Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England

By Walker, Greg | History Today, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England


Walker, Greg, History Today


One man's piety is another's heresy: Greg Walker reassesses the evidence for believing that Lollard |known men' and other evangelicals acted as the underground army that undermined the medieval Catholicsm of Henry VIII's church.

Religious dissent in the pre-Reformation period has long fascinated historians. But the precise nature and significance of such behaviour is difficult to judge. Historians are prone to see cohesion and organisation at work. A.G. Dickens spoke of a Lollard |underground resistance', and Susan Brigden and others have described an |underworld of heretical brethren'. Yet how helpful is it to think of the Lollards and those affected by Luther's ideas as movements or secret organisations, implying a covert struggle between two distinct groups; us (the church) and them (the heretics) -- or vice-versa depending on one's sympathies?

The idea itself is not new. Thomas More wrote in the 1520s of |the brethren and sisters of the false fraternity of heresy'. But his attitude appears inconsistent. While on the one hand he argued that heretics did not all believe the same things -- indeed he went so far as to suggest that almost no two could be found believing the same way -- he nonetheless felt able to talk of them as a single brotherhood or fraternity. Is this plausible?

At times the Lollard |known men' and the brethren showed little sign of being particularly |fraternal' -- being quite prepared to name their friends and relatives to the inquisitors. John Pykas, accused of Lollardy in the 1520s, incriminated his brother William, and a number of friends. John Collins of Burford betrayed his own father. But expecting the accused to remain silent under interrogation is perhaps asking too much. More indicative of the true state of affairs, perhaps, is the fact that many of the |known men' of Lollardy did not seem aware that they were part of a conspiracy at all. Some of those investigated did refer to each other as |known men' and |brothers in Christ'. But it would be unwise to infer from such terminology the existence of something approaching the dissident groups or terrorist cells of the twentieth century.

What did one have to do, exactly, in order to become a |known man'? The term seems to have been used with considerable laxity. Thomas Hemstede of Steeple Bumstead was called |Brother in Christ' and a |known man' by others in the village, because he had been taught the Paternoster, Creed and (more curiously) the Ave Maria in English by his wife. But apart from his knowledge of these vernacular texts, he seems to have been entirely orthodox in his beliefs. Certainly when his priest, Richard Fox, tried to convince him of other heresies he retorted somewhat naively, |I fear ye go about to bring me in the taking that the [Lollard] men of Colchester are in'. Obviously Fox did not know this |known man' quite as well as he thought. Similarly, when ecclesiastical officials referred to individuals being |of the same sect', they seem more plausibly to mean |of the same opinions' -- and sometimes then only roughly so. John Tyball of Steeple Bumstead, when asked if his friend Thomas Mathew's wife was of his sect, replied that he was not sure: a statement that is only plausible if he was referring to her beliefs rather than her membership of a group.

Given such evidence it is surely unhelpful to talk of heretical movements in England at this point, except in very specific cases. It seems more fruitful to talk of heterodoxy, of deviant ideas whose only coherence came from their being against the norm. This indicates the important fact of difference from orthodoxy, but does not carry implications of unified opposition to it.

More attacked heresy in print, and the church investigated Lollardy in the parishes, as if they were part of a single conspiracy, because that was the way that made the most sense to them, not least, perhaps, because the first major heresy which the church had encountered, the Cathar movement, had been just this sort of organised alternative church. …

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