Before 1381, the English governing classes had encountered heretics but had never had to deal with them on a ‘large or concerted scale’. Heresy was counted as an occult or hidden crime, and so it’s detection was far from simple, there are doubts about the significance of heresy in late medieval English society, which stem from the ‘rediscovery of popular religion’. Some may even go to the extent of questioning ‘why should we bother with Lollards at all?’. The extent as to how serious and coherent a threat Lollardy was to the established church may differ in regards to the prevalence in different areas of England, and how the threat appears to have diminished over the period. Mcfarlane stipulates that there was a ‘rapid expansion which followed the dispersal of the Oxford leaders’ in 1382, and a listing of heresy cases between 1414 and 1520 gives the initial impression that the sect had many adherents, but it could be noted that there were ‘remarkably few parishes involved’. How many Lollards there were is a question that ‘texts can offer little guidance to even give a rough answer’. Unlike Mcfarlane who concluded that the surviving evidence allows for little remedy to these questions, Hudson does not believe that enquiry can be defeated by our lack of material. Hudson suggested that ‘on the basis of the few surviving court books that contain heresy cases’, many more may have existed. Lollardy may have encouraged a greater sense of individual piety and gospel focus while encouraging criticism of the church institutions and providing the material for individual judgement on religious issues, however the movement was increasingly persecuted and driven underground.
Early Lollardy found support in high places, the Duke of Lancaster, for instance, who showed sympathy and protection to Lollards; for example Was Repingdon, who was taken before the Archbishop of Canterbury, but was protected by the Duke. Richard II did little to stamp out the Lollards and the threat they may have posed to the established church in England – in 1395 the clergy of the southern province petitioned 2 archbishops to approach the king, in hopes that he might bring the assistance of the lay arm to deal with the Lollard sect. Richard did not disregard Lollard activities but took no steps to meet this plea. Mcfarlane’s work on Lollard Knights suggests that Richard II may have tolerated key adherents to Lollardy in his own court, Walsingham recites names like that of Sir Lewis Clifford and Sir Thomas Latimer; whether or not they were Lollarrds or ‘merely protectors of Lollards’ their being so was notorious. The belief that Lollards had influential lay protectors was one not confined to chroniclers, Pope Boniface XI, as seen in the bulls addressed to Richard II in 1395, stated that protectors were ‘great men, Knights of the Garter, powerful and prominent at court’. During the mid-1380’s Richard started an active campaign against heresy in the kingdom, attacking heretical works, arresting Lollards and supporting church authorities, but no new statues were passed. The Lollard movement clearly found adherents and patrons in high places, which could highlight how Lollardy had the potential to be a serious threat to the established church in England. Both the St Albans and Leicester chroniclers declare that heretic missionaries owed their success to the protection of certain powerful members of the lay nobility, it could be due to the alliance of Lollard academics and the gentry that account for the early success of the movement, however the collapse of this support consequently meant that Lollardy did not pose a serious threat to the established church.
The lack of support from influential nobles could be in part a reason for the failings of the Oldcastle Revolt of 1414, after which, one could stipulate that the political and organisational aspects of Lollardy ‘guttered out’. There may be some evidence which indicates the existence of ‘itinerant preachers’ after Oldcastle, for example, William White in East Anglia, who may have maintained some coherence of belief, and some minor insurrections which could reveal some ‘vestigial organisation’. There is some evidence that the threat remained alive even after Oldcastle, Richard Wyche, an accomplice of Oldcastle, may have kept the word alive in Kent. In 1428 the Archbishop of Canterbury made a determined effort to track down a large number of Kentish subjects. The Oldcastle revolt proved to be the ‘Lollards day of judgement’, where the seriousness of the movement declined due to the lack of support from Lollard gentry. Paul Strohm claims that the Lancastrian regime may have been better informed about the rising than the rebels were themselves; claiming that the monarchy needed to legitimise itself, and so the rebellion worked to bring the nobility to close ranks and provide support. Thus suggesting that the revolt may have been intentionally allowed or that the monarch connived at creating the rebellion. The lack of evidence deems this connection questionable, nevertheless, after Oldcastle, the governing class, apart from a few surviving connections like the Brokes and Cheynes, produced no more Lollard knights. Therefore, one could argue that the threat Lollardy posed diminished in seriousness after the failings of this revolt, as it was suppressed with ease by Henry V and Lollardy may have been driven underground at this point. The ‘intellectual rigour’ of early Lollardy was lost and therefore did not pose a serious or coherent threat to the established church in England. Lollardy was a set of ‘more or less’ consistent attitudes than as a set of carefully established doctrines.
The geographical distribution of adherents meant that the coherency of the threat Lollardy posed, varied. One could argue that the influence was confined to the Midlands and the South, the North of England was virtually ‘immune’ to heresy until the Lutheran influence. Most English people were never directly, or even indirectly, exposed to the teachings. The lack of an established printing press as a tool of dissemination also limited the seriousness of the threat Lollardy posed. Walsingham alleges that by 1381 Wyclif’s teachings had spread ‘far and wide’, however it seems that Lollardy was essentially a ‘family tradition, practised within extended households’ primarily in small areas of the country. The Chichester diocese seems to have remained untouched, although caution is necessary here, as only 2 medieval episcopal registers survive. Leicestershire and Northamptonshire seem to be clear of Lollardy after 1414, some of the gentries in Leicestershire may have been implicated in the early phase of Lollardy, however, they now stood aloof. There were certain ‘pockets’ of endemic Lollardy in groups of parishes, for example in Berkshire, Essex and Kent, in the 1520s a quarter of 300 persons listed for tax purposes can be described as Lollards or sympathisers. Caution must be taken in regards to the localisation of texts as it may be that ‘on the rare occasions where it is possible, it is usually only so by implication’. There may be some evidence of continuous Lollard tradition, however the message was confined to restricted parts of the country – therefore the threat that Lollardy posed, in some areas of England, like Lincolnshire, which had seen only 1 or 2 cases of heresy in the years up to 1414, and nothing thereafter, was not one of a serious nature.
The peripatetic nature of the most influential early Lollards was crucial to the spread of the movement, Wyclif’s preaching was perceived by near-contemporaries as one of the most dangerous ways in which his views were disseminated due to the limited literacy of the population. Thomas More estimated that lay literacy in England in 1530 was around 60%, but the modern assessment has been less optimistic, though it is undisputed that lay literacy in the 1530s is likely to have been higher than in the 1390s. The ability to read inevitably affected attitudes to religion, and the church here retained ‘almost complete dominance in schooling’ which consequently meant that any movement containing elements of heresy could gain no ‘direct advantage from wider educational opportunities’ which in turn limited the threat Lollardy could pose to the established church in England. For the Lollard movement to have been a serious threat, a higher standard of secular education was required. De heretico combudeno drew attention to Lollards literacy as an aspect of their sedition. Lollards stressed biblical understanding as ‘holy scripture containeth all profitable truth’, and so they devoted attention to attacking this literary boundary. There is some reference to Lollard schools, for instance, Richard Belward of Earsham in Norfolk in 1424 was accused of ‘keepth schools of Lollardy’. Though the knowledge that we have of them is derived from the records of the prosecution, it is clear that Lollard schools did exist through the 15th century. However, the seriousness of the threat that Lollardy posed was limited by their unsuccess overcoming the hindrance literacy provided. Although leaders recognized the need for accommodation to those who did not share their academic background, ‘even if after 1400 all Lollard texts used English rather than Latin, the message continued to be presented in uncompromisingly academic terms’; the Lollard message was in some ways, difficult to understand, for instance the complexity of Wyclif theology of the Eucharist required careful enunciation. Whilst there was hostility to the established order of the church and in turn, a ‘widespread sympathy to the moral content of Lollard teaching’, in some sense Lollardy was not a serious threat as it failed to provide satisfying alternatives, for instance, Wyclif’s unpopular belief in predestinarianism.
This is not to say that Lollardy had no impact on the church, the threat of heresy did stimulate catechetical effort. One could argue that the threat of Lollardy on the established church was serious and coherent enough to have been the ‘springboard of critical dissent’ to Protestantism. Historians like John Foxe see the contribution of Lollardy to the English Reformation as essentially providential. There is some evidence of the connection, for example, John Tewkesbury, a London Lollard, was burned as a relapsed heretic in 1532, due to being caught in possession of books by Luther. The geographical location of Lollards and Protestants were in some ways similar, however Lollardy was more of a ‘rural phenomenon’ as opposed to the urban nature of Protestantism. Furthermore, some places, like Gloucestershire, saw much of Lollardy, but the connections to Protestantism here are not evident. One could argue that Lollardy and early Protestant support may have been harboured from the same groups, however many early English protestants were former friars and monks, and religious orders had been ‘implacable enemies of Lollardy’. Protestantism and Lollardy can be seen to share many common doctrines, for instance the denial of transubstantiation, however recent research has no longer been satisfied with an assertion of continuity based on doctrinal similarities alone. A large amount of English Protestants did not come from known Lollard backgrounds, but devout Catholic backgrounds, highlighting the little impact Lollardy had on the rise of Protestantism. Nevertheless, the commitment of both Lollardy and Protestantism is well known, historians like Aston, credibly highlight the plausibility of this argument but note the difficulty in testing such claims. It is clear here that though there are examples of correlation between Lollardy and Protestantism, they are less convincing after further examination. One could state that ‘early clerical leaders of the English reformation owed nothing to Lollardy’. Whilst it is not possible to maintain that Lollardy had no connections to Protestantism, the claim that it led to the rise of Protestantism is not plausible.
The vigour of church and state response may indicate that Lollardy was a coherent and established threat to the church in England. For example, the imposition of legislation to combat this threat, like the Statute of 1414 which stated that officers who detected Lollards were obligated to hand them over to church authorities. The Bishop of Lincoln founded Lincoln College, Oxford in 1427 as a seminary for anti-Lollard preachers, manifesting the idea that the refutation of Lollardy was an important task for contemporary theologians. One could argue that Wyclif’s movement came at a time when the ‘english church was slowly becoming more alert to heresy and more alive to techniques of dealing with it’. A writ of May 1400 was sent to Sheriffs throughout England ordering proclamation to be made that no chaplains were to preach without due licence. The Lollard movement also led to the creation of the death penalty for heresy in 1401. However, there were only two known cases of this extreme public penalty being paid by a heretic between 1401 and 1413. Rex stipulates that legislation may have been ‘symbolic rather than draconian’ as William Sawtry was executed under customary procedures shortly before the Act had received royal assent – burning remained rare. In the reign of Henry V, one could argue that the ‘anxious debates which had racked previous generations were stilled’ and a coherent religious leadership was emerging, therefore highlighting how Lollardy did not pose a serious threat to the established church in England. Lollardy in some areas, did foster an individualism of outlook and a ‘readiness to read vernacular scripture’, but the movement was never ‘as popular or powerful as many nervous contemporaries feared’.
Ultimately, while Lollardy proved to be an intellectual movement that may have been capable of providing coherence to individual dissenters, these people were not homogenous. It is prevalent that the nature and extent of the threat diminishes over the period as by 1430, no new treatises were compiled and although some books continued to circulate between local groups, there was no new literary production after the early fifteenth century. Lollardy may not have been a particularly serious threat in itself, more so the criticism it encouraged. The movement was increasingly persecuted and driven underground, despite there being some survivals, the coherency and the seriousness of the threat may have proved greater prior to the Oldcastle Revolt in 1414, where support from Lollard knights also diminished. Despite the fact that Lollardy was seen as a threat by authorities in fifteenth-century England, one could argue that it was more of an ‘irritant, rather than a real danger’; which primarily challenged the previously unquestioned acceptance of clerical authority and encouraged individual judgement and conscience in religious matters.
- R.Rex. The Lollards
- I.Forrest. The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England
- C.Harper-Bill. Then Pre-Reformation Church in England
- A.Hudson. The Premature Reformation and the Lollards and their Books
- B.Mcfarlane. Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights
- C.Harper-Bill. Then Pre-Reformation Church in England