Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alesius, Alexander
ALESIUS, ALEXANDER (1500–1565), Lutheran divine (properly Aless, also called Alesse, ab Ales, and Alane), was born at Edinburgh, 23 April 1500. He came of a family which had attained to civic distinctions (‘atavi consules’); but his descent from Alexander Hales is merely a pious conjecture thrown out by his panegyrist Thomasius. Having been educated at the university of St. Andrews, he obtained a canonry there at an early age. Nothing else is known concerning his youthful days except his own story how he was miraculously preserved from rolling over a precipice, which mercy he attributed not to the verses from St. John carried about by him on his person, but to the faith of his parents (Thomasius, citing Alesius's Epistola dedicatoria Commentar. in Joannem). The troubles of his life began after he had reached the age of manhood. Luther's writings must have been introduced into Scotland before the act of 17 July 1525 prohibiting them was passed (M'Crie's Life of Knox, 17); and Alesius describes himself as having gained the applause of the theologians by confuting them with the arguments of Fisher, bishop of Rochester (Thomasius, citing Alesius's Expositio in Psalm. XXXVII.). Accordingly, in 1527 he was chosen to confer with Patrick Hamilton, the young Abbot of Fern, in order to reclaim him from the heretical opinions adopted by him in Germany from ‘Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Francis Lambert, and other learned men’ (Spotiswoode). But Alesius, instead of convincing Hamilton, was himself sorely shaken by the arguments opposed to his own; and the heroic death of the ‘protomartyr’ of Scottish protestantism in 1528 [see Hamilton, Patrick] had the effect of strongly inclining the Canon of St. Andrews to the cause of the reformation. According to Thomasius, Alesius himself narrates several incidents of Hamilton's martyrdom in his ‘Expositio in Psalm. XXXVII.’ and in his answer to Cochlæus. Other martyrdoms followed in Scotland; and the hand of the church—as it seemed to those who must needs identify a policy with a person, the hand of Archbishop Beaton—was heavy upon ‘those who apprehended otherwise of the truth of things than formerly they did.’ Alesius, who had felt himself moved to deliver defore a provincial synod at St. Andrews a Latin oration against the incontinence of the clergy, gave deep offence to the provost of St. Andrews, who interpreted the reproof as personal to himself. It so happened that the entire chapter had been about to prefer a complaint to King James V against the brutality of the provost, who hereupon appeared with an armed band in the chapter-house, and very nearly made an end of Alesius on the spot. The offending canon was thrown into prison, where the infuriated provost made another attempt upon his life; and soon the other canons were likewise arrested. King James, having heard of the matter, at once commanded their liberation (graciously adding that he would have seen it carried out in person, had it been possible for him to enter so pestiferous a place). The other canons were liberated, but Alesius was thrown into another and worse dungeon, which he describes as a cave of horrors. The king having commanded that he should be set free, the provost had him taken out of prison for a day, and then thrown in again. An appeal to the archbishop only produced a message from the provost that Alesius's speech had convinced the primate of his good-will towards the Lutheran heretics. Thus Alesius remained in prison for a year, till, during the absence of his persecutor, he was liberated by his brother canons. But the provost soon returned, and, after nearly tearing away Alesius from the altar where he was saying mass, cast him into prison once more. This time some of the canons, feeling that it was a matter of life and death, counselled immediate flight beyond the seas. They furnished him with some money; and thus, after a short hesitation, ‘constituit piissimus Christi famulus abire’ (Bale). He found his way to the port, and to a ship where he was affectionately welcomed by a German. His enemy's horsemen arrived at the waterside in pursuit of him when the ships had already left the port (Thomasius, as he says almost verbally from Alesius's Answer to Cochlæus). The date of his flight and arrival in Germany was 1532, not 1534, which is that mentioned by some authorities. It was, however, in August 1534 that sentence was pronounced at Holyrood House by James Hay, bishop of Ross, sitting as commissioner for the Archbishop of St. Andrews, ‘against Alexander Alesse, Master John Fife, John Macbee and one Macdougal, who were summoned to the said diet, and compeered not’ (Spotiswoode, History of the Church and State of Scotland, 66).
After his arrival in Germany Alesius spent a little time at Cologne, where he saw two right-thinking men burnt, and in some other cities, and in 1533 reached Wittenberg, where he made the acquaintance of Luther and Melanchthon, and declared his adherence to the Augsburg Confession of the year 1530. He had hesitated even now before definitely choosing his side, characteristically declaring that while he did not assent to ‘all the dreams of the monks,’ he missed in the Lutherans a certain moderation and fairness in some things (Thomasius, ut supra). His first publication on the protestant side of course provoked a retort on the part of one of the literary champions of Rome. The question as to the free circulation of the scriptures among the laity was rapidly becoming one of the crucial questions of the reformation conflict, and one which was to lead that conflict towards issues undreamt of in its earlier phases. As yet the church of Rome had made no authoritative declaration on the subject, nor indeed was she to do so till the rules as to the ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ were drawn up by the council of Trent and sanctioned in 1564 by Pope Pius IV (see art. Bibellesen, &c., in Herzog's Realencyklopädie (1878), ii. 375). The matter was for the present still essentially an affair of episcopal or archiepiscopal discipline, there was no absolute uniformity of practice, and the endeavour to circulate the bible in the vulgar tongue had supporters of undoubted orthodoxy. In Scotland, the knowledge of the scriptures was diffused among the people, before a single instance had, so far as is known, occurred of a public teaching of the reformation doctrine (M'Crie, Life of Knox, 20). The decree of the Scottish bishops against which Alesius protested accordingly possesses considerable importance in the history of the religious conflict in Scotland. The ‘Epistola contra decretum quorundam Episcoporum in Scotia’ was published in 1533, as has been stated, at Leipzig, but it is expressly said by Cochlæus, and is indeed far more probable antecedently, that it was published at Wittenberg. It had not been long in print when Johannes Cochlæus (Dobeneck),the orthodox Duke George of Saxony's secretary and theological man-at-arms, who hurled ‘Philippics’ against Melanchthon and subjected all the doings and writings of Luther ‘from 1517 to 1546 inclusive’ to an exhaustive ‘commentary,’ was at hand with a refutation. This treatise (‘An expediat laicis legere noui Testamenti libros lingua Vernacula’) Cochlæus dedicated, in a rather ingeniously conceived preface, to King James V of Scotland, whom neither his own popular sympathies nor counsellors of Sir David Lyndsay's way of thinking had induced to quarrel with the church. (A copy of this treatise, dated 1533, is in the Cambridge University Library.) From an entry in the treasurer's accounts, under the year 1534, it would seem that the Scottish bishops were at least no strangers to the composition of Cochlæus's treatise: ‘Item, to ane servand of Cocleus, quhilk brot fra his maister ane buik intitulat , to his reward Xli’ (M'Crie, Life of Knox, i. 395 note). Alesius replied with a ‘Responsio ad Cochlæi calumnias,’ likewise addressed to King James V.
The Scottish ‘King of the Commons’ died in 1542 without, as it seems, having fully recognised the strength of the impulse which was so vitally to affect the future of his people. His uncle, King Henry VIII, had long before this chosen his part and that of his subjects. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy had been passed, and the influence of Cromwell and Cranmer upon the religious policy of the crown was near its height. Cromwell's ‘call to better understanding’ is attributed by Foxe to his study of the New Testament text on his way to and from Rome; and it is under the year 1535 that the archbishop's mind is described by Strype (Memorials of Cranmer (1812), i. 48) as ‘running very much upon bringing in the use of the holy Scripture in English among the people.’ Alesius therefore arrived as a welcome guest, when he came to England in August 1535, the bearer of a letter to King Henry from Melanchthon, with a book which stated ‘most of the controversies,’ and endeavoured as much as possible ‘to mitigate them.’ (The book is supposed to have been the ‘Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,’ as Melanchthon's ‘Colloquies’ were not published till a year later.) Melanchthon sent the same gift by Alesius to Cranmer, with a letter commending the bearer ‘for his learning, probity, and diligence in every good office’ (Strype, bk. iii. chap, xxiii.). The archbishop detained Alesius for some time at Lambeth, where a close relation seems to have sprung up between the pair. No estimate of Cranmer should leave out of sight the enthusiastic tribute paid to his memory in after days by the much-travelled Alesius, who speaks of him in terms which cannot be those of flattery and do not seem to be those of mere rhetoric (see the letter of Alesius to Bale, cited by the latter in the appendix to his notice of the former in his Scriptores Brytanniæ). Alesius was also very warmly received by Latimer. In 1535 Alesius was sent to lecture in divinity at Cambridge, where in this year Cromwell succeeded Fisher as chancellor and as visitor introduced the memorable royal injunctions. In a letter afterwards written by him from Germany to Bucer at Cambridge, he refers to the pleasant society he had formerly enjoyed at King's College there (MS. at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, cited in art. ‘Ales’ in the Biographical Dictionary of the S.D.U.K.); but notwithstanding the favourable circumstances of the times he appears to have given offence to those of a different way of thinking. Hence he very soon left Cambridge to settle in London, where after studying medicine, a science to which he had already in earlier years given attention, under an eminent physician of the name of Nicholas or Nicol, he commenced a not unsuccessful practice on his own account. It was during this period of his residence in England that, in the year 1537, Alesius was accidentally called upon to take part in a discussion in convocation presided over by Cromwell as vicar-general. Cromwell, having on his way to the meeting chanced upon Alesius, introduced him to the bishops' notice as the king's scholar—a title given to young scholars patronised and to some extent supported by the king with a view to their subsequent employment as ‘orators’ or otherwise in his service. The subject of discussion was the number of the sacraments, and Alesius's speech roused the ire of the Bishop of London (Stokesley), who made an appeal to tradition. Alesius hereupon declared himself willing to let the argument in favour of two sacraments only rest upon the proof of the proposition ‘that our Christian faith and religion doth leane onely upon the worde of God, which is written in the Bible;’ and this was accepted by his adversary. Cromwell, however, on the next day bade Alesius take no further part in the discussion of the bishops, but reduce his argument to writing instead; which he accordingly did in the treatise ‘Of the Auctorite of the Word of God concerning the Number of the Sacraments’ (see the life of Cromwell by Foxe in Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography, ii. 247–258, with notes partly based on the treatise just mentioned). After this episode, Alesius continued to be held in esteem by the reforming party in London, and is mentioned together with Bucer as discussing with Gardiner, when the latter went on a mission to Germany, the fundamental principles on which all religious controversies should be conducted. On the fall of Cromwell in 1540, however, or as that event cast its shadow before, it became advisable for Alesius to leave England. His name was well known in Germany (whence on his departure Johannes Stigelius had ‘pursued him with an elegy’), both by reason of his previous sojourn there, and through his treatise ‘De Schismate,’ which professed to ‘purge the protestants from the charge’ of having produced it. Melanchthon had supplied him with ‘the substance and arguments’ of this apology, which Alesius sent from England to George of Anhalt, a prince on terms of special amity with Luther (Strype, bk. iii. chap. iii.). To Germany he accordingly betook himself, accompanied, according to Spotiswoode, by his old Scottish companions in exile, Fife and Macdougal. In 1540 he was appointed by the Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg professor of theology at Frankfort-on-the-Oder; in which capacity, besides delivering a species of inaugural address which possesses great biographical value, he bore part in a unique passage in the history of the German reformation. Already in 1540 he had been sent to the religious conference at Worms, where, however, according to Camerarius, Cardinal Granvelle who presided, aware of Alesius's readiness for the fray, would not allow him to speak (Bayle; the presence of Alesius at Worms is confirmed by a letter from Cruciger dated Worms, 6 Nov. 1540, in which he informs Luther of Alesius's arrival; see Burkhardt, Luther's Briefwechsel, 365). At the diet held at Ratisbon in the spring of 1541 there had seemed a fair prospect of a compromise being arrived at on the religious difficulty, more especially by the doctrine of justification being provisionally defined in a sense favourable to Lutheran views; but Luther and the Elector of Saxony held out against an arrangement which they treated as patchwork, and Luther in particular resented the readiness of Bucer and the Landgrave of Hesse to come to an agreement with the emperor. Matters stood thus, when it occurred to the Elector Joachim and the Margrave George of Brandenburg to send a formal embassy to Luther in the name of the several estates of the realm, in order to induce him to give way. To this embassy, which arrived at Wittenberg in June 1541, and solemnly presented its powers to the protestant patriarch, Alesius was attached as its theologian. Luther's answer was at first considered satisfactory, but in the end he was found to insist upon the acceptance of the Augustana and its apology pure and simple; and thus this remarkable attempt, like many others less promising, came to naught (see K. A. Menzel, Neuere Geschichte der Deutschen seit der Reformation, vol. i. chap. 24; reference to Alesius, p. 346). Alesius was employed in several of these missions, after he had removed in 1543 to Leipzig. His departure from Frankfort-on-the-Oder was caused by his having, in a disputation on the question whether the civil magistrate can and ought to punish fornication, maintained the affirmative with Melanchthon, and taken offence at the delay of the decision (Thomasius ap. Bayle, who enters at extreme length into the merits of the question). The Brandenburg government, angered by his abrupt departure, and supposing him to have taken refuge with Melanchthon at Wittenberg, called upon the university there to chastise him; but he had instead repaired to Leipzig, where Duke Maurice was now the territorial sovereign. He was warmly received by Fachsius, who was both burgomaster and professor of law at Leipzig, and through whose good offices he afterwards obtained favours at the hands of the elector (Thomasius, citing Alesius's dedication of his ‘Epit. Catech.’ to the sons of Fachsius). Here he seems speedily to have been appointed to a professorial chair, and according to Bale he at some time became dean of the theological faculty; Strype, whose account is however clearly inaccurate, says that Fife became a professor there with him. In 1543 Alesius, in a happy hour for such peace as he may have desired, refused a call to Königsberg, where Duke Albrecht of Prussia was on the point of establishing a university. At Leipzig Alesius continued to lead an active literary life, composing a long series of exegetical, dogmatic, and controversial works, and, though apparently of a contentious disposition, contending on the side of conciliation and concord. He belonged to that generous if sanguine band of divines of whom Melanchthon was leader and type, to whom no gulf which conscientious effort was incapable of bridging seemed fixed between Lutheranism and Calvinism—or even between the new learning and vetus ecclesia. In the days of the Augsburg interim he was among the protestant theologians who were to have attended the council of Trent, and was doubtless reckoned among ‘die falschen Christen, die Adiaphoristen, die gottlosen Sophisten,’ among whom ‘Philips’ was chief (see L. Pastor, Reunionsbestrebungen, 397). He was present at Naumburg in 1554, where a kind of preliminary agreement between the protestant princes was attempted; at Nürnberg in 1555, where he assisted Melanchthon in allaying the conflict caused by the followers of the elder Osiander; again at Naumburg, and at Dresden, in 1561. His opinions, like those of Melanchthon, in truth inclined to Calvinism; in the so-called synergistic controversy (on the relations between faith and good works), he stood on the side of George Major, and was in consequence bitterly attacked by the orthodox fanatics who followed Flacius (Thomasius; cf. G. Weber in Herzog's Realencyklopädie).
In the reign of Edward VI Alesius seems once more to have visited England, where Archbishop Cranmer employed him to translate into Latin the first liturgy of King Edward VI (1549) for the use of Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr, whose views on the ‘Communion Book’ were desired by Cranmer, but who lacked the requisite knowledge of the English tongue. It is with reference to this piece of work and the changes afterwards introduced into the communion service that, at a disputation held at Oxford 18 April 1554, between Latimer and a numerous body of opponents, the prolocutor Dr. Weston declared that ‘a runagate Scot did take away the adoration or worshipping of Christ in the sacrament; by whose procurement that heresy was put into the last communion book; so much prevailed that one man's authority at that time.’ (For this disputation see Sermons and Remains of Bishop Latimer, ed. Corrie, Parker Society's Publications; and compare Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography, ii. 588 seqq., esp. 604 note.) This at least shows the reputation of Alesius in England to have been enduring; Parker (afterwards archbishop) called him ‘virum in theologia perdoctum.’ He seems to have in more ways than one made himself useful to Bucer, whose German ‘Ordinationes Anglorum Ecclesiæ’ he translated into Latin, accompanying it with a preface, ‘for the consolation of the churches everywhere in these sad times’ (Strype, ut supra, ed. 1812, i. 579). At Leipzig he enjoyed a peaceful and honoured old age, being twice, in 1555 and 1561, chosen rector of the university, as a member of the Saxon ‘nation.’ Alesius's last public appearance of which a record remains was the disputation held by him at Leipzig, 29 Nov. 1560, in which he upheld the views of Major already referred to (Thomasius). He died at Leipzig, 17 March 1565. He had been married to an Englishwoman ‘of the illustrious family de Mayn,’ who bore him two daughters and a son. Of the former one survived him. Alesius seems to have attracted much goodwill among those who were more or less of his own way of thinking, and who admired his intelligence, his learning, and his promptitude and skill as a combatant. His great master, Melanchthon, who was in the habit of speaking of him as Scotus, without mentioning either his christian name or his surname, appears on occasion to have thought him rather paradoxical and flighty, but to have set store by his friendship. The wise Camerarius speaks of him in terms of praise hardly less enthusiastic than those applied to him by the passionate Bale. His chief distinction is that while in his career as an advocate of the new learning he was courageous when courage was needed, he possessed a flexibility of mind and a moderation of sentiment rare among the reformers, and not least so among those of his native land. He is at the same time one of those figures in the history of the reformation which show its cosmopolitan character to have been from some points of view as marked as was that of the Renascence.
The following list of Alesius's original works is taken from A. T. Paget's memoir in the ‘Biographical Dictionary of the U. K. S.’ for which the list in Bale's ‘Scriptorum Brytanniæ Centuria XIV.’ had served as a basis. Nearly all are in one volume each.
Exegetical.—1. ‘In aliquot Psalmos,’ or ‘Expositio Libri Psalmorum Davidis juxta Hebræorum et D. Hieronymi Supputationes,’ Leipzig, 1550, 1596, fol. 2. ‘De Utilitate Psalmorum’ in the Leipzig edition of ‘De Autore et Usu Psalmorum,’ 1542, 8vo. 3. ‘In Evangelium Johannis,’ Basel, 1553, 8vo. 4. ‘In omnes Epistolas Pauli libri XIV.’ 5. ‘Disputationes in Paulum ad Romanos,’ Leipzig, 1553, 8vo. 6. ‘Expositio I. Epistolæ ad Timotheum et Epistolæ ad Titum,’ Leipzig, 1550, 8vo; and 7. ‘Posterioris ad Timotheum,’ Leipzig, 1551, 8vo. [These last two are not in Bale's list.]
Dogmatic and Controversial.—The following works refer to the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular: 8. ‘De Scripturis legendis in Lingua materna,’ Leipzig, 1533, 8vo. (But see above.) 9. ‘Ad Scotorum Regem contra Episcopos,’ Strassburg, 1542, 12mo and 8vo. 10. ‘Contra Calumnias Cochlæi,’ Leipzig, 1551, 8vo. (This is not the same as the ‘Disputatio,’ though such might seem to be the case from Paget.) 11. ‘Responsio ad Jacobum V Regem’, 12mo, and Leipzig, 1554, 8vo.
Controversial works against the Roman Catholics are: 12. ‘Liber de Schismate, scil. purgans Reformatos ab isto crimine.’ 13. ‘De Authoritate verbi Dei adversus Joannem Stokisley Londinensem episcopum,’ a Strassburg edition, 12mo, 1542. 14. ‘De Missa ac Cœna Domini.’ 15. ‘Responsio adversus Ricardum Tapperum de Missa ac Cœna Domini,’ Leipzig, 1565, 8vo. 16. ‘Contra Lovaniensium Articulos,’ or in the edition Leipzig, 1559, 8vo, ‘Responsio ad XXXII Lovaniensium Articulos.’ 17. ‘Pro Scotorum Concordia.’ According to Paget this tractate, published Leipzig, 1544, 8vo, as ‘Cohortatio Alex. Alesii ad Concordiam Pietatis in Patriam missa,’ is distinct from 18. ‘Cohortatio ad Pietatis Concordiam ineundam,’ Leipzig, 1559, 8vo.
The following chiefly refer to protestant controversies: 19. ‘De Justificatione contra Osiandrum,’ published under different titles, Wittenberg, 1552, 8vo, and Leipzig, 1553, 8vo, and 1554, 8vo. 20. ‘De utriusque Naturæ Officiis in Christo.’ 21. ‘De distincta ejus Hypostasi.’ 22. ‘Contra Michaelem Servetum ejusque Blasphemias Disputationes tres,’ Leipzig, 1554, 8vo. 23. ‘Assertio Doctrinæ Catholicæ de Trinitate adversus Valent. Gentilem,’ Leipzig, 1569, 8vo, and Geneva, 1567, fol. 24. ‘Disputatio de perpetuo consensu Ecclesiæ,’ Leipzig, 1553, 8vo. 25. ‘Oratio de Gratitudine,’ Leipzig, 1541, 8vo. 26. ‘De restituendis Scholis,’ Leipzig, 1541, 8vo (this is the Frankfort oration referred to above). 27. ‘Catechismus Christianus.’ 28. ‘Epistolæ tam ad me [Bale] quam ad alios.’
The translations from the Latin mentioned by Bale are Bucer's ‘Ordinationes Anglorum Ecclesiæ,’ among Bucer's ‘Scripta Anglica,’ Basel, 1577, fol.; ‘Præfatio super obedientiam Gardineri; de mea [Bale's] vocatione.’[The fullest account of Alesius is to be found in the Oratio de Alexandro Alesio, spoken by Jacob Thomasius at Leipzig on 20 April 1661, and printed as the fourteenth of his Orationes, Leipzig, 1683. (The quotations in the text are from a copy kindly lent by the Leipzig University Library.) This is chiefly based on Alesius's own writings; but Thomasius also refers to the brief eulogy of Alesius in the Icones of Theod. Beza, Geneva. 1580. See also the biographies in Bayle's Dictionnaire, ed. Des Maizeaux, 1740; Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (by A. T. Paget); Herzog's Real-Encyklopädie für protestantische Theologie u. Kirche (by G. Weber); Bale, Scriptorum Brytanniæ Post. Pars (Basel, 1559), Centuria xiv. pp. 227–228; Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography, vol. ii.; M'Crie's Life of Knox, note i.; Strype's Memorials of Cranmer.]