On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.
Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!
–Piers Plowman’s Creed*
Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.
Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.
“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”
Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**
But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.
This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.
Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.
Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.
divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …
the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…
[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.
Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.
[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.
With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.
Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”
Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.
The History of England podcast covers Sawtre and Lollardy in episode 141.
* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.
** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.
† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)