The Lollards were a British manifestation of proto-Protestantism. Historians have often been baffled at the lack of 'heretical' activity in the British Isles while there was a long and vibrant tradition in existence on the continent.
There was basically one famous incident regarding some German Cathars who were captured and tried at Oxford during the High Middle Ages. The Cathars were the dualist sect rampant mostly in Southern France and largely exterminated in the 13th century crusade against them. Also known as the Albigensians there was some overlap with the Waldensians with whom they co-existed in the Heresy Belt……the region stretching from the frontiers of the Pyrenees across Languedoc, creeping northward toward the Cevennes, traversing the Cottian Alps and down into the Po valley in Italy…the lands of Savoy, Piedmont, Lombardy, and the Veneto.
There were plenty of other 'pockets'….but this region was notorious. From England other than the 1166 incident, there is silence until the mid-14th century.
How had England escaped the 'poison of heresy' for so long? At this point we encounter the difficulties so often associated with these types of groups. They were not in the mainstream in the sense that they would be leaving a mark on the historical record. Those who tend to be critical of the proto-protestants would argue there were none in England prior to John Wycliffe. But the argument is based on the fact that there are no records of heresy trials and/or Inquisitions. That's not proof. England is somewhat unique in that none of these things really appear until the early 15th century….a generation after Wycliffe's death. So, did it all begin with Wycliffe? Maybe, but maybe not.
For those unfamiliar with Wycliffe I will not recount his story here, but I wish to raise a few points. Wycliffe seems to suddenly appear on the radar in the 14th century as if out of nowhere. The one connection some would raise is that he was Augustinian, a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages regarding some rather interesting people. He had studied the Bible and theology and over a period of time, developed his views, began to write and enter into controversy. Much was afoot during his age. The Black Death had profoundly affected English society, not just in terms of the deaths, but the entire economy and feudal order was in turmoil. Fields were reverting to forests; peasants were abandoning their landlords to seek higher wages thus leaving lords with income problems. This would later contribute to the circumstances leading up to the Peasant's Revolt of 1381.
England and France were engaged in the on again off again Hundred Years War based on English claims to French territory. This had happened before with the Norman connections, the Anjou and Plantagenet claims…had all been lost under King John brother of the famed Lionheart…and had all been revived once more when the powerful Edward I, the conqueror of Wales and almost conqueror of Scotland married his son Edward II, to the daughter of the French king. Edward III, as king of England was also the grandson of the king of France and more or less wanted the throne there. This was the genesis of the Hundred Years War. You can read about Crecy, Agincourt, and Joan of Arc elsewhere. The dates are approximately the 1330's to 1453, spanning Wycliffe's life and the period in which Lollardy shows up in the historical record.
The Papacy and the entire Roman Catholic Structure had grown quite powerful reaching a zenith from the times of Hildebrand and the famous Canossa humiliation in 1077 to the super-Papacy of Innocent III who functioned as the Emperor of Western Europe at the turn of the 13th century. Post Innocent, there some ups and downs and by the time of Wycliffe, the church was still quite powerful, but in crisis. The Great Schism would come about in 1378 and not be fully resolved for decades.
During this time, states as we know them were in their early days of formation. This is a difficult and subjective topic but it is sufficient to say nobles were beginning to think more consciously about their countries interests in terms of international politics. There had always been wars between kingdoms, but the kingdoms were often loose-knit feudal arrangements. We're beginning to see actual countries form with unified policy and more centralized government. The rub here was the Roman Catholic Church was intimately tied in with the feudal order. The church held lands…Bishops and monasteries were also often feudal lords. But then it got even more confusing because clergy were not subject to the law in the same way secular lords were. There were complicated issues over taxes as well as feudal allegiance. A landlord Bishop in the secular sense was a subject of the king, but ecclesiastically he was a member of the Roman hierarchy and answerable to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Rome. Since in theory bishoprics and priories were not hereditary, kings wanted a say in who was appointed to those positions. There were military obligations as well. And yet the church didn't want clergy would just bend to the will of the king, nor did they want clergy who would agitate the king who then show disfavour to the church. But the king had to be careful as well. King John learned this the hard way, and everyone has heard of the troubles his father Henry II had with Thomas Beckett.
Edward III of England reigned from 1327-77. He's the king that started the Hundred Years War. His heir, Edward Woodstock the famed Black Prince died in battle in France. He's buried in Canterbury where you can see his famous effigy. The heir would then become Richard II. This is the Richard who married Anne of Bohemia, leading to considerable interchange between the two countries. This is where the early connections between Lollardy and Hussitism arise. Wycliffe's writings ended up in Bohemia presumably transported by university exchange students.
So we have Edward III….his son Edward the Black Prince who died….and then there are three other sons of interest; Lionel of Ghent who also died young, John of Gaunt (Ghent), and Edmund of York. Herein is the foundation for the War of the Roses. Richard II died in 1399, he was the son of the Black Prince and thus next in line. Since he had no heirs….the throne reverts back to the next in line of his father's generation…his uncles. This is where the dispute comes in. The next king ended up being Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt. This is the house of Lancaster. As I mentioned Lionel died who would have been next in line…but he had a daughter whose descendant married into the line of her cousins…the line of Edmund of York, the remaining son of Edward III. So the Yorkists claimed the throne through the Lionel of Ghent claim which was stronger than the York claim standing alone. The Lancastrians, descendants of John of Gaunt rejected this and this struggle would go on all the way up until 1485 when Henry VII surnamed Tudor and a relation to the Lancasters finally put an end to it all at Bosworth Field. The actual War of the Roses did not comprise the entire 86 year period but it was a time of dynastic struggle, politics, and some pretty famous events and people in English history. The nobility was decimated in the end and Henry VII's son….the notoriously fascinating and outrageous Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, one of the most powerful and autocratic kings England had seen probably since the days of the Conqueror. But that belongs to the time of The Reformation.
The reason I mention all of that is because of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. This man, this progenitor of the Lancastrian line, though he never reigned as king, was a son of one, father of one, and uncle to one, in other words, a very powerful and connected man. And in the political and social disorder of the second half of 14th century England he was trying to assert the power of the crown and nobility over the temporal power of the church. John of Gaunt was an international cosmopolitan man with continental connections I won't go into here. It gets rather complicated and historians argue over his motivations.
John Wycliffe started writing in engaging in controversy and the things would have probably gone quite ill for the Oxford professor had it not been for John of Gaunt. He protected Wycliffe and through politics and other means kept the Roman authorities from overtly persecuting him.
So with Wycliffe we have a public figure, a churchman…he was a priest and a teacher at Oxford suddenly not in the shadows like the 'heretics' on the continent. No, this was pretty much out in the open but he has protection. If there was an underground in existence….here would be a light on the hill, a point around which to rally and come out of the shadows a bit.
Wycliffe probably did not contribute greatly in person to translating the Latin Vulgate into English but he helped organize and sponsor the work and this accomplishment placed a translation of the Scriptures into the hands of the people. The underground movement that came to be associated with Wycliffe is called Lollardy. It either already existed or sprung up on its own, but it seems clear Wycliffe was not directly involved. The famous painting of him sending out the Lollards two by two is probably not accurate. Wycliffe spent his last years at Lutterworth and there doesn't seem to be any record of a Lollard presence there…we're now talking about the time when there should be a record. But even still, many records have been lost and this is also a provable fact.
There is dispute over the etymological origins of the word Lollard. It seems to antedate Wycliffe and has continental connections in Holland and with the Waldenses…but we can't be absolutely sure. It may have been connected to a surname…it may have meant 'mumbler' in a Dutch dialect or something to that effect.
Holland and England, particularly East Anglia had many cultural ties. If you look on the map, you'll see why. East Anglia more than any other part of England, had strong Dutch cultural connections, and yet I'm not sure how strong they were in the 14th century. But it is interesting, and even secular writers like Fischer in Albion's Seed make note of the fact that Lollardy, though spread throughout England was always particularly strong and deeply rooted in East Anglia. This later would also become the heartland of the Puritans. Anyone with old New England Puritan connections will find some of their ancestors hailed from this part of England. Don't confuse the Puritans with the Pilgrims.
So we have continental connections with name Lollardy, which feasibly tie in with some geographical considerations and beyond that we have legend and lore. Welsh historians will mention old Lollard ties to the Welsh Marches. Shropshire, Herefordshire, Cheshire were all Lollard haunts and places they would resort to in times of trouble. The whole question of the state of Christianity in Wales prior to the Norman Conquest under Edward I is also difficult. There were dissenters, but as I've mentioned in other writings…it's just not clear. The history is often confused and obscured by nationalist sympathies and anachronism. Yet, my point is in all this….there is an argument that Lollardy did not originate with Wycliffe but was already present in Britain, existing under the radar, and experienced a revival and expansion with Wycliffe.
The political situation gave them more freedom to operate. The availability of Wycliffe's Bible would have been beneficial compared to the tiny books and tracts 'heretics' seemed to carry about. And with early Lollardy you definitely have a Roman Church-reform mindedness. This could be an argument for or against their antiquity. You could say, here with Wycliffe was an opportunity and vast numbers came out of the shadows and now you had members of academia, the nobility, and the clergy sympathetic with their cause. What was underground is now transforming into a grass roots reform movement. This would change later and they would return underground.
Or….it could be an argument that they had not been in existence prior to Wycliffe the other points are circumstantial or coincidental and Lollardy was in truth a 14th century Wycliffe inspired Reform movement that later would go underground. Lambert in Medieval Heresy argues that clerical abuse is the fomenter of heresy and since the English Crown kept a tight grip on the church and its appointments, there effectively was no matrix for heresy to arise.
This would be a point where a secular historian will struggle to understand what motivates people. You find similar analysis on occasion when you read about Luther or people like that. Secular historians are thinking in terms of sociology and psychology, not entirely invalid, but they fail to grasp spiritual motivation and the transformative power of a gospel of hope and how it will affect someone's life.
I can't say for sure one way or the other. But I am inclined to believe with the pervasiveness of 'heresy' on the continent, it is hard to imagine England did not have its share of Waldensian type movements. England at this point was not the politically and culturally isolated Saxon-Scandinavian country of pre-1066. This is Norman and Plantagenet England with connections to some of the very lands where heresy was deeply entrenched. With the wars, trade, the cathedral building, pilgrimages…it's just inconceivable that there wasn't an underground already at work in England. I think it likely they simply were not caught, or caught to the point where it was making it into records. Or when you’re a country priest and half you congregation is still pretty pagan, are you going to pick on the quiet, peaceful and law abiding families who may not attend your church very often and only do so half-heartedly? It's hard to say.
At that point were back to my Logistics discussion. England then unlike today had many wild and out of the way places. East Anglia is fen country. Large swathes of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk etc… were semi-aquatic…a fascinating amphibious culture…kind of a wild forested version of Venice or Holland. The fens are mostly gone today, filled in with only place names like Ely (Island of the Eels) indicating what once was.
It's a dark and graphic book, but 'Mistress of the Art of Death,' by Arianna Franklin is a kind of Silence of the Lambs story set in 12th century England. The title refers to a real profession. She did a masterful job setting the scene and tone of Fen life at that time. The book has nothing to do with the dissenters or heretics. It's a unique murder mystery in a fascinating setting and helps you capture the flavour of the region and the time. It’s a bit anachronistic…but if anyone knows anything about Norman Sicily of the Guiscard era… there were some rather surprisingly modern ideas floating about even eight centuries ago. Be warned, it's a bit gruesome and graphic…though not gratuitous in telling the tale.
Saxon England had a very loosely organized church that did not have the same authoritative spirit as the Continental Romanism the Normans imported. Saxon England was half-Viking and half-pagan in addition to being Roman Catholic. Feudalism wasn't the same everywhere. England was backward, half barbarian by Continental standards.
The Normans began to change that, as Lambert would argue, but the Normans didn't control the whole island right away. Wales wasn't conquered until the late 1200's, and they were still having trouble with them as late as the Glyndwr Rebellion which was concurrent with the full stream of historical Lollardy.
Scotland wasn't brought into the English fold until after the Reformation and there were Lollards in the Scottish Lowlands…some apparently were members of the nobility.
When you consider the Fens, the Dales, the moors, the Welsh March, the vast forests that used to cover even more of Wessex and all of England for that matter…when you consider the devastation and chaos that reigned for generations in the north after William the Conqueror crushed the uprising..when you consider the remoteness of Scotland…and yes even factor in the nebulous legends concerning the remnants of the Ionan church, Ulster connections etc….all these together contribute to a picture that is plausible…but not absolutely conclusive that there was a long and ancient presence of heretics on the British Isles. There are questions regarding the Culdees and the unsatisfactory historical record of their suppression. Legends persisted in the Lowlands and Hebrides of their presence. The Lowlands were feudalized speaking a Saxon language…Scots. But the Hebrides and Highlands were still clan based and in some places quite wild and remote and language barriers might have isolated Gallic speakers from Saxon English and later Norman English. Even today with the automobile and ferry system, when you visit Mull or Iona, you feel the isolation.
Though there had been burning and persecutions prior to the birth of the Dominican Inquisition…England just didn't have that tradition…with the one exception of the Cathars, and they weren't burned. They were sent off, forbidden all succor and died presumably of starvation and exposure. England's nobility and populace always seemed resentful and suspicious of undue foreign influence and the Inquisition was to the Roman Catholic English of the Middle Ages…a foreign instrument and it was not liked.
What was it about English society that made them more tolerant, that perhaps made them to wear the cloak of Romanism not so tight? Others have written and argued about these things…why the English were different. I don't know. It was cultural.
No one can argue against the presence of Lollardy after the mid-14th century. At that point it was starting to be documented and soon thereafter a few events would come together which suddenly turn the heavy hands of royal and ecclesiastical power against these pre-Reformation Christians. The 15th century would be for them a time of terror and persecution as the English authorities sought to reign in and control a society plagued with trouble and growing complexity.