Philip of Moscow (1507–1569) Assassinated in Prison for Rebuking Ivan the Terrible

[ABOVE—Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow and Malyuta Skuratov by Nikolaj Wassiljewitsch Newrew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Philip of Moscow did not appear to be prison material.

Early in the reign of Ivan the Fourth of Russia, a nobleman named Fedor Kolicheff landed from a boat at the Convent of Solovetsk. He came to pray; but after resting in the island for a little while, he took vows and became a monk. A man of great abilities, he became prior of the monastery. He engaged his monks in all sorts of worthwhile projects, such as erecting buildings, cutting channels between lakes, and extracting salt from local sources. Much of what is best in the convent dates from his reign as prior.

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He had been a friend of young Ivan, soon to be known as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan sometimes called him to the Kremlin to give him advice. On these occasions, Philip was aghast at the change in the Tsar; who, from being a paladin of the cross, had settled down in his middle age into a mixture of the gloomy monk and the savage Khan, engaging in orgies and sodomy, and delighting in torture. The change came on him with the death of his wife and the conquest of Kazan; after which events in his life he married two women, dressed himself in Tartar clothes, and adopted Asiatic ways. Like a chief of the Golden Horde, he went about the streets of Moscow, ordering this man to be beaten, that man to be killed. The square in front of the Holy Gate was red with blood; and every house in the city was dewed with tears.

Then Ivan summoned Philip from his cell near the frozen sea to occupy a loftier and more perilous throne: Metropolitan of Moscow. He had driven out two aged prelates who rebuked his crimes, and thought Philip would shed a luster on his reign without disturbing him by personal reproof. Philip tried to escape this unwelcome assignment; but the Tsar insisted on his obedience; and with heavy heart he sailed from his asylum in the islands, conscious of going to meet his martyr’s crown.

Ivan had misjudged Philip, who was not one to speak smooth words to princes. For instance, in traveling from Solovetsk to Moscow, he passed through Novgorod; a city disliked by Ivan on account of its wealth, freedom, and laws. A crowd of burghers poured from the gates, falling on their knees before him, and imploring him, as a pastor of the poor, to plead their cause before the Tsar, who threatened to ravage their district and destroy their town. On reaching Moscow, Philip spoke to Ivan as to a son; beseeching him to dismiss his guards, to put off his disgusting habits, to live a holy life, and to rule his people in the spirit of their ancient dukes.

Ivan was furious; he wanted a priest to bless him, and not to warn. The tyrant grew more violent in his moods; but the new Metropolite held out in patient and unyielding meekness for the ancient ways. This led to many confrontations between them, and with such a tyrant, the end was predictable.

The Assassination of Philip, adapted from Free Russia by William Hepworth Dixon

As every man in trouble went to the Metropolite for counsel, the boyars accused him of inciting the people against their prince. When Ivan married his fourth wife, a thing unlawful, the Metropolite refused to admit the marriage, and bade the Tsar absent himself from mass. Rushing from his palace into the Cathedral of the Annunciation, Ivan took his seat and scowled. Instead of pausing to bless him, Philip went on with the service, until one of the favorites strode up to the altar, looked him boldly in the face, and said, in a saucy voice, “The Tsar demands your blessing, priest!”

Paying no heed to the courtier, Philip turned round to Ivan on his throne. “Pious Tsar!” he sighed; “why are you here? In this place we offer a bloodless sacrifice to God.” Ivan threatened him, by gesture and by word.

“I am a stranger and a pilgrim on earth,” said Philip; “I am ready to suffer for the truth.”

He was made to suffer—and soon. Dragged from his altar, stripped of his robe, arrayed in rags, he was beaten with brooms, tossed into a sledge, driven through the streets, mocked and hooted by armed men, and thrown into a dungeon in one of the obscurest convents of the town. Poor people knelt as the sledge drove past them, every eye being wet with tears, and every throat being choked with sobs. Philip blessed them as he went, saying, “Do not grieve; it is the will of God; pray, pray!” The more patiently he bore his cross, the more these people sobbed and cried.

Locked in his jail and laden with chains, not only round his ankles but round his neck, he was left for seven days and nights without food and drink, in the hope that he would die. A courtier who came to see him was surprised to find him engaged in prayer. His friends and kinsmen were arrested, judged, and put to death for no offence except that of sharing his name and blood.

“Sorcerer! Do you know this head?” was one laconic message sent to Philip from the Tsar.

“Yes!” murmured the prisoner, sadly; “it is that of my nephew Ivan.” Day and night a crowd of people gathered round his convent-door, until the Tsar, who feared a rising in his favor, caused him to be secretly moved to a stronger prison in the town of Tver.

One year after the removal of Philip from Moscow, Ivan, setting out for Novgorod, called to mind the speech once made by Philip in favor of that city and sent a ruffian to kill him. “Give me your blessing!” said the murderer, coming into his cell.

Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) Finds her final hope in Christ

[ABOVE—The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Lady Jane Grey was young and beautiful when beheaded.

Lady Jane Grey went to prison and death less for her Reformation beliefs than for the treasonous activities of her family, who had tried to usurp the throne on the strength of her blood ties to England’s royal family. Before Mary Tudor came to the crown, they actually placed her on the throne against her own objections. When Mary came to power a few days later, she did not seek Jane’s life, but when her father sided with Wyatt’s rebellion, Jane’s doom was sealed.

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In prison, the sixteen-year-old girl wrote various letters and notes, including this to her father, the Duke of Suffolk:

Jane’s Letter to her father

The Lord comfort your grace, and that in his word, wherein all his creatures only are to be comforted. And though it hath pleased God to take away two of your children [her husband and herself], yet think not, I most humbly beseech your grace, that you have lost them; but trust that we, by leaving this mortal life, have won an immortal life. And I for my part, as I have honoured your grace in this life, will pray for you in another life. Your grace’s most humble daughter, Jane Duddeley.

At the block, shortly before she was beheaded, she reminded the onlookers that she had not sought to be queen, and then gave a final testimony of her belief in Christ alone for atonement, saying,

I pray you all, good christian people, to bear me witness that I die a true christian woman, and that I do look to be saved by no other means, but only by the mercy of God in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ; and I do confess, that when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, and loved myself and the world; and therefore this plague and punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins; and yet I thank God of his goodness, that he has thus given me a time and respite to repent. And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) Translates the Bible While in Protective Custody

[ABOVE—Luther translating the Bible at Wartburg, by P.H. Labouche in D’Aubigne’s Historic Scenes in the Life of Martin Luther (London: Day and Son, Limited, 1806).]

Have you ever wished you could just get away from it all, hide out for a while? Luther did during the greater part of a year. This was not by his own choice. He was waylaid by men he did not know and hustled within the confines of a castle. All Germany wondered where he was. Fortunately, he was in friendly hands.

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From May 1521-March 1522, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, held Martin Luther in protective custody at Wartburg Castle to keep him out of the grasp of his enemies. There Luther grew a beard and passed under the name Junker Jörg. During these eleven months, he was far from idle. Like Pamphilius so many centuries before, he worked on a Bible translation, turning the New Testament from the Greek (and Latin) into German. This translation and its introduction became a powerful tool in furthering the Reformation among German-speaking peoples.

Luther also wrote various letters and several doctrinal pamphlets during this time, including one on confession, a warning against rebellion, and a repudiation of private masses.

Here is an excerpt from his Preface to the New Testament, 1522 version. This translation is from George Duckett’s The Prefaces to the Early Editions of Martin Luther’s Bible. Oxford University, 1863.

Preface to the New Testament

Gospel or Evangelism is a Greek word signifying “a good message—a good tale—a good cry [ie: shout]—good tidings under which we sing and rejoice, and which re-echoes to our bosom. When David overcame the great Goliath, a good cry and tidings of comfort spread among the Jewish people: their formidable enemy was slain, they themselves were preserved, they were placed in a state of joy and peace; they sang and leaped for joy. The gospel of God, or the New Testament, is therefore, a tale of good tidings going forth throughout the whole world through the medium of the Apostles, and proceeding from a true David who has fought and overcome sin, death and the devil, in order that they who have been under the captivity of sin, under the plague of death, and under the inflluence of the devil, might be redeemed without any claim or merit of their own—might be justified, regenerated, and saved—might be accepted in peace, and might be reconciled to God. For this they sing, and give eternal thanks and praise God, providing their faith only is firm, steady, and persevering.

This goodly cry, or evangelical consolation, is called a New Testament from the analogy of a dying man regulating his affairs by will, and apportioning his property, when he shall have died, to his recorded heirs. Thus Christ, before he died, appointed and ordained that after his death his Gospel shoul be preached throughout the world, that all who believe might be heirs to the solid blessings which it imparts, namely: life, with which he has swallowed up death; righteousness, by which he has effaced sin; and salvation, by which he has overcome eternal condemnation. Poor human nature! Entangled in sin, and with the apprehensions of feath, what can be more consolatory than this gracious and loving message from his Savior; and he must rejoice with exceeding joy, and from the very bottom of his heart, if he believes that it is true…

Thomas More (1478–1535) Meditates on Choice While Awaiting Execution

[ABOVE—Sir Thomas More and Daughter, by Yeames [Public domain].]

Sir Thomas More coined the term “Utopia,” the title of a book he wrote about an imaginary island nation governed by reason. Thomas More’s homeland was not so ideal. He was an Englishman, a Roman Catholic humanist and statesman during the reign of tyrannical Henry VIII, who went to prison and lost his life when he balked Henry.

A Man for All Seasons. King Henry VIII who wants to divorce his wife in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Only Sir Thomas More has the courage and conviction to oppose the King’s will, but his valiant refusal to abandon his principles leads to his imprisonment and death.

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Thomas More is sympathetically portrayal in the drama A Man for All Seasons, but as Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII his actions were far from ideal. He persecuted Protestants viciously and his secret agents hounded Bible translator William Tyndale across Europe. More himself lobbed polemics at the exiled priest, whose crime was a desire to get God’s word to Englishmen in a form they could understand and afford.

When the king placed the Church of England under his own headship, rather than that of the pope, More became involved in serious difficulties, for his conscience would not allow him to sign the Act of Succession, whose preface asserted Parliament’s authority to legislate in matters of religion and denied the authority of the Pope. Consequently Henry imprisoned him as a traitor.

While in prison, More wrote Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. Although it lacks the power of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which was penned in similar circumstances, chapter XIX is of interest because it considers the subject of imprisonment at length. The interested reader may wish to look at it; here we offer a short excerpt from chapter VI, spoken by the wise Uncle Anthony (More’s alter ego) as a sufficient introduction to More’s philosophic attitude toward imprisonment and the other ups and downs of life.

More’s Meditation on Choices

For the salvation of our soul may we boldly pray. For grace may we boldly pray, for faith, for hope, and for charity, and for every such virtue as shall serve us toward heaven. But as for all the other things…we may never well make prayers so precisely but that we must express or imply a condition therein—that is, that if God see the contrary better for us, we refer it wholly to his will. And if that be so, we pray that God, instead of taking away our grief, may send us of his goodness either spiritual comfort to take it gladly or at least strength to bear it patiently.

For if we determine with ourselves that we will take no comfort in anything but [God’s] taking of our tribulation from us, then either we prescribe to God that he shall do us no better turn, even though he would, than we will ourselves appoint him; or else we declare that we ourselves can tell better than he what is better for us. And therefore, I say, let us in tribulation desire his help and comfort, and let us remit the manner of that comfort unto his own high pleasure. When we do this, let us nothing doubt but that, as his high wisdom better seeth what is best for us than we can see it ourselves, so shall his sovereign high goodness give us that thing that shall indeed be best.

For otherwise, if we presume to stand to our own choice—unless God offer us the choice himself, as he did to David in the choice of his own punishment, after his high pride conceived in the numbering of the people—we may foolishly choose the worst. And by prescribing unto God ourselves so precisely what we will that he shall do for us, unless of his gracious favor he reject our folly, he shall for indignation grant us our own request, and afterward shall we well find that it shall turn us to harm.

How many men attain health of body for whom it would be better, for their soul’s health, that their bodies were sick still? How many get out of prison who happen outside on such harm as the prison would have kept them from? How many who have been loth [reluctant] to lose their worldly goods have, in keeping of their goods, soon afterward lost their life? So blind is our mortality and so unaware what will befall—so unsure also what manner of mind we ourselves will have tomorrow—that God could not lightly do a man more vengeance than to grant him in this world his own foolish wishes.

John Fisher (1469–1535) Points Others to Heaven from His Prison Cell

[ABOVE—St Thomas More and St John Fisher, by English School (Historical Portraits.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

In the 1530s in England, it was dangerous to be a public figure or outspoken religious leader. Henry VIII, King of England, imprisoned John Fisher for refusing to endorse him as head of the English church. Fisher believed only the Pope could fill that capacity. In due course, Henry had John executed. Because the nation compared Fisher and John the Baptist, the king had him beheaded sometime before the annual feast of John the Baptist, but the method of execution only made the comparison more apt.

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Fisher was an eminent scholar and a cardinal, well-known and loved across Europe, so his death could not go unnoticed. As he came to his execution, he prayed, “Now, O Lord, direct me to some passage which may support me through this awful scene.” Opening his Bible he read, “This is eternal life to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” He immediately closed the book and said, “Praised be the Lord! This is sufficient both for now and for eternity.”

While a prisoner in the tower of London, Fisher wrote his short book, The Ways to Perfect Religion. It stresses the importance of love for Christ if religious activity is not to be laborious and goes on at some length in its comparison of the zeal of hunters with the zeal Christians should have. Here are two excerpts from this, his last book, adapted into modern English.

The Ways to Perfect Religion

Sister Elizabeth, I would gladly write you something that might be to the health of your soul and the furtherance of it in holy religion. But well I know that without some fervor in the love of Christ, religion cannot be to you savory, nor any work of goodness delectable, but every virtuous deed shall seem laborious and painful. For love makes every work appear easy and pleasant, though it is thoroughly unpleasant in itself. And on the contrary, the easiest labor appears grievous and painful, when the soul of the person that does the deed has no desire nor love in doing it. This principle may be illustrated by the life of hunters, which, beyond doubt is more laborious and painful than the life of religious persons, and yet nothing sustains them in their labor and pains but the earnest love and hearty desire to find their game.…

Here, perhaps, you will say unto me, how may I love that [which] I cannot see? If I might see him [Christ] with all the conditions you speak of, I could with all my heart love him. Ah, good Sister, that time is not yet come; you must, as I said, in the present age prepare yourself in cleanness of body and soul against that day, so that when it comes, you may be able and worthy to see him, or else you shall be excluded from him with the unwise virgins of whom the Gospel tells that they were shut out from his presence with great shame and confusion, because they had not sufficiently prepared themselves. Therefore, good Sister, for the present don’t be negligent to prepare yourself with all good works, that you may then be admitted into his presence, from which to be excluded, would be more wretched pain than any pain of hell. For as Chrysostom says, Si decem mille gehennas quis dixerit nihil tale eft quale ab illa beata visione excidere, that is to say, if one would rehearse unto me ten thousand hells, yet all that should not be so great pains as if to be excluded from the blessed sight of the face of Christ.

William Tyndale’s (1494–1536) Poignant Prison Letter

[ABOVE—Tyndale arrested, from William Dallman’s William Tyndale the translator of the English Bible (Concordia, 1905).]

William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, an activity which had been illegal in England since the days of John Wycliffe. For this he was hounded across Europe, and finally captured through treachery. He languished in prison for several months before being strangled and burned.

The following account of his imprisonment, from Demaus’ 1886 biography, includes a poignant letter from Tyndale himself. It demonstrates an aspect of imprisonment that we often forget: the prisoner’s inability to provide for his or her own needs.

Demaus’ Account of Tyndale’s Imprisonment

Of Tyndale’s life during this long imprisonment, Foxe, our sole authority hitherto, has simply recorded that “such was the power of his doctrine and the sincerity of his life, that during the time of his imprisonment, which endured a year and a half [very nearly], it is said, he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household. Also the rest that were with Tyndale conversant in the castle, reported of him that if he were not a good Christian man, they could not tell whom to trust.” To many writers the amount of liberty thus implied seems so incredible, that they have rejected the story as intrinsically improbable: curiously enough, however, we have the means of establishing the probability of Foxe’s statement by evidence which no one will presume to dispute.

William Tyndale, God’s Outlaw, was pursued by the agents of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, and Cardinal Wolsey. All the while he worked to provide the Bible in English for his fellow countrymen.

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Ensinas, who was imprisoned for heresy a few years later, makes the very singular complaint that he was somewhat interrupted in his labor of compiling prayers from the Book of Psalms, by the number of visitors who were permitted to see and talk with him. From the town of Brussels alone he had upwards of 80 visitors, who discussed with him matters of religion, and who, as he quaintly remarks, were at more liberty to consider those matters in that place, because it was a prison, and therefore free from interruption. And the testimony of Ensinas as to the liberty enjoyed in prison is confirmed by the evidence of official papers preserved among the Archives of Belgium. All prisons were probably not so laxly superintended as the Vrunte, in Brussels, where Ensinas was confined; but there is, it is thus evident, nothing impossible in Foxe’s story, and we are at liberty to believe that the tedium of Tyndale’s imprisonment was relieved by kindly Christian intercourse with those around him, on the matters most deeply interesting to his heart.

To this meagre statement of the Martyrologist, however, we are now able to add, for the first time in this country, information of the highest interest from the pen of Tyndale himself. The admirers of the great translator have long regretted that not a single letter or document of any kind has been ascertained to be in existence, that was unquestionably written with Tyndale’s own hand. The industry of a foreign investigator has at length been successful in discovering an original letter which was written by Tyndale himself, and which at once invests the whole narrative of his imprisonment with that “touch of nature” that appeals irresistibly to human sympathies….The letter, it may be premised, has neither date nor superscription, but there is not the slightest doubt that it was written at Vilvorde in the winter of 1535, and that it was addressed to the Governor of the castle, who was no other than that very Marquis of Bergen-op-Zoom with whom Cromwell had already interceded in Tyndale’s favor.

I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me [by the Council of Brabant]; therefore I entreat your lordship and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here [in Vilvorde] during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of the winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient, abiding the will of God to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen. — W. Tyndale. [The original is in Latin, the international language]

The picture presented in this letter, of the illustrious martyr, sitting cold and dark and solitary in the damp cells of Vilvorde during the long cheerless nights of winter, and earnestly soliciting the favor of light, and warm clothing, and above all, of books to solace him, must surely have reminded the reader of the great Apostle of the Gentiles sending for his “cloak and his books, but especially the parchments,” to defend him against the damp and the tedium of his gloomy Mamertine dungeon; and it appeals irresistibly to the sympathies of every man who is not utterly destitute of human feelings.