Yesterday and today, in London’s rebel history: Lollards heretic uprising defeated in St Giles Fields, 1414.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy initially derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, who had criticised the worldy wealth of the church and disputed many of the leading catholic doctrines; other students and clerics took up these ideas, calling for a simpler, more down to earthy approach to religion, based among the people, and for much of the high church theology and hierarchy to be abolished or revised.

However, fierce repression of these ideas by the church authorities, backed by the state, rooted many of the ideas out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

From this, these ideas spread into the wider population, often through wandering preachers, teaching secret conclaves of believers, and fleeing repression to spread the word in other areas.

Excommunication, arrest, imprisonment, and eventually executions, were used to try to extirpate Lollardy. Numbers persecuted were relatively small; how widespread these underground ideas became will always be unclear, but substantial communities did develop in various parts of England.

The church feared Lollardy could spread destabilising doctrines which could undermine its spiritual power and its material riches (at this point church institutions in one form or another owned between a third and a half of the land in the country). The secular authorities feared Lollards were also rebels, linking grassroots demands for reform of the church with social and economic dissatisfaction. In the wake of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, this was not an idle or unjustified worry. But repression of Lollards also bred anger and hatred, and played a part in the abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

The events of 1414 grew largely from the inspiration of one man, Sir John Oldcastle, the most prominent Lollard. If most Lollards were increasingly drawn from the poorer classes, there were, in its early years, a fair number of the gentry and merchant classes attracted to the creed. Oldcastle was a knight from Herefordshire, who had achieved prominence by fighting in the wars in France, and becoming a confidant of prince Henry (later Henry V), and marrying into a baronial family. He inherited various lands, became Lord Cobham, and was summoned to Parliament.

But in parallel with this, Oldcastle was secretly an adherent of the new heresy. Accused of protecting Lollard preachers, corresponding with religious reformers abroad, and uttering heretical statements, he was at first given some leeway by the new king, but the church pressed for him to be questioned, and he was eventually imprisoned in 1413 and brought to trial. Here, he was eventually pushed into refuting the right of the pope, bishops or clergy to determine what people should believe, and rejecting central tenets of faith. He was excommunicated. The king gave him some time to think over his beliefs instead of executing him immediately; however, Oldcastle took the opportunity to escape the tower of London in October, with the help of some London Lollards.

At this point heresy became attempted rebellion. Oldcastle and his associates decided on a desperate measure, which would set the destiny of the Lollard movement. Faced with persecution by church and state, they determined on an uprising with the aim of kidnapping the king and his brothers, seizing power, and instituting the religious reforms they were bent on.

However, the government managed to get wind of the Lollards’ plans. The threat of the Lollards coincided with plots of ‘treason’ among certain nobles against the new king, Henry V, so spies were abroad and the authorities were on edge. After the rising, the ‘king’s spy’, one Thomas Burton, was rewarded with a gift of £5 (worth a wee bit more then) for “his assiduous watchfulness” in ferretting out the rebels’ plans, and two other men were also awarded pensions for similar services.

Oldcastle sent out agents all across the county, rousing Lollards and imploring them to take up arms, or offering money to the poorer sort to recruit them. Small bands were seen marching to London; an observer related how “you might see the crowds… drawn by large promises from almost every county in the realm, hastening along by footpaths, high roads and byways, to meet at the day and hour then at hand. When asked why they hurried thus and ran themselves nearly out of breath, they answered that they were going as fast as they could to join their lord Cobham who had paid them a retaining fee and was now in need of their service.”

The plan was to converge on London, while the king and his family celebrated Epiphany, in the first days of January 1414 at Eltham Palace, rendezvousing in the fields outside the city walls, northwest of Temple Bar. Here Oldcastle and London Lollards would meet them and they would quickly seize the capital. Simultaneously, a picked band would blag their way in to the court at Eltham, disguised as mummers, and capture the entire royal family.

However, this plan was reckless in the extreme, and was unlikely to have succeeded, without the support of thousands in arms. Not only was this not forthcoming, but such numbers gathering would have alerted the government to the danger – as it was, they became aware of the plan. They were either betrayed by rebels who had second thoughts, or were not prepared to take religious dissidence as far as rebellion, or penetrated by spies from the first. At any rate, on Twelfth Night (6th January), the Mayor of London took armed men to the ‘sign of the Axe’ at Bishopsgate, place of business of John Burgate, a Lollard carpenter.

Burgate and seven others of the band picked to seize the king were nicked, including one of Oldcastle’s squires, and they were hauled to Eltham and questioned. Other Lollard meeting places, like the Wrestler-in-the-hoop tavern in Smithfield were let alone or not known about, and the arrests in Bishopsgate did not lead Oldcastle and his confederates to postpone the plans. Perhaps on the grounds that things were too far advanced to pull back now…

In the end though the arrests seem to have demoralised or confused the London Lollards, since the hundreds expected to rise in the city didn’t appear. This “wonderfully discouraged” the Lollard leaders. The Lollards from the provinces gathered at St Giles’ Fields, known as a secret meeting place of Lollards before this time, but were walking into a trap. The king and his brothers further attempted to confound the plotters by moving in force to Westminster.

The gates of the City of London were guarded to prevent entry or any linkup between the rebels outside and sympathisers within, and stringent searches were made to try to root out Oldcastle and other leaders. Bands of troops guarded the approaches to St Giles, and after midnight o January 9th the king assembled his main force and proceeded to the Fields. In the darkness, all was confusion, but bands of untrained countrymen were no match for the royal army, and there was little real fighting. The rebels were scattered, some eighty being captured, a few being killed, but many escaping into the night. Some ringleaders were rounded up, but Oldcastle wasn’t among them.

Among those arrested the majority were weavers; glassmakers, shoemakers, glovers, tailors, goldsmiths, carpenters, ploughmen, and some clerics, although a number of the better off were also involved in the rising, notably Oldcastle’s main lieutenant, Sir Roger Acton, from humble background, who had his fortune and become a landowner through the French wars; Sir Thomas Talbot of Kent, and some gentlemen and esquires. A number of landowners and minor gentry implicated in the plans managed to talk their way out of arrest since they had not been present in the Fields.

What the rebels had hoped to achieve was not properly known, it if was ever really thought out in advance. After the rising failed it was announced by the authorities that the rebels had planned to massacre the royal family, the aristocracy and the higher clergy, and to strip the church of its wealth and divide the kingdom up amongst themselves under Oldcastle, as regent. Whether this is true, or merely the propaganda of their enemies after they couldn’t reply, is debateable; however, they had no chance of success once the king had become aware of the plans and instituted counter-measures. While the Peasants Revolt would have been uppermost in the minds of the authorities, as a very nearly successful revolt in living memory, the events of 1414 were not on the scale of 1381. However the link between the two would have been inevitable in the minds of both rebels and their opponents, and burning grievances from the earlier events, as well as the memory of both the glorious feelings of possibility and the vicious repression of 1381, remained alive in many places in England.

Many of the captured rebels were executed, after brief trials. 38 were dragged on hurdles through the streets from Newgate to St Giles on January 12th, and hanged side by side in batches of four; the bodies of seven who had been condemned as heretics were burned afterwards. Four more were hanged a week later. In the meanwhile, lists of suspect were drawn up by a commission, who supervised the arrests in various parts of the country.

Roger Acton was nicked and executed in February, but despite long searches and even an offer of pardon, Sir John Oldcastle eluded the authorities until 1417, when he was finally seized in Wales, brought to London, and since he had already been condemned as rebel and heretic, was hanged and burned on St Giles Fields.

The defeat of the January 1414 Lollard uprising reduced Lollardy from a social threat with a political edge, to a movement of wandering preachers and small and increasingly persecuted gatherings of artisans, craftspeople and farmers. The rebellion led to the more substantial classes who had been attracted to the movement to shy away from religious reform, and the executions and imprisonments of the leaders lost the creed it s political leadership. Lollardy survived for another century, more and more isolated, a heresy of the poor. Some Lollards would still be found in England even as early Protestantism was finding its first adherents in the 1520s.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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