This year we are building and, Corona Virus notwithstanding, hoping to display a huge model to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflwower. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs about the events that paved the way for her voyage and the reasons for those on board, who have been called the Pilgrim Fathers, for making the risky voyage across the Atlantic and establishing an English colony at Plymouth (or Plimoth) Colony, Massachusetts, America. In this blog we look back the 14 and 15th centuries and the Lollards, a movement to reform the church that preceded the Reformation of the 16th century.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries life in Europe was heavily influenced, even controlled in some aspects, by the Church. Unlike today, where there are many denominations within the worldwide Church, there were two main bodies of faith; the (Roman) Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east. The Catholic Church was the dominant of the two and its power went so far as to influence both international and national politics. This raised various issues as monarchs did not always appreciate the Church's input into their kingdoms.
The power and wealth held by the Church had such a strong influence in society that some people challenged its position and its basis of authority. A key aspect of the Catholic Church was the beliefs it held and taught. After Jesus had lived on earth his teachings were passed on by those close to him, the Apostles, and this formed Christian belief. These teachings were written down in what is now the New Testament of the Bible. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, was believed to point to Jesus being the Messiah.
It was the relationship between the beliefs being taught by the Roman Church and those in the Bible which laid the way for reformation. It was hard for the ordinary person to check whether the two parties taught the same things as they depended on their clergy to teach them. This put the Church in a strong position and was seen to be open to deviation from the Bible without the ability to question.
In the late 14th century, the English philosopher, theologian and priest John Wycliffe observed these deviations and openly questioned the Roman Church’s practices (we wrote about Wycliffe in this blog). His followers were known as Lollards. The origin of their name is uncertain, but may have come from the Dutch word 'lollaerd,' meaning 'mumbler, perhaps from their practice of praying or reading the Bible together.'
In the beginning the Lollards had the support of individuals within the nobility such as John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and uncle to the then King, Richard II. Additionally, there was a group of gentry who followed Wycliffe's and the Lollards’ teachings. They were known as the “Lollard Knights”. This group included Thomas Latimer, John Trussell, Lewis Clifford, Sir John Peche, Richard Storey, Reginald Hilton, William Nevil and John Clanvowe.
This support would however disappear following the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 as one of its leaders, a radical preacher named John Ball, had preached beliefs held by the Lollards. The revolt had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death earlier in the century, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years' War, and instability within the local leadership of London. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to the system of unfree labour known as serfdom, and the removal of the King's senior officials and law courts.
Inspired by Ball’s sermons and led by Wat Tyler, a contingent of Kentish rebels advanced on London. On June 13th, the rebels entered the city and, joined by many local townsfolk, attacked the jails, destroyed the Savoy Palace, set fire to law books and buildings in the Temple, and killed anyone associated with the royal government. The following day, the young king Richard II, who as just fourteen at the time, met the rebels and acceded to most of their demands, including the abolition of serfdom. Meanwhile, rebels entered the Tower of London, killing the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer, whom they found inside.
However, on June 15th, Richard left the city to meet Tyler and the rebels at Smithfield. Violence broke out, and Richard's party killed Tyler. Richard defused the tense situation long enough for London's mayor, William Walworth, to gather a militia from the city and disperse the rebel forces. Richard immediately began to re-establish order in London and rescinded his previous grants to the rebels. Rebel forces were still active elsewhere in England and so Richard mobilised 4,000 soldiers to restore order. Most of the rebel leaders were tracked down and executed; by November, at least 1,500 rebels had been killed and the revolt was effectively over.
The Lollard element within the revolt led to the them losing the support and protection of their noble and royal sympathisers. Wycliffe and his associates would however continue his work, translating the Bible into English and challenging the various doctrines taught by the Roman Church. Wycliffe died in 1384, but his followers continued to promote his ideas.
King Richard and those who succeeded him, had strong Catholic faiths and sided with the Roman Church, accepting its view that Wycliffe’s teachings were heretical. Indeed, by the mid-1400s, the word Lollard had essentially become synonymous with 'heretic.' In face of ongoing persecution the Lollards produced their Twelve Conclusions in 1395. These were presented to Parliament, as well as being nailed to the doors of both Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral, as was customary when inviting academic debate. The conclusions covered a range of matters including transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, exorcisms and hallowings, confession, pilgrimage, crusades and arts and crafts.
In 1414 John Oldcastle, who held Lollard beliefs, led another rebellion. The plan was to seize the King Henry V and his brothers during a Twelfth-night mumming at Eltham and establish some sort of commonwealth. Oldcastle was to be Regent, the king, nobility and clergy placed under restraint, and the abbeys dissolved and their riches shared out. Henry was however forewarned of their intention by a spy, and when the Lollards assembled in force in St Giles's Fields on January 10th they were easily dispersed by the king and his forces. Oldcastle escaped and in 1417 he was captured and beheaded.
Oldcastle's revolt made Lollardy seem even more threatening to the state, and persecution of Lollards became more severe. A variety of other martyrs for the Lollard cause were executed during the next century, including the Amersham Martyrs in the early 1500s and Thomas Harding in 1532, one of the last Lollards to be made victim. A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the 'Lollards Pit' in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, where Lollards were burnt.
Lollards were effectively absorbed into Protestantism during the English Reformation, in which Lollardy played a role. Since Lollards had been underground for more than a hundred years, the extent of Lollardy and its ideas at the time of the Reformation is uncertain and a point of debate. However, the similarity between Lollards and later English Protestant groups such as the Baptists, Puritans and Quakers suggests some continuation of Lollard ideas through the Reformation.
In our next blog in this series we will tell the story of the English Reformation of the 16th century. These scenes were built by James Pegrum; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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