1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

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.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

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.

* 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.)

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1401: Klaus Stortebeker, Victual Brother pirate

1 comment October 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1401,* “Victual Brother” Klaus Störtebeker was beheaded in Hamburg.

Statue of Klaus Stortebeker. (cc) image from blariog

This legendary freebooter terrorized the Hanseatic League‘s trading channels from Novgorod to London in the 1390s.

He was the most famous of a company of privateers who’d been hired out in 1392 to place their thumb on the scale of Scandinavian dynastic politics** — notably, supplying Stockholm during a siege, from which service they obtained† the nickname Victual Brothers. It stuck, even when operations had moved far beyond the larder.

In the mid-1390s, the “brothers” turned against Danes and Hanse alike, raiding coasts and plundering sea trade.

Klaus, the most famous of them, is still remembered today “like Che Guevara, a freedom fighter, but also like Robin Hood, because he fights the rich in the name of the poor”:‡ folk hero-outlaws, men of the pirate utopia.

Whatever debunking that legend might invite, its existence speaks to that timeless romance of the road. And then there’s that kernel of truth, or so one hopes: after Stortebeker’s death, the remnants would persist as the Likedeelers, “those who share equally.”

The buccaneer’s end, after capture by Simon of Utrecht, was equally legendary: he’s supposed to have made a scaffold pact with the headsman to spare any of his mates he could walk past once decapitated.

Rising from the chop like St. Denis, the headless trunk of Stortebeker lurched past 11 of them before the executioner himself tripped it up. (In the most embroidered version of this story, Hamburg not only didn’t honor the promise, it executed the executioner when all was said and done. But we’re pretty comfortable saying that once we reach the headless zombie pirate part of the story, the reader has carte blanche to rewrite anything not to liking.)


Störtebeker 2.teil part 11 / 11 – MyVideo

Drink up me hearties yo ho! “Stortebeker” itself just means, “quaff the mug.”

Klaus Störtebecker is our master
advised by Godeke Michels!
Shoot through the waves like storm, just faster
The Flying Dutchman’s godfather
Gaffer is the ships goblin
Let’s tackle, crew!
Life is bauble!
We are the hell of Helgoland

Our bloody flag is cracking the mast
Rats scurrying on the floor
A skeleton is our guest
On the sail there are strange shadows
The mermaid is swimming in our wake
Laugh, crew!
Life is bauble!
Still ruling is the hell of Helgoland

And when our ship makes its last run
Laugh while like a coffin she goes down
We die an ancient pirate’s way
Today we fight, tomorrow we drown
In green algae and white sand
Land ho, crew, land!
Life is bauble!
Such dies the hell of Helgoland

-Folk song honoring Klaus Stortebeker
(translated here)

* As often for events at this distance of time, the dates are a little bit shaky; 1400, rather than 1401, has been proposed for the actual year of Stortebeker’s execution; October 21 rather than October 20 is also given on some sites. Folklore more so than almanac blogs has the luxury of indifference to such particulars.

** The Victual Brothers were initially retained to oppose the adroit Danish Queen Margaret. She would face (and brush aside) even weirder challenges to her rule en route to lashing together the Kalmar Union under Danish regional hegemony.

Alternate explanation: food-based euphemisms for piracy trace to armies’ victual officers, and their unscrupulous methods of filling the mess hall.

‡ In a continuing spirit of democratic larceny — or as a gang symbol for the local Hell’s Angels, whatever — our man’s alleged skull was stolen from a Hamburg museum earlier this year.

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1401: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, an army marching on his stomach

3 comments October 9th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

It was on this day that a Welsh squire, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, was gruesomely executed for thwarting the efforts of King Henry IV’s forces to squelch Welsh resistance to English rule.

First, the man’s stomach was cut out and cooked in front of him. Then, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

The torturous execution took several hours before he succumbed to death. Then, a grisly postscript: his salted remains were sent to other Welsh towns to deter Welshmen from opposing the king.

Rewind to October, 1399.

Henry IV has been crowned King of England after overcoming the unpopular Richard II. Henry had his predecessor imprisoned and killed, then displayed at St. Paul’s Cathedral to prove to his supporters that he was gone.

Little surprise much of Henry’s reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. One rebellion? That of Owain Glydwr, who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400.

This didn’t sit well with the new king. Armed men were sent out to find this treasonous Welshman. Found them they did, though perhaps they wished they hadn’t. In the summer of 1401, on the slopes of Pumlumon, Owain Glydwr crushed Henry’s army. This, too, did not sit well with the king.

Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp’d in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?

-Glendower (Glyndwr) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I

Henry then led a huge army, arriving in Llandovery, to capture this meddling countryman prince.

It was here that the English military met a 60-year-old man. A land owner from Caeo, his name was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan and the English army strongly suggested he assist them in helping locate Owain Glydwr. Llywelyn agreed.

Little did the English know, as they chased Glyndwr, that Llywelyn was taking them in the wrong direction.

He had two sons, did this Llywelyn, in Owain’s army. Though he knew he’d undoubtedly pay the ultimate sacrifice, he would not betray the Welsh people and his own family but leading the English king to the insurrectionists.

And so he led the English army on a wild goose chase.

For weeks Llywelyn lead the king and his forces through the uplands of Deheubarth. All the while Owain and his men made their escape the opposite direction to consolidate, grow, and fortify.

The king’s patience became taxed. He began to see that Llywelyn was not taking them to their man.

Angrily, the king drug Llywelyn to the town of Llandovery. In front of the castle gates, there in the town square, he was disemboweled and dismembered. Though Glyndwr’s war of liberation fizzled out, Owain was never captured nor betrayed.

Fast forward to the year 2001.

600 years after Llywelyn’s execution, a sculpture is erected. Standing 16 feet tall, erected by the castle he died in front of, is a statue of a cloaked figure, spear and shield in hand, atop a stone base inscribed with Welsh verse.

It is he, Llywelyn, commemorating his ultimate sacrifice.



Llywelyn’s striking steel statue stands watch over Llandovery. Images (c) Canis Major and stused with permission.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wales,Wartime Executions

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