Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey ordered to be burnt for heresy, 1401.

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 worldly 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 (and Lollards would attempt to launch an uprising a few years later).

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, the English government passed a new law, the Statute of Heresies Act of 1401, which made burning the penalty for “heresy.”

In 1401, William Sawtrey, a priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, became the first Lollard martyr to suffer the death penalty under this new law. He had developed doubts about church practices and dogma, and was arrested in Norfolk on charges of heresy in 1399. Sent to prison, he eventually broke down and gave up his beliefs. His recantation got him released. But it did leave him with mixed feelings. Shortly after his release, he moved to London, and found a job. But he got into trouble again for preaching his unorthodox views.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel ordered William to appear at St. Paul’s on February 12, 1401 and give an account of his teachings. Arundel questioned William closely.

This time, William Sawtrey stood firm. He had said, “Instead of adoring the cross on which Christ suffered, I adore Christ who suffered on it.” He stood behind those words now and it became one of the charges against him by persecutors who considered it proper to bow before crucifixes.

However, it was his beliefs about the mass that finally got him condemned. He agreed that the bread of the Eucharist after consecration was indeed the bread of life, but insisted it was just bread all the same. Roman teaching says it really becomes Christ’s flesh, so he was considered a heretic.

Sawtrey also held that it was a better use of time to preach to the lost than to recite certain prayers. He said that money spent on pilgrimages to save one’s soul would be better spent helping the poor. The independent-thinking priest also said men were more worthy of adoration than angels.

Because of his answers, he was indicted. He answered each charge in the indictment with scriptures. Arundel questioned him for three hours on his interpretation of the mass. The archbishop tried to convince Sawtrey to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities, but Sawtrey refused.

Sawtrey was condemned for eight counts of heresy. On February 26, 1401, Sawtrey’s sentence was issued. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, under the new law, this meant he would be burnt to death. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to be put to death.

Using the defenses at his disposal, William appealed to the king and Parliament. After his appeal was denied, he was burnt at the stake in Smithfield in March 1401, in front of a crowd of spectators.

His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views (at least publicly.)

Smithfield, being then a large open space outside the City walls, proved an ideal open space for dealing in livestock – horses, and especially cattle. As this market, and the accompanying slaughterhouses and butchers’ stalls, grew up, so the surrounding area became famous for dirty, unpleasant work and unruly, drunken behaviour. The open space was also handy for hosting sporting gatherings and fairs – as well as executions; where “cows might be sold for slaughter and men slaughtered for religion”. As well as the inevitable disorder that came with the holding of tournaments, fairs, markets and the like, the constant meeting and intermingling of people helped radical social, religious and political ideas to spread: subversive religious and political ideas bubbled under in the Smithfield area for centuries.

Smithfield’s fame as a gathering space made it ideal for use as a public execution ground, mainly for criminals, rebels, and especially religious heretics and dissenters.

But it may have been chosen not simply because it was a convenient large open space. Those in power often had complex psychological reasons for designating where executions and public punishments should take place. Streets or junctions with great symbolic resonance, centres of public discussion and meeting places, were useful; the memory (and thus the public example, to teach others a lesson) could then have a greater impact. Criminals were also often put to death or punished at, or near, the site of their crime. But an additional incentive to use Smithfield may well have been its proximity to troublesome slums and liberties, areas where many heretics, rebels, and criminals were identified as inhabiting. The authorities long had a definite policy of carrying out executions in such areas, partly to overawe the poor, and deter people from following the bad examples of the executed.

In addition, the streets around Smithfield were known as the haunt of Lollard sympathisers, so executing Sawtrey there also served the practical purpose of scaring them in particular. At least nine more Lollards would be executed at Smithfield in the course of the 15th and early 16th centuries; to be followed by protestants, Anabaptists, and the odd catholic later in the 1500s.


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

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