It’s true that he was invited by refugees already settled here, Samuel Hartlib, a polymath born in Eastern Prussia and a friend of John Milton’s, was the best known of this circle. But Comenius, as I’ve said, was a minister in the Moravian Brethren, that is to say a Czech Protestant community dating from the 15th century. There is another reason why a minister in that church would have seen England as the natural home for his college.
Both England and Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic, experienced a kind of proto-Reformation, i.e. a mass movement of protest against the Catholic Church before the Reformation proper. And it is no coincidence that this happened in both countries – the English and Czech movements were in touch and fully aware of each other.
In England, the Lollard movement centred around a man called John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar who was unsparing in his criticisms of the Church, particularly its wealth and the greed and ignorance of its priesthood. He was twice summoned to Rome and five Papal Bulls were issued against him. But he never went to Rome and the University of Oxford, to its eternal credit, stood by his freedom to teach according to his conscience. The leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt claimed him as their own but their demagoguery and other violent methods certainly were not his own. He campaigned for and oversaw the first translations of the Bible into English – this is the 1370s – and attracted a large student following. This movement spread to Prague via an exchange programme between Oxford and Charles University in Prague.
A comparable struggle was already underway in Bohemia, but it took powerful encouragement from Wycliffe’s teachings. Indeed, an attempt to suppress Wycliffe’s writings helped to trigger a very serious uprising there. That movement in the Czech Lands was centred around a similarly charismatic figure, Jan Hus, who was eventually captured and put on trial before a Council of the Western Church. Hus was condemned as a ‘Wycliffite’ and burnt at the stake in Constance in 1415. There’s an impressive monument to him on Old Town Square in Prague, which some of you may have seen. The monument was covered over by the Nazis in 1939. The first time I saw it, arriving late in the city one night in November 1989, it was ringed about with guttering candles. He remains an important figure for Czechs.
Less so, I must say, Wycliffe for the English. The same Council of the Church that condemned Hus, ordered that Wycliffe’s remains be dug up and likewise burnt. He had died peacefully in retirement at his parish in Leicestershire some years before. But if you go to Lutterworth today, and I was there just recently, there is nothing at all to remind you of this extraordinary act of desecration, heavy with implications not only for England but for the whole of Europe.
His ashes were thrown into the river, nobody knows exactly where, but there isn’t even a footpath you can follow along the river. You can clamber through a barbed wire fence and do it anyway, which is what I did, but there’s no dedicated footpath.
Neither in England nor in Bohemia was religious Dissent crushed by these executions and desecrations. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, remained a force to be reckoned with well into the 16th century. In Bohemia the dissenting spirit was carried on by the Moravian Brethren. Jan Comenius was raised in that community and became a minister in it.
So of course he looked to England as the land of Wycliffe. He made for England because its long struggles for liberty of conscience qualified it in a particular way, made it the natural starting-point for his project to reform knowledge. But his was no nostalgic project. The college he wanted to set up here aimed well beyond the reform of this or that religion. It would be only one ‘workshop of light’ among many which would spring up around the world. These would disseminate knowledge ‘so that whatever new light on the sciences, arts, crafts and inventions may arise in any corner of the world whatsoever may become the common property of all peoples and nations.’ He aimed to infuse the new learning of the Renaissance, the new science, with a new moral responsibility. He aimed at nothing less than a universal reform of human awareness. And England seemed to him the natural home of such universalism.
To recall this now is not a nostalgic project either. It is entirely relevant. The European Convention on Human Rights – which has of course nothing whatever to do with the EU – was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War and with the active support of Winston Churchill. That a present Tory government is seeking to withdraw from it is a scandalous betrayal of the best of our traditions.
That Convention represents not only what is best about Europe but the best also of what this country is, still, uniquely placed to offer Europe. The Good Old Cause: liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, equality before the law. Britain, from its involvement in the renditions programme and much besides, has taught us all how far we are from having ‘arrived’ at any of these. But it is surely right to be proud of the struggles, here and elsewhere, that have drawn inspiration from what started with Wycliffe or at the Putney Debates.
Wycliffe, for example, was cited as a champion of the student movements during the 1960s in the US. His University of Oxford defended, for as long as it could, his right to teach according to his conscience, even as the Church condemned him. Students protesting against the Vietnam War looked to the University of Berkeley and elsewhere to defend their stance against authoritarian power in their own time, that of the American military-industrial complex.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, especially after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Czech dissidents found in Comenius a figure who had endured their own sense of banishment. He had shared their own search for a ‘way of light’ in a world where nuclear technology in particular seemed to have escaped any moral controls.