The Lollards were an English sect who followed the teachings of John Wyclif who had made the first English translation of the Bible in the 14th century. They were active throughout the 15th century but by the reign of Henry VIII had almost become a spent force. However, this did not stop the church and King from using the accusation of Lollardy as a useful method of ridding themselves of those who opposed them.
he tenets of Lollardy strongly pre-figured some of the doctrines of the Reformation but the young Henry VIII was a staunch Catholic and vehemently opposed all ‘Protestant’ heresies. The title “Defender of the Faith”, which is still used by the present British Monarch, was granted to Henry by Pope Clement VII in 1524 as a reward for his brilliant tract demolishing the doctrines of Martin Luther.The Lollards were followers of John Wyclif who had flourished in the 14th century and who was responsible, in 1396, for the production of the first ever bible in the English language. He began by criticising the Church’s wealth and the secular lifestyles of many of its priests and prelates. He gradually developed an argument against the influence of the Church in temporal affairs and an affirmation that a close study of the Bible, in the vernacular, without the Church as an intermediary, was the surest way for the ordinary person to approach God.This, of course, was heresy and Crown and Church committed many Lollards to the fires of Smithfield through the 15th and early 16th centuries. In this period, the “Lollard’s Tower” (originally a water tower) at Lambeth Palace was used to imprison those accused of this heresy. The Bishop of London also had his prison, within the precincts of St. Paul’s Cathedral and this is also sometimes referred to, erroneously, as the “Lollard’s Tower”.Lollards in London emphasised the spiritual aspects of the heresy rather than the anti-clerical. It appears also that towards the end of the 15th and early in the 16th century the London Lollards saw themselves as the organizing centre of Lolllardy throughout southern Enlgand. It also seems that it had penetrated the governing class of the City guilds and to have been concentrated on Coleman Street.
Richard Hunne was a wealthy Merchant Tailor in the City of London. When his child died he challenged the right of the parish priest at the funeral to take the child’s robe as a “mortuary.” (A mortuary was a customary “gift” claimed by the incumbent of a parish from the estate of a deceased parishioner.) Naturally, the priest refused to acknowledge the challenge and Richard, who was known for his “burning preoccupation with, and hatred of the abuses of ecclesiastical courts,” brought a case against the priest before a civil court.The ecclesiastics were outraged that what was clearly a Church matter was dragged before a secular court. They decided at once that attack was the best form of defence and the Bishop ordered a search of Richard’s house – on the, then, perfectly legal grounds of suspicion of heresy. It did not take them long to find his English Bible with its Wyclif-inspired prologue. This was enough and Richard was immediately charged with heresy before the Bishop’s court. A guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion and he was confine to the bishop’s prison in St Paul’s to await the court’s sentence of what “penance” he should undergo.
A few days later he was found strangled in his cell. There was a huge outbreak of public indignation when the news of his death was broadcast. The Inns of Court, effectively the only university in London at the time, took up the case. The common lawyers of the Inns mounted the first overt lay challenge to the ecclesiastical lay establishment. They indicted the bishop’s chancellor and sumner (summoning officer) for murder.Their guilt was so widely assumed that the bishops appealed to Henry VIII to suppress, or at least postpone, the trial. For the first they argued the London Juries were so prejudiced against the church that they would gladly invert justice and go so far as to proclaim Abel guilty of the murder of Cain. For the second they appealed for time to consult with Rome and the propriety of clergy being subject to the jurisdiction of the civil courts.
This last had been a contentious point since the days of Henry II, in whose disagreements with Thomas a Becket it figured highly. Henry VII was a true descendant. His reply to the bishops was succinct and unyielding:”By the permission and ordinance of God we are King of England: and Kings of England in past times never had any superior but God only. Therefore, know you well, that we will maintain the right of our crown, and of our temporal jurisdiction, as well in this as in all other points, in as ample a manner as any of our predecessors have done before our time.”With such royal encouragement, the civil jury, had no compunction in finding the pair guilty of murder. Henry formally pardoned them so that they did not face the scaffold, but he ordered them to pay the enormous fine of £1,500 to the Hunne family. When the family applied for his body so that they might give it a decent burial, they were refused. Richard had been condemned as a heretic and could not, therefore, receive a Christian burial. Instead, a fortnight after his murder, his body was take to Smithfield and ritually burned as an heretic.BibliographyThe following books provide useful additional background.Trevelyan, G M, England in the Age of Wycliffe, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1909.
Matthews, W R & Atkins, W M , A History of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Baker, London, 1964.
Cross, C,Church and people 1450-1660, Fontana/Collins, London, 1976.
Youings, J, Sixteenth-Century England, Penguin, London, 1984.
Heath, P, Church and Realm 1272-1461, Fontana Press, London 1988.