Today in London religious history: John Oldcastle convicted as heretic, 1413.

The Lollards were religious reformers, heretics against the Catholic Church of the 15th century, proto-protestants, in some ways. Lollardy derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe, a 14th-century cleric, openly critical of the worldy wealth of the church, who questioned many of the leading catholic doctrines. Other clerical students 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.

These ideas were heavily crushed by the church authorities, backed by the state; their symapthisers were rooted out of the universities, where they were first mooted, forcing Lollard students to recant their beliefs or go underground.

But Lollard 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 an abortive Lollard rebellion on 1414.

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. But Lollardy’s only prominent political leader was from even more rarified stock.

“John Oldcastle was born in 1378. His family, though of only moderate standing and wealth, had taken a worthy part in the local affairs of Herefordshire for at least two generations…

Like many other gentlemen of small fortune from Wales and its marches, Sir John, earned renown… in the wars of the Lancastrian kings. He was on Henry IV’s fruitless Scottish expedition of 1400 and saw considerable service thereafter against Owen Glyndwr and his Welsh. It was thus that he became the companion-in-arms and the personal intimate of the future Henry V, to whose household he became attached. In April 1406, the king rewarded his military exploits with an annuity for life of 100 marks. He had already found time to represent his native county n the parliament of January 1404, and in 1406-7 he served it as a sherriff. By his thirtieth year he had won a name for himself as a tough fighter who enjoyed the confidence of the heir to the throne. It was then that a second marriage raised him to baronial rank.

His wife, Joan de la Pole, had already buried three husbands when in the summer of 1408 she ventured upon a fourth. She seems to have had a weakness for soldiers of fortune and, in all, married five of them. She was herself an heiress twice over – of her father, Sir John de la Pole, who died in 1380, and of her maternal grandfather John, Lord Cobham, whose death in extreme old age occurred in January 1408. By marrying her, Oldcastle obtained the custody of a dozen scattered manors and of Cooling castle overlooking the Thames estuary. On the strength of this property and of his past services,, he was in the following year summoned to parliament as a baron. He celebrated his good fortune by taking part in an Anglo-French tournament at Lille. So far, no-one had breathed a suspicion of his orthodoxy.

But practices that received small attention in remote Herefordshire could not be safely indulged in for long under the very nose of a watchful Archbishop. [Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury]. Arundel was at Dartford in the spring of 1410 when he learnt that John, a chaplain living under Oldcastle’s roof, had been preaching heresy in the churches of Hoo, Halstow and Cooling, and particularly in the last, of which his host was patron. Too late to escape discovery, the rash offender had gone into hiding; only his baronial accomplice remained. Arundel’s reception of this news makes it reasonably clear that he at once guessed Oldcastle’s secret, but thought that it might still be possible to avert trouble. He cannot have known that he was dealing with a man who was unshakably committed to his heresies; for most men in Oldcastle’s position a clear warning would have been enough. So on April 3 the archbishop ordered the prior of Rochester to put the three parishes under an interdict and to cite John the chaplain for trial. Then two day later “out of reverence for” the lady Joan he relaxed the interdict and soon afterwards removed it altogether. But in future he had an eye on Cooling and its inhabitants.

How far Oldcastle was from heeding the primate’s warning is shown by two letters which he caused to be written not long afterwards. The first, dated from Cooling castle on 8 September 1410, was addressed to a Bohemian noble who was a prominent supporter of the Hus. [Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus, who had been influenced by Lollard guru Wyclife, and founded a similar reformist movement.] Its purpose was to congratulate the Hussites on their recent successes and to exhort them to continue the struggle against the adherents of antichrist to the death. A year later Oldcastle wrote to king Wenceslas of Bohemia himself in a similar manner, mentioning that he had also been in correspondence with Hus. The chief interest of these letters is their clear assumption that the writer was a recognised leader of the English sect; it is therefore probable that he had been an active heretic for some time. Yet, apart from the chaplain John, the only other Lollard with whom his association can be traced was a priest named Richard Wyche. From the diocese of Hereford Wyche had wandered preaching as far afield as Northumberland, where in 1400 he fell into the hands of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham. It may have been a mere coincidence that Oldcastle was in that Oldcastle was in that area at the same year. After prolonged examination and many attempts to persuade him to submit, Wyche was finally driven to recant… he is next heard of writing to Hus from London on 8 September 1410. The letter had a similar purpose to that written by Oldcastle on the same day from Cooling: the noble congratulated the noble, the priest the priest; it is fairly obvious that they were accomplices.

In the autumn of 1411 Oldcastle was one of the captains sent by the prince of Wales to help the Duke of Burgundy to recover Paris. If the prince regarded him still as a trustworthy subordinate, there cannot have been any widespread knowledge of his Lollard sympathies. Unlike some of his co-religionists, he was no pacifist. The expedition was a distinguished success. When, therefore, his friend succeeded Henry IV as king on 21 March 1413, Oldcastle could with justice look forward to high military employment in the new reign, But already in the convocation which began its debates on 6 March, damning evidence against him was being brought to light. It remained to be seen whether Henry V would allow him to be persecuted.

In St Paul’s on the first day of the convocation Arundel’s registrar had just examined the credentials of those answering the primate’s summons when he was informed that there was present in the church a chaplain who was highly suspect as a heretic, accompanied by tow other unknown men. The registrar immediately sent for the chaplain and cross-examined him. His name, the man replied, was John Lay; he was attached to St. Mary’s Church Nottingham, and came from those parts; he had arrived in London two days before and that very morning had celebrated mass in Sir John Oldcastle’s presence. But when he was asked for his credentials and his bishop’s licence, Lay answered that he had failed to bring them with him. He was given a week to produce them. The episode has many odd features and suggests that Oldcastle was being watched. Unfortunately, there is no record of any sequel. One is left to assume that Lay, like John he chaplain, who may, indeed, have been the same man, made himself scarce.

Convocation, one gathers, then turned to other questions, but it can hardly have come as a surprise to anybody when the search of an illuminator’s shop in Paternoster Row led to the discovery of a number of heretical tracts belonging to Oldcastle. This was evidence that he would find it difficult to explain away and it was decided at once to inform the king. A meeting took place in the inner chamber of the royal manor of Kennington at which both Henry V and Oldcastle were present. Some of the most heretical passages inthe confiscated literature were read aloud and greatly shocked the king; never, he said, had he heard worse matter. Turning to Oldcastle, he challenged him to disagree. Oldcastle was unruffled, answering that the doctrines recited deserved condemnation, and excused his possession of the tracts on the ground that he had only dipped into them without grasping their character. If this satisfied the king, it quite failed to impress the clergy, who withdrew to prepare a more extensive indictment of the accused.

This, at any rate in the summarized form which has come down to us, was full of generalities and devoid of any factual detail. Oldcastle was alleged to have uttered and maintained heretical doctrines in man places, to have given aid and comfort to Lollard preachers and to have terrorised those opposed to them. In short, he “was and is the principal harbourer, promoter, protector and defender” of heretics, especially in the dioceses of London, Rochester and Hereford. When the lower clergy pressed for his trial and condemnation the prelates pointed out that more circumspect treatment was desirable in the case f one who was a member of the king’s domestic circle. It was therefore agreed that Henry should once more be consulted. A second visit to Kennington found him sympathetic towards the church’s case, but anxious to do all he could to avoid the public humiliation of a trusted servant. He asked the clergy to wait while he tried the effect of a personal appeal.; should he fail to move Oldcastle, then he promised to throw the full weight of the secular arm on to the side of the church. This was reluctantly agreed to.

Henry’s hopes of an obliging submission were disappointed. Oldcastle was obdurate and in August the king wrote to tell Arundel to proceed in accordance with the law. But when the primate tried to serve the accused with a formal summons the gates of Cooling castle were shut against his officer. This defiance was as short-lived as it was foolish and by 23 September Oldcastle, who had meanwhile sought another interview with the king at Windsor and been arrested for his pains, was a prisoner in the Tower of London. On that day his trial opened before Arundel, assisted by the bishops of London and Winchester in St Paul’. He was at once promised full forgiveness in return for submission. But deprived though he was of the king’s protection, Oldcastle was unwilling to admit his guilt. Instead he treated his ecclesiastical judges to a statement of his views which lacked precision on all the material points. Arundel was not convinced; he had had to do with such documents before. He admitted that as far as it went the confession of faith was satisfactory but he would like plain answers to two plain questions: Did Sir John believe in transubstantiation and did he regard confession to a priest as necessary in the sacrament of penance? Oldcastle at first refused to say another word. Then, irritated by the steady pressure to which he was submitted, he denied the right of popes, cardinals and bishops to lay down what should be believed about such matters. Even so, Arundel’s scrupulousness was inexhaustible. He gave the prisoner a week-end to think over his plight and provided him with a statement in English of the orthodox doctrine on the disputed points. He had little hope of securing a conversion or he would not have reinforced the court so powerfully for its next session.

He again began the proceedings on Monday 25 September with a conditional offer of absolution. Oldcastle first declined to be absolved by anyone other than God. Then he went on to assert that the bread remained bread after consecration and that confession, though sometimes expedient, was never essential to salvation. `next he broke into a tirade against the hierarchy: the pope was the head of antichrist, the bishops his members and the friars his tail. And finally, raising his hands he warned the crowd of spectators that those who judged and wished to condemn him were deceivers and would lead them to hell. It is recorded that the archbishop once more implored him in tears to return to the bosom of the church. Then, seeing it was vain to wrestle with him any longer, he delivered the judgement of the court. Oldcastle was excommunicated and left to the mercy of the secular arm.

…Oldcastle had had every chance, but he was a conscientious Lollard and when offered a choice between recantation or death he was to straightforward and too brave to deny his faith…”

(KB MacFarlane, The Origins of Religious Dissent in England)

However, Oldcastle’s closeness to the king meant he continued to be given a chance. Instead of the usual immediate execution, King Henry allowed him 40 days respite to think things over, locked in the Tower of London. But less than half this time had elapsed when, on October 19th, Oldcastle was helped to escape the fortress, and went into hiding in Smithfield… Where he began to plot a Lollard uprising to overthrow both king and church.

For the tale of that uprising, see our previous post

Oldcastle would escape the defeat of the uprising, but be captured in 1417, and burned as a heretic.

To a limited extent, Oldcastle was the original model for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays king Henry IV and V… When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV, Part 1, Henry’s companion was called Oldcastle, but when the play was printed in 1598, the name was changed to Falstaff. Though the fat knight still remains “my old lad of the Castle”, the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader. In Henry IV, Part 2 an epilogue emphasises that the debauched buffoonish Falstaff is not Oldcastle: “Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”


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

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