Search Britannia

History | Travel | British Life Shop Britannia

History Quicklist

Pitkin Guides

The History of Lollardy
by Jeff Hobbs

in late 14th Century England

Britannia's biography of John Wycliffe highlights some of his criticisms of the Church, and also tells how certain of his followers became known as Lollards. In the last twenty years or so of the fourteenth century, Lollards became a serious threat to the established Church.

Lollards believed that Christianity should be closely based on the Bible; that everyone should have access to a vernacular Bible; and that everyone should be allowed to interpret its meaning for themselves. This posed a threat at the time because the Church was the sole authority on the Bible, and it was usually its interpretation of the Bible that permeated society.

At a time when there was plenty of criticism of the Papacy and the clergy, Wycliffe went a step further and suggested that the clergy should be separated from secular matters so that they could concentrate on spiritual affairs. Lollards wanted the clergy to live off alms and their own labour, rather than from the labours of others. Their concern was that the clergy had become so caught up in secular affairs that they had forgotten their spiritual obligations.

The Lollard use of the Bible as the main authority of Christian faith also gave them justification for criticising some of the practices of the Church. For instance, the fifth of the conclusions which the Lollards posted outside Westminster Hall in 1395 referred to the use of, amongst other things, "water salt and oyle and encens, the ston of the auter, upon uestiment, mitre, crose and pilgrimes" as the "uerray practy[s] of nigromancie rathere thanne of the holi theologie". Other critics of the time questioned some of the Church's practices, but they did so because they saw them as misguided - the Lollards sought to have 'superstitious' practices removed because they had no scriptural justification.

Another important part of Wycliffe's teaching was the idea of predestination, whereby only those preselected would enjoy salvation in heaven when they died. This, again, was an implicit attack on the function of the Church. A central tenet of Catholicism up to this point was the belief that salvation could be achieved through good behaviour and charitable works. A chief function of the clergy was to help the laity achieve this grace, via the sacraments such as the Eucharist, and confession, whereby repentant sinners might be forgiven. The idea that only those who were predestined for salvation would get to heaven directly threatened the belief that good acts on earth might influence one's chances of getting to heaven. During the course of the fifteenth century, the Lollards began to see themselves as separated from their fellow conforming Christians, and that they had a better chance of being one of the elect than if they were just a member of the established Church.

The main belief that took Wycliffe's teaching outside of the usual criticism of the Church was the denial of transubstantiation, the miraculous transformation of the Eurcharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. When Wycliffe originally put forward this idea in 1382, it lost him a lot of support, especially at the higher levels of society. This belief also brought Lollardy into the realms of heresy because it denied that 'wene that Godis bodi, that neuere schal out of heuene, be uertu of the prestis wordis schulde ben closid essenciali in a litil bred that thei schewe to the puple'. This was a denial of the central mystery of the medieval mass and posed a direct challenge to the Church. Criticism of the Church and its practices was one thing, but a denial of such important doctrine was too much for fourteenth century England.

The reason that Lollardy posed a threat to the Church at this time was because some members of the nobility, including some at the King's Court, were attracted to Lollard ideas. The initial rise of Lollardy depended upon gentry, such as Sir Thomas Latimer and Sir John Montague, taking the scholarly arguments of Wycliffe and his followers out into the world of everyday politics. Between 1384 and 1396, a large Lollardic compilation known as the Floretum was produced and widely circulated, as well as the Bible translation, and this suggests that money and organization were available.

Also important to the initial spread of Wycliffe's ideas were the various clerics who favoured such beliefs. Preaching amongst the laity was an important way to spread dissent, especially after a purge of Oxford University in 1382. Preachers received protection from local knights and manual craftsmen, like William Smith in Leicester, were able to spread Lollard ideas to a wider audience. This suggests a different strand of Lollardy to the intellectual one that Wycliffe started at Oxford University. To artisans, such as Smith, the right of the laity to withhold tithes from incompetent parsons and even to dispense with a ministry altogether were probably more important than some of Wycliffe's finer metaphysical arguments.

We do not know exactly how much support Lollardy enjoyed in late fourteenth century England, but we do know that the Church and government perceived religious dissent as a serious threat. In 1377, the Pope issued a bull listing nineteen errors which Wycliffe had made and, in 1382, the Council of Blackfriars rejected fourteen of his beliefs and declared ten of them heretical. By 1384, the ecclesiastical authorities had issued injunctions against Wycliffe's followers over a wide area of the country. In 1401, the heresy act was passed decreeing that all those found guilty of heresy, or the possession of heretical writings, and who refused to recant, were to be handed over to the lay powers and burned. From this point onwards, Lollards had to operate underground.

Yet the movement did persist into the fifteenth century - in towns such as Bristol, Coventry and Leicester, and in country areas such as Kent and East Anglia. The Church must have still perceived a threat from these dissents since, in 1423, Archbishop Arundel's 'Constitutions' restricted the free discussion of the central issues of theology. Although Lollardy then evades the historian for much of the fifteenth century, it did endure. It had re-emerged by the time of the English Reformation and, at least some of the heretics burned during the reign of Mary Tudor in the mid-sixteenth century, were Lollards rather than Lutherans or Calvinists.  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC