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Lollards

Summary

Lollardy was a late medieval reform movement ca. 1382-1430. The movement was based on the writings and teachings of the Oxford University theologian, John Wyclif. The movement started from Oxford and spread. The term Lollard was used as a abusive term for its questionable religious views.

John Wyclif (1330?-1384) or Wycliffe was a prominent theologian, and a Realist philosopher. Born in the Richmond area of Yorkshire, he may have been educated through local grants. He was educated at Oxford University.

Wyclif would become Master of Balliol College (Oxford) ca. 1360-61?, and briefly the possible Warden of Canterbury Hall (Oxford). He held various livings in the country after 1363. He was a Fellow of Merton College (Oxford) ca. 1371. He received a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in 1372.

Wyclif was a theologian and Biblical scholar of note. His writings placed an emphasis on the inward aspects of religion, and the mystical source of grace which the Bible revealed to all of God's People. This was in contrast to the more material, power and wealth bias of the organized Church according to Wyclif's research.

Religious pilgrimages, private religions images and shrines were controversial issues of his scholarship. Even the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation would be called into question by his scriptural studies. The clergy and the Church's administration did not escape his commentary. For all of these probing scholarly writings, he was held in high regard by the University.

 

During 1374, Wyclif was being employed as an expert by the English Crown to help them mediate issues with the Roman Church over questions of lines of authority between the Church and State. Wyclif argued for secular authority over the Church in certain specific areas. Wyclif became well known for his anti-ecclesiastical positions, and as the King's man. These positions found support with the civil authorities and in the public opinion. He found additional support in the person of John of Gaunt (1340-1399) , Duke of Lancaster, the younger son of Edward III.

Unfortunately for Wyclif, he came under the scrutiny of the Church from 1377-78, but luckily he fell between the cracks of the "Great Schism" then raging in Europe. Two different Popes had been elected putting the authority of the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church at risk.

Wyclif's work for the Crown was not favorable to the Church and its authority, he won him little support with the Church administration, or amongst its local bishops. His position at Oxford University was influenced by the Church authorities. Wyclif was able to garner some personal protection by his association with the Royal Household.

 

By 1380, Wyclif had started to publish texts not in Latin, the language of scholars, but rather in English. This was a very novel approach in 1380. His works openly criticized the Church, and its clergy for form over substance. His opinions were now available to any who could read English not just the university scholars.

In 1381 Wyclif had begun his own translation of the Vulgate Bible from the Latin into the English language while housed at Queens College, Oxford. He translated large sections of the Old Testament, and the Gospels. Nicholas of Hereford (d. 1420?) was a friend and university colleagues who assisted Wyclif with the work. John Purvey (ca. 1353-ca. 1428) a close associate of Wyclif at Oxford helped to completed the translation of the Bible for publication in 1388.

A more refined and readable English edition of the Bible was published in 1390, not quite as literal a translation from the Vulgate. It was this 1390 edition that became known as the Lollard Bible. Copies of the Lollard Bible became available to a large audience that could afford them in England until 1408. These became prized family treasures.

Wyclif was quite vocal in his own scholarly criticism of the current abuses of the Church based on scriptural research. He was unwilling to tone down his rhetoric, or take the politically correct positions. His writing on the Eucharist were condemned by the University and by the English Church which formed the basis of his fall from grace.

Lollardy as a sect, an out grow of Wycliffe's writings, was becoming extremely popular within Oxford University, and the town itself. Lollard sermons were commonly heard from the pulpits of churches in Oxford. University officials were reported to be in sympathy with the sect. The Chancellor of the University was called to London to report.

The Archbishop of Canterbury began to exercise greater authority over the operations of the University after May of 1382. This was a major departure from past practices over which the University officials were greatly distressed and railed against. The Crown was also concerned with the current events in Oxford and expressed displeasure and worked against the University authority.

On July 13, 1382, Wyclif was officially banished from Oxford University, and was forced to leave the town. Along with Wyclif, three other Oxford dons were also dismissed. Nicholas Hereford, Repyngton, and John Aston were all early supporters of Lollardy. Hereford set off for Rome to attempt an audience with the Pope. Both Hereford and Repyngton would later recant, and become faithful servants of the Church. John Aston recanted but became a dedicated preacher and missionary to the cause.

Lollardy was condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1382. A number of Wyclif's friends and supporters at Oxford were eventually arrested, and forced to recant their Lollard beliefs. Both "town and gown" felt the ire of the Church against Lollardy in its community.

Many of these first generation Lollards converts would later persecute their second generation brethren. The Church was still held in great respect and fear by many of the first generation Lollards supporters that recanted in Oxford.

Wycliffe began to lose his support among the nobility with his condemned views on the Eucharist. John of Gaunt (1340-1399) an early supporter of Wycliff view's on church wealth did not wish to breach a possible excommunication. The Peasant's Uprising of 1381 also had its impact on the nation at large. Wyclif was himself surprisingly left unassailed during this period of condemnation probably due to his Royal patronage.

Wyclif retired to the rectory at Lutterworth (a Crown supported parish) and continued his scholarly writings unabated. He died there after a second stroke in 1384.

Lollards or Wycliffites

Groups of lay preachers or mummers strolled the English countryside ca. 1382-1409. They preached a new reformed Christian doctrine based on the scholarly writings of John Wyclif. Lollards promoted the reading of the Holy Scripture in the vernacular as the means for knowing the true Word of God. Personal faith, and Divine elections were central issues. Lollards also promoted the equality of the sexes including women preachers.

Lollards questioned the current state of the Church, and criticized many of its practices and for its wealth. There was a marked anti-clerical bent, and a anti-Church authority note in their message.

The term Lollard came into general usage by 1387, and may been used as early as 1382. The word Lollard may possibly come from the Dutch word for mumble"lollaert". They were known sometimes as Wycliffites.

John Wyclif's personal involvement in the Lollard movement still remains uncertain. After 1384, Wyclif's former secretary and friend, John Purvey (1353?-1428?) became the titular leader of the new reform movement supported by former students and friends of Wyclif in Oxford. Additional support was soon found among both rich and poor outside the University.

The Lollards were basically a reform movement, some have referred to it as a mini Reformation. Early support came from the wealthy classes who had advanced similar ideas for the confiscation of Church property under Richard II (1377-99). They wanted to reduce the power and the wealth of the Church in England for their own reasons, and they were willing to add their supported to the Lollards, or anyone else to that end.

 

Lollard positions and reforms found support at Court. With the death of Richard II (1377-1399), Lollard support waned at Court. By 1400, the Catholic Church's positions were finding increased support at Court under the new king, Henry IV (1399-1413). The Church increased its campaign against the Lollard, their supporters, and their policies. The new king quickly supported the winning side.

The Lollard Bible was banned in 1407. Many prominent Lollards especially former Oxford men were arrested and sent to prison. John Purvey was arrested in 1390 and sent to prison. He recanted in 1401, and took a parish. He resigned his parish in 1403 and returned to the Lollard cause.

Nicholas of Hereford was a Fellow of Queen's College during the period Wyclif began work of his English BIble translation from the vulgate. He was a convert to Lollardy, he was banished from Oxford with Wyclif. He was imprisoned for a time, and then recanted about 1391. He became associated with Hereford Cathedral about 1394.

Lollards became subject to the new statute De Haeretico Comburendo (1401) which introduced the burning of heretics in England. Lollards were soon being persecuted for their beliefs. William Sawtrey (d, 1401) is often cited as the first Lollard martyr to be burned at the stake in 1401. His death caused many of the early Lollards to recant their views. Interesting enough Sawtrey was not condemned under De Haeretico Comburendo (1401).

John Foxes' (1516-1587) monumental work Acts and Monuments of these latter and perilous days ... (1563) records the deaths of the England martyrs burned at the stack including Lollards. Men such as: John Badby, William Taylor, William Swinderby, and John Aston were recorded for future generations.

A Lollard uprising was planned to remove Henry V (1413-22) along with most of the House of Lords, and the Catholic Church authorities. Oldcastle's Uprising (1414) was a final attempt to seize power by Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham (ca. 1370-1417) and his supporters. Oldcastle was an erstwhile friend of the King.

After the disastrous results of Oldcastle's Uprising (1414), knightly patronage waned and with it came renewed suppression under Henry V. In 1415, Oldcastle was tried and convicted of heresy, he was sent to the Tower of London. He escaped from the Tower and became the most wanted man in the Realm. After a merry chase, he was finally captured and executed in 1417, the last Lollard martyr.

At the Council of Constance (1415), Wyclif and his writings were condemned by Pope John XXIII (Pisan line) . Renewed religious persecutions of Lollards soon followed in England. In 1428 under the supervision of Bishop Fleming of Lincoln, Wyclif's bones were dug up, burned, and cast into the River Swift by order of the Church. Lollards had already begun to go underground across England. Fleming had been a colleague and supporter of Wyclif while at Oxford as a young man.

There was another attempted Lollard uprising in 1431. Lollard communities once again went underground. There is good information that Lollardy did continue to survive in England.

 

The English Church actively continued in its efforts to root out and destroy Lollard influence wherever it could be found. During the reign of Henry VIII between 1486-1522 there were at least twelve or more Lollardy trials. Prosecution as a Lollard was often a catch all term for many types of heresy during this period including some who may have held various reformed ideals or Lutheran views.

Local pockets of Lollard influence and tradition continued into the sixteenth century. Even as late as 1521, John Longland (1473-1547) , Bishop of Lincoln, was engaged in launching sweeps for suspected Lollard communities near Amersham, Buckshire. A Royal Proclamation of 1529 speaks of "malicious and wicked sets of heretics and Lollards...".

We can identify some of the Lollard areas to about 1530: Coventry, Chiltern Hills, Essex, Kent, London, Norwich, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire. The Church was active in prosecuting any heresy it could find in these areas.

The term "Known Men" has been used to describe Lollards of this period. During Christmastide in 1550 a group of individuals were arrested at a conventicle at Bocking (Essex). Among these were Henry Hart, a known Lollard. Members of this group came to be known as "Freewillers" a possible offshoot of Lollardy. As late as 1555, a man from York was prosecuted as a Lollard. [Editor Note: Freewill Men section]

Wyclif's philosophy and his scholarly writings brought him into conflict with the status quo. He actively supported the Crowns' temporal authority over the Church in civil matters. His own scholarship questioned the current policies of the Roman Church in the light of research on the Bible, and the Early Church.

Wyclif's own personal involvement in the Lollard movement is still an open question. He would seem to have been a man of letters, a scholar and theologian. He seems to have been sincere in his own personal convictions, but as a man of social action? It is still an open question.

The Lollard movement generally is credited to have begun ca. 1382. Wycliffe was basically retired and in poor health at Lutterworth. During 1384 Wyclif had died of a second stroke.

Lollard influences have continued to linger in English society. Anticlericalism, Freewill, personal religion, anti-pilgrimages and images, questions of the Eucharist, and an emphasis on reading of the Bible by lay people in the vernacular were commonly held doctrines that found expression in other later dissident voices and groups.

The Lollards influenced the Catholic Church reforms. Its influence was felt in Scotland and Bohemia. Jan Hus (d. 1415) died at the stake for heresy. A five year Czech rebellion against the Roman church by the Hussite movement established a state Bohemian church. The English Reformation was influences by Lollard traditions, and the introduction of Lutheran views under Edward VI. Even the puritans may have fell from this same tree.

The question of how long Lollardy lasted in England may not be the right question. Rather should we be asking if it even really left English society?

LOLLARD BIBLIOGRAPHY

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