Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The name given to the followers of John Wyclif, an heretical body numerous in England in the latter part of the fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth century. The name was derived by contemporaries from lollium , a tare, but it has been used in Flanders early in the fourteenth century in the sense of "hypocrite", and the phrase "Lollardi seu Deum laudantes" (1309) points to a derivation from lollen , to sing softly (cf. Eng. lull ). Others take it to mean "idlers" and connect it with to loll . We first hear of it as referring to the Wycliffites in 1382, when the Cistercian Henry Crumpe applied the nickname to them in public at Oxford. It was used in episcopal documents in 1387 and 1389 and soon became habitual. An account of Wyclif's doctrines, their intellectual parentage, and their development during his lifetime will be given in his own biography. This article will deal with the general causes which led to the spread of Lollardy, with the doctrines for which the Lollards were individually and collectively condemned by the authorities of the Church, and with the history of the sect.

Causes of the Spread of Lollardy

Till the latter part of the fourteenth century England had been remarkably free from heresy. The Manichean movements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which threatened the Church and society in Southern Europe and had appeared sporadically in Northern France and Flanders had made no impression on England. The few heretics who were heard of were all foreigners and they seem to have found no following in the country. Yet there was much discontent. Popular protests against the wealth, the power, and the pride of the clergy, secular and regular, were frequent, and in times of disorder would express themselves in an extreme form. Thus, during the revolution which overthrew Edward II in 1327, mobs broke into the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds and attacked that of St. Albans . As the century proceeded there were many signs of national disorganization, and of religious and social discontent. The war in France, in spite of the glories of Crécy and Poitiers, was a curse to the victors as well as to the vanquished. The later campaigns were mere ravaging expeditions and the men who inflicted such untold miseries on the French, whether under the English flag, or in the Free Companies, brought home an evil spirit of disorder, while the military system helped to produce an "over-mighty," greedy, and often anti-clerical nobility. In the lower ranks of society there was a similar growth of an intemperate and subversive independence. The emancipation of the peasant class had proceeded normally till the Black Death threw into confusion the relations between landlord and tenant. By giving the labourer an enormous economic advantage in the depopulated country it led the landlords to fall back upon their legal rights and the traditional wages.

In the Church there was nearly as much disorder as in the State. The pestilence had in many cases disorganized the parish clergy, the old penitential system had broken down, while luxury, at least among the few, was on the increase. Preachers, orthodox and heretical, and poets as different in character as Langland, Gower, and Chaucer are unanimous in the gloomy picture they give of the condition of the clergy, secular and regular. However much may be allowed for exaggeration, it is clear that reform was badly needed, but unfortunately the French Avignon popes, even when they were reformers, had little influence in England. Later on, the Schism gave Englishmen a pope with whom their patriotism could find no fault, but this advantage was dearly purchased at the cost of weakening the spirit of authority in the Church.

It is to these social and religious distempers that we must look for the causes of the Peasant Revolt and the Lollard movement. Both were manifestations of the discredit of authority and tradition. The revolt of 1381 is unique in English history for the revolutionary and anarchic spirit which inspired it and which indeed partially survived it, just as Lollardy is the only heresy which flourished in medieval England. The disorganized state of society and the violent anti-clericalism of the time would probably have led to an attack on the dogmatic authority and the sacramental system of the Church, even if Wyclif had not been there to lead the movement.

The Beginnings of Lollardy

During the earlier part of his public career Wyclif had come forward as an ally of the anti-clerical and anti-papal nobility, and especially of John of Gaunt. He had asserted the right of temporal lords to take the goods of an undeserving clergy and, as a necessary consequence, he had attacked the power of excommunication. He was popular with the people, and his philosophical and theological teaching had given him much influence at Oxford. His orthodoxy had been frequently impeached and some of his conclusions condemned by Gregory XI, but he was not yet the leader of an obviously heretical sect. But about 1380 he began to take up a position of more definite hostility to the Church. He attacked the pope and the friars with unmeasured violence, and it was probably about this time that he sent out from Oxford the "poor priests " who were to carry his teaching to the country folk and the provincial towns. The necessity of giving them a definite gospel may well have led to a clearer expression of his heretical teaching, and it was certainly at this date that he began the attack on transubstantiation, and in this way inaugurated the most characteristic article of the Lollard heresy. Wycliffism was now no longer a question of scholastic disputation or even of violent anti-clericalism; it had become propagandist and heretical, and the authorities both of Church and State were able for the first time to make a successful assault upon it. In 1382 a council in London presided over by Archbishop Courtenay condemned twenty-four of Wyclif's "Conclusions": ten of them as heresies, fourteen as " errors."

Though little was done against Wyclif himself, a determined effort was made to purge the university. Oxford, jealous as ever of its privileges, resisted, but ultimately the leading Wycliffites, Hereford, Repingdon, and Ashton, had to appear before the archbishop. The two latter made full abjurations, but their subsequent careers were very different. Repingdon became in course of time Abbot of Leicester, Bishop of Lincoln, and a cardinal, while Ashton returned to his heretical ways and to the preaching of Lollardy. Nicholas Hereford must have been a man of an uncommon spirit, for at Oxford he had been much more extreme than Wyclif, justifying apparently even the murder of Archbishop Sudbury by the rebels, yet he went off to Rome to appeal to the pope against Courtenay, was there imprisoned, found himself at liberty again owing to a popular rising, returned to England and preached Lollardy in the West, but finally abjured and died a Carthusian. Though the Wycliffite hold upon Oxford was broken by these measures, the energy of the Lollard preachers, the extraordinary literary activity of Wyclif himself in his last years, and the disturbed conditions of the time, all led to a great extension of the movement. Its chief centres were London, Oxford, Leicester, and Coventry, and in the Dioceses of Hereford and Worcester.

Lollard Doctrines

In the fourteenth century the word "Lollard" was used in a very extended sense. Anti-clerical knights of the shire who wished to disendow the Church, riotous tenants of an unpopular abbey, parishioners who refused to pay their tithes, would often be called Lollards as well as fanatics like Swynderby, the ex-hermit of Leicester, apocalyptic visionaries like the Welshmen, Walter Brute, and what we may call the normal Wycliffite who denied the authority of the Church and attacked the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist. Never was Lollardy so widespread as in its early days; the Leicester chronicles wrote that every second man was a Lollard. But this very extension of the name makes it difficult to give a precise account of the doctrines connected with it, even in their more extreme form. Probably the best summary of Lollardy, at least in its earlier stages, is to be found in the twelve "Conclusions" which were presented to Parliament and affixed to the doors of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's in 1395. They complain of the corruptions by appropriations etc. from Rome, "a step-mother;" they attack the celibacy of the clergy and the religious orders, the "feigned miracle of the sacrament ", the "feigned power of absolution," and "feigned indulgences ;" they call the sacramentals jugglery, and declare that pilgrimages are "not far removed from idolatry." Prayers for the dead should not be a reason for almsgiving, and beneficed clergymen should not hold secular offices. There is no allusion in these conclusions to Wyclif's doctrine that "dominion is founded on grace," yet most of the early Lollards taught in some form or another that the validity of the sacraments was affected by the sinfulness of the minister.

This refusal to distinguish the official from the personal character of the priesthood has reappeared at different epochs in the history of the Church . It is to be found, for instance, among the popular supporters of ecclesiastical reform in the time of Pope St. Gregory VII. Reforming councils forbade the faithful to accept the ministrations of the unreformed clergy, but the reforming mobs of Milan and Flanders went much further and treated with contumely both the priests and their sacraments. Wyclif gave some kind of philosophic basis to this point of view in his doctrine of "dominion," though he applied it more to the property and authority of the clergy than to their sacramental powers. To make the validity of baptism or the consecration of the Holy Eucharist depend on the virtue of the priest could only be a stepping-stone to a complete denial of the sacramental system, and this stage had been reached in these conclusions of 1395. Thus the doctrine of transubstantiation became the usual test in trials for Lollardy, and the crucial question was usually, "Do you believe that the substance of the bread remains after consecration ?" The heretics were often ready to accept the vaguer expressions of the orthodox doctrine, but at times they would declare quite frankly that "the sacrament is but a mouthful of bread." Pilgrimages and other pious practices of Catholics often came in for very violent abuse, and Our Lady of Walsingham was known among them as the "Witch of Walsingham."

There is at least one striking omission in the "Conclusions" of 1395. Nothing is said of the Bible as the sole rule of faith, yet this doctrine was probably the most original which the movement produced. As the chief opponents of Lollardy in the fifteenth century, Thomas of Walden and Richard Pecock both pointed out that the belief in the sufficiency of Scripture lay at the basis of Wycliffite teaching, for it provided an alternative to the authority of the Church. It occupied, however, a less important position among the earlier than among the later Lollards, for there was at first much confusion of mind on the whole question of authority. Even the most orthodox must have been puzzled at the time of the Schism, as many were later by the struggle between pope and councils. The unorthodox were still more uncertain, and this may partly account for the frequent recantations of those who were summoned by the bishops. In the fifteenth century the Lollards became a more compact body with more definite negations, a change which can be explained by mere lapse of time which confirms a man in his beliefs and by the more energetic repression exercised by the ecclesiastical authorities. The breach with the tradition of the Church had now become unmistakable and the Lollard of the second generation looked for support to his own reading and interpretation of the Bible . Wyclif had already felt the necessity of this. He had dwelt in the strongest on the sufficiency of Scripture, and had maintained that it was the ultimate authority even in matters of civil law and politics. Whatever may have been his share in the work of translating it into English, there is no doubt that he urged all classes to read such translations, and that he did so, partly at any rate, in order to strengthen them in opposition to the Church authorities. Even the pope, he maintained, should not be obeyed unless his commands were warranted by Scripture.

As the Lollards in the course of the fifteenth century became less and less of a learned body we find an increasing tendency to take the Bible in its most literal sense and to draw from it practical conclusions out of all harmony with contemporary life. Objections were made for instance to the Christian Sunday or to the eating of pork. Thus, Pecock urged the claims of reason and common sense against such narrow interpretations, much as Hooker did in a later age against the Puritans. Meanwhile the church authorities had limited the use of translations to those who had the bishop's license, and the possession of portions of the English Bible, generally with Wycliffite prefaces, by unauthorized persons was one of the accepted evidences of Lollardy. It would be interesting, did space permit, to compare the Lollard doctrines with earlier medieval heresies and with the various forms of sixteenth-century Protestantism ; it must, at least, be pointed out that there are few signs of any constructive system about Lollardy, little beyond the belief that the Bible will afford a rule of faith and practice. Much emphasis was laid on preaching as compared with liturgy, and there is evident an inclination towards the supremacy of the State in the externals of religion.

Outline of the History of the Lollards

The troubled days of Richard II at the close of the fourteenth century had encouraged the spread of Lollardy, and the accession of the House of Lancaster in 1399 was followed by an attempt to reform and restore constitutional authority in Church and State. It was a task which proved in the long run beyond the strength of the dynasty, yet something was done to remedy the worst disorders of the previous reign. In order to put down religious opposition the State came, in 1401, to the support of the Church by the Act "De Hæretico Comburendo", i.e. on the burning of heretics. This Act recited in its preamble that it was directed against a certain new sect "who thought damnably of the sacraments and usurped the office of preaching." It empowered the bishops to arrest, imprison, and examine offenders and to hand over to the secular authorities such as had relapsed or refused to abjure. The condemned were to be burnt "in an high place" before the people. This Act was probably due to the authoritative Archbishop Arundel, but it was merely the application to England of the common law of Christendom. Its passing was immediately followed by the burning of the first victim, William Sawtrey, a London priest. He had previously abjured but had relapsed, and he now refused to declare his belief in transubstantiation or to recognize the authority of the Church.

No fresh execution occurred till 1410, and the Act was mercifully carried out by the bishops. Great pains were taken to sift the evidence when a man denied his heresy ; the relapsed were nearly always allowed the benefit of a fresh abjuration, and as a matter of fact the burnings were few and the recantations many. Eleven heretics were recorded to have been burnt from 1401 to the accession of Henry VII in 1485. Others, it is true, were executed as traitors for being implicated in overt acts of rebellion. Yet the activity of the Lollards during the first thirty years of the fifteenth century was great and their influence spread into parts of the country which had at first been unaffected. Thus the eastern counties became, and were long to remain, an important Lollard centre. Meanwhile the ecclesiastical authorities continued the work of repression. In 1407 a synod at Oxford under Arundel's presidency passed a number of constitutions to regulate preaching, the translation and use of the Scriptures, and the theological education at schools and the university. A body of Oxford censors condemned in 1410 no less than 267 propositions collected out of Wyclif's writings, and finally the Council of Constance, in 1415, solemnly declared him to have been a heretic. These different measures seem to have been successful at least as far as the clergy were concerned, and Lollardy came to be more and more a lay movement, often connected with political discontent.

Its leader during the reign of Henry V was Sir John Oldcastle, commonly known as Lord Cobham, from his marriage to a Cobham hieress. His Lollardy had long been notorious, but his position and wealth protected him and he was not proceeded against till 1413. After many delays he was arrested, tried, and sentenced as a heretic, but he escaped from the Tower and organized a rising outside London early in 1414. The young king suppressed the movement in person, but Oldcastle again escaped. He remained in hiding but seems to have inspired a number of sporadic disturbances, especially during Henry's absence in France. He was finally captured on the west border, condemned by Parliament, and executed in 1417. His personality and activity made a great impression on his contemporaries and his poorer followers put a fanatic trust in him. He certainly produced an exaggerated opinion of the numbers and ubiquity of the Lollards, for Thomas of Walden, who wrote about this time, expected that they would get the upper hand and be in a position to persecute the Catholics. This unquiet condition lasted during the earlier part of the reign of Henry VI. There were many racantations though few executions, and in 1429 Convocation lamented that heresy was on the increase throughout the southern province. In 1413 there was even a small rising of heretics at Abingdon. Yet from this date Lollardy began to decline and when, about 1445, Richard Pecock wrote his unfortunate "Repressor of overmuch blaming the Clergy," they were far less of a menace to Church or State than they had been in Walden's day. They diminished in numbers and importance, but the records of the bishops' courts show that they still survived in their old centres: London, Coventry, Leicester, and the eastern counties. They were mostly small artisans. William Wych, a priest, was indeed executed, in 1440, but he was an old man and belonged to the first generation of Lollards.

The increase in the number of citations for heresy under Henry VII was probably due more to the renewed activity of the bishops in a time of peace than to a revival of Lollardy. There was such a revival, however, under Henry VIII, for two heretics were burnt on one day, in 1511, and ten years later there were many prosecutions in the home counties and some executions. But though Lollardy thus remained alive, "conquered but not extinguished," as Erasmus expressed it in 1523, until the New Learning was brought into the country from Germany, it was a movement which for at least half a century had exercised little or no influence on English thought. The days of its popularity were long passed and even its martyrdoms attracted but little attention. The little stream of English heresy cannot be said to have added much to the Protestant flood which rolled in from the Continent. It did, however, bear witness to the existence of a spirit of discontent, and may have prepared the ground for religious revolt near London and in the eastern counties, though there is no evidence that any of the more prominent early reformers were Lollards before they were Protestants.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 2:12-22
12 do not forget, I say, that you were at that time ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14
9 His saving help is near for those who fear him, his ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:35-38
35 'See that you have your belts done up and your ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 21st, 2014 Image

St. Hilarion
October 21: Abbot and disciple of St. Anthony the Great, companion of St. ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter