Last week I wrote about John Wyclif as a man who articulated views that were not terribly unusual in his time and I want to look this week at others who held similar views, but were not as fortunate as Wyclif when church and state began to crack down on those they considered heretics after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 showed them how dangerous those views might be. It was one thing for an Oxford theologian like Wyclif and his aristocratic/royal supporters to call for the church to be dispossessed of its property and for clerics to give up their secular positions, it was quite another for “uneducated peasants” to take matters into their own hands.
The Lollards, as those who agreed with Wyclif’s teachings were called, were not an organised group; they didn’t even come from the same social strata. They were nobles, clerics and laymen. The only common denominator was that they all wanted to reform a church that had become corrupt.
Depending on who you believe, lollard either derives from a Dutch word meaning ‘to mumble’ or from ‘lolium’ the Latin for weed. I don’t really understand why a Dutch word would be used for a group of English heretics, but I can understand why a Latin word could.
It was used in a letter from the pope to the chancellor of Oxford University in which he said the university had allowed itself to become infected with weeds (lolium) by which he meant heresy. He was referring to the parable of the wheat and the tares in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which a farmer sows wheat in his field and his enemy sows weeds. The farmer decides not to dig up the weeds in case he pulls up the wheat with them, thus reducing his harvest, but when harvest time came he would dig up the weeds first and burn them. At that time heretics weren’t burned in England, but they were in France and Italy. It was, however, a practice that was taken up with enthusiasm in England in the sixteenth century.
I wrote last week that the papacy had fallen into disrepute after the move to Avignon in the early fourteenth century, but in the middle of the century, the Black Death had harmed the church as a whole. Monks, priests and bishops, including an archbishop of Canterbury, had died along with everyone else. If God had withdrawn his protection from the church, it could only mean the church didn’t please Him. If it didn’t please him, things needed to change.
Oxford, where Wyclif taught, was seen as a hotbed of heresy and archbishops of Canterbury had been trying to bring the university to order for years and it wasn’t until the 1390s, when the religious atmosphere in England had fallen more in line with what was required by the pope, supported by Richard II and Thomas Arundel, a very strong-minded and powerful archbishop of Canterbury, that they succeeded.
The closet followers of Wyclif were Nicholas Hereford, Philip Repingdon, John Aston and Laurence Bedeman. They were students and masters at Oxford and were also theologians. When church and state began to clamp down on heretical beliefs about the mass, they, unlike Wyclif, were still young men, who had quite a lot to lose, and they hadn’t spent as much time as he had mulling over the theology.
In 1382 they were persuaded on threat of excommunication to recant, which they did, not only in private to the church authorities, but also in Oxford in front of other scholars and masters. Philip Repingdon eventually became bishop of Lincoln and a persecutor of Lollards.
Nicholas Hereford, however, had to recant a second time, having run away to appeal to the pope, who put him in prison. He escaped, but was arrested in England in 1386 and escaped again. In 1388 he was captured again and (probably) tortured. He then recanted.
Some Lollards were probably bribed with money to retract what they had formerly believed. Even the chronicler Henry Knighton, an enemy of Wyclif’s, could see that these confessions changed nothing for the people who made them, as they were not dissuaded from their beliefs. What was important to the church at this point, though, was that the confessions were made publicly in front of people who knew the people confessing and who knew what they had done. This priority changed as time went on, however.
By the time John Pulvey, probably Wyclif’s closest follower and the man who wrote down his treatises and who translated the Gospels into English, was asked to recant in 1402, the threat was no longer excommunication, but burning. He had been in prison since the late 1380s and had been tortured. Just to make sure he understood that the threat was real, a priest called William Sawtre was burned alive, the first Englishman to be burned for heresy. After Purvey’s recantation many Lollards followed his example. Some did not and were burned.
At least eight knights in the royal household and possibly Richard II himself were Lollards. The king was certainly slow to come to the aid of the church against them and Queen Anne received a copy Purvey’s English Gospels. The regent, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt was, of course, Wyclif’s protector. Richard’s attitude changed after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the church emphasised the links between Lollardy and popular unrest. By the end of the 1380s he had become an unyielding defender of orthodoxy. For the same reason support for Lollardy lessened among the landholders and the wealthy.
In January 1395 Richard was in Ireland. A parliament was held in Westminster while he was away and Lollards nailed their manifestoes to the doors of Westminster Hall, where the parliament was being held, and St Paul’s, where important sermons were preached to the people of London. Richard’s council asked him to return, which he did as quickly as possible. He immediately set to work in support of orthodoxy, starting with those closest to him. One of the Lollard knights in his household was made to swear an oath recanting his heresy. Once he had done this, Richard told the knight he would be executed if he went back on his word. The knight concerned had given loyal service to Richard’s grandfather and father, and had been one of the executors of his mother’s will. More junior members of the household were also made to renounce their beliefs.
It’s no accident that the real persecution of the Lollards began soon after Henry IV usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399. One way of making his reign appear legitimate was to be ultra-orthodox in religious matters. It might also have been an act of deflection. If people were worried about being burned for their religious beliefs, or their friends being burned, they were less likely to draw attention to the illegitimacy of Henry’s reign. As the son of John of Gaunt, he probably also wanted to ensure that no one ever thought to suggest that he also might be tainted by Lollardy.
It is generally thought that Geoffrey Chaucer, who was friendly with many highly-placed Lollards and was also a protégé of John of Gaunt, wasn’t one himself, but Lollardy certainly informs The Canterbury Tales, which was written at this time.
Lollardy eventually died out in the second half of the fifteenth century, or went far enough underground to be left alone. It was over a hundred years before calls for the church to reform were heard all over Europe.
Richard II by Nigel Saul
Life of Chaucer by Derek Pearsall
Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones
England, Arise by Juliet Barker
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod