedicatee by name of Erasmus's edition of Jerome's letters—and in spirit the dedicatee of his New Testament. Despite his assertion that London held 'five or six men … profoundly versed in Latin and Greek … I doubt Italy itself contains such good ones at this moment', by summer 1506 Erasmus's studies drew him to Italy (Erasmus to Servatius Rogerus, late 1505?, Ferguson and others, 2.99). In Italy he supported himself as usual by tutoring various pupils, including the young archbishop of St Andrews, Alexander Stewart, who gave him the ring of Terminus which Erasmus adopted as his signet and motto. By this time he could openly advertise to his continental friends the admiration and support not only of Linacre and Grocyn, but also of William Latimer and Cuthbert Tunstall—both men were highly regarded classical scholars, while Tunstall enjoyed a successful career as a diplomat and became successively bishop of London and Durham.

Following the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 both Mountjoy and Warham persuaded Erasmus to return to England, sending him money and promising more, and he could also hope for support from the king himself. It seemed an end to his worries—in England he could resume his scholarly path, unencumbered by financial insecurity. Erasmus wrote a delighted letter to Jacob Piso, who cautioned him 'It is certainly pleasant to be rich, but still more pleasant to be free' (Erasmus to Piso, 30 June 1509, Ferguson and others, 2.153). Cambridge did indeed prove a haven for Erasmus's scholarship, thanks to its generous collections of Jerome manuscripts, and the years after 1509 were in that respect the most productive of his visits to England. Even so, by 1511, despite the position that Fisher had acquired for him, Erasmus was frequently complaining of his poverty to Colet, Tunstall, and his Italian humanist friend Andreas Ammonius, and in the following year he lamented to the duke of Burgundy that in 1509 he had rejected a position at Louvain because he 'had been emboldened by my extravagant hopes and the mountains of English gold I saw in my fancy' (Erasmus to Adolph of Burgundy, autumn 1512, ibid., 2.237). None the less he continued to live in Cambridge for another three years, writing texts with William Lily for Colet's newly founded St Paul's School, working on his Greek with Richard Pace, Robert Aldrich, Thomas Lupset, and Henry Bullock—so laying the foundations for both his edition of Jerome's letters and his bilingual New Testament.

By this time, however, Erasmus's hopes that 'this country, which I have chosen in preference to Rome and in which old age is overtaking me, really is my own' were fading (Erasmus to Andreas Ammonius, 26 Nov 1513, Ferguson and others, 2.268), and in particular he was disappointed with Mountjoy by whom he felt 'defrauded' (2 Dec 1513, ibid., 2.281). In July 1514, therefore, he left England for Basel, where he enjoyed a rapturous welcome. Not all were enraptured, however. While his Praise of Folly (1510), dedicated to More and indebted to the Englishman's Lucianic spirit, had gained Erasmus an international reputation and a host of admirers, its anti-scholastic barbs and stinging satire on clerical shortcomings galvanized many who increasingly associated him with the emerging heterodoxy of more virulent reformers. Predictably, his English friends rose in his defence, either in person or in print. More, himself famous for Utopia, vigorously defended Erasmus's views on the relationship of Christian wisdom and secular learning in two lengthy works: his Letter to Dorp (1515) and the Letter to Oxford (1519). When Erasmus's New Testament appeared in 1516, prompting many of those same critics to try to link his revisions to Luther's biblical reforms, More rose again to his defence in the Letter to Lee (1519) and the Letter to a Monk (1519). Clearly, English scholars understood the differences between Erasmus and Luther.

Erasmus returned to England briefly in 1515 and 1517 during which time he also met with More and Tunstall on the continent. A flurry of letters to Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, the courtier Sir Henry Guildford, and others in 1518 and 1519 touched on the possibility of another period of residence. Indeed, the possibility of a return remained a recurrent subject in Erasmus's correspondence as late as 1528. When religious changes forced Erasmus to leave Basel in that year, invitations to settle in England were mooted once again and Warham, Tunstall, and John Longland, the scholarly bishop of Lincoln, sent him money. But all his English friends were supporters of Queen KatherineFisher and More famously so—and Erasmus feared being drawn into the controversy. In any case a further period of residence in England had probably long ceased to be a practical possibility. Not only had Colet died in September 1519, but the fellowship of English scholars that produced the most significant works of northern humanism—notably Erasmus's own Adages, New Testament, Praise of Folly, De copia, and Enchiridion, and More's Latin Richard III, Letter to Dorp, Letter to a Monk, and Utopia—was scattered to the battlements by what Erasmus repeatedly called the Lutheran tragedy.

The circle of friends that had formed during the first decade of the century—and which was now reduced to More, Mountjoy, and Tunstall—had their final meeting in Bruges in 1521, by when Erasmus had taken a titular position at the court of Charles V and Europe was about to be plunged into the divisive cataclysm of the Reformation. Yet England still occupied a privileged place in his memory. When Warham died in August 1532, Erasmus penned a moving tribute to him in the dedicatory letter to Charles Blount, son of Lord Mountjoy, which prefaced the 1533 edition of his Adages: 'There was a pact between us that we should be together in death, he had promised that we would share a common grave.' It was not to be, and as the news from England grew even darker, Erasmus's later letters were increasingly filled with grief over the absence of his friends, and a certain melancholy about his time among them. In August 1534 he wrote to Guy Morillon that Thomas More, 'the best friend I ever had', was in prison (Allen and others, 11.38–9). Tunstall, indeed, lived on until 1559, but Erasmus's correspondence in 1535 was resonant with the condolences of his friends: 'You'll rejoin Warham, More, Fisher, and Mountjoy in death' (Gilbert Cognatus to Erasmus, May 1536, ibid., 11.329). Erasmus died on 11 July 1536. Famous for his ill health and fragile constitution, he had outlived all but one of his closest English friends.


  • Collected works of Erasmus, ed. W. K. Ferguson and others, [86 vols.] (1974–)
  • Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P. S. Allen and others, 12 vols. (1906–58)
  • T. More, In defense of humanism: with a new text and translation of Historia Richardi tertii, ed. D. Kinney (1986), vol. 15 of The Yale edition of the complete works of Thomas More
  • The correspondence of Sir Thomas More, ed. E. F. Rogers (1947)
  • G. Marc'Hadour, L'univers de Thomas More: chronologie critique de More, Érasme, et leur époque, 1477–1536 (1963)
  • P. G. Bietenholz and T. B. Deutscher, eds., Contemporaries of Erasmus: a biographical register, 3 vols. (1985–7)
  • M. M. Phillips, Erasmus on his times (1967)
  • L.-E. Halkin, Erasmus: a critical biography, trans. J. Tonkin (1993)
  • L. Jardine, Erasmus: man of letters (1993)
  • C. M. Furey, Erasmus, Contarini, and the religious republic of letters (2006)
  • D. F. S. Thomson and H. C. Porter, Erasmus and Cambridge (1963)
  • M. O'R. Boyle, Christening pagan mysteries: Erasmus in pursuit of wisdom (1981)
  • J. Rouschausse, Erasmus and Fisher: their correspondence, 1511–1524 (1968)
  • J. H. Lupton, A life of John Colet, DD, dean of St Paul's and founder of St Paul's School, new edn (1909)