An Overview of
Churchmen & the Church in the 14th Century
by Jeff Hobbs
C H U R C H M E N
in late 14th Century England
To the modern day reader, the number and variety of people who provided some kind of religious function in the late fourteenth century is mind-boggling. First, there was the secular hierarchy of paid archbishops, bishops and priests. Usually, the archbishops and bishops were like the secular aristocracy of the time. They lived in palaces and employed men to work their lands; they participated in politics, and even enjoyed such aristocratic pursuits as hunting. There was a huge social gulf between these prelates and their parish clergy. Such clergy were often from poor backgrounds, were poorly educated and many of them received meagre benefices from which to support their pastoral work.
Aside from these, there were various orders of monks and nuns, who were supposed to stay within their own religious communities - locked away from the outside world. By comparison, the various orders of friars were supposed to get out into the world and preach, and to make their living by begging. This was the theory, but in practice things might be different. There were numerous complaints, in the literature of the time, of monks who lived in luxury and of friars who dallied with women and gave easy confessions to nobles in return for large endowments for their order.
Even for those who could not get a benefice as a parish priest, there were other ways of making a living from their faith. The nobility employed priests and choirs in their own private chapels and joining part of a noble's entourage must have been a much sought-after prize. Others might make a living as a chantry priest, which involved saying prayers for the souls of living or departed patrons. Some people, called pardoners, travelled around the country selling pardons and religious relics to any who might buy them - and there were plenty of buyers. Also at this time, professions such as lawyers and doctors were considered to be clerics. This was important because it allowed them to claim 'benefit of clergy' - the privilege of not having to appear before a secular court of law for an alleged offence.
These various elements of the Church did not always get on with each other. In the Universities there were bitter disputes between the secular clergy and the friars, often over benefices; different orders of friars might be hostile to each other; and, in the parishes, local clergy often resented friars coming into their church and preaching to their congregation. To add to this problem, the Church experienced a schism from 1378 to 1417, when there were two popes - one in Rome and one in Avignon. Like other parts of Christendom, the Church in England had to choose sides.
As an institution, the Church also experienced serious challenges from the lay community in the late fourteenth century. From the 1370s onwards, Parliaments frequently complained that the clergy weren't paying their fair share towards the war effort with France - and some demanded disendowment of the clergy. However, the biggest threat to the Church in the last decades of the century was from Lollardy, a movement instigated by John Wycliffe, which began to question the Church's claim to be the sole authority on matters of religion. Lollardy posed a serious problem for the Church because a number of nobles took Wycliffe's ideas from the confines of Oxford University out into the political world. Locally, in areas such as Leicester, nobles offered protection to Lollard preachers and, by the end of the century, the heresy acts were revived so that wayward preachers could be put to death. The Church managed to retain its position as the sole authority on religious matters - at least for the time being.