I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In about 1379, an Oxford priest and academic, John Wycliffe started translating the Bible into English. This, says the Bucks Free Press, “brought the wrath of the church hierarchy upon him. Wycliffe died peacefully in 1384, but his followers were to be subject to much persecution …”
Predestination was an aspect of Wycliffe’s thinking that caused a rumble of discord in ecclesiastical chambers. Wycliffe’s notion was that only a few people were pre-selected to go to Heaven. If that’s the case, why would anyone need a priest to intercede on the poor sinner’s behalf to secure a spot on God’s right hand? Such thinking presented a danger to the long-term employment of men of the cloth.
Wycliffe had other ideas that ran against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
Wycliffe’s Followers Called Lollards
There were many dissidents in England who campaigned for the reform of the Roman Catholic Church and one of their main complaints was the banning of the possession and reading of English translations of the Bible.
These followers of Wycliffe were called Lollards, which was an abusive description for someone with little or no education. Another interpretation from the BBC is that their name came “from the medieval Dutch words meaning ‘to mutter’ (probably reflecting their style of worship, which was based on reading the scriptures).”
The Lollards were a loose collection of people without a leader and with a variety of different beliefs. Their most common complaints were:
- The pope had no business meddling in secular affairs;
- The Bible should be available to everybody in their own native language;
- The church had become too worldly with its tax exemptions and wealthy land holdings; and,
- The spiritual foundation of the monastic life had been diminished.
Lollards held secret gatherings where prayers and readings were given in English. But their movement’s spread was hindered because there were so few printing presses and widespread illiteracy.
Challenge to Church Authority Could not Be Tolerated
If the Bible could be read in the vernacular the power of the Catholic Church would be reduced. Indeed, a blacksmith in Henley, west of London, questioned the need for a priesthood at all. In the 1890 Academy of Literature, William Ayleward of Henley, west of London, is quoted as saying in 1464 he could make “as good a sacrament between ii yrons (two irons) as the prest doth vpon his auter (altar).”
Clearly, the hierarchy did not fancy that notion gaining traction. So, the Church determined to stamp out the Lollards and one place where the movement had taken hold was Amersham, Buckinghamshire, a little northwest of London. The best way to end such wayward thoughts was to kill those that entertained them.
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First Execution of Lollard Martyrs
In A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 3 (Edited by William Page, 1925) it’s written that “the first Lollards to be executed were Richard Turner, Walter Young, and John Horwood in 1414, though Richard Sprotford, a carpenter, was pardoned in that year for heresy.”
This seems to have had the desired effect of suppressing dissent against the Church for almost a century.
But, then Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records that “In 1506, one William Tilfrey, a pious man, was burnt alive at Amersham, in a close called Stoneyprat, and at the same time, his daughter, Joan Clarke, a married woman, was obliged to light the fagots (kindling) that were to burn her father.”
The Bucks Free Press notes that “The persecution of the Amersham Lollards continued with their surviving leader, Thomas Chase. He was tortured in an attempt to force him to recant but it eventually killed him.”
In all, six men and one woman of Amersham were killed for the beliefs in John Wycliffe’s teaching, the last in 1532. Half a dozen others were put to death in different parts of the country The following year, Henry VIII severed the English Church from Rome and the burning of heretics came to an end―for a while.
Death by Burning at the Stake
Being executed by fire must have been a hideously painful and drawn out affair. It was reserved in England for those convicted of heresy or treason and was a crowd-pleasing spectacle. Witches were also given this punishment.
Capital Punishment U.K. writes that the Church favoured burning at the stake because it “did not involve shedding of the victim’s blood, which was disallowed under the prevailing Roman Catholic doctrine, and because it ensured that the condemned had no body to take into the next life (which was believed to be a very severe punishment in itself).” It was thought that the fire had a purifying effect.
The victim was placed on a barrel or box and anchored to a wooden stake with ropes, chains, or iron hoops. The wood was piled around them and lit. It would be some time before the fire reached head level and the poor unfortunate breathed in the hot gases and flames causing death.
Heretics were generally not accorded the mercy of being strangled by the executioner just prior to the fire as was the case with people convicted of treason or lesser crimes.
A barbaric practice certainly, but no less so than stoning to death, which even today is seen as a suitable punishment for adultery in some countries. Indeed, in May 2017 in Somalia the BBC reports that "Dayow Mohamed Hassan, 44, was buried neck-deep and pelted to death with stones by al-Shabab fighters." A teenage boy was similarly killed in 2014, and a young girl in 2008.
- Thomas Harding was a Lollard in Amersham who had twice saved his own life by recanting his beliefs. In 1632, he was arrested a third time for heresy and this time condemned to death, but he escaped the terrible ending of burning at the stake. He was waiting for his execution to take place when a spectator picked up one of the branches that were to form the fire and whacked Harding over the head. He died instantly.
- According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs “The priests told the people that whoever brought fagots to burn heretics would have an indulgence to commit sins for forty days.”
- Wycliffe Bible Translators UK is headquartered 14 miles from Amersham. It is part of a global network of organizations that had, as of 2020, translated the complete Bible into 698 languages, with more than 2,617 translation projects underway.
- “Martyrs Died after Row with Church.” Bucks Free Press, October 14, 2004.
- “A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 3.” Edited by William Page, 1925.
- “The Story of England.” Michael Wood, Viking, 2010.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor