Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Religion in Fifteenth-Century England

Steve Muhlberger

In politics, we've reached the conventional end of the medieval period, 1485.  We'll end the course by looking at the state of religion in the fifteenth century.

Religion in England retained many of the characteristics of the medieval era, and the church has been  accused of being stagnant. On the other hand, there are some few symptoms of change; some precursors of the Reformation of the 16th century can be seen.

Lollardy and attempts to repress it

There is some drama at the beginning of the century in the development of Lollardy, the only widespread popular English heresy of the Middle Ages. It originated with Wyclif's moral and philosophical criticism; but it was not, however, the conscious goal of Wyclif and it soon developed in directions that he would have disapproved of.

Wyclif had no desire to start his own church. Wyclif, a high-flying academic, disliked disorder and wanted the English church reformed from the top. You will recall that Wyclif wanted the secular power, in other words the king, to dispossess rich church corporations and the pluralists, those clerics who held more than one position at a time, and to forbid papal provisions and taxation in England. A reorganized, poorer church, would be created, one more capable of effective spiritual leadership. Preaching would bring the message of the Gospel to the laity, and England would end up a holier place.

Wyclif's state-sponsored reformation never took place, and he never considered any alternative.

Wyclif's agitation inspired others who were willing to go farther than he did. Some of them created Lollardy.  Some important characteristics of this movement were:

What did they put in the place of the institutional church?

Like several other medieval heresies and the later Protestants, the Lollards had fundamentalist leanings. The Bible, especially the Gospel, gave humanity all knowledge necessary for salvation. They derived from their fundamentalism a hostility to what they called "superstition" -- the devotion of the majority felt towards the Mass, the Blessed Virgin Mary, saints and their relics, and pilgrimage. The most common devotional practice of the Lollards was learning large parts of the Bible by heart, and repeating and discussing them with among themselves.

Finally, the Lollards were, like many other zealous Christian groups through the ages, a bit on the puritanical side. They had in the New Testament a clear guide to how Christians should live, and they seriously tried to follow that guide.

Lollards were not a unified group or organization.  We can identify several different groups:

Wyclif's ideas inspired a surge of religious activity in several disparate groups.

From the very beginning Wyclif had held that the laity should have access to the Bible. Some of his earliest followers took him at his word, and produced not one but two English translations.
The English bible became, as we've seen, the center of the movement. Also several of Wyclif's polemical works and original devotional and propaganda works were translated or adapted from Latin or composed in English.

These devotional writings gave Lollardy a greater appeal to substantial laymen and women than it would have had if it had been transmitted by word of mouth only. Lollard literature made it possible for Lollardy to survive persecution.

Persecution of the Lollards was slow and unsystematic. There had never been any big outbreaks of heresy in England, and so the machinery of repression was very primitive compared to that on the continent, where heresy was much more common. There were protests in parliament against the early anti-heretical actions of the archbishops of Canterbury.

In 1382, following Wyclif's attack on transubstantiation and the shock of the Peasant's Revolt, William Courtney, archbishop of Canterbury, held a church council at Oxford where Wyclif's ideas and his best known followers were attacked.

Following the deposition of Richard II, Henry IV allowed a statute called De heretico comburendo (an Act to Burn Heretics) to be passed by the parliament of 1401 (not without some protest from the commons). It allowed for the burning of heretics. Though only two heretics were burned, Lollardy lost its Lollardy lost many of its upper class adherents.

Nevertheless Lollardy, if very much a minority cult, continued to spread and still had a certain appeal to educated and pious laymen. It percolated under the surface until 1414, when it inspired a revolt against Henry V.

The center of the storm was a man named Sir John Oldcastle, a close friend of the young king and one of Shakespeare's models for Falstaff. A man of military accomplishment and political influence, he was known to be a Lollard and a protector of Lollards.

In 1413, Archbishop Arundel found some solid evidence of this and decided to prosecute. Because his religious convictions were sincere, Oldcastle refused to deny his beliefs and was found guilty of heresy. He was sentenced to be burned. Henry V stayed the execution of his friend in the hopes of getting him to recant. During the delay Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London and went into hiding. There he began organizing a coup.

The rather hopeless plan lost all chance of success when a group of London Lollards were arrested in a tavern the night before the coup was to take place. Oldcastle, though he knew that his plans were betrayed, went ahead anyway. His thousand or fewer Lollards were easily scattered.

Oldcastle's revolt was counterproductive in the worst way. It never had a chance of success, because almost no one of any influence was involved. Yet it was scary enough to provoke a strong reaction from the authorities and the upper class as a whole. From this point, knights, lords and trained theologians are never found in the surviving movement. It lost any chance of converting the larger society to its own views.

Lollardy did not die out. It had its effect on the grassroots. The connection between 15th century Lollards and some of the early support for the Reformation is increasingly accepted, though the Lollards did not start that Reformation. Rather the thin but widespread popularity of this anti-clerical, not very learned movement is an indicator of the growing independent involvement of lay men and women in religion.

Lay piety

The growth of lay literacy, especially literacy in English, had for a long time now made it possible for  people to live a rich religious life without the clergy. From the middle of the 14th century, in fact, lay mystics began to appear.

Mystics were people who lived an interior life that an earlier century would have thought appropriate only to monks. Through prayer, asceticism, and contemplation, these mystics sought to make direct contact with God. They did so without any formal ties to an established religious order, and without any ambition to found a new order.

Reading was part of their life. The classics of Latin devotional literature were increasingly translated into the common language. Furthermore mystics and other pious people wrote down their experiences and thoughts for others to read. All of this kind of activity had been monopolized by the clergy before the fourteenth century. Now it was available to the laity.

Not all pious laypeople were mystics or Lollards.  There was the puritanical, Scripture loving fringe of Lollards and near Lollards, skeptical of the sacraments and "superstition." But many other enthusiasts threw themselves into the orthodox devotion of the time.

Such devotion centered to a great degree on the fear of purgatory.

Purgatory was a doctrine developed in the earlier Middle Ages that caught the imagination of the Later Middle Ages. The idea was that few human beings, even if they are saved, deserved to go directly to heaven. Even if you confessed your sins and had them forgiven, each sin had a punishment attached that had to be suffered or otherwise taken care of. If you died with punishment still owing, you would spend time in purgatory until your soul was purged. Purgatory was visualized as being a lot like hell but temporary rather than permanent. Purgatory was not a pleasant prospect.

Fortunately the church had long said that various devotional acts could cancel out the punishment due to sin. These included attending mass, saying prescribed prayers, going on pilgrimage, or even contributing money to pious purposes. Furthermore, even after death, prayers on your behalf performed by the living could shorten your purgatorial punishment. These beliefs were very similar in a way to the belief of the early and High Middle Ages, that prayer and intercession would gain God's mercy.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, intercession was systematized, even turned into an industry. The sale of indulgences by the papacy was mass marketed to meet the papal bills. Lots of people thought that this corrupted true religion, even equated it with simony, but many more bought indulgences so that they would be spared the pains of purgatory.

Frequent confession, hearing of masses and even communion, all of which were promoted by the mendicant orders of friars, were part of a similar and very popular strategy.

One of the most important types of religious activity in the Later Middle Ages was the founding of chantries. A chantry was a private chapel, endowed by a rich penitent, where priests were to say masses for the founder for eternity. Lots of people who could not afford such a magnificent spiritual safety net left money in their wills to have a certain number of masses said for their souls. Chantries had the additional advantage of providing employment for underemployed priests, many of whom made extra pennies teaching the children of the laity how to read.

A similar attachment to old forms of piety can be seen in the parish churches of the fifteenth century. A richer laity put much of their new money into magnificent stone buildings that still survive today.

Growing irrelevance of the institutional church

Greater lay participation in religious life did not mean active revolt against the clergy, but it is clear that some of the older institutions of the church were losing their relevance for the English. This is particularly evident in regard to monasteries. A few very strict houses, especially those connected with the Carthusian order, attracted lay interest and patronage. But most of the monasteries were increasingly irrelevant to religious life. The strict separation of the religious life from the life of the world that they symbolized left people cold -- especially since the religion of the 15th century monasteries, though not corrupt, was lukewarm.

The friars, who lived with the people, preached to them, confessed them, and directed the daily devotions of the pious were much more central to religious life. But because the friars were so visible, they were obvious targets of criticism. They could be blamed for the rather mechanistic piety and, as officially sanctioned beggars, the clerical obsession with money that contemporaries disliked.

At the same time the organizational independence of the church was less than it had been in centuries. We have seen that the crown and the estates in parliament had put much pressure on the papacy's ability to direct the English church during the fourteenth century. At the beginning of the 15th century, the papal court lost the battle.

The Great Schism that began in 1378 and continued until 1417 was the main cause. In this period competing popes fought to be recognized as head of the church, and they could not afford to fight secular rulers whose support they needed. When the Schism was over, the popes found it impossible to regain the ground they had lost. The papacy remained the main clearing house for dispensations from church law and high clerical appointments, and it retained some of its taxing rights, but in most parts of Europe, the pope could exercise such powers only at the sufferance of the appropriate kings and princes.

In England, the king was effectively supreme in the church a century before Henry VIII. For instance, when Edward IV told parliament that he would "live of his own" and not ask them for grants of money, this promise did not apply to the clergy. He continued to call convocations of the English clergy and get grants of taxes from them. And nobody protested. The church by this point was part of the king's "own" -- just as it had been in the time of Edgar or William the Conqueror.

In the fifteenth century, we are coming to the end of a cycle. The pre-Reformation English church cannot be fairly presented as a scandalously corrupt institution. Most clergy did their jobs reasonably well if in an uninspired fashion. But the clergy had lost its leadership position in society. English clergy were no longer part of an international class. They had lost their dominant position in the economy, and no longer had a monopoly of learning or piety. The only thing left to lose was the privileged legal separation from the rest of society. One can see, if very dimly, the shape of the national Church of England that will soon come into being.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.