Lollards

A term applied to the English followers of John Wycliffe.* Although the derivation of the word is not clear it seems to have meant “a mumbler” or “mutterer.” The original group of Lollards was composed of Oxford scholars led by Nicholas of Hereford,* the translator of the first Lollard Bible. These students spread their ideas to Leicester, where laymen were won to the cause. From this center William Swinderby led preaching missions to nearby towns. Although the academic followers of Wycliffe's teachings were forced to recant, the movement continued among other classes under the leadership of John Purvey,* Wycliffe's secretary. By 1395 the Lollards had become an organized sect with specially ordained ministers, spokesmen in Parliament, and considerable strength among the middle and artisan classes.

Lollard beliefs are summarized in a document, the Twelve Conclusions, drawn up for presentation to the Parliament of 1395. This manifesto expressed disapproval of the hierarchy in the church, transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, the church's temporal power, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, images, war, and art in the church. Though not mentioned in the Twelve Conclusions, the Lollards also felt that the main purpose of priests was to preach and that the Bible should be available in the vernacular for all believers. Due to persecution and the loss of the leadership of scholars such as Wycliffe, the movement came to include many strange extremists.

In 1401 Parliament passed a statute, De heretico comburendo (“On the Burning of a Heretic”), aimed specifically at Lollards. This law stated that a heretic convicted by the spiritual court who did not recant, or relapsed, should be turned over to the civil power and burned. Despite this legislation and the measures taken against them by Archbishop Thomas Arundel,* the Lollards remained strong and in 1410 found a leader in Sir John Oldcastle.* He succeeded in identifying Wycliffe's reform of the church with middle-class dissatisfaction with the wealth and conduct of the clergy. Arrested in 1413 for maintaining Lollard preachers and opinions, he was examined and condemned. However, he escaped imprisonment and organized a great Lollard march on London (1414). Henry V and his soldiers dispersed the group, but Oldcastle escaped once again. Later he was caught and hanged. The abortive uprising shattered the power of Lollardy and henceforth it existed as an underground movement. In 1431 another Lollard plot aimed at the overthrow of the government and the disendowment of the church was brought to light.

The continued popularity of the movement may be attested by the appearance of the Repressor of Overmuch Blaming of the Clergy (1455) by Reginald Pecock,* a strong attack on Lollard beliefs. There was a Lollard revival in the early sixteenth century in London, East Anglia, and the Chiltern hills. By 1530 this movement began to merge with Protestantism and amplified the undercurrents of dissent and anticlericalism that were present during the reign of Henry VIII. Lollardy facilitated the spread of Lutheranism, helped to make the king's anticlerical legislation popular with the people, and may have created the base for popular nonconformity.

W.H. Summers, Our Lollard Ancestors (1904); J. Gairdner, Lollardy and the Reformation (1908); M. Deanesly, The Lollard Bible (1920); A.G. Dickens, Lollards and Protestants in the Diocese of York, 1509-1558 (1959).