Today in London’s religious history: Lollard William Sawtrey questioned for heresy at St Pauls, 1401

In 1399, the first time that William Sawtrey was arrested on charges of heresy, he went to prison until he broke down and gave up his beliefs. After he was freed, however, he felt as if he had betrayed Christ. The English priest from St. Margaret’s in Lynn, Norfolk, found employment in London.

William was one of many laymen and priests who accepted the teachings of John Wycliffe. These believers were known as Lollards. Wycliffe said that the church of his day had corrupted the plain teaching of the Bible. He made a translation of the Bible in English so that all the people could understand God’s word for themselves.

Alarmed by Wycliffe’s teachings, England passed a law which made burning the penalty for “heresy.” 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.

William 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 William to change his mind, or at least to accept the decision of church authorities. William refused.

On February 26, 1401, his sentence was issued. William was condemned as a relapsed heretic. Under the new law, this meant he would burn. Through seven steps called “degradation” he was removed from being a priest and handed over to the secular authorities to die.

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

He was the first “Lollard” martyr in England.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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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.”

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

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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.

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

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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.

Today in London’s rebel history: The Savoy Palace attacked, 1377.

The Savoy Palace, which lay roughly where the Savoy Hotel now stands on the Strand, in London’s West End, was built as the home of the king Edward III’s hated & powerful son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. On 20 February 1377, the palace was besieged by an angry crowd.

The day before, at St Paul’s Cathedral, rebel cleric John Wyclife had been called to answer to the Bishop of London, having denounced greedy & worldly church officials. Wyclife was a protégé of John of Gaunt, king’s son, head of the government, soon to be effectively regent for child-king Richard II. Wycliffe was a reformer, but he was also to some extent a tool in the hand of the Duke of Lancaster (some of his denunciations had been ‘inspired’ by Gaunt, aimed as they are at some of the Duke’s political enemies). When Gaunt appeared to defend Wyclife, his haughty behaviour lead to a slanging match with the Bishop: assembled crowds turned on the unpopular Duke & he had to flee.

The next day a meeting of citizens heard that Gaunt’s ally Henry Percy was holding a captive in his house at Aldersgate: interfering with the City’s right to control its own judicial affairs… the result was another riot. Percy’s inn was stormed, the crowds then marched along Fleet Street to attack Lancaster’s palace of the Savoy. Gaunt, dining elsewhere, scarpered by boat to Kennington.

They also traced Gaunt to his sister’s manor house in Kennington & attacked that too.

(Wyclife meanwhile returned to Oxford, where his criticisms of the church were to develop into outright heresy & inspire the Lollards.)

Four years later in the Peasants Revolt, the Savoy was totally destroyed (on 13th June 1381) by rebellious crowds on the Peasants’ Revolt’s most fun-filled day. Chroniclers disagree whether the men of Kent burned it, or the commons of London, who were the Duke’s most ardent enemies.

Later the restored building was used as combined barracks and prison, holding conscripts, East India Company forces, military rebels & deserters… The area of the palace was a medieval Liberty, that of the Duchy of Lancaster Without Temple Bar which partly led to the tangled jumble of rooms, having a right of sanctuary. A no-go area of crims, especially thieves, and rebels, grew up around it, which lasted for centuries.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online