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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 7 — Protestantism in England, From the Times of Wicliffe to Those of Henry VIII

Chapter 5 — Trial and condemnation of Sir John Oldcastle

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TRIAL AND CONDEMNATION OF SIR JOHN OLDCASTLE.

Henry V. – A Coronation and Tempest – Interpretations – Struggles for Liberty – Youth of Henry – Change on becoming King – Arundel his Evil Genius – Sir John Oldcastle – Becomes Lord Cobham by Marriage – Embraces Wicliffe's Opinions – Patronises the Lollard Preachers – Is Denounced by Arundel – Interview between Lord Cobham and the King-Summoned by the Archbishop – Citations Torn Down – Confession of his Faith – Apprehended – Brought before the Archbishop's Court-Examination – His Opinions on the Sacrament, Confession, the Pope, Images, the Church, etc. – His Condemnation as a Heretic – Forged Abjuration – He Escapes from the Tower.

STRUCK down by apoplexy in the prime of manhood, March 20th, 1413, Henry IV. was carried to his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, and his son, Henry V., mounted his throne. The new king was crowned on Passion Sunday, the 9th of April. The day was signalised by a fearful tempest, that burst over England, and which the spirit of the age variously interpreted. [1] Not a few regarded it as a portent of evil, which gave warning of political storms that were about to convulsethe State of England. [2] But others, more sanguine, construed this occurrence more hopefully. As the tempest, said they, disperses the gloom of winter, and summons from their dark abodes in the earth the flowers of spring, so will the even-handed justice of the king dispel the moral vapors which have hung above the land during the late reign, and call forth the virtues of order and piety to adorn and bless society. [3] Meanwhile the future, which men were striving to read, was posting towards them, bringing along with it those sharp tempests that were needful to drive away the exhalations of a night which had long stagnated over England. Religion was descending to resume the place that superstition had usurped, and awaken in the English people those aspirations and tendencies, which found their first arena of development on the field of battle; and their second, and more glorious one, in the halls of political and theological discussion; and their final evolution, after two centuries, in the sublime fabric of civil and religious liberty that stood completed in England, that other nations might study its principles and enjoy its blessings.

The youth of Henry V., who now governed England, had been disorderly. It was dishonored by "the riot of pleasure, the frolic of debauchery, the outrage of wine." [4] The jealousy of his father, by excluding him from all public employment, furnished him with an excuse for filling the vacancies of his mind and his time with low amusements and degrading pleasures. But when the prince put on the crown he put off his former self. He dismissed his old associates, called around him the counsellors of his father, bestowed the honors and offices of the State upon men of capacity and virtue; and, pensioning his former companions, he forbade them to enter his presence till they had become better men. He made, in short, a commendable effort to effect a reformation in manners and religion. "Now placed on the royal seat of the realm," says the chronicler, "he determined to begin with something acceptable to the Divine Majesty, and therefore commanded the clergy sincerelie and trulie to preach the Word of God, and to live accordinglie, that they might be lanterns of light to the temporalitie, as their profession required. The laymen he willed to serve God and obey their prince, prohibiting them, above all things, breach of matrimonie, custom in swearing, and wilful perjurie." [5]

It was the unhappiness of Henry V., who meant so well by his people, that he knew not the true source whence alone a real reformation can proceed. The astute Arundel was still by his side, and guided the steps of the prince into the same paths in which his father had walked. Lollard blood still continued to flow, and new victims from time to time mounted the martyr's pile.

The most illustrious of the Protestants of that reign was Sir John Oldcastle, a knight of Herefordshire. Having married the heiress of Cowling Castle, near Rochester, he sat in Parliament under the title of Lord Cobham, in right of his wife's barony. [6] The youth of Lord Cobham had been stained with gay pleasures; but the reading of the Bible, and the study of Wicliffe's writings, had changed his heart; and now, to the knightly virtues of bravery and honor, he added the Christian graces of humility and purity. He had borne arms in France, under Henry IV., who set a high value on his military accomplishments. Hewas not less esteemed by the son, Henry V., for his private worth, [7] his shrewd sense, and his gallant bearing as a soldier. [8] But the "dead fly" in the noble qualities and upright character of the stout old baron:, in the opinion of the king, was his Lollardism.

With characteristic frankness, Lord Cobham made no secret of his attachment to the doctrines of Wicliffe. He avowed, in his place in Parliament, so early as the year 1391, "that it would be very commodious for England if the Pope's jurisdiction stopped at the town of Calais, and did not cross the sea." [9]

It is said of him, too, that he had copies made of Wicliffe's works, and sent them to Bohemia, France, Spain, Portugal, and other countries. [10]

He threw open Cowling Castle to the Lollard preachers:, making it their head-quarters while they itinerated in the neighborhood, preaching the Gospel. He himself often attended their sermons, taking his stand, sword in hand, by the preacher's side, to defend him from the insults of the friars. [11] Such open disregard of the ecclesiastical authority was not likely long to either escape notice or be exempt from censure.

Convocation was sitting at the time (1413)

in St. Paul's. The archbishop rose and called the attention of the assembly to the progress of Lollardism, and, pointing specially to Lord Cobham, declared that "Christ's coat would never be without seam" till that notorious abettor of heretics were taken out of the way. On that point all were agreed; but Cobham had a friend in the king, and it would not do to have him out forthwith into Smithfield and burn him, as if he were an ordinary heretic. They must, if possible, take the king along with them in all they did against Lord Cobham. Accordingly, Archbishop Arundel, with other bishops and members of Convocation, waited on the king, and laid before him their complaint against Lord Cobham. Henry replied that he would first try what he himself could do with the brave old knight whom he bore in so high esteem. [12]

The king sent for Cobham, and exhorted him to abandon his scruples, and submit to his mother the Church. "You, most worthy prince," was the reply, "I am always prompt and willing to obey, forasmuch as I know you are a Christian king, and minister of God; unto you, next to God, I owe my whole obedience, and submit me thereunto. But, as touching the Pope and his spiritualitie, trulie I owe them neither suit nor service, forasmuch as I know him, by the Scriptures, to be the great Antichrist, the open adversary of God, and the abomination standing in the holy place." [13] At the hearing of these words the king's countenance fell; his favor for Cobham gave way to his hatred of heresy; he turned away, purposing with himself to interfere no farther in the matter.

The archbishop came again to the king, who now gave his ready consent that they should proceed against Lord Cobham according to the laws of the Church. These, in all such cases as the present, were compendiously summarised in the one statute of Henry IV., De Haeretico Comburendo.

The archbishop dispatched a messenger to Cobham, summoning him to appear before him on September 2nd, and answer to the articles of accusation. Acting on the principle that he "owed neither suit nor service" to the Pope and his vassals, Lord Cobham paid no attention to the summons. Arundel next prepared citations, in due form, and had them posted up on the gates of Cowling Castle, and on the doors of the neighboring Cathedral of Rochester. These summonses were speedily torn down by the friends and retainers of Lord Cobham. The archbishop, seeing the Church in danger of being brought into contempt, and her authority of being made a laughing-stock, hastened to unsheathe against the defiant knight her ancient sword, so terrible in those ages. He excommunicated the great Lollard; but even this did not subdue him. A third time were citations posted up, commanding his appearance, 'under threat of severe penalties; [14] and again the summonses were contemptuously torn down.

Cobham had a stout heart in his bosom, but he would show the king that he had also a good cause. Taking his pen, he sat down and drew out a statement of his belief. He took, as the groundwork of his confession of faith, the Apostles' Creed, giving, mainly in the words of Scripture, the sense in which he received its several articles. His paper has all the simplicity and spirituality, but not the clear, well-defined and technical expression, of the Reformation theology of the sixteenth century. [15] He carried it to the king, craving him to have it examined "by the most godly, wise, and learned men of his realm." Henry refused to look at it. Handing it to the archbishop, the king said that, in this matter, his Grace was judge.

There followed, on the part of Cobham, a proposal which, doubtless, would cause astonishment to a modern divine, but which was not accounted incongruous or startling in an age when so many legal, political, and even moral questions were left for decision to the wager of battle. He offered to bring a hundred knights and esquires into the field, for his purgation, against an equal number on the side of his accusers; or else, said he, "I shall fight, myself, for life or death, in the quarrel of my faith, with any man living, Christian or heathen, the king and the lords of his council excepted." [16] The proposal was declined, and the issue was that the king suffered him to be seized, in his privy chamber, and imprisoned in the Tower.

On Saturday, September 23rd, 1413, Lord Cobham was brought before Archbishop Arundel, who, assisted by the Bishops of London and Winchester, opened his court in the chapter-house of St. Paul's. The primate offered him absolution if he would submit and confess himself. He replied by pulling out of his bosom and reading a written statement of his faith, handing a copy to the primate, and keeping one for himself. The court then adjourned till the Monday following, when it met in the Dominican Friars, on Ludgate Hill, with a more numerous attendance of bishops, doctors, and friars. Absolution was again offered the prisoner, on the old terms: "Nay, forsooth will I not," he replied, "for I never yet trespassed against you, and therefore I will not do it." Then falling down on his knees on the pavement, and extending his hands toward heaven, he said, "I shrive me here unto thee, my eternal living God, that in my frail youth I offended thee, O Lord, most grievously, in pride, wrath, and gluttony, in covetousness and in lechery. Many men have I hurt, in mine anger, and done many horrible sins; good Lord, I ask thee, mercy." Then rising up, the tears streaming down his face, he turned to the people, and cried, "Lo, good people, for the breaking of God's law these men never yet cursed me; but now, for their own laws and traditions,

they most cruelly handle me and other men." [17]

The court took a little while to recover itself after this scene. It then proceeded with the examination of Lord Cobham, thus: –

The archbishop: "What say you, sir, to the four articles sent to the Tower for your consideration, and especially to the article touching the Sacrament of the altar? "

Lord Cobham: "My Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, sitting at his last supper, with his most dear disciples, the night before he should suffer, took bread in his hand, and, giving thanks to his eternal Father, blessed it, brake it, and gave it unto them, saying, ' Take it unto you, and eat thereof, all. This is my body, which shall be betrayed for you. Do this hereafter in my remembrance.' This do I thoroughly believe."

The archbishop: "Do you believe that it was bread after the Sacramental words had been spoken? "

Lord Cobham: "I believe that in the Sacrament of the altar is Christ's very body, in form of bread; the same that was born of the Virgin, done on the cross, and now is glorified in heaven."

A doctor: "After the Sacramental words be uttered there remaineth no bread, but only the body of Christ."

Lord Cobham: "You said once to me, in the Castle of Cowling, that the sacred Host was not Christ's body. But I held then against you, and proved that therein was his body, though the seculars and friars could not therein agree, but held one against the other."

Many doctors, with great noise: "We say all that it is God's body." They angrily insisted that he should answer whether it was material bread after consecration, or no.

Lord Cobham (looking earnestly at the archbishop): "I believe surely that it is Christ's body in form of bread. Sir, believe not you thus? " The archbishop: "Yea, marry, do I."

The doctors: "Is it only Christ's body after the consecration of a priest, and no bread, or not? "

Lord Cobham: "It is both Christ's body and bread. I shall prove it thus: For like as Christ, dwelling here upon the earth, had in him both Godhood and manhood, and had the invisible Godhood covered under that manhood which was only visible and seen in him: so in the Sacrament of the altar is Christ's very body, and very bread also, as I believe. The bread is the thing which we see with our eyes; the body of Christ, which is his flesh and his blood, is hidden thereunder, and not seen but in faith."

Smiling to one another, and all speaking together: "It is a foul heresy."

A bishop: "It is a manifest heresy to say that it is bread after the Sacramental words have been spoken."

Lord Cobham: "St. Paul, the apostle, was, I am sure, as wise as you are, and more godly-learned, and he called it bread: writing to the Corinthians, he says, 'The bread that we break, is it not the partaking of the body of Christ?'"

All: "St. Paul must be otherwise understood; for it is heresy to say that it is bread after consecration."

Lord Cobham: "How do you make that good? "

The court: "It is against the determination of holy Church."

The archbishop: "We sent you a writing concerning the faith of the blessed Sacrament, clearly determined by the Church of Rome, our mother, and by the holy doctors."

Lord Cobham: "I know none holier than is Christ and his apostle. And for that determination, I wot, it is none of theirs, for it standeth not with the Scriptures, but is manifestly against them. If it be the Church's, as ye say it is, it hath been hers only since she received the great poison of worldly possessions, and not afore."

The archbishop: "What do you think of holy Church? "

Lord Cobham: "Holy Church is the number of them which shall be saved, of which Christ is the head. Of this Church, one part is in heaven with Christ; another in purgatory (you say); and the third is here on earth."

Doctor John Kemp: "Holy Church hath determined that, every Christian man ought to be shriven by a priest. What say ye to this?"

Lord Cobham: "A diseased or sore wounded man had need to have a wise surgeon and a true. Most necessary were it, therefore, to be first shriven unto God, who only knoweth our diseases, and can help us. I deny not in this the going to a priest, if he be a man of good life and learning. If he be a vicious man, I ought rather to flee from him; for I am more likely to have infection than cure from him."

Doctor Kemp: "Christ ordained St. Peter to be his Vicar here on earth, whose see is the Church of Rome; and he granted the same power to all St. Peter's successors in that see. Believe ye not this?"

Lord Cobham: "He that followeth St. Peter most nearly in holy living is next unto him in succession."

Another doctor: "What do ye say of the Pope?"

Lord Cobham: "He and you together maketh the whole great Antichrist. The Pope is the head; you, bishops, priests, prelates, and monks, are the body; and the Begging Friars are the tail, for they hide the wickedness of you both with their sophistry."

Doctor Kemp: "Holy Church hath determined that it is meritorious to go on pilgrimage to holy places, and there to worship holy relics and images of saints and martyrs. What say ye to this?"

Lord Cobham: "I owe them no service by any commandment of God. It were better to brush the cobwebs from them and put them away, or bury them out of sight, as ye do other aged people, which are God's images. But this I say unto you, and I would all the world should know it, that with your shrives and idols, your

reigned absolutions and pardons, ye draw unto you the substance, wealth, and chief pleasures of all Christian realms."

A priest: "What, sir, will ye not worship good images?"

Lord Cobham: "What worship should I give unto them?"

Friar Palmer: "Sir, will ye worship the cross of Christ, that he died upon?"

Lord Cobham: "Where is it?"

The friar: "I put the case, sir, that it were here even now before you."

Lord Cobham: "This is a wise man, to put to me an earnest question of a thing, and yet he himself knows not where the thing is. Again I ask you, what worship should I give it?"

A priest: "Such worship as St. Paul speaks of, and that is this, 'God forbid that I should joy, but only in the cross of Jesus Christ.'"

The Bishop of London: "Sir, ye wot well that Christ died on a material cross."

Lord Cobham: "Yea, and I wot also that our salvation came not by that material cross, but by him alone that died thereon; and well I wot that holy St. Paul rejoiced in no other cross but Christ's passion and death."

The archbishop: "Sir, the day passeth away. Ye must either submit yourself to the ordinance of holy Church, or else throw yourself into most deep danger. See to it in time, for anon it will be too late."

Lord Cobham: "I know not to what purpose I should submit me."

The archbishop: "We once again require you to look to yourself, and to have no other opinion in these matters, save that is the universal faith and belief of the holy Church of Rome; and so, like an obedient child, return to the unity of your mother. See to it, I say, in time, for yet ye may have remeid, whereas anon it will be too late."

Lord Cobham: "I will none otherwise believe in these points than I have told you before. Do with me what you will."

The archbishop: "We must needs do the law: we must proceed to a definite sentence, and judge and condemn you for an heretic."

Hereupon the archbishop stood up to pronounce sentence. The whole assembly–bishops, doctors, and friars–rose at the same time, and uncovered. The primate drew forth two papers which had been prepared beforehand, and proceeded to read them. The first set forth the heresies of which Lord Cobham had been convicted, and the efforts which the court, "desiring the health of his soul," had made to bring him to "the unity of the Church;" but he, "as a child of iniquity and darkness, [18] had so hardened his heart that he would not listen to the voice of his pastor." "We, thereupon," continued the archbishop, turning to the second paper, "judge, declare, and condemn the said Sir John Oldcastle, knight, for a most pernicious and detestable heretic, committing him to the secular jurisdiction and power, to do him thereupon to death."

This sentence Arundel pronounced with a sweet and affable voice, the tears trickling down his face. It is the primate himself who tells us so; otherwise we should not have known it; for certainly we can trace no signs of pity or relenting in the terms of the sentence. "I pronounced it," says the archbishop, referring to the sentence dooming Sir John to the fire, "in the kindest and sweetest manner, with a weeping countenance." [19] If the primate wept, no one saw a tear on the face of Lord Cobham. "Turning to the multitude," says Bale, "Lord Cobham said, with a most cheerful voice, 'Though ye judge my body, which is but a wretched thing, yet can ye do no harm to my soul. He that created it will, of his infinite mercy, save it. Of that I have no manner of doubt.' Then falling down on his knees, and lifting up his eyes, with hands outstretched toward heaven, he prayed, saying, 'Lord God eternal, I beseech thee, for thy great mercy's sake, to forgive my pursuers, if it be thy blessed will.' He was thereupon delivered to Sir Robert Morley, and led back to the Tower." [20]

The sentence was not to be executed till afmr fifty days. [21] This respite, so unusual, may have been owing to a lingering affection for his old friend on the part of the king, or it may have been prompted by the hope that he would submit himself to the Church, and that his recantation would deal a blow to the cause of Lollardism. But Lord Cobham had counted the cost, and his firm resolve was to brave the horrors of Smithfield, rather than incur the guilt of apostacy. His persecutors, at last, despaired of bringing him in a penitent's garb, with lighted tapers, to the door of St. Paul's, as they had done humbler and weaker confessors, there to profess his sorrow for having scoffed at the prodigious mystery of transubstantiation, and placed the authority of the Scriptures above that of the Church. But if a real recantation could not be had, a spurious one might be fabricated, and given forth as the knight's confession. This was the expedient to which his enemies had now recourse. They gave out that "Sir John had now become a good man, and had lowlily submitted himself in all things to holy Church;" and thereupon they produced and published a written "abjuration," in which they made Lord Cobham profess the most unbounded homage for the Pope (John XXIII.!), "Christ's Vicar on earth and head of the Church," his clergy, his Sacraments, his laws, his pardons and dispensations, and recommend "all Christian people to observe, and also most meekly to obey, the aforesaid;" and further, they made him, in this "abjuration," renounce as "errors and heresies" all the doctrines he had maintained before the bishops, and, laying his hand upon the "holy evangel of God," to swear that he should nevermore henceforth hold these heresies, "or any other like

unto them, wittingly." [22]

The fabricators of this "abjuration" had overshot the mark. But small discernment, truly, was needed to detect so clumsy a forgery. Its authors were careful, doubtless, that the eye of the man whom it so grievously defamed should not light upon it; and yet it would appear that information was conveyed to Cobham, in his prison, of the part the priests were making him act in public; for we find him sending out to rebut the slanders and falsehoods that were spread abroad regarding him, and protesting that as he had professed when he stood before the archbishop, so did he still believe, [23] "This abjuration," says Fox, "never came into the hands of Lord Cobham, neither was it compiled by them for that purpose, but only to blear the eyes of the unlearned multitude for a time." [24] Meanwhile– whether by the aid of his friends, or by connivance of the governor, is not certainly known–Lord Cobham escaped from the Tower and fled to Wales, where he remained secreted for four years.


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