1494: Joan Boughton, “old cankered heretic”

Add comment April 28th, 2019 Headsman

Lollard heretic Joan Boughton was burned on this date in 1494 — purportedly England’s first female Christian martyr.

Followers of pre-Luther English church reformer John Wyclif(fe) had been thick on the ground in the early 15th century, terrifying the English state into a violent suppression.

But these years of headline repression did not suffice to drive Lollardy into the grave … only underground. The Lollard heresy continued to persist, quietly, its trajectory and dimensions largely undocumented, barely surfacing here and there with the odd arrest. “Between 1450-1517, Lollardy was almost wholly restricted to the rural districts, and little mention is made of it in contemporary records,” notes this history. “How extensively Wyclif’s views continued to be secretly held and his writings read is a matter of conjecture.”

Its adherents still had the stuff of martyrdom, for on this occasion decades on from the heyday of Lollardy and into the reign of Henry VII,

an old cankered heretic, weak-minded for age, named Joan Boughton, widow, and mother unto the wife of Sir John Young — which daughter, as some reported, had a great smell of an heretic after the mother — burnt in Smithfield. This woman was four score years of age or more, and held eight opinions of heresy which I pass over, for the hearing of them is neither pleasant nor fruitful. She was a disciple of Wycliffe, whom she accounted for a saint, and held so fast and firmly eight of his twelve opinions that all the doctors of London could not turn her from one of them. When it was told to her that she should be burnt for her obstinacy and false belief, she set nought at their words but defied them, for she said she was so beloved with God and His holy angels that all the fire in London should not hurt her. But on the morrow a bundle of faggots and a few reeds consumed her in a little while; and while she might cry she spoke often of God and Our Lady, but no man could cause her to name Jesus, and so she died. But it appeared that she left some of her disciples behind her, for the night following, the more part of the ashes of that fire that she was burnt in were had away and kept for a precise relic in an earthen pot.

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1431: Thomas Bagley, Lollard martyr

Add comment March 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1431, an Essex priest named Thomas Bagley — “a valiant disciple and adherent of Wicliffe,” which is to say a Lollard heretic — was put to the torch at St. Paul’s Cross, London, while the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced his heresies.

He was prey to a crackdown on his seditiously egalitarian sect launched in 1428 by the said archbishop, Henry Chicele. That outlawed movement still persisted despite the defeat of its most famous rebellion more than a decade before.

Lollards had a low opinion of both the perquisites and the ritual trappings of the institutional church, so Bagley “was accused of declaring that if in the sacrament a priest made bread into God, he made a God that can be eaten by rats and mice; that the pharisees of the day, the monks, and the nuns, and the friars and all the other privileged persons recognized by the church were limbs of Satan; and that auricular confession to the priest was the will not of God but of the devil. And others [other Lollards] held that any priest who took salary was excommunicate; and that boys could bless the bread as well as priests.”

Pressed by their persecutors, the Lollard movement mounted its last major armed rebellion weeks later, in May of 1431 — storming Abindgon Abbey and Salisbury Cathedral. The attacks came to nothing save the execution of its leadership.

For many years thereafter, until its remnants swept into the Reformation, Lollardy haunted English elites from the shadows and the underground — “a persistent, covert tradition of radical thinking” whose reach in the English population is unknowable. It was never again strong enough to mount a rising in its own name but surfaced martyrs here and there and might have contributed inspiration and simpatico to other challenges that shook the masters in the 15th century, like (speculatively) 1450’s Jack Cade rebellion out of Lollard-rich Kent.

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1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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1417: The Falstaffian John Oldcastle

3 comments December 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1417, the heretical knight John Oldcastle was burned at St. Giles Fields.

Oldcastle was a country gentleman who helped King Henry IV put down the Welsh and married up, into the Cobham family. He became good friends on campaign with Henry’s heir, the future Henry V.

Though Oldcastle was a privileged member of medieval England’s 1%, he supported positively dangerous change.

In Oldcastle’s youth, the radical preacher John Wycliffe was abroad in the land, and Oldcastle at some point — nobody seems able to say exactly when — cottoned to the egalitarian movement Wycliffe spawned, Lollardy.

A century-plus ahead of the Protestant Reformation, Lollards challenged the corruption and impiety of the Catholic Church, urging adherents to look to the scriptures themselves.

Protestant writer John Bale later reclaimed Oldcastle as a proto-Protestant martyr.

The truth of it is, that after he had once throughly tasted the Christian doctrine of John Wicliffe and of his disciples, and perceived their livings agreeable to the same, he abhorred all the superstitious sorceries (ceremonies, I should say) of the proud Romish church … He tried all matters by the scriptures, and so proved their spirit whether they were of God or nay. He maintained such preachers in the dioceses of Canterbury, London, Rochester, and Hereford, as the bishops were sore offended with. He exhorted their priests to a better way by the gospel; and when that would not help, he gave them sharp rebukes.

This sort of thing gave right-thinking Christians the vapors. It was in response to this “perverse people of a certain new sect” that England instituted the law authorizing heretic-burning, which would in Tudor hands become such a prodigious maker of martyrs.

Fresh to the throne as a 27-year-old, Henry V didn’t want to consign his old buddy to the flames, and generally stalled prosecution and leaned on his friend as much as he could.

But his friend remained obstinate in his errors, and eventually delivered a confession squarely rejected the Church’s authority.

Doomed as a heretic, Oldcastle busted out of the Tower of London when his sentimental sovereign gave him a lengthy reprieve — whereupon the condemned fugitive began fomenting rebellion with his outlawed movement.

although the King by proclamation promised a thousand markes to him that could bring him forth, with greate liberties to the Cities or Townes, that woulde discouer where hee was: by this it maye appeare, howe greatly he was beloued, that there could not one he found, that for so great a reward would bring him to light.

Holinshed’s Chronicle

It did take some doing but Oldcastle — the Lord Cobham — was finally hunted to ground in November 1417. Upon his return to London in chains, the heresiarch was condemned on the basis of his previous conviction, and “consumed with fire, gallowes, and all.” (Holinshed)

As the late king’s notorious boon companion, John Oldcastle was queued up for immortality in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. But his part in this buddy play got rewritten at the last minute (and after the first draft) into the fellow we know as Falstaff.* It was reportedly the Lord Cobham of Shakespeare’s time who insisted upon the switch, squandering literary immortality for some passing family pride.** Traces of the original character remain in the text; in the play‘s opening dialogue, Prince Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle.”

(In part 2, Shakespeare’s epilogue goes out of the way to insist that “Falstaff shall die of a sweat … [while] Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man”. Hal does eventually execute his old buddy, Oldcastle-style, in Henry V: that buddy is not Falstaff, but their mutual drinking companion Bardolph.)


No actual John Oldcastle connection, but if Shakespeare gets to pun around with the name …

* Cadging the name from another Hundred Years’ War soldier, John Fastolf.

** The Lord Cobham whom Shakespeare wished to avoid offending was involved just a few years later in the anti-Stuart Main Plot — and only spared execution by a last-second pardon while he was literally standing on the scaffold.

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