John Wycliffe, the curate of Ludgershall, Wiltshire, became a renown lecturer in theology and philosophy. On 26th July 1374, Wycliffe was appointed as one of five new envoys to continue negotiations in Bruges with papal officials over clerical taxes and provisions. The negotiations ended without conclusion, and the representatives of each side retired for further consultation. (1) It has been argued that the failure of these negotiations had a profound impact on his religious beliefs. "He began to attack Rome's control of the English Church and his stance became increasingly anti-Papal resulting in condemnation of his teachings and threats of excommunication." (2)
Wycliffe antagonized the orthodox Church by disputing transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe developed a strong following and those who shared his beliefs became known as Lollards. They got their name from the word "lollen", which signifies to sing with a low voice. The term was applied to heretics because they were said to communicate their views in a low muttering voice. (3)
As one of the historians of this period of history, John Foxe, has pointed out: "Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion. This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry." (4)
It is believed that John Wycliffe and his followers began translating the Bible into English. Henry Knighton, the canon of St Mary's Abbey, Leicester, reported disapprovingly: "Christ delivered his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer it to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the states of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it out more open to the laity, and to women, who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. In this way the gospel-pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious both to clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people, and what had hitherto been the choice gift of the clergy and of divines, is made for ever common to the laity." (5)
In September 1376, John Wycliffe was summoned from Oxford by John of Gaunt to appear before the king's council. He was warned about his behaviour. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey, reported that on 19th February, 1377, Wycliffe was told to appear before Archbishop Simon Sudbury and charged with seditious preaching. Anne Hudson has argued: "Wycliffe's teaching at this point seems to have offended on three matters: that the pope's excommunication was invalid, and that any priest, if he had power, could pronounce release as well as the pope; that kings and lords cannot grant anything perpetually to the church, since the lay powers can deprive erring clerics of their temporalities; that temporal lords in need could legitimately remove the wealth of possessioners." On 22nd May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls condemning the views of John Wycliffe. (6)
John Wycliffe tried to employ the Christian vision of justice to achieve social change: "It was through the teachings of Christ that men sought to change society, very often against the official priests and bishops in their wealth and pride, and the coercive powers of the Church itself." (7) Barbara Tuchman has claimed that John Wycliffe was the first "modern man". She goes on to argue: "Seen through the telescope of history, he (Wycliffe) was the most significant Englishman of his time." (8)
It has been claimed that the teachings of Wycliffe contributed to the complaints against the Poll Tax. This eventually led to a march on London. A priest from Kent, a man named John Ball, was blamed for preaching rebellion. Jean Froissart has pointed out: "A crazy priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball... told the peasants that the nobility should not have great power over the the common people... John Ball had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury's prison for his absurd speeches... It would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed... for as soon as he was released, he went back to his former errors."
Ball is reported to have said in one sermon: "Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us... At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ's likeness, and they treat us like animals... They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task." Thomas Walsingham believed that John Ball was influenced by the ideas of John Wycliffe. "John Ball taught the people that tithes ought not be paid... He also taught the wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe."
In June 1381, John Ball and Wat Tyler led a march to London. This became known as the Peasants' Revolt. On 14th June, Richard II agreed to the demands of the rebels. This included the end of all feudal services, the freedom to buy and sell all goods, and a free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. The following day, William Walworth, mayor of London, raised an army of about 5,000 men. Wat Tyler was murdered and the following month John Ball, was hung, drawn and quartered at St Albans. John Wycliffe denied he was involved in the uprising but as John F. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984), has been pointed out: "At the popular level a distinction between religious and social radicalism is hard to make, and, if Ball can be taken as representative, the poor priests contributed an element of ideological radicalism to the revolt." (9)
In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement. (10) Archbishop William Courtenay urged Parliament to pass a Statute of the Realm against preachers such as Wycliffe: "It is openly known that there are many evil persons within the realm, going from county to county, and from town to town, in certain habits, under dissimulation of great holiness, and without the licence ... or other sufficient authority, preaching daily not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, many sermons, containing heresies and notorious errors." (11)
John Wycliffe died in Ludgershall on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard. Afraid that Wycliffe's grave would become a religious shrine, on the orders of Richard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln, acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, officials exhumed the bones, burnt them, and scattered the ashes on the River Swift. (12)
In 1394 the Lollards presented a petition to Parliament, claiming: "That the English priesthood derived from Rome, and pretending to a power superior to angels, is not that priesthood which Christ settled upon his apostles. That the enjoining of celibacy upon the clergy was the occasion of scandalous irregularities. That the pretended miracle of transubstantiation runs the greatest part of Christendom upon idolatry. That exorcism and benedictions pronounced over wine, bread, water, oil, wax, and incense, over the stones for the altar and the church walls, over the holy vestments, the mitre, the cross, and the pilgrim's staff, have more of necromancy than religion in them.... That pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings made to images and crosses have nothing of charity in them and are near akin to idolatry." (13)
During the 14th century several Lollards who were charged and convicted with heresy. John Badby, a tailor from Evesham was charged with heresy and appeared before Thomas Peverell, the Bishop of Worcester on 2nd January 1409. According to his biographer, Peter McNiven, Badby had... achieved notoriety by his uninhibited denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation... Badby insisted that the bread in the eucharist was not, and could not be, miraculously transformed into Christ's body." Although Badby was adjudged a heretic, and so liable to the death penalty, the church had no wish to make martyrs of insignificant men and was released. (14)
Prince Henry (the future Henry V) suggested to the House of Commons that they might endorse a Lollard solution to the crown's financial problems by the "wholesale confiscation of the church's temporal possessions". Archbishop Thomas Arundel was horrified by this suggestion and persuaded Henry IV to make an example of a Lollard leader.
John Badby appeared before a convocation of the clergy on 1st March 1410. The author of Heresy and Politics in the Reign of Henry IV: The Burning of John Badby (1987) has argued that this "hearing became a show trial of national importance". The principal charge against him was that he believed the "bread was not turned into the actual physical body of Christ upon consecration". Badby refused to renounce his beliefs and on 15th March, 1409, he was declared a heretic, and was turned over to the secular authorities for punishment. "That afternoon, John Badby was brought to Smithfield and put in an empty barrel, bound with chains to the stake, and surrounded by dry wood. As he stood there, the king's eldest son happened by and encouraged Badby to save himself while there was still time, but Badby refused to change his opinions. The barrel was put over him and the fire lit." (15)
John F. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984) has pointed out that "John Badby was one of the earliest of a succession of Lollard martyrs memorialized for later generations of humble readers in the gruesome illustrations to Foxe's Book of Martyrs. It is clear from John Foxe's great work that Lollards survived into the 1530s, and that most of them belonged to the common people... Tradesmen and craftsmen seem to have been more numerous than husbandmen, and there was a handful of merchants and professional men from the towns, especially London." (16)
In 1414 there was a Lollard uprising led by John Oldcastle. It was reported by William Gregory: "On Twelve night... certain persons called Lollards... under cover... attempted to destroy the King and Holy Church... Sir Roger of Acton, and he was drawn and hanged beside St Giles for the King let to be made four pair of gallows, the which that were called the Lollards' gallows. Also... Sir John Beverley, and a squire of Oldcastle's John Brown, they were hanged; and many more were hanged and burnt, to the number of thirty-eight persons and more... And that same year were burnt in Smithfield... John Clayton, skinner, and Richard Turmyn, baker, for heresy." (17)
Over sixty Lollards were tried for heresy between 1428-31 in Norwich. Margery Baxter was accused of telling a friend that she denied the bread consecrated in the mass was the very body of Christ, "for if every such sacrament were God, and the very body of Christ, "for if every such sacrament were God, and the very body of Christ, there should be an infinite number of gods, because that a thousand priests and more do every day make a thousand such gods, and afterwards eat them, and void them out again in places where... you may find many such gods." Baxter went on to argue that "the images which stand in the churches" came from the Devil "so that the people worshipping those images commit idolatry". (18)
It has been argued that the Lollards that survived these purges embraced the ideas of Martin Luther. This included William Tyndale who worked for many years in completing the English translation of the English Bible that had been started by John Wycliffe and the Lollards. (19) This was a very dangerous activity for ever since 1408 to translate anything from the Bible into English was a capital offence. (20) Tyndale argued: "All the prophets wrote in the mother tongue... Why then might they (the scriptures) not be written in the mother tongue... They say, the scripture is so hard, that thou could never understand it... They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue... they are false liars." In Cologne he translated the New Testament into English and it was printed by Protestant supporters in Worms in 1526. (21)
Lord Chancellor Thomas More sent a close friend, Sir Thomas Elyot, to try to arrange the arrest of Tyndale. This ended in failure and the next person to try was Henry Phillips. He had gambled away money entrusted to him by his father to give to someone in London, and had fled abroad. Phillips offered his services to help capture Tyndale. After befriending Tyndale he led him into a trap on 21st May, 1535. (22) Tyndale was taken at once to Pierre Dufief, the Procurer-General, who immediately raided Poyntz's house and took away all Tyndale's property, including his books and papers. Luckily, his work on the Old Testament was being kept by John Rogers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, outside Brussels, where he was kept for the next sixteen months. (23)
At the time of his arrest, William Tyndale had translated the Old Testament only as far as the Book of Chronicles. Miles Coverdale continued with his work and his translation of the entire Bible in English was completed on 4th October 1535. It included sixty-seven woodcut illustrations. The title-page of the first printing, included a picture of Henry VIII distributing bibles. Coverdale explains that he has "with a clear conscience purely and faithfully translated this out of five sundry interpreters". He did not mention that it was largely based on the work of Tyndale. (24)
Tyndale's main enemy, Sir Thomas More, had been executed on 6th July, 1535. Miles Coverdale felt safe enough to return to England. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, were now the key political figures in England. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. The edition they promoted, although mainly the work of Tyndale, had the name of Miles Coverdale on the cover. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (25)
Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September, 1538. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (26) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (27)
1. That when the Church of England began to mismanage her temporalities in conformity with the precedents of Rome, and the revenues of churches were appropriated to several places, Faith, Hope, and Charity began to take their leave of her communion.
2. That the English priesthood derived from Rome, and pretending to a power superior to angels, is not that priesthood which Christ settled upon his apostles.
3. That the enjoining of celibacy upon the clergy was the occasion of scandalous irregularities.
4. That the pretended miracle of transubstantiation runs the greatest part of Christendom upon idolatry.
5. That exorcism and benedictions pronounced over wine, bread, water, oil, wax, and incense, over the stones for the altar and the church walls, over the holy vestments, the mitre, the cross, and the pilgrim's staff, have more of necromancy than religion in them.
6. That the joining of the offices of prince and bishop, prelate and secular judge, in the same person, is a plain mismanagement, and puts the kingdom out of its right way.
7. That prayer for the dead is a wrong ground for charity and religious endowments.
8. That pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings made to images and crosses have nothing of charity in them and are near akin to idolatry.
9. That auricular confession makes the priests proud, lets them into the secrets of the penitent, gives opportunity to intrigues and other mortal offences.
10. That the taking away of any man's life, either in war or in courts of justice, and upon any account whatsoever, is expressly contrary to the New Testament which is a dispensation of grace and mercy.
11. That the vow of single life is the occasion of horrible disorders, and betrays the nuns to infamous practices.
12. That unnecessary trades are the occasion of pride and luxury.
There were labouring men and women whose beliefs were condemned as heretical. They were loosely known as Lollards, and from the later fourteenth century to the 1530s their trials for heresy periodically punctuate the prevailing orthodoxy. Just as we can sometimes find in riots and rebellions the authentic voice of the common people, so it is possible to hear the trials of religious dissenters the expression of some beliefs from below. The Lollards were never more than a small minority, but there is reason to suspect that some of their opinions were quite widely accepted.
(1) Anne Hudson, John Wycliffe : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) Ian Ousby, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1988) page 1100
(3) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 74
(4) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.
(5) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (1337-1391)
(6) Anne Hudson, John Wycliffe : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(7) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 18
(8) Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978) page 287
(9) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 105
(10) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.
(11) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 71
(12) Anne Hudson, John Wycliffe : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(13) W. H. S. Aubrey, History of England (1870) page 771
(14) Peter McNiven, John Badby : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(15) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 53 of 2014 edition.
(16) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 160
(17) William Gregory, Gregory's Chronicle (1414) page 108
(18) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 158
(19) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 46
(20) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)
(21) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 4
(22) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 64
(23) David Daniell, William Tyndale : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(24) David Daniell, Miles Coverdale : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(25) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 294
(26) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 190
(27) John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (2011) page 227