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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 6 — Lollardism denounced as treason

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Spread of Lollardism – Clergy Complain to the King – Activity of the Lollards – Accused of Plotting the Overthrow of the Throne and Commonwealth – Midnight Meeting of Lollards at St. Giles-in-the-Fields – Alarm of the King – He Attacks and Disperses the Assembly – Was it a Conspiracy or a Conventicle? – An Old Device Revived.

LORD COBHAM had for the time escaped from the hands of his persecutors, but humbler confessors were within their reach, and on these Arundel and his clergy now proceeded to wreak their vengeance. This thing, which they branded as heresy, and punished in the fire, was spreading over England despite all their rigors. That the new opinions were dangerous to the authority of the Roman Church was sufficiently clear, but it suited the designs of the hierarchy to represent them as dangerous also to the good order of the State. They went to the king, and complaining of the spread of Lollardism, told him that it was the enemy of kings and the foe of commonwealths, and that if it were allowed to remain longer unsuppressed, it would in no long time be the undoing of his realm. "The heretics and Lollards of Wicliffe's opinion," said they, "are suffered to preach abroad so boldly, to gather conventicles unto them, to keep schools in men's houses, to make books, compile treatises, and write ballads; to teach privately in angles and corners, as in woods, fields, meadows, pastures, groves, and caves of the ground. This," they added, "will be a destruction to the commonwealth, a subversion to the land, and an utter decay of the king's estate royal, if a remedy be not sought in time." [1]

This picture, making allowance for some little exaggeration, shows us the wonderful activity of these early Protestants, and what a variety of agencies they had already begun to employ for the propagation of their opinions. It justifies the saying of Bale, that "if England at that time had not been unthankful for the singular benefit that God then sent it in these good men, the days of Antichrist and his tyrannous brood had been shortened there long ago." [2]

The machinations of the priests bore further fruit. The more effectually to rouse the apprehensions of the king, and lead him to cut off the very men who would have sowed the seeds of order in his dominions, and been a bulwark around his throne, they professed to adduce a specific instance in support of their general allegations of disloyalty and treason against the Lollards. In January, 1414, they repaired to Eltham, where the king was then residing, and startled him with the intelligence of a formidable insurrection of the Wicliffites, with Lord Cobham at their head, just ready to break out. The Lollards, they declared, proposed to dethrone the king, murder the royal household, pull down Westminster Abbey, and all the cathedrals in the reahn, and to wind up by confiscating all the possessions of the Church. [3] To give a coloring of truth to the story, they specified the time and place fixed upon for the outbreak of the diabolical plot. The conspirators were to meet on a certain midnight "in Ficket Field beside London, on the back side of St. Giles," and then and there begin their terrible work. [4] The king on receiving the alarming news quitted Eltham, and repaired, with a body of armed men, to his Palace of Westminster, to be on the spot and ready to quell the expected rebellion. The night came when this terrible plot was to explode, and to leave before morning its memorials in the overthrow of the throne, and the destruction of the hierarchy. The martial spirit of the future hero of Agincourt was roused. Giving orders for the gates of London to be closed, and "unfurling a banner," says Walden, "with a cross upon it"–after the Pope's example when he wars against the Turk–the king marched forth to engage the rebels. He found no such assembly as he had been led to expect. There was no Lord Cobham there; there were no armed men present. In short, instead of conspirators in rank and file, ready to sustain the onset of the royal troops, the king encountered only a congregation of citizens, who had chosen this hour and place as the fittest for a field preaching. Such, in sober truth, appears to have been the character of the assembly. When the king rode in among them with his men-at-arms, he met absolutely with no resistance. Without leaders and without arms, the multitude broke up and fled. Some were cut down on the spot, the rest were pursued, and of these many were taken.

The gates of the city had been closed, and why? "To prevent the citizens joining the rebels," say the accusers of the Lollards, who would fain have us believe that this was an organised conspiracy. The men of London, say they, were ready to rush out in hundreds to support the Lollards against the king's troops. But where is the evidence of this? We do not hear of a single citizen arming himself. Why did not the Londoners sally forth and join their friends outside before night had fallen and they were attacked by the soldiery? Why did they not meet them the moment they arrived on Ficket Field? Their coming was known to their foes, why not also to their friends? No; the gates of London were shut for the same reason, doubtless, which led, at an after-period, to the closing of the gates of Paris when a conventicle was held outside its walls–even that the worshippers, when attacked, might not find refuge in the city.

The idea that this was an insurrection, planned and organised, for the overthrow of Government, and the entire subversion of the whole ecclesiastical and political estate of England, appears to us too absurd to be entertained. [5] Such revolutionary and sanguinary

schemes were not more alien to the character and objects of the Lollards than they were beyond their resources. They sought, indeed, the sequestration or redistribution of the ecclesiastical property, but they employed for this end none but the legitimate means of petitioning Parliament. Rapine, bloodshed, revolution, were abhorrent to them. If the work they now had in hand was indeed the arduous one of overturning a powerful Government, how came they to assemble without weapons? Why, instead of making a display of their numbers and power, as they would have done had their object been what their enemies alleged, did they cover themselves with the darkness of the night? While so many circumstances throw not only doubt, but ridicule, upon the idea of conspiracy, where are the proofs of such a thing? When searched to the bottom, the matter rests only on the allegations of the priests. The priests said so to the king. Thomas Walsingham, monk of St. Albans, reported it in his Chronicles; and one historian after another has followed in his wake, and treated us to an account of this formidable rebellion, which they would have us believe had so nearly plunged the kingdom into revolution, and extinguished the throne in blood. No the epithet of heresy alone was not enough to stigmatize the young Protestantism of England. To heresy must be joined treason, in order to make Lollardism sufficiently odious; and when this double-headed monster should be seen by the terrified imaginations of statesmen, stalking through the land, striking at the throne and the altar, trampling on law as well as on religion, confiscating the estate of the noble as well as the glebe of the bishop, and wrapping castle and hamlet in flames, then would the monarch put forth all his power to crush the destroyer and save the realm. The monks of Paris a hundred and twenty years after drew the same hideous picture of Protestantism, and frightened the King of France into planting the stake for the Huguenots. This was the game which had begun to be played in England. Lollardism, said the priests, means revolution. To make such a charge is an ancient device. It is long since a certain city was spoken of before a powerful monarch as "the rebellious and the bad," within which they had "moved sedition of old time." [6] The calumny has been often repeated since; but no king ever yet permitted himself to be deceived by it, who had not cause to rue it in the tarnishing of his throne and the impoverishing of his realm, and it might be in the ruin of both.

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