Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College

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The English Reformation


A. G. Dickens

(Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College)

[1964 edition]

The Abortive Reformation

The Rise of Lollardy

THAT JOHN WYCLIFFE and his followers anticipated many of the key-doctrines of Protestantism has never been in dispute. The man himself remains in some respects a mystery; we know so much of his thought, so little of his thoughts, so little of the inner sources of his radicalism. An obstinate North Country mind endowed with the subtleties of the Oxford schools; a combination of disappointed careerist, temperamental rebel, sincere reformer of immense moral courage; all these and yet further complexities seem to dwell side by side.1 During his last six years (1378-1384) Wycliffe was no longer a mere academic radical or a mere revivalist. By all the standards of his time he had become a manifest revolutionary and heresiarch. He accepted the Bible as the one sure basis of belief and demanded that it should freely be placed in lay hands. Improving upon the predestinarian doctrines of Archbishop Bradwardine (died 1349), he restricted the true Church to those persons whom God had predestined to salvation. He rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation as a historical novelty and as philosophically unsound, urging that the body and blood of Christ were present in the eucharist not corporally but sacramentaliter, spiritualiter et virtualiter. In some passages he seems even to approach receptionism—the doctrine that the efficacy of the consecrated elements depends upon the spiritual state of the communicant. He shared most of the bold anticlerical and erastian doctrines for which, very shortly before his birth, Marsiglio of Padua had been excommunicated. Upon the Papal Supremacy Wycliffe had long cast doubts; he had likewise advocated clerical marriage, denounced monasticism and placed fanatical emphasis upon the need to disendow a rich and mundane clergy. Anticipating the Lutheran glorification of the godly prince, he elevated temporal rulers above human laws and invested them and other lay magnates with the sacred duty of reforming the Church. Perhaps the only major doctrine of the sixteenth-century Reformers, which Wycliffe cannot be said to have anticipated, was that of justification by Faith Alone.

Upon the Reformation abroad he exerted appreciable if ‘indirect influences. John Huss, though affected also by continental predecessors, clearly acknowledged his own teaching to have been inspired by that of Wycliffe; in any case his extensive and often verbal borrowings from the Englishman prove this fact to the hilt. The Hussite Reformation in Bohemia appealed vividly to Luther’s generation, which saw in it the sole example of a kingdom which had not only overturned the age-old structures of Church and State but had continued in defiance for a century. Appalled by the anticlericalism of the English Reformation Parliament, Bishop Fisher was quick to recall this warning precedent. On the other hand, the direct influence of Wycliffe’s works upon the German and Swiss Reformers cannot be regarded as crucial, even though his name was not forgotten by them, and though in 1525 his Trialogues was printed at Basel.

Meanwhile in England Wycliffe’s teaching underwent strange modifications and vicissitudes.2 Despite its complex and scholastic exposition in his Latin works, it soon found vulgarisers and translators who wrote The Wycket and other English pamphlets falsely ascribed to Wycliffe’s own pen. Within a very few years of his death these doctrines developed a widespread appeal among townsmen, merchants, gentry and even among some of the lower clergy. There were limits to their appeal. The economic restiveness of the peasantry did not in general disturb their doctrinal conservatism, while the revolutionary character of the Wycliffite manifestoes, together with the attack on transubstantiation, alienated the great majority of the ruling and propertied classes. John of Gaunt, who had formerly utilised Wycliffe in a political campaign against the bishops, seems to have protected him while he wrote the last works in his rectory at Lutterworth, yet neither John nor the other magnates were now prepared to back the heresiarch, as in earlier years they had backed the anticlerical reformer. Thus, despite the enthusiasm of a group of knights at court, the Lollards lost any real chance of laying their hands upon the levers of the State. Not in fact until the death of Henry VIII was any Protestant group destined to gain full control of this mechanism.

The earliest Wycliffite cell consisted of the Oxford clerks headed by Nicholas Hereford, who is thought to have made the first Lollard translation of the Scriptures, a deliberately literal and therefore rather unreadable version. In November 1382 Wycliffe’s old enemy Archbishop Courtenay, who drove Hereford into exile, forced these men into submission. There harsh experiences broke his spirit, and when in later years he returned, it was only to recant. At the moment of Courtenay’s triumph in Oxford, the term ‘Lollard’ was applied to the sect in a sermon by the Irish Cistercian Henry Crump; a Middle Dutch word meaning ‘mumbler’ or ‘mutterer’ of prayers, it had long been applied to the Beghards and other Netherlandish pietists whose orthodoxy was suspect. In this same year a new and predominantly lay group developed around Leicester, where the message had been brought by Hereford’s friend Philip Repingdon, an Augustinian canon of St. Mary’s in the Fields near that town. Though Repingdon himself soon conformed and ultimately became a persecuting Bishop of Lincoln, the heresy continued to spread in the Midlands and the Home Counties. Wycliffe’s own secretary John Purvey furthered its progress by compiling a much more approachable translation of the Bible, the basis of the Lollard versions which were to continue circulating in manuscript until the middle years of Henry VIII.

In the last decade of the fourteenth century there emerged in the House of Commons a vocal group of Lollard partisans counting among its backers several of the household knights of the young King Richard II. It was this parliamentary group which, in 1395, formulated the ‘Twelve Conclusions’, the first manifesto of what had now become far more than an academic heresy. The document, significantly drawn up in English, deserves attention as a statement of those Lollard teachings, which were to linger so tenaciously into the period of the Protestant Reformation. It condemns the subordination of the English Church to Rome, together with transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and its untoward moral consequences, the consecration of physical objects (as akin to necromancy), prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, images and the excessive preoccupation of the Church with the arts and crafts. In addition it denounces the work of prelates as temporal rulers and judges, declares all forms of warfare contrary to the teaching of the New Testament and denies that confession to a priest is necessary for salvation.

The ‘Twelve Conclusions’ are a list of reform-demands and hence fail to stress the two chief positive teachings now axiomatic to Lollard partisans that the clergy should emphasise preaching rather than the sacraments and that the vernacular Bible should be freely placed in the hands of the laity,—learned and unlearned alike. These numerous denials and assertions cover the large majority of charges, which we find brought against Lollard heretics in the records of the ecclesiastical courts. The summaries attempted by later anti-Lollard writers like Thomas Netter and Bishop Reginald Pecock also correspond, allowing for their inevitable hostility, with the ‘Twelve Conclusions’. It should not, however, be supposed that every Lollard defendant was charged with a wide selection from these beliefs or that all the Lollard groups and individuals showed uniform emphases. Persecution forced Lollardy to become a surreptitious congregational sect, lacking effective national leaders and hence precise formularies. Moreover, like most religions, which inclined to Biblical fundamentalism and encouraged judgment upon the Scriptures by unqualified persons, it inevitably developed a fringe of cranks. Here, however, we reach a difficult subject, for in some court-cases the articles of accusation were doubtless based upon the testimony of foolish or malevolent witnesses. Both ecclesiastical and lay courts often showed gross unfairness toward defendants of any sort. Another difficulty arises when we attempt to distinguish between the genuine Lollards and the sceptics who may have been encouraged by Lollardy yet were motivated by incredulity rather than by religious idealism. Altogether, the weak features of the movement become apparent enough, though a certain strength shines alongside its weakness. It zealously sought to recover from the Scriptures an authentic sense of the person and spirit of Jesus. It argued with force that the materialism, the pride, the elaborate ritual and coercive jurisdiction of the Church found no justification in the lives of Christ and his disciples as recorded in the New Testament. It made a special appeal to the underdogs of feudal and ecclesiastical society by permitting them a far more active role in the management of their religious lives. In short, it had many of the lively features, which characterised the English sects of the Stuart period.

This proletarian character of Lollardy developed rapidly during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century, when the movement was stripped of its political aspirations. From their advent the Lancastrian kings backed the bishops in a fresh campaign against heresy. In 1401 Purvey was forced to recant, William Sawtre burned and the Statute De Heretico Comburendo passed through Parliament. These steps failed, however, to crush the Lollard parliamentarians, who produced bills nine years later to soften the laws against heresy and to distribute the surplus wealth of the Church between the King, a newly-created nobility and such useful institutions as hospitals. Then, in the early days of 1414, catastrophe intervened when Sir John Oldcastle, a leading convert imprisoned for heresy, escaped and planned a Lollard march upon London from all parts of the kingdom. Easily overthrown by Henry V at St. Giles’ Fields, this rash gathering resulted in numerous arrests of leaders and suspects. Deprived of influential backing the cause was obliged to move underground. Though a Lollard political plot came to official notice as late as 1431, the devotees of the fifteenth century had in general abandoned their hopes of winning over the dominant classes of the realm. Lollardy became a pertinacious rather than a heroic faith, occupying quiet groups of tradesmen and artisans, but here and there attracting a few priests, merchants and professional men. From the mid-century the record of prosecutions becomes less frequent, and we are left wondering whether the number of adherents had declined or whether in that troubled period Church and State lacked the opportunity and the zeal to persecute. If, however, a real decline occurred, there must certainly have followed a marked revival in the last decade of the century. From about the year 1490 we hear with ever-increasing frequency of Lollard heretics and of official attempts to obliterate the sect. This fact has an obvious interest for historians of the English Reformation.

Lollard Survival

THE former tendency to overlook the evidence for early Tudor heresy was in some measure due to the distaste of once-fashionable historians3 for the most informative of our sources, the Acts and Monuments of John Foxe. The martyrologist, who was a large-scale compiler rather than a fastidious historian, showed immense industry in amassing documentary information even if his standards of accuracy are not those of modern scholarship. When all due reservations have been made, it cannot sanely be maintained that Foxe fabricated this mass of detailed and circumstantial information about early Tudor Lollardy. To have done so would have necessitated diabolical inventive powers and erudition, including a study of the parish registers of Buckinghamshire, in which a large proportion of the surnames and several of the actual persons occur. Such wholesale forgery would also have been highly foolish at a date (Foxe was collecting these materials from about 1552 onwards) when so many of the people and the events remained well within living memory. Again, no forger would have given, as Foxe gives, a host of precise references to episcopal records. In some cases he receives detailed support from surviving documents; in others his sources have clearly been lost. That this view involves no guesswork can be illustrated from the situation in regard to the York archiepiscopal records. In this diocese we have details of well over seventy cases brought against heretics during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary, but of these only some half-dozen come from the archbishops’ formal registers. The rest are mainly derived from certain surviving act books of the court of audience.4 Yet in most dioceses the equivalent of these York act books are today completely or almost wholly missing. At Lincoln, for example, there are no longer act books covering those periods of persecution by Bishops Smyth and Longland which Foxe describes; hence Foxe cannot for a moment be charged with fabrication simply because the surviving Lincoln records do not provide close corroboration.

Bishops’ registers are indeed most selective compilations and usually preserve only a few ‘model’ cases. Nevertheless we should expect, if Lollardy were indeed common, to find in them at least a number of scattered cases. This in fact we do find. The present writer is acquainted with seventeen or eighteen episcopal registers of the period 1490 to 1530, and every one shows at least some Lollard cases.5 Fresh examples are continually coming to light in hitherto unknown registers and court books, while other sequences of information occur in the London chronicles, in the significations of excommunication at the Public Record Office, in the State papers and many other secular sources. Even if Foxe had never written, we should still know a great deal concerning Tudor Lollardy, some of it unknown to Foxe himself. Our complaint against Foxe should not be one of exaggeration but one of incompleteness, a charge which might incidentally be supported by the fact that at least eighteen known Lollard martyrs do not appear in his pages.

We now stand in a position to attempt a summary sketch of the distribution and nature of heresy in early Tudor England. That its inspiration was overwhelmingly Wycliffe, at least until about 1530, would not for a moment be disputed by anyone who read the original texts and who had even an elementary acquaintance with earlier Lollard processes.

In the early decades of the sixteenth century the most striking group of Lollard communities was to be found in the Chiltern area of Buckinghamshire, then near the southern extremity of the great diocese of Lincoln’s Amersham, a prominent centre in 1414, 1425 and 1461, had again developed into a considerable focus of Lollardy by 1495. In 1506 or 1507 Bishop Smyth dealt with over sixty heretics here and over twenty at Buckingham. All these recanted and did penance, except two who were ultimately burned. There were further abjurations in 1508, while some of the Buckinghamshire heretics are known to have attended Colet’s sermons at St. Paul’s and expressed warm approval for his reforming views. In 1521 Bishop Longland attacked them on a larger scale. Nearly 350 persons were accused before him in the long and complex proceedings preserved in such detail by Foxe. We do not know how many of these people were convicted, but the martyrologist records six as executed (four of whom appear also in the significations) and about fifty abjurations. Perhaps the real severity of the blow arose from the demoralised recriminations amongst the accused. By far the greater number of the accusers were themselves reported as heretics; wives and husbands informed against each other; parents accused their offspring and vice versa; several people gave evidence against their instructors in Lollard doctrine. It says something for the substantial integrity of Foxe that he did not ‘edit’ this material, for it furnished a Protestant hagiographer with singularly feeble propaganda. The heretical doctrines he mentions had all been familiar since the earliest days of Lollardy-disbelief in transubstantiation, reading the English Scriptures, using rude expressions about church bells, saints’ images, pilgrimage, purgatory and the claim that the Pope could release souls from the latter on the payment of money. Dissent was sometimes expressed in coarse, home-made terminology. One heretic called the image on the rood ‘Block-almighty’; another, referring to transubstantiation, said that he threshed God Almighty out of straw; a third, hearing the bell in a country steeple, said, ‘Lo, yonder is a fair bell, an it were to hang about any cow’s neck in this town.’

Further important heretical cells existed in the diocese of London, both in the city itself and in the county of Essex.7 The London chroniclers report a steady succession of offenders going to the stake or doing public penance throughout the reign of Henry VII. Bishop Fitzjames prosecuted at least forty offenders in 1510 and another thirty-seven in 1517, on each of these occasions two relapsed heretics being burned. Of these four victims, three abjured, were reconciled to the Church and then consumed by fire amid the consolations of the faith. Meanwhile in 1514 the affair of Richard Hunne, the heretical merchant who was found hanged in the episcopal prison at St. Paul’s, convulsed the city and provoked a crisis between Church and State, which we must reserve for another context. This scandal does, however, throw some light upon the position of the Lollards. We cannot doubt that formal heretics as yet constituted a tiny part of the city population, yet the immense uproar which followed the murder shows that the citizens abhorred Bishop Fitzjames and his officials infinitely more than they abhorred a strong suspicion of heresy brought against an otherwise respectable neighbour. And when his chancellor was arrested for the murder, Fitzjames besought Wolsey to help him, ‘For assured I am [that] if my chancellor be tried by any twelve men in London, they be so maliciously set in favour of heretical pravity that they will cast and condemn my clerk though he were as innocent as Abel.’ And that the bishop did not say this in momentary anger appears from the fact that he repeated it some weeks later in the House of Lords, adding with gross exaggeration that if the obstinate jurymen went unpunished, ‘I dare not keep my house for heretics.’

In the years succeeding the death of Richard Hunne a leading figure amongst the activist Lollards in London and Essex was John Hacker, known as ‘old father Hacker’, a waterbearer of Coleman Street and a convert of some years’ standing. About 1520 this man was distributing heretical books at Burford and in 1521, being then also involved with the Buckinghamshire Lollards, was compelled to abjure by the authorities of the diocese of Lincoln. Associated with him, and more prominent in the subsequent years, were John Stacey, also of Coleman Street, and Lawrence Maxwell, of Aldermanbury parish close by. These two were prominent members of the Tilers’ and Bricklayers’ Company and had wide contacts both inside and outside London. Stacey kept a man in his house ‘to write the Apocalypse in English’, the costs being met by John Sercot, a grocer. From this Lollard background Stacey and Maxwell graduated in later years to Lutheranism and took a prominent part in distributing imported Lutheran books. Coleman Street, itself, though within a few yards of Guildhall, was in fact destined to become for many years the centre of various heretical sects. Hacker’s group had close connections with the Lollards of Colchester and of Buckinghamshire but its ultimate importance lay in the fact that it provided a ready-made organisation to promote the Lutheran book-trade of the late twenties. Another of Hacker’s disciples was the leather-merchant John Tewkesbury, whom Bishop Tunstall persuaded to recant Lollard opinions but who went on to encounter actual Lutheran propaganda in Tyndale’s book The Wicked Mammon, copies of which he proceeded to sell to others. Robert Necton, another Londoner who sold imported books in and around London, also had previous connections with the Lollards accused before Bishop Longland of Lincoln in 1521. By the mid-twenties the situation in the London diocese had become so notorious that Tunstall and his successor Stokesley were forced to attempt an extensive purge. Between 1527 and 1532 more than zoo heretics are alleged by Foxe (who gives the names and particulars) to have abjured after conviction in the diocesan courts. Of these people about half came from the city and half from Colchester, Steeple Bumpstead, Birdbrook and other places in Essex. By this time substantial foreign influences had begun to merge with Lollardy, yet the evidence strongly suggests that the old English heresy remained for years afterwards the basic, perhaps the predominant, element. Such few commendations of Lutheranism as we find in these circles prove no more than that Lollards had recognised kindred teachings in the German heresiarch and that they derived courage from the news that orthodox beliefs and ceremonies were being abolished overseas.

In Kent, especially around Tenterden, Cranbrook and Benenden, several Lollard communities were denounced to Archbishop Warham, who in 1511-12 received nearly fifty abjurations and delivered five offenders to the secular arm for burning. Here Foxe receives detailed support from the unusually informative register kept by the Archbishop.8

One of the less specific stories of Foxe concerns a ‘glorious and sweet society of faithful favourers’ in Berkshire. This had existed for some fifteen years when, soon after 1500, six or seven score of its members were forced to abjure at Newbury and three or four burned. Foxe obviously knew very little about this community but the diocesan registers of Salisbury show various penances done by Berkshire Lollards in 1499, eight cases being recorded for Reading, six in and around Faringdon, five in Wantage and one at Hungerford.9 In the west Midlands, Coventry maintained its former pre-eminence. Foxe, who had lived there, gives a very precise account of seven ‘godly martyrs’, including a widow, who in 1519 suffered burning.10 One of the fugitives from this group was captured on his return and so went to the stake alone. Concerning this and other west Midland groups, the recent discovery at Lichfield of a court book of Bishop Geoffrey Blythe has added substantial information.11 In 1511-12 a about seventy-four heretics (a third of them women) appeared before the diocesan court and their names include some given by Foxe. A few also came from Birmingham where the congregation may have been an offshoot of the larger one at Coventry. One of the Birmingham offenders is said to have associated with many heretics in Bristol, and some scattered references to heresy in this latter city occur elsewhere. To the late efflorescence of the Lollard heresy in the towns and cloth-making districts of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire we shall shortly return.

Our sources afford much information on the social status of the Lollards. All save a few belonged to the common people-weavers, wheelwrights, smiths, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors and other tradesmen, ‘of whom’, writes Foxe, ‘few or none were learned, being simple labourers and artificers, but as it pleased the Lord to work in them knowledge and understanding by reading a few English books, such as they could get in corners’. Craftsmen and town-workers bulk larger than mere husbandmen; as a class they were more mobile and enjoyed more contacts inside and outside their various trades. A small handful of secular priests, an odd friar and a schoolmaster also appear, while in London some merchants and middle-class men became involved. Of the four London heretics who resorted to a conference at Amersham, one was a goldsmith and one, Thomas Grove, a well-off butcher, able to give no less than £20 to Dr. Wilcocks, vicar general of the diocese of London, to avoid doing open penance. In general, however, the social background bore much resemblance to that of the seventeenth-century congregational dissent to which late Lollardy had such marked religious affinities. Of these people many must have been unable to read, yet illiteracy was then quite compatible with a measure of doctrinal and scriptural knowledge. Some of the Buckinghamshire heretics knew the Epistle of St. James by heart; this practical, down-to-earth book was a general favourite amongst Lollards, though the Apocalypse certainly nourished their visionary moods. Not a few were specifically charged with possessing, reading and hearing the vernacular Scriptures. Of other suspect works we hear most of The Wycket, though all English books, even the more innocent-seeming Prick of Conscience and the Shepherd’s Calendar, tended to bring suspicion upon proletarian owners.

Without question, the influence of Lollardy extended beyond those areas where organised Lollard congregations existed. As already suggested, the diocesan records at York have recently yielded numerous hitherto unknown trials for heresy under Henry VIII and Mary. This enormous diocese comprised Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and, until 1541, parts of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire. In general, it can be described as conservative in religion and social outlook; certainly it contained none of the major centres of heresy. Between 15oo and 1528 records of only three cases of Lollard heresy have been discovered, though this low figure is doubtless due in part to the absence of diocesan act books during this period. Here, however, such cases may still have remained rare in that the Lollard ‘revival’, so apparent in many other parts of England, may not have spread to the North during the first two decades of the century. Whatever be the case, from 1528 the recorded situation alters and by the end of the reign about thirty cases of heresy appear, some in the registers proper but most in the act books of the court of audience, which effectively survive from 1534. Only in three cases amongst all these does the least sign of Lutheran or Zwinglian beliefs occur, and of these two concern priests. The rest, all of them involving proletarian offenders, continue to exhibit conventional Lollard beliefs and in no detail would the groups of charges seem out of place in a record dating from the year 1510, or indeed from 1410. By this second half of the reign of Henry VIII everyone had heard of Luther, yet this did not make every heretic a Lutheran, let alone an informed Lutheran.

The northern heretics during the later years of Henry VIII afford a spectacle of surprising complexity. Old Wycliffite tenets are beginning to merge with the new continental beliefs; meanwhile the crude radicalism, to which we have already alluded, repeatedly asserts itself, but almost always as an obvious derivative from well-known Lollard teachings. One man, objecting to saints’ days, made ill-mannered aspersions on the moral character of St. Mary Magdalen but was so unwise as to broadcast them under the parson’s window by the church of All Saints, North Street, York. Another case is that of William Bull, a young clothworker from Dewsbury, who went off to ply his craft in Suffolk and returned in 1543 with violent if now old established views on holy water, extreme unction and the confessional. ‘The font’, he remarked, ‘is but a stinking tarn, and he had rather be christened in the running river than in the said tarn, standing stinking by half a year, for when God made the world, he hallowed both water and land.’ And why, he continued in substance, should I confess to the priest when I have ‘japed’ a fair woman? If he got the chance, the knavish priest would always be ready to use her the same way. But if I recite the creed and confess directly to God, calling to God with a sorry heart for my offence, God will forgive me. This is not only the authentic proletarian accent; if a trifle coarsely illustrated, it is also a true expression of Lollardy. Such authenticity did not, however, amuse the judges of the court of audience at York. The plainspoken young man suffered a spell in the unsavoury archiepiscopal prison and after his recantation was doubtless glad to keep his pungent views to himself.

John Foxe tended overmuch to see Lollardy through prim Elizabethan eyes and to see it as a local phenomenon involving organised and informed groups with clear-cut beliefs. In certain areas such groups admittedly existed, yet outside them heretical ideas circulated freely about the countryside, in the cities and ports, in the little weaving-towns. These ideas were widely held, sometimes by people without special claims to piety, often by those who lacked pretensions to any heretical system of belief. Their importance may well have lain in their ability to sharpen in many minds the vaguer but widely diffused anticlericalism of the age, for whatever Lollardy involved it always involved anticlericalism. Such an atmosphere was described in the’ court at York by Richard Flynte, parish clerk of Topcliffe in the North Riding, who had refused to confess to his priest from 1540 to 1542. Charged with this offence, he admitted ‘he was not confessed by the said time, saying the cause moving him to the same was that there was a saying in the country, that a man might lift up his heart and confess himself to God Almighty, and needed not to be confessed at a priest’. When the judges, anxious to trace the disseminators of this old saying, asked from whom he had heard it, Flynte replied ‘that as he shall make answer to God, he knoweth not, nor yet in what place’. Likewise in Bishop Fisher’s register, the Rochester joiner John Dissenger is found to remark, ‘I have heard say in the city of London that we should not worship saints, but God only . . . also I have heard say that a man should not show his confessor all his sins that he had done.”12 It seems of real significance that such opinions were circulating even in the slow moving areas, while Henry VIII continued staunchly to uphold the confessional. Certainly it would be an exaggeration to call such men as Flynte and Dissenter Lollards, or to suppose them converts to Lutheran novelties. Such old heresies had been floating in solution, now here, now there, for generations; they had been attracting people because of the desire of many laymen (and indeed of some priests) to be free of hierarchical control and canon law, to become responsible for their own souls before God. As for Lollardy, the prime mover of this shifting world, it boasted its congregations, its preachers, even its heroes, yet in general it was an evasive, unheroic and underground affair. It lay far too low in society to achieve a Reformation unaided, yet through this very fact it could avoid obliteration by the judicial machinery of Church and State.

We have suggested that late Lollardy suffered grave disadvantages by its lack of national organisation. On the other hand, the inference should not be made that the scattered Lollard areas lacked means of inter-communication. Lollardy had its missionaries, one of whom we have already encountered in the person of John Hacker. A still better example is that of Thomas Man, who in March 1518 suffered burning at Smithfield as a relapsed heretic.13 As early as 1511 he had been imprisoned by Bishop Smyth of Lincoln for denying transubstantiation, auricular confession, extreme unction and image worship. Man was also alleged to have claimed that the holy men of his own sect were priests, that pulpits were priests’ lying-stools and that the popish Church was not the Church of God but a synagogue. After a long term in the episcopal prison he recanted and underwent further confinement for penance in Osney Abbey. Contriving in due course to escape from the diocese of Lincoln he lived among the Lollards of Suffolk and Essex, but this area seems to have formed merely a base for his missionary sorties. At the time of his second trial and conviction a witness testified that Man had ‘been in divers places and countries in England, and had instructed very many, as at Amersham, at London, at Billericay, at Chelmsford, at Stratford-Langthorne, at Uxbridge, at Burnham, at Henley-on-Thames, in Suffolk and Norfolk, at Newbury and divers places more’. Man himself confessed that at Windsor he had discovered a Lollard group formed by fugitives from the persecutions at Amersham, ‘a godly and a great company, which had continued in that doctrine and teaching twenty-three years’. From this and other clues we can deduce that certain periods at least saw a flow of information and ideas between the communities of Buckinghamshire, of East Anglia, of London and the Thames Valley. Tudor provincial society contained large mobile elements and the part played by wandering cloth-workers in the dissemination of heresy has already been observed. The case of the young Yorkshireman William Bull suggests how the counties of Suffolk, Essex and Kent (where both native and continental heresies flourished in the reign of Henry VIII) were enabled to stir up sympathy in remoter and more conservative parts of England. Actual contagion as well as similarity of background seems to account for the fact that in Yorkshire late Lollardy and early Protestantism both became prominent in the clothing-areas of the West Riding and especially in Halifax and Leeds.

Connections between Lollardy and Lutheranism

WHAT evidence can be found of contact between the Lollard groups and early Lutheranism? How often did the Lutheran book-agents, who were active in England from the late twenties, find backers in people with established Lollard affinities? Considering the secret character of these transactions, it is surprising how many instances of them can be produced. We have already found substantial examples of transition from Lollardy to Lutheranism in the Coleman Street group centred on the persons of Hacker, Stacey and Maxwell. Many others can be added. The chief vehicle of early Lutheranism was Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 which, printed in Antwerp, was soon finding eager buyers among the native dissenters. In 1527 an Essex Lollard, John Tyball of Steeple Bumpstead, related in court how he and a friend had visited that leading colporteur, the Augustinian friar Robert Barnes, in order to acquire a copy. In Barnes’s chamber at the Austin Friars in London they found several callers including a merchant reading a book. They hastened to establish their bona fides with Barnes and related how they had begun to win over the curate of Steeple Bumpstead to their views. They even produced a copy of their old Lollard manuscript Bible:

. . . certain old books that they had: as of four Evangelists, and certain epistles of Peter and Paul in English. Which books the said friar did little regard, and made a twit of it, and said, ‘A point for them, for that they be not to be regarded toward [i.e. compared with] the new printed Testament in English, for it is of more cleaner English.’

Barnes proved himself a competent salesman, and he ended by inducing them to buy a copy of Tyndale’s version for 3s. ad. (about a week’s wage for a skilled craftsman) ‘and desired them that they would keep it close’.14

From what he calls a ‘register’ of Bishop Longland dated 1530 Foxe collected a story indicating a different aspect of the contact between Lollards and Lutheranism. In the house of John Taylor of Hughenden a group of eleven men, mainly from West Wycombe and Chesham, had met to hear one Nicholas Field of London who had recently been in Germany and had returned with fascinating reports. He first ‘read a parcel of Scripture in English unto them’, and then

expounded to them many things; as that they that went on pilgrimage were accursed: that it booted not to pray to images, for they were but stocks made of wood, and could not help a man: that God Almighty biddeth us work as well one day as another, saving the Sunday; for six days he wrought, and the seventh day he rested: that they needed not to fast so many fasting days, except the ember days; for he was beyond the sea in Almany, and there they used not so to fast, nor to make such holy days.

Field also asserted that monetary offerings to the Church did no good and were not needed by their recipients. When one of his audience objected that offerings maintained God’s service, he replied, ‘Nay, they maintain great houses, as abbeys and others.’ He then went on to declare that men should say the Paternoster, the Ave Maria and the Creed in English, and again that ‘ the sacrament of the altar was not, as it was pretended, the flesh, blood and bone of Christ; but a sacrament, that is, a typical signification of his holy body.’15 With the single exception of this last expression (which suggests Zwingli, perhaps via Tyndale), there is very little in Field’s discourse which a Lollard audience can have found novel. We are left wondering how much

Lutheran theology an agent like Field had in fact absorbed. Was he a Lollard who had merely acquired a superficial smattering of the continental ideas or did he in fact expound the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by Faith, only to have it forgotten by these country Lollards who remembered the more familiar elements of his teaching? In his case, we shall presumably remain ignorant of the precise situation, but that some men of heretical leanings did establish direct yet wholly superficial contacts with Lutheranism can be illustrated from other anecdotes.

The diocesan records of Lincoln contain an interesting narrative concerning a group of Hull seamen, which helps to illustrate these mental complexities of the transition16 After returning in 152’7 from a long visit to Netherlandish and German ports, these men talked too much and fell under suspicion of heresy, yet their examinations show that they had only skimmed the surfaces of continental heresy. In the words of one, they tarried five weeks in Bremen and found that ‘The people did follow Luther’s works, and no masses were said there, but on the Sunday the priest would revest himself and go to the altar, and proceeded till nigh the sacring time, and then the priest and all that were in the church, old and young, would sing after their mother tongue, and there was no sacring.’ Asked whether he had visited Germany to learn Luther’s opinions, this man answered: ‘Nay, and they were not nigh Luther, not by fifty Dutch miles.’ There are hints indeed that some of these seamen had already acquired an interest in unorthodox ideas before their visit to Germany, yet once there they had seemingly learned little about Lutheran doctrine. This type of contact is precisely what one would expect to find on the popular level. Yet one of them had acquired a copy of Tyndale’s recently published New Testament and it seems probable that such a man would begin to understand continental Protestantism from the prefaces, which Tyndale attached to the scriptural text.

As our examples have indicated, the old heresy and the new began to merge together from about the time Tyndale’s Testament came into English hands. From this stage onward the turmoil of anti-Catholic teachings prevalent in Germany began to be paralleled in England, and if we seek to tabulate and classify individual heretics by means of neat textbook-labels we are clearly parting from realities. One cannot tabulate the waves of the sea. Nevertheless, for decades after the coming of Lutheranism, numerous prosecutions took place in the ecclesiastical courts, during which the accused exhibited a whole group of very characteristic Lollard beliefs and showed no sign whatsoever of the justificatory and sacramental teachings peculiar to Luther or Zwingli. In 1541 the English merchant Richard Hilles told the Swiss Reformer Bullinger that a young man supposedly burned for Lutheran heresies had in fact held the opinions of ‘our Wycliffe’.17 In the exceptionally well-documented diocese of York the prevalence of this neo-Lollardy remains marked not only throughout the later years of Henry VIII but even in the reign of Mary. One of the Marian offenders is even charged with the crimes Lollardiae, which in this official context probably represents something more precise than the vulgar equation of ‘loller’ with ‘heretic’. Though this situation may be especially characteristic of heresy in the remoter and more conservative provinces, where Anglican and other modern Protestant forces were slow to infiltrate, the late survival of Lollardy even in London and south-eastern England has been spontaneously noticed by more than one local historian. Though Amersham gave a warm welcome to John Knox when he visited the place in the reign of Edward VI, the former Lollard areas of Buckinghamshire tended to resist both Anglicanism and Calvinism during the days of Elizabeth; instead they proceeded to evolve a congregational dissent bearing the suggestion of local continuity from the medieval past. In various parts of East Anglia and south-eastern England, even in the North at Halifax, a strongly Puritan or dissenting tradition seems to show continuity of growth from local mid-Tudor radicalism based mainly on Lollardy.

Though the survival of Wycliffite elements can thus be traced in the annals of English dissent into and beyond the reign of Mary, their latest manifestations lack any great significance in our national history. By 1530 they had already accomplished their two main services to the Reformation. In the first place fifteenth-century Lollardy helped to exclude the possibility of Catholic reforms by hardening the minds of the English bishops and their officials into a sterile, negative and rigid attitude toward all criticism and toward the English Scriptures. The predicament of Bishop Fitzjames amongst his unaffectionate flock of Londoners forms no more than an extreme example of a widespread situation. If their fear of heretics impelled them to refuse even the legitimate aspirations of a new age, the bishops would become more dependent than ever upon the King, and he more than ever enabled to bend them to his will. The second and more important function of the Lollards in English history lay in the fact that they provided a springboard of critical dissent from which the Protestant Reformation could overleap the walls of orthodoxy. The Lollards were the allies and in some measure the begetters of the anticlerical forces which made possible the Henrician revolution, yet they were something more, and the successes of Protestantism seem not wholly intelligible without reference to this earlier ground-swell of popular dissent. The Lollards demonstrably provided reception-areas for Lutheranism. They preserved, though often in crude and mutilated forms, the image of a personal, scriptural, non-sacramental, non-hierarchical and lay-dominated religion. For good or ill, these emphases were prophetic. On the other hand, such a sect almost inevitably fell victim to its own qualities. Its hostility to institutions led many of its adherents or potential adherents into negativism, unbelief and incoherence. Moreover its apparent threat to social and ecclesiastical stability deprived it of power to capture the ruling classes. A Bible-religion, it lacked access to the printing presses until after 1530. So limited and debarred, it could become no more than an abortive Reformation. It created an underground and there awaited the appearance of liberators. When liberation finally came, it was compelled, like any underground resistance, to yield the leadership to regular armies with heavier and more modern equipment.

That Lollardy thus survived and contributed in some significant degree toward the Protestant Reformation is a fact based upon massive and incontrovertible evidence. This was, moreover, the impression of informed contemporaries. At the moment when the gradual transition to Protestantism was beginning, no one knew more of these matters than Bishop Tunstall. When in 1528 he licensed Sir Thomas More to read heretical books, Tunstall coupled the two heresies together: ‘There have been found certain children of iniquity who are endeavouring to bring into our land the old and accursed Wycliffite heresy, and along with it the Lutheran heresy, fosterdaughter of Wycliffe’s.’18 But five years earlier he had put the matter more directly and accurately in a letter to Erasmus: ‘It is no question of pernicious novelty; it is only that new arms are being added to the great crowd of Wycliffite heresies.’19 And that the clergy in general were still concerned with the old heresies as late as 1536 may easily be ascertained by a perusal of the mala dogmata then alleged by Convocation ‘to be commonly preached, taught and spoken . . . to the slander of this noble realm, disquietness of the people, damage of Christian souls, not without fear of many other inconveniencies and perils’.20 This long list of evil doctrines proves on examination little more than a splendid anthology of old established Lollard opinions, mostly given in the crude terms of uneducated heretics. By no stretch of the imagination can the list of mala dogmata be thought an anti-Lutheran or anti-Zwinglian document. To the recent advent of Anabaptist doctrines, then limited to foreign immigrants, it may refer under two or three heads, but this element also remains subordinate. Altogether, if the English clergy were perturbed in 1536 by any doctrines save those of neo-Lollardy, they made extremely little of the fact. Conversely, by this time Protestant intellectuals had begun to see Lollard writings as serviceable additions to their arsenal of Reformation-propaganda.21 Between 1530 and the death of Henry VIII, at least nine Wycliffite treatises are known to have been set forth in print by Gough, Redman, Bale and other publicists, who preceded Foxe in realising the usefulness of a religious pedigree, especially one of an all-English character.


This chapter is lightly annotated, since fuller references appear in the present writer’s ‘Heresy and the Origins of English Protestantism’ in Britain and the Netherlands, ii, ed. J. S. Bromley and E. H. Kossman (1964), 47-66. On earlier Lollardy reference should now be made to M. E. Aston in Past and Present, xvii, 1-44

1 Most recent interpretation in K. B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity. Detail and refs. in H. B. Workman, John Wyclif

2. On its development see e.g. H. S. Cronin in E.H.R., xxii, 292-304; M. Deanesly, The Lollard Bible; V. H. H. Green, Bishop Reginald Pecock. J. Gairdner, Lollardy and the Reformation is useful for the 15th century, but greatly underestimates Tudor Lollardy.

3. J. F. Mozley, John Foxe and his Book successfully defends Foxe against S. R. Maitland and Gairdner. A short summary of Foxe’s Lollard material is in Hughes, i, 127-33.

4. Lollards and Protestants gives refs. for this and the subsequent passages on York diocese.

5. Registers &c. listed in Britain and the Netherlands, ii, 51-3.

6. W. H. Summers, The Lollards of the Chiltern Hills (1906).

7. V.C.H. London, i, 234-8; L. & P., iv (2), nos. 4029-30; J. Strype, Ecclesiastical Memorials, i (I), 13-34; (2), 5o-62. A conspectus of Lollardy in London is given in the thesis by E. G. Ashby (note 19 to ch. 1 above), ch. ix.

8. Foxe, iv, 181-2, 722-3; v, 647-54; Warham’s Register, Lambeth Palace Library MS 1108, fos. 164-81; British Magazine, xxiii-xxv passim.

9. Foxe, iv, 213; V.C.H., Berkshire, ii, 21.

10. Foxe, iv, 557-8.

11. J. Fines, ‘Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield’ in J.E.H., xiv, 160-74.

12. E. E. Reynolds, St. John Fisher, 120.

13. Foxe, iv, 208-14.

14. J. Strype, op. Cit., i (2), 54-5.

15. Foxe, iv, 584.

16. Lollards and Protestants, 24-7.

17 Original Letters, i (Parker Soc., 1846), 221.

18. C. Sturge, Cuthbert Tunstal, 362-3.

19. Erasmi Epistolae, ed. P. S. Allen, v. 292.

20. D. Wilkins, Concilia, iii, 804-7.

21. E.g., S.T.C., nos. 15225, 20036, 24045, 25588, 25590-91. I owe some of these references to an article kindly lent by Mrs. M. E. Aston and shortly to be published in History.


Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College iconIs Associate Professor of History and Assistant Dean, Educational Services, at Raymond Walters College, University of Cincinnati. She has also taught English

Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College icon1990 Ph. D. Zoology, Imperial College, University of London, London, U. K

Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College iconBio: Acting Professor of Law, University of California, at Davis (King Hall) (). J. D., Ph. D. (Law and Society), New York University; B. A., Yale University. Thanks to Paul Chevigny, David Garland, Charles Reichmann, David Sklansky and Jerome Skolnick

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Professor of History, the University of London, King’s College iconKaren Meier Reeds received her Ph. D. in the history of science from Harvard University. She has been a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Bryn Mawr College and currently is a Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley

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