Wyckcliffe and The Lollards
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.