IV. THE LOLLARDS

Archbishop Arundel, in 1407, reaffirmed the supremacy of canon or ecclesiastical law over all secular legislation, and condemned as a major heresy any rejection of a papal decree.35 Recovering from Wyclif, the Church grew stronger in fifteenth-century England, and rising wealth overflowed into its coffers. “Chantries” were now a frequent form of contribution:-persons expecting death paid for the building of a chapel and for the chanting of Masses to expedite their souls into paradise. As some twenty bishops and twenty-six abbots sat in the House of Lords with only forty-seven laymen, the Church controlled the major chamber of Parliament. To offset this, Henry VII—and later Henry VIII—insisted on the right of the kings to nominate the bishops and abbots of England from the eligible clergy; and this dependence of the hierarchy on the monarchy eased the clerical surrender to Henry VIII’s assertion of royal supremacy over the English Church.

Meanwhile Wyclif’s Poor Preachers continued to spread their anticlerical ideas. As early as 1382 a monastic chronicler reported, with frightened exaggeration, that “they multiplied exceedingly, like budding plants, and filled the whole realm.... You could scarce meet two men on the road but that one of them was a disciple of Wyclif.” 36 They found their readiest audience among the industrial workers, especially the weavers of Norfolk. In 1395 the Lollards felt strong enough to present to Parliament a bold statement of their principles. They opposed clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, image worship, pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, the wealth and endowment of the Church, the employment of ecclesiastics in state offices, the necessity of confession to priests, the ceremonies of exorcism, and the worship of the saints. In other pronouncements they recommended that all should read the Bible frequently, and should follow its precepts as superior to the decrees of the Church. They denounced war as unchristian, and luxury as immoral; they called for sumptuary laws that would compel a return to simple foods and dress; they abhorred oaths, and substituted for them such phrases as “I am sure,” or “It is sooth”—i.e., truth; already the Puritan mind and view were taking form in Britain.37 A few preachers mingled socialism with their religion, but most of them refrained from attacking private property, and sought the support of knights and gentry as well as of peasants and prolétaires.

Nevertheless the upper classes could not forget their narrow escape from social revolution in 1381, and the Church found in them a new readiness to protect her as a stabilizing force in the community. Richard II threatened with arrest the representatives of the Lollards in Parliament, and reduced them to silence. In 1397 the English bishops petitioned the King for the execution of impenitent heretics “as in other realms subject to the Christian religion,”38 but Richard was loath to go to such lengths. In 1401, however, Henry IV and his Parliament issued the famous statute De haeretico comburendo: all persons declared by an ecclesiastical court to be persistent heretics were to be burned, and all heretical books were to be destroyed. In that same year William Sawtrey, a Lollard priest, was burned at the stake. Other Lollards were arrested, recanted, and were treated leniently. In 1406 the Prince of Wales presented to Henry IV a petition alleging that the propaganda of the Lollards, and their attacks on monastic property, threatened the whole existing fabric of society. The King ordered a more vigorous prosecution of the heretics, but the absorption of the bishops in the politics of the Papal Schism temporarily deflected their energy from the hunt. In 1410 John Badby, a Lollard tailor, was condemned by the Church, and was burned in Smithfield Market. Before the faggots were lighted “Prince Hal” pleaded with Badby to recant, and offered him life and money; Badby refused, and mounted the pyre to his death.39

The Prince came to the throne in 1413 as Henry V, and gave his full support to the policy of suppression. One of his personal friends was Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, whom some of Shakespeare’s audience later identified with Falstaff.40 Oldcastle had served the nation well in the field, but he tolerated and protected Lollard preachers on his lands in Herefordshire and Kent. Thrice the bishops summoned him to trial; thrice he refused to come; he yielded, however, to a writ from the King, and appeared before the bishops (1413) in that chapter house of St. Paul’s where Wyclif had stood trial thirty-six years before. He affirmed his sincere Christianity, but would not reject the Lollard views on confession or the Eucharist. He was condemned as a heretic, and was confined in the Tower of London; forty days’ grace was allowed him in the hope that he would recant; instead he escaped. At the news the Lollards around London rose in revolt, and tried to seize the King (1414). The attempt failed, and some leaders were caught and hanged. Oldcastle hid for three years in the mountains of Herefordshire and Wales; finally he was captured, hanged as a traitor, and then burned as a heretic (1417), state and Church both demanding their due.

As compared with other persecutions, that of Lollardry was almost moderate; the executions for heresy numbered eleven between 1400 and 1485.41 We hear of several Lollard congregations surviving till 1521; as late as 1518 Thomas Man, who claimed to have converted 700 to Lollardry, suffered death at the stake; and six more were burned in 1521.42 When Henry VIII divorced England from Rome, and the nation accepted the change without revolution, the Lollards might have claimed that in some measure they had prepared the way.

In 1450 Reginald Pecock, Bishop of Chichester, published a book which he called, in the whimsical fashion of the times, Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy. It was avowedly a refutation of Lollardry, and assumed a vigorous anticlericalism among the people. It proposed to check these ideas not by imprisonment at the stake, but solely by an appeal to reason. The enthusiastic bishop reasoned so much that he fell in love with reason and in danger of heresy; he found himself refuting by reason some Lollard arguments from Scripture. In a Treatise on Faith he definitely placed reason above the Bible as a test of truth—a position that Europe would take 200 years to regain. For good measure the irrepressible Repressor added that the Fathers of the Church were not always to be trusted; that Aristotle was not an unquestionable authority; that the Apostles had had no hand in the Apostles’ Creed; and that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery.43 The English bishops hailed the proud Pecock before their court (1457), and gave him a choice between recanting or burning. He disliked burning, read a public abjuration, was deposed from his see, and was segregated in Thorney Abbey to the end of his days (1460).

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