It does not take too much imagination to create a 15th or 16th century scene where the condemned are seen walking from their place of imprisonment in Norwich Castle or the City’s Guildhall jail, through the streets and past the Cathedral towards Bishopsbridge and the place of execution beyond. Unquestionably, the route taken would be thronged with the inquisitive, those who were sympathetic, others who were downright hostile and some who were simply curious but with no feelings one way or the other. The parade of unfortunates would eventually preceed over the ancient Bridge and into a chalk pit on the other side of the river Wensum. There the faggots would be piled high and ready. The Church, having handed over the condemned to the secular authorities, would step out of the limelight whilst the executions took place – burning the condemned ‘at the stake’. The Church’s preferred way was to claim the authority to sentence but not kill – it kept things neat and tidy! As for those on the wrong side of the Church’s principles and laws well, they were disposed of. In Norwich they went to the chalk pits, for no other reason than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates was ‘Lollards’.
Just Who Were The Lollards?
We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at John Wycliffe and who he was; born sometime in the 1320’s, becoming young Curate at Ludgershall in Wiltshire and dying there of natural causes on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard.
Wycliffe was an English Christian theologian who became popular for translating the Bible into vernacular (common) English in 1382. During this time, the Bible was usually only available in Latin, the language used by the Church and the Upper Classes. Many regular men and women were therefore not able to read the Bible for themselves. Wycliffe wanted to change that and he did so by translating the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) into the people’s common language. As professor of theology at Oxford University, Wycliffe also challenged the Catholic Church on numerous points of doctrine. He felt that the Church was too institutionalised and had become corrupt. He promoted a personal type of Christianity – one that emphasised piety, humility and simplicity.
After Wycliffe had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and afraid that his grave would become a religious shrine, Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln and acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, ordered officials to exhume the bones, burn them, and scatter the ashes on the River Swift. Thereafter, events saw the beginning of what was to be a conserted persecution of Lollardy over a large area of England.
The Lollards were part of a movement that existed from the mid-14th century and up to the English Reformation, inspired, if not led, by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards’ demands, in line with Wycliffe’s thinking, were primarily for the reform of Western Christianity and in this they had much in common with the Protestants who would follow more than a century later. Amongst the many beliefs held by the Lollards, was that the Catholic Church’s practices of baptism and confession were unnecessary for salvation. They also considered that praying to saints and honouring their images was a form of idolatry. Oaths, fasting, and prayers for the dead were thought to have no scriptural basis and they had a poor opinion of the trappings of the Catholic church, including holy bread, holy water, bells, organs, and church buildings.
Definition of the ‘Lollard’ Label:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name Lollard is most likely derived from Middle Dutch lollaerd (“mumbler, mutterer”) and from the verb lollen (“to mutter, mumble”). It appears to be a derisive expression applied to those without an academic background, educated (if at all) only in English, who were known to follow the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular; they were certainly considerably energised by his translation of the Bible into the English language. By the mid-15th century, “lollard” had come to mean a heretic in general. The lesser known use of the more neutral term “Wycliffite” was generally applied to those of similar opinions, but having an academic background.
Lollard Influence – and the Consequences!
Although the Lollard’s influence spread to Lincolnshire to the north and to both the midlands and Wales to the west, the greatest concentration was in the south and East Anglia with Norfolk as an influential hub. These were the heartlands of the large agricultural Estates within which were the bulk of the restlest peasantry – the working classes of the future industrialised England. They, inherently, voiced grievances and complained, not only about religious issues but life in general. It was therefore a short step for them to be labelled troublemakers by the authorities. By the late 14th Century, the unrestful peasants became embroilled in the Peasants Revolt, led by Wat Tyler (1381), As a result, Lollardism became associated with tradesmen, peasants, public disorder, licence and excess; these were excuses subsequently used to suppress the movement. Notebly, King Henry IV was persuaded by the Church to pass the 1401 Statute “De Heretics Comburendo” (The Necessity of Burning Heretics). This Act did not, specifically, ban the Lollards, but (a) probibited the translating or owning heretical versions of the Bible and (b) authorised death by burning for all heretics.
By 1395, the Lollards had their own ministers and were winning popular support but were to be subjected to extreme measures of persecution. Throughout England they, increasingly, were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and frequently burnt at the stake as heretics. Clearly, the religious and secular authorities were strongly opposed to the them and a primary early opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ably assisted by none other than Henry le Despenser of Norwich of whom the Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham praised for his zeal! In 1410, John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy was burnt at the stake; he was the first layman to suffer capital punishment in England for the crime of heresy. John Foxes Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxes Martyrs, tells many of their stories although with a strong anti-Catholic bias.
The Norwich Heresy Trials of 1428 to 1431:
These trials saw fifty-one men and nine women prosecuted for heresy – four were priests: John Midelton, vicar of Halvergate; John Cupper, vicar of Tunstall; Robert Cavell, parish chaplain of Bungay; and Master Robert Berte of Bury St Edmunds, chaplain. This, and mush more, is contained in a surviving manuscript from the Westminster Diocesan Archives MS. B.2, which is considered to be perhaps the most important record of heresy trials in the British Isles before the Reformantion. This manuscript is also of local interest because it is by far the most important record of Lollardy in East Anglia. It shows the extent of heresy at an early date in this area, which produced few known Lollards, before John Oldcastle’s Revolt – or after 1431 when the trials ended. The evidence also clearly offsets East Anglia’s reputation as an exceptionally ‘High Church’ area in the late Middle Ages and helps to explain why the eastern region became a Puritan stronghold.
Thus we learn, from the Norwich Heresy Trials Manuscript, of William White, a priest from Kent who had moved to Ludham to preach dissent; also of fellow Lollard’s John (or William?) Waddon and Hugh Pye. White’s trial took place on 13 September 1428, followed by those of Wadden and Pye; all three were burnt at Lollard’s Pit later that month. How bravely they met their fate is not known but it was reported that some people had a habit of emptying the contents of their chamber pots over the condemed as they walked along Bishopsgate.
Then there was Margery Baxter from Martham who was put on trial in October 1429. A Johanna Clifland testified against Baxter stating, amongst other things, that she had expressed a variety of unorthodox sentiments, including speaking out against the traditions of sanctioned marriage, fasting for religious days, and the swearing of religious oaths. Johanna Clifland accused Baxter of telling a friend that the bread consecrated in the mass was not the very body of Christ:
“You believe ill because, if every such sacrament is God and the true body of Christ, there are countless gods because a thousand and more priests every day make a thousand such gods and afterwards eat these gods and, having eaten them, discharge them through their posteriors into repulsively smelling toilets, where you can find plenty of such gods if you want to look. Therefore, know for certain that that which you call the sacrament of the altar will never by the grace of God be my God, for such a sacrament was falsely made and deceitfully ordained by priests in the church to induce idolatry in simple people because this sacrament is only material bread”.
Baxter also went on to argue that “the images which stand in the churches come from the Devil so that the people worshipping those images commit idolatry”. Then, echoing foundational Lollard beliefs, Baxter also opposed the wealth of Catholic clergymen and the practice of confession to church officials. However, despite such statements and confessions, Margery Baxter was sentenced not to be burnt, but to receive four Sunday floggings as she walked barefoot around her parish church.
It was the case that not all of the Norwich accused were condemed to be burnt at Lollards Pit. Nearly half the total tried ended up, like Margery Baxter, being flogged in either their parish churches or the adjoining cemeteries or, in the local market places on market day. Occasionally, sentences would be carried out in Norwich, in its market place or in the Cathedral church or Cloisters. Clearly the ecclesiastical authorities were eager to make the penances known to the public. Frequently, a penitent was given precise instructions that he, or she, was to appear bare-footed, bare-headed and clad in simple clothing, carrying a candle which they had to offer at the high altar of their parish church as soon as they had completed their penance.
Persecution of heretics in Norwich tailed away after 1431 but was to return in 1531 when the Reformation (1517 – 1648) ensured further persecutions in Norwich – they had, of course, continued in other areas of England during this ‘tailed off’ period during when there was a general respite of about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the Lollards entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London and Canterbury. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century and were to be still burnt at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). In 1519, seven people were burnt in Coventry and within the next few years there were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.
One of the first trials in Norwich during 1531 was that of Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like William White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he had recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recant when initially faced with execution, returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Richard NIX or NYKKE, (circa 1447–1535) of Norwich had him re-arrested and, thereafter, took a leading part in the execution of Thomas Bilney – who, by the way, had belonged to Nix’s old college. It was said, with some justice, that Nix burnt Bilney on his own authority, without waiting for the royal warrant. There was no mercy. Bilney was typically tried and convicted by the Church but given to the agents of the State for execution.
On the morning of his execution, Bilney was unwavering from his fate. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, Bilney raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake. As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt appeared bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.” With that dying prayer of faith, Bilney sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal”.
The climax to burning at the stake came during the reign of Mary (1553-58). Up to 50 people died during this time, under the religious conservative Bishop Hopton. In 1557 pewterers wife Elizabeth Cooper and Simon Miller, of Kings Lynn, were executed. Cooper had interrupted a service at St Andrews to retract her earlier recantation of Protestantism. As the two went to Lollards Pit, a Cecily Ormes declared her support for them.
Cecily Ormes was the wife of Mr. Edmund Ormes, worsted weaver of St. Lawrence, Norwich. At the death of Miller and Elizabeth Cooper she had said that “she would pledge them of the same cup they drank of”. For these words the civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice but to take her to the chancellor, who would have discharged her if she had promised to go to church and to keep her belief to herself. As she would not consent to this, the chancellor urged that he had shown more lenity to her than any other person, and was unwilling to condemn her, because she was an ignorant foolish woman; to this she replied, (perhaps with more shrewdness than he expected,) that however great his desire might be to spare her sinful flesh, it could not equal her inclination to surrender it up in so great a quarrel. The chancellor then pronounced the fiery sentence, and September 23, 1558, she was taken to Lollard Pit at eight o’clock in the morning.
After declaring her faith to the people, she laid her hand on the same stake at which Miller and Cooper had been burnt and said, “Welcome, thou cross of Christ.” Her hand was sooted in doing this and she at first wiped it only to again welcomed and embraced the stake. After the tormentors had unhurriedly built up the faggots and kindled the fire, she prayed then crossed her hands upon her breast, and ‘looking upwards with the utmost serenity, she withstood the fiery furnace. Her hands continued gradually to rise until the sinews were dried, and then they fell. She uttered no sigh of pain, but yielded her life’.
Note: There used to be a local rumour that had Sir Thomas Erpingham listed as a Lollard, for which his ‘penance’ was to build the Erpingham gate, entrance to the Cathedral precinct in Norwich!
Why did Norwich choose that particular ‘Pit’ site?
What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was in the distant past, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with part of the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond as something approaching an industrial site. Early chalk workings were dug out there to provide foundations for the nearby Cathedral; hence the creation of a Pit in the first place. Also, its position was, conveniently, just outside the city walls and therefore a good place to dispose of those who had been cast out by the Church. The approach to it was directly along Bishopsgate. linking the Cathedral and city centre with the Pit which lay opposite Bishop’s Bridge.
Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone. Today, the only clue of where it once was is the Lollards Pit Public House on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road. It marks the approximate position of the old chalk pits.
For many years after the exercutions ended the area surrounding Lollards Pit was shunned by local people, many of whom feared evil connotations. Later it became a tannery, where wherrymen used to load and unload cargo, also it was a convenient place to dump the City’s rubbish and later it was used as a camp for gipsies. In modern times, as the area became more developed, local children would play there, unbothered by the ghosts of the past.
Today the Lollards Pit (formerly the Bridge House) pub has a plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is sometimes claimed that eerie ghostly screams may be heard in the pub late at night. Claims also refer to terrified witnesses having seen ghostly black figures in the pub’s corridor and on one occasion, a shocking apparition of a woman engulfed in flames was claimed to have been seen before she quickly vanished into thin air; this suggests that, maybe, spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!
On the other side of Riverside Road, on the riverbank, is another commemorative plaque which hails the executed as martyrs, naming up to a dozen who died so horribly in Lollards Pit centuries ago.
No one is absolutely sure where the Lollard’s Pit was situated; Some argue that it was not by the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House but under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, others say it does indeed lay beneath the back bar of the Pub, whilst others put the case for it being below the site once occupied by Godfrey’s Store – or even underneath Chalk Hill House on Rosary Road. All close to one another.
The History of Lollardy by Jeff Hobbs © Britannia.com: http://www.britannia.com/history/articles/lollardy.html
Photos: Google Images and