Death and Dissent

Craig Dickson provided this brief history of heresy in England during the period 1400-1700. Craig is a solicitor in London. For the degree of Bachelor of Laws, University of Westminster, he wrote a dissertation on "The Origin, Evolution and Purpose of the Laws against Heresy in England", on which this article is based.

For much of the Christian era England has been a remote country perched on the edge of the civilised world. Its distance from the centres of faith which grew up on the shores of the Mediterranean meant it often remained untroubled by the heresies which periodically convulsed the rest of Christendom.

Nevertheless, heresy was not unknown in England. Bede reports one of the earliest instances when an outbreak of Pelagianism in the fifth century was quelled by two bishops sent from Gaul. While records show further occasional and isolated incidences of heresy (with an increase in frequency in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) it is not until the late fourteenth century that heresy became a problem of any significance for the Church in England.

In the fourteenth century the prestige and moral authority of the Papacy reached a very low ebb. It deserted its traditional home in Rome in favour of Avignon and it was widely seen as being both corrupt and in thrall to the French monarchy. As England was also at war with France for much of the century it is hardly surprising that English voices began to rise in protest against it.

The loudest voice belonged to John Wycliffe, a cleric and teacher at Oxford University. Wycliffe believed that the Bible was only true spiritual authority and he rejected everything that could not be found there, including many beliefs and practices of the Roman Church. The Papacy reacted in 1377 by ordering the Archbishop of Canterbury to arrest and send him to the Papal court for trial. That this did not happen is because Wycliffe had friends in high places who wished to use him in their own battles against the Church.

However, his friends could not prevent him from being tried for heresy on four occasions and having his teachings condemned in a list of ten heretical and fourteen erroneous ‘conclusions repugnant to the Church’s determination’. His influential support began to ebb away when he took the radical step of rejecting the doctrine of Transubstantiation and when, in the aftermath of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, many powerful people realised that both the Church and the aristocracy had a common interest in preserving the status quo. Wycliffe was fortunate to be allowed to retire peacefully and spend his final days translating the Bible into English.

The Church survived Wycliffe’s attacks but his influence persisted as the intellectual impetus behind the heresy known as Lollardy. Lollardy was a loosely organised and, of necessity, largely underground movement with strongholds in Oxford and Leicester. The Church’s traditional remedies of penance and excommunication were ineffective against it but in Henry IV, who seized power in 1399, the Church found a monarch who was prepared to help in return for its support of his claim to the throne. In such circumstances was the statute "De Hæretico Comburendo" enacted into English law in 1401. The statute provided that those suspected of heresy were to be tried in the Ecclesiastical Courts and when, if convicted, the heretic either refused to abjure or relapsed into the heresy then they would be handed over to officers of the King’s courts to be burned to death in public. The first person to suffer this fate was William Sawtre, a Chaplain, in March 1401.

In 1414 Parliament enacted a further statute augmenting De Hæretico Comburendo following a doomed attempt at a coup d’etat led by the Lollard knight Sir John Oldcastle. The Church’s power was now greatly increased: it could order the secular authority to arrest a person suspected of heresy, it alone decided what heresy was and the secular power was obliged to carry out the sentence once it had been pronounced by the ecclesiastical judge.

Despite these new powers the Church could not eradicate Lollardy, and prosecutions and burnings continued well into the reign of Henry VIII. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Ecclesiastical Courts in 1883 recorded that 119 people were prosecuted between 1377 and 1533 in authenticated trials for heresy. The actual figure is likely to have been significantly higher.

Henry VIII’s faith was strong and he showed his impeccable Roman Catholic credentials by denouncing Martin Luther and earning the title of Defender of the Faith from a grateful Pope in 1521. However, Henry‘s dynastic ambitions proved to be stronger than his loyalty to the Pope. Following the break with the Papacy, Henry authorised a raft of legislation which terminated all Papal authority in England and established him as the supreme head of the Church of England with the power to determine what was heresy and what was not. He put this power into effect in 1539 in the Act of the Six Articles.

The Act said that a person who denied the doctrine of Transubstantiation was to be punished on conviction by death by burning, with the forfeiture of the heretic’s land and goods to the King (as in the case of high treason). Preaching against five lesser precepts (that communion in both kinds i.e. in bread and wine is not necessary to salvation, that priests may not marry, that vows of chastity are to be observed, that private masses ‘stand with the law of God’ and that auricular confession is expedient and necessary) was also punishable by death. To maintain opinions against the five lesser precepts was punishable by the confiscation of the heretic’s property. The Act became known as the "whip with six strings".

The accession of 9 year old Edward VI in 1547 brought a change in attitude. Those responsible for the King’s upbringing were of a moderate Protestant outlook. The first parliament of Edward’s reign repealed all statutes against heresy but provided a punishment of imprisonment and fines for ‘those who shall unreverently speak against the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, commonly called the sacrament of the altar’. The Act was later supplemented with the proclamation Silencing Disputes on the Eucharist, which refers to the debate over Transubstantiation as a matter to which ‘our human imbecility cannot attain’ and orders all debate to stop.

The new toleration did not, however, extend to Anabaptists. ‘Anabaptist’ was a label applied to the members of a number of radical Protestant sects who, very often, were refugees fleeing persecution in continental Europe. Following their part in the unrest in Germany in the 1530’s the English authorities saw them as dangerous radicals who rejected the authority of the state. The King’s Protector authorised a commission led by the Archbishop of Canterbury to seek out "Anabaptists, heretics and other contemners of the Common Prayer". Two Anabaptists were tried for heresy and burnt, one in 1550, the other in 1551.

Mary succeeded Edward VI in 1553 and turned the religious life of the country on its head. In two years she repealed a great deal of her brother’s and her father’s legislation and revived the earlier statutes of 1401 and 1414. The trials of heretics began once more. Yet again denial of the doctrine of Transubstantiation was the main focus of controversy, but this time both radical and more moderate Protestants were at risk of punishment. In three years almost three hundred died at the stake, including the illustrious clerics Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, Ferrar, Philpot and Bradford.

Mary’s persecutions died with her in 1558. The first statute of Elizabeth’s first parliament was the Act of Supremacy which, once more, renounced the authority of the Pope. Heresy remained a crime but no religious belief would be considered heretical unless it had ‘heretofore ... been determined ordered or adjudged to be heresie by thaucthoritee of the Canonical Scriptures, or by the first fowre generall Councelles, or any of them, or by any other generall Councell wherein the same was declared Heresie by thexpresse and plyayne wordes of said Canonical Scriptures or such as hereafter shall bee ordred judged or determined to be Heresye in the Highe Courte of Parlyment of this Realme with thassent of the Clergie in their Convocation.’

The statute dramatically narrowed the scope of what would qualify as heresy and the vast majority of believers were able to live without fear of accusation. Anabaptists were still at risk, however, and Elizabeth issued a proclamation in 1560 which ordered them out of the country. Three were burnt as heretics, two in 1575 and one in 1579.

Two Socinians were burned as heretics in James I’s reign in 1612. Their deaths were controversial because one of the judges argued there was no legal authority for the imposition of the sentence. In any event they were the last to suffer such punishment in England and all uncertainty over the death sentence was removed by the passing of An Act for takeing away the Writt De Heretico Comburendo in 1677.

The Toleration Act of 1688 effectively legalised the worship of many Nonconformists, thereby reducing the number of potential heretics even further. The only group excluded were the Unitarians who ran the risk of some form of prosecution well into the nineteenth century. The Act provided that the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was to continue to apply to the laity in cases of heresy but, since then, it is only the clergy who have actually had to face such charges.

A number of clergymen were tried for heresy in the nineteenth century. Their errors tended to be individual rather than being part of a wider movement. To the Church’s disappointment it was not uncommon for the accused to be convicted in the ecclesiastical court but for the decision then to be overturned on appeal to the Privy Council. The Church was in an invidious position: it could never be certain that a prosecution for heresy would be successful and, by accusing one of its own of such a medieval-sounding crime, it would always be perceived by the world at large as reactionary, backward-looking and vindictive. Trials for heresy eventually declined and the Church looked to other remedies for enforcing discipline.

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