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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 7 — Martyrdom of Lord Cobham

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Imprisonments and Martyrdoms – Flight of Lollards to other Countries – Death of Archbishop Arundel-His Character – Lord Cobham – His Seizure in Wales by Lord Powis – Brought to London – Summoned before Parliament – Condemned on the Former Charge – Burned at St. Giles-in-the-Fields – His Christian Heroism – Which is the Greater Hero, Henry V. or Lord Cobham? – The World's True Benefactors – The Founders of England's Liberty and Greatness -The Seeds Sown -The Full Harvest to Come.

THE dispersion of this unarmed assembly, met in the darkness of the night, on the then lonely and thicket-covered field of St. Giles, to listen, it might be, to some favourite preacher, or to celebrate an act of worship, was followed by the execution of several Lollards. The most distinguished of these was Sir Roger Acton, known to be a friend of Lord Cobham. He was seized at the midnight meeting on St. Giles' Field, and was inlmediately thereafter condemned and executed. The manner of his death has been variously reported. Some chroniclers say he was burned, [1] others that he was drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn, and there hanged. [2] Two other Lollards were put to death at the same time–Master John Brown, and John Beverly, formerly a priest, but now a Wicliffite preacher. "So many persons were apprehended," says Holinshed, "that all the prisons in and about London were full." The leaders only, however, were put to death, "being condemned," says the chronicler, "for heresy by the clergy, and attainted of high treason in the Guildhall of London, and adjudged for that offense to be drawn and hanged, and for heresy to be consumed with fire, gallows and all, which judgment was executed the same month on the said Sir Roger Acton, and twenty-eight others." [3] The chronicler, however, goes on to say, what strongly corroborates the view we have taken of this affair, even that the overthrow of the Government formed no part of the designs of these men, that their only crime was attachment to Protestant truth, and that their assembling, which has been magnified into a dark and diabolical plot, was simply a peaceful meeting for worship. "Certain affirm," says Holinshed, "that it was for reigned causes, surmised by the spirituality, more upon displeasure than truth; and that they were assembled to hear their preacher (the aforesaid Beverly) in that place there, out of the way from resort of people, since they might not come together openly about any such matter, without danger to be apprehended." [4] Other martyrdoms followed. Of these sufferers some were burned in Smithfield, others were put to death in the provinces; and not a few, to escape the stake, fled into exile, as Bale testifies. "Many fled out of the land into Germany, Bohemia, France, Spain, Portugal, and into the wilds of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland." [5] Such terror had the rigor of the archbishop infused into the now numerous adherents of the Protestant doctrines.

We pause to record another death, which followed, at the distance of less than a month, those of which we have just made mention. This death takes us, not to Smithfield, where the stake glorifies those whom it consumes, but to the archiepiscopal Palace of Lambeth. There on his bed, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, together with his life, was yielding up his primacy, which he had held for seventeen years. [6]

Thomas Arundel was of noble birth, being the son of Richard Fitz-Alan, Earl of Arundel. His talents, naturally good, had been improved by study and experience; he was fond of pomp, subtle, resolute, and as stern in his measures as he was suave in his manners. A devoted son of his mother the Church, he was an uncompromising foe of Protestantism, which bore in his days the somewhat concealing name of Lollardism, but which his instincts as a Churchman taught him to regard as the one mortal enemy of that system, wherewith were bound up all dignities, titles, and happiness. He had experienced great diversity of fortune. He shared the exile of Henry Plantagenet, and he returned with him to assist in dethroning the man who had condemned and banished him as a traitor, and in elevating in his room Henry IV., whom he anointed with oil from the sacred vial which fell down from Mary out of heaven. He continued to be the evil genius of the king. His stronger will and more powerful intellect asserted an easy supremacy over Henry, who never felt quite sure of the ground on which he stood.

When at last the king was carried to Canterbury, and laid in marble, Arundel took his place by the side of his son, Henry V., and kept it during the first year of his reign. This prince was not naturally cruel, but Arundel's arrogant spirit and subtle counsel seduced him into paths of intolerance and blood. The stakes which the king and Arundel had planted were still blazing when the latter breathed his last, and was carried to lie beside his former master in Canterbury Cathedral. The martyrdoms which succeeded the Lollard assembly in St. Giles' Field, took place in January, 1414, and the archbishop died in the February following. "Yet died not," says Bale, "his prodigious tyranny with him, but succeeded with his office in Henry Chicheley." [7]

Before entering on any recital of the fortunes of English Protestantism under the new primate, let us pursue to a close the story of Sir John Oldcastle the good Lord Cobham, as the people called him. When he escaped from the Tower, the king offered a reward of 1,000 marks to any one who should bring him to him, dead or alive. Such, however, was the general estimation in which he was held, that no one claimed or coveted the price of blood. During four years Cobham remained undisturbed in his concealment among the mountains of the Welsh Principality. At

length Lord Powis, prompted by avarice, or hatred of Lollardism, discovering his hiding-place, betrayed him to his pursuers. The brave old man was not to be taken without resistance. [8] In the scuffle his leg was broken, and, thus maimed, he was laid upon a home-litter, carried to London, and consigned to his former abode in the Tower. [9] The Parliament happened to be at that time sitting in London, and its records tell us the sequel. "On Tuesday, the 14th day of December (1417), and the 29th day of said Parliament, Sir John Oldcastle, of Cowling, in the county of Kent, knight [Lord Cobham], being outlawed (as is before mentioned) in the King's Bench, and excommunicated before by the Archbishop of Canterbury for heresy, was brought before the Lords, and having heard his said convictions, answered not thereto in his excuse. Upon which record and process it was judged that he should be taken, as a traitor to the king and the realm; that he should be carried to the Tower of London, and from thence down through London, unto the new gallows in St. Giles without Temple Bar, and there be hanged, and burned hanging." [10]

When the day came for the execution of this sentence, Lord Cobham was brought out, his hands pinioned behind his back, but his face lighted up with an air of cheerfulness. [11] By this time Lollardism had been made treason by Parliament, and the usual marks of ignominy which accompany the death of the traitor were, in Lord Cobham's case, added to the punishment of which he was judged worthy as a heretic. He was placed on a hurdle, and drawn through the streets of London to St. Giles-in-the-Fields.

On arriving at the place of execution he was assisted to alight, and, falling on his knees, he offered a prayer for the forgiveness of his enemies. He then stood up, and turning to the multitude, he exhorted them earnestly to follow the laws of God as written in the Scriptures; and especially to beware of those teachers whose immoral lives showed that neither had they the spirit of Christ nor loved his doctrine. A new gallows had been erected, and now began the horrible tragedy. Iron chains were put round his waist, he was raised aloft, suspended over the fire, and subjected to the double torture of hanging and burning. He maintained his constancy and joy amid his cruel sufferings; "consuming alive in the fire," says Bale, "and praising the name of the Lord so long as his life lasted." The priests and friars stood by the while, forbidding the people to pray for one who, as he was departing "not in the obedience of their Pope," was about to be plunged into fiercer flames than those in which they beheld him consuming.

The martyr, now near his end, lifting up his voice for the last time, commended his soul into the hands of God, and "so departed hence most Christianly." [12] "Thus," adds the chronicler, "rested this valiant Christian knight, Sir John Oldcastle, under the Altar of God, which is Jesus Christ; among that godly company which, in the kingdom of patience, suffered great tribulation, with the death of their bodies, for his faithful word and testimony; abiding there with them the fulfilling of their whole number, and the full restoration of his elect. [13]

"Chains, gallows, and fire," as Bale remarks, are no pleasant things, and death by their means is not precious in the eyes of men; and yet some of the noblest spirits that have ever lived have endured these thine–have worn the chain, mounted the gallows, stood at the stake; and in that ignominious guise, arrayed in the garb and enduring the doom of felons, have achieved victories, than which there are none grander or so fruitful in the records of the world. 'What better are we at this hour that Henry V. won Agincourt? To what purpose was that sea of blood–English and French–poured out on the plains of France? To set the trumpet of idle fame a-sounding?–to furnish matter for a ballad?–to blazon a page in history? That is about all when we reckon it up. But the blood of Cobham is yielding its fruits at this day. Had Sawtre, Badby, and Cobham been careful of their name, their honor, their lives; had they blushed to stand before tribunals which they knew were prepared to condemn them as traitors; had they declined to become a gazing-stock to mobs, who waited to scoff at and insult them as heretics; had they shrunk from the cruel torture and the bitter death of the stake–where would have been the Protestantism of England? and, without its Protestantism, where would have been its liberty? –still unborn. It was not the valor of Henry V., it was the grander heroism of Lord Cobham and his fellow-martys that awoke the soul of England, when it was sleeping a dead sleep, and fired it to pluck the bandage of a seven-fold darkness from its eyes, and to break the yoke of a seven-fold slavery from its neck. These are the stars that illuminate England's sky; the heroes whose exploits glorify her annals; the kings whose spirits rule from their thrones, which are their stakes, the hearts and souls of her noblest sons. The multitude lays its homage at the feet of those for whom the world has done much; whose path it has made smooth with riches; whose head it has lifted up with honors; and for whom, while living, it provided a stately palace; and when dead, a marble tomb. Let us go aside from the crowd: let us seek out, not the men for whom the world has done much, but the men who have done much for the world; and let us pay our homage, not indeed to them, but to Him who made them what they were. And where shall we find

these men? In kings' houses? in schools and camps?–not oft. In jails, or at the bar of a tyrannical tribunal, or before a bench of Pharisees, or on a scaffold, around which mobs hoot, while the executioner stands by to do his office. These are not pleasant places; and yet it is precisely there that those great examples have been exhibited which have instructed the world, and those mighty services rendered which have ennobled and blessed the race. It was amid such humiliations and sufferings that the Lollards sowed, all through the fifteenth century, the living seed, which the gracious spring-time of the sixteenth quickened into growth; which the following centuries, not unmingled with conflict and the blood of martyrdom, helped to ripen; and the fully matured harvest of which it remains for the generations to come to carry home.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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