England in the 15th century – a snapshot.
Fifteenth century England was mostly overshadowed by the divide between the Houses of Lancaster ( Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI : 1399-1461) and York (Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III: 1461-1485). The Wars of the Roses divided loyalties, and military priorities largely distracted attention from ecclesiastical matters. The usurping of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, in 1399 was overseen by the crafty cleric Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of York, who had foreseen the time was ripe to change allegiance, At Henry`s coronation Arundel said ” To consolidate your throne, conciliate the clergy and sacrifice the
Lollards“, Henry replied ” I will be the protector of the church”. A dreadful period of persecution was to follow.
In 1401 Henry authorised a statute against heresy , referred to as the “Ex officio” statute as all the prosecution and proof was laid to the prelates and if found guilty, the civil authority was obliged (had) to do the execution by burning. The latin title was De Heretico Comburendo meaning “Regarding the heretic who is to be burnt”. This act became the means for routinely burning alleged heretics, requiring just clerical condemnation (easily given) and reference to the local magistrates who were bound to burn the prisoner. This greatly facilitated the murderous work of the prelates. Henry IV was known as “the prince of priests” for his devout support of the Church.
Henry V reigned from 1413 – 1422 and distinguished himself in the wars against France. In particular he is remembered for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, but his domestic policy towards religion remained supportive of Rome. During his reign an Act (passed earlier under Richard II but never sent to the house of Commons) was confirmed by which the “English sheriffs were forced to take an oath to persecute the Lollards, and the justices must deliver a relapsed heretic to be burned within ten days of his accusation. . . . No mercy was shown under any circumstances. A strong supporter of the “poor priests” (Lollards) was Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham. He was a prime target for the prelates who denounced him to Henry V. The new king would not have anything to do with him and turned him over to the prelates who eventually got their way, consigning him to the fire
bound in chains, as if a spit roast.
Again there were times when young even infant kings (Henry VI was under one year old when he came to the throne; Edward V was but 12 years old) were subject of Regency. This too, offered an environment that was exploited by the Church in its continuous assault on alleged heresy. This is evidenced by the issue of letters patent by the seven year old Henry VI 6 July 1428 ( Regent Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) to the keepers of Colchester Castle to apprehend a priest William White `and other Lollards`. There followed a purge that ranged through Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk whereby some 110 persons (at least) were known to have been taken up. In most cases they abjured their alleged sins and did penance but the threat of burning was ever present, especially for the dozen or so priests and vicars among them.
It was during this regency that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry Beaufort, Bishop / Cardinal of Winchester and Chancellor of England pushed the boundaries of their authority such that in 1440 the Duke of Gloucester presented a schedule of 21 articles to the king complaining of their behaviour. The king ducked the matter and left it to a council containing many clerics, and the matters were glossed over. But it hardened attitudes and eventually led to the Duke`s
demise; murder of royalty was not a new method of the church for dealing
The Wars of the Roses between the house of Lancaster and York is a story all its own. But briefly, Edward, son of Richard of York became leader of the Yorkists when his father was killed in battle. The Lancastrians were defeated at Mortimers Cross in 1461 when he became king. He suffered some set backs in 1469 and went abroad briefly before returning and re establishing himself with battles won at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Much of his reign was spent in failed attempts to regain lands in France in which he was from time to time funded by the church, who thereby were able to continue their pursuit of heretics. He was succeeded by his son Edward V, under the Regency of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Edward and his brother the Duke of York were “the princes in the Tower” who were locked away when Gloucester seized the throne as Richard III. The Princes were murdered, possibly suffocated while they slept. Richard was soon afterwards killed at the battle of Bosworth by Henry of Richmond, son of Edmund Tudor. Henry was accepted as king by Parliament and became Henry VII (r1485-1509), of the House of Tudor.
What should be recognised is that during this period there was an increase in trade with foreign countries, especially with Holland. Edward III was responsible for introducing many Flemings to England who laid the foundation for the English textile industry. Edward IV also entered into many commercial contracts with continental traders. Not only was there increased trade and prosperity but with it came information and ideas. So far as religion was concerned, the close of the 15th century saw superstition triumphant with all power in the hands of the oppressors – a corrupt clergy beyond credibility. Ignorance was maintained in the people by artifice and mumbo jumbo while the churches and monasteries overflowed with wealth thereby funding the sensual clerics from the Pope down. Caught by ignorance and superstition, the people allowed themselves to be overcome by the priests, and yielded a rich harvest to the church.
The Renaissance, or rebirth of
learning, education, and art emerged on the Continent with many eminent, well educated thinkers and writers, including the great humanist Erasmus.
In this period at least two dozen new universities were created and heralded
a new `information age`. The new skill of printing dispersed from Mainz when it was sacked in 1462 with presses appearing in Rome in 1467; Paris in 1470; Cracow in 1474 and London in 1476. With printing came the necessary sister trade of papermaking. The printed word opened peoples minds as leaflets, religious tracts, books and an English Bible began shaping the views of the common people. By the time Martin Luther was born (1483) printing was established throughout Europe and there was increasing literacy and numeracy among the common man.
A new light shone as a few educated men took notice of what was happening in
Europe . There arose the two groups of teachers and reformers at Oxford and
Cambridge Universities. At Oxford John Colet,
later Dean of St Pauls, was an enthusiastic educationalist as well as
reformer of religion; associates was Sir Thomas
More, and the young Erasmus. There, too, was
William Tyndale and Thomas (later Cardinal)
Wolsey. These eminent personages worked for
reform mainly in the discipline of the Church. The slightly later
Cambridge group, which included Erasmus as professor of Greek, William
Tyndale and his colleague John Rogers, were
Thomas Bilney, George Stafford, Robert Barnes,
Thomas Cranmer and latterly Hugh Latimer.
These great thinkers focused on the dogmas of the Church and the
rejection of the old sacramental and sacerdotal principles. In particular
they asserted the individual`s rights to act according to his own
conscience, and the availability of the written word.