Wyckcliffe and The Lollards

wyckcliffe.jpg (33737 bytes) John Wyckcliffe (1329-1384), published two especially influential works based on his  views of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination. In these works - "On the Kingdom of God" and "De Dominia Divino", he elaborated his theory that -

All power was derived from God alone.
The King was as much God`s Vicar as the Pope.
The temporal authority was vested with a right over things secular and over the church.
The individual conscience was the supreme judge of all questions.
The Christian, in virtue of "dominion" held immediately from God, was independent alike of Priest and King, and accountable only before the tribunal of God.

This concept of free will among men and women was not only heresy in the eyes of Rome, but fed the aspirations of the common people who were living in virtual slavery. These principals Wyckcliffe  urged with a relentless logic and often in a seemingly reckless and partisan manner.

From this arose his "poor priests" - the itinerant followers of the Gospel whom Wyckcliffe enjoined

"Go and preach, it is the sublimest work, but imitate not the priests whom we see after the sermon sitting in the ale houses, or at the gaming table, or wasting their time in hunting. After your sermon is ended  do you visit the sick, the aged, the poor, the blind, and the lame, and succour them according to your ability."

He went further and appealed to the popular mind by issuing many pamphlets in which his views were explained in plain English. His greatest single act has to be the first translation of the Bible into English, although he died before it was finally published and copies began to circulate.

Wickcliffe`s immediate legacy was a band of followers - the Lollards.  who in time developed socialist, and perhaps seditious, views that alienated the movement from the barons and middle classes. They were particularly influential in the south east of England - Sussex and Kent, through East Anglia - Essex, Norfolk and Lincolnshire,  and across the Midlands to Wales. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural estates and within the region were the bulk of the restless peasantry - the working classes of the future industrialised England. Inherently they vocalised grievances and complained not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled trouble makers by the civil magistrates. So far as conflict with the Church was concerned, they opposed the  licentiousness and wealth of the clergy and recognised  a ministry independent of Rome that derived authority  from the word of God alone. Thus

"every minister can administer the sacraments and confer the cure of souls as well as the pope."

The Lollard prayer ran :

"We poor men pray Thee that Thou wilt send us shepherds of Thine own, that they will feed Thy flock in Thy Pasture, and go themselves before them. And Lord, give our king  and his lords hearts to defend Thy true shepherds and Thy sheep from out of the the wolves` mouths, and grace to know Thee that thou art the true  Christ, the Son of the Heavenly Father, from the antichrist , that is the son of pride. And, Lord, give us, Thy poor sheep , patience and strength  to suffer for Thy law the cruelness  of the mischevious wolves. And. Lord, as Thou has promised, shorten these days. Lord , we ask this now, for more need was there never. "

There are several explanations of the “Lollard” name but the most plausible is that  it was the name given ca 1300 to a charitable society in Antwerp, who lulled the sick by singing to them. The name probably stemmed from the German lollen, to hum. In later years they were known by several names, including  "the Known Men"  and "the Just Fast Men". The radicalism of the Lollards ( heresy in the eyes of the Church of Rome) lay in that they sought a simpler creed  than that recognised at the time. This was at the heart of their persecution and was really as simple a difference as that.

It is true they denied infant baptism, and believed that the main task of a priest was to preach, moreover that everyone should have access to a Bible in their own language. But the denial of infant baptism (no more than the Baptist faith)  was seen then as a great heresy. “Lollard” quickly became a catch all name for many types of alleged heresy during this period—including some probable Lutheran views.  By the late fourteenth century they were associated with peasant unrest and became embroiled in  the Peasants Revolt . The rebellion led in the south by Wat Tyler  (1381), and the march on  London to protest against taxation was quickly linked to the Lollards by their enemies. In this a dissolute priest named John Ball fanned the flames with fiery comments from the Scriptures. As a result Lollardism became associated with tradesmen and peasants; with public disorder, licence and excess. These were the excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notably Henry IV directly ordered the burning of William Sawtrey and subsequently enshrined in statute law -  the "Ex Officio" statute, which directed that heretics were to be burned at the stake by the civil authority. By the mid fifteenth century the Lollards’ protests became linked with political unrest when they were again severely persecuted. Many fled into hiding in the northern and western regions of England and Wales with some entering Scotland where local pockets of Lollard influence and tradition continued into the sixteenth century.

 The Lollards adopted the beliefs of  Wyckcliffe and Jan Hus in Bohemia and by 1395 had their own ministers and were winning popular support. Subjected to extreme measures of persecution, including frequent burning as heretics, they were hunted down, imprisoned and tortured throughout England. There was a respite for about forty five years, 1440-1485, as a consequence of the Wars of the Roses, but thereafter the attacks on the Lollards entered another bloody phase. The reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) had hardly got under way before the burnings began in London, Canterbury and Norwich . In London an eighty year old Joan Boughton was burnt  at Smithfield  and the following day her ashes were collected  as treasured memorials of her faith. Buckinghamshire and the district of the Chilterns saw Bishop William Smith hard at work burning over sixty alleged Lollards starting with William Tylesworth at Amersham in 1506. The severity of the pursuit gave rise to what has been called the "Great Abjuration" as it undoubtedly caused many to recant. They were variously branded on the cheek and made to wear a green cloth on their sleeve as a mark of their disgrace. (Hitler used yellow as his emblem four centuries later in his persecution of the Jews ). Others were compelled to make arduous pilgrimages, and in others penance consisted of perpetual servitude in a monastery from which they were never to leave.

Despite the renewed pressures upon them, they struggled on into the sixteenth century and were still being burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 - 1547).  In 1519 seven people, including one woman, were burnt in Coventry, for teaching their children the Lord`s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in English. In the next years there were six burnt in Kent, five in the Eastern Counties (Essex and Norfolk), and two in Wiltshire  With them all the accusations were the same as the earlier Lollards - transubstantiation, pilgrimages, worship before shrines and images. They stridently opposed prayers for the dead, auricular confession, priestly celibacy  and

" the exercise of religious functions by persons whose lives were a reproach to their holy calling."

 The origin of the word Protestantism is accredited by some to the protest of German princes and burghers at the Diet of Speyers in 1529 when they `protested` against the Church of Rome. But one hundred and fifty years before the Lollards made their contribution to the Reformation; it was their belief, witness, and protest unto death that they gave which led to the establishment of Protestantism in England. It was nurtured secretly, and kept alive to be able to join with the flood of doctrinal change emerging in Europe led by Luther and   Calvin. The Lollards of all ages unanimously held that the simplicity of the Scriptures  was a sufficient guide to salvation. By bearing witness for the truth as they saw it, they undoubtedly laid the foundations for the religious reforms of the sixteenth century.

The Church of Rome was always very good at attacking the dead who could not answer back, thus showing how scared they were of the ideas of such men and of anyone else who might actually think for themselves. Wyckcliffe and his writings were condemned by Pope John XXIII in 1415, some thirty one years after his death, with a consequent renewal of persecutions. Henry Chichesley, Archbishop of Canterbury, issued a proclamation against the Lollards in January 1416  that left no doubt as to the requirement to suppress anybody who opposed the Church of Rome by thought, word or deed. The edict required that every priest, bishop etc should at least twice yearly search his parish and make people swear their faith on oath. They also were to conscript three trusted persons to act as spies and report persons holding private conventicles, or who differed in their views or read papers and tracts in the English tongue. This was religious paranoia to an extreme which Chichesley added to by furbishing the "Lollards Tower" in Lambeth Palace. It is said that he expended two hundred and eighty pounds to make this prison which was fitted with huge staples and rings to which the prisoner was fastened. Their release was often just before they were brought out to burnt at the stake. The furnishings of persecution, are still to be seen in a large lumber-room at the top of the palace.

The Roman Church actively rooted out and prosecuted alleged heresy wherever it could, going after not only Lollards but practitioners of other sects as well.  A prime example concerned the affairs of John Clayborn (sometimes called Clayton and Claydon ), a currier, in London who had a history of `religious error` and imprisonment who was brought before the Archbishop in August 1415 on charges of heresy.  He admitted that he read English tracts and was the author of "The Lanthorn of Light" , a short notation of religious principles that was critical of the Church. The Lanthorn - produced bound in red leather  and written in a fair hand on parchment, was greatly prized as a statement  of Lollard belief. Having admitted authorship it was inevitable that Clayborn was judged a heretic and consigned to be burnt at the stake in Smithfield. The emerging threat of Lollardy is evidenced by the publication in 1450 by the Bishop Pecock of Chichester, of his "Repressor of over much Blaming of the Clergy", intended as a defence of the clergy, Pecock sought to use reason rather than force  influence the Lollards. This was his undoing as he ventured close to exhibiting `Lollard ` opinions and acknowledged the use of common sense in interpreting the Scriptures. He was tried and convicted of heresy and  forced to recant in a deliberately humiliating manner. At St Paul`s Cross a fire was kindled in public and he was made, on his knees before brother bishops, to recant and personally cast his papers and writings into the flames. He was then kept in close confinement at Thorney Abbey where paper, pen and ink were prohibited him.

There was a quite large library of books sympathetic to the Lollard point of view. Possession of any of these would almost certainly have led to charges of heresy and burning at the stake. These included " Sherpherd`s Calendar""A Pricke of Conscience"; "The King of Beeme"; The Examination of William Thorpe; Peres the Ploughman`s Creed; The Ploughman`s Tale (not to be confused with  Langland`s poem ` the Vision of William concerning Piers the Ploughman). The Ploughman`s Creed was produced anonymously in 1394 and was a paraphrase of the Apostle`s Creed  with an addition of Wycliffe`s doctrine  of the sacrament. It paints a picture of the clerics of the Church of Rome as keepers of the keys of Heaven, etc, and contrasts them with the pale starving, and poverty stricken people The prologue says  of them:

They make us thralls at their lust [desire]
And say we may not else be saved
They have the corn, and we the dust;
Who speaketh them against, they say we raved.

It was the traditions and beliefs kept alive in the illicit literature of the the Lollards that was called " the spirit and animating  power of the Reformation." Hidden away for secret reading by the emerging middle classes - the merchants and traders of the towns and the farmers in the countryside, they laid the spiritual foundations  of the Reformation and prepared the public`s mind for the printed version of Tyndale`s Bible (1525) and the subsequent versions of the Scriptures that followed. Collectively they destroyed the inherent secrecy and intolerance of free will in the Church of Rome.

 

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact