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 would hand over the condemned to the secular authorities who, in turn, would set about burning them ‘at the stake’ for nothing other than for their religious beliefs. The name for these unfortunates were ‘Lollards’.
Just Who Were The Lollards?
We cannot understand who the Lollards were without first looking at who John Wycliffe was. John Wycliffe was born sometime in the 1320’s and died in 1384; 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 want 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. He died of natual causes in 1384. After he had been dead for about 40 years, the Church declared him a heretic and his body dug up and burned.
They 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. Thus we also learn of William White, a priest from Kent who moved to Ludham to preach dissent, along with fellow Lollard’s Hugh Pye and John Waddon. White was executed in September, 1428; how bravely he met his fate is not known but it was reported that some people emptied the contents of their chamber pots over him as he walked along Bishopsgate.
Persecution of heretics tailed away after that, until 1531 when the Reformation began disturbing things once more with the burnings of Cecily Ormes and Elizabeth Cooper, artisans wives, who’s utterances virtually condemned themselves to death. Then there was Thomas Bilney, a Norfolk man born near Dereham; he was a Cambridge academic and, like White before him, was convinced the Church had to be reformed. Arrested, and taken before Cardinal Wolsey, he recanted his beliefs; but, characteristic of some who recanted when initially faced with execution, he returned to preaching heresy in the streets and fields. Bishop Nix of Norwich had him rearrested and this time there was no mercy. Like all other heretics 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 was 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.
Thereafter, there was a respite for about forty five years (1440 – 1485) as a consequence of the ‘War of the Roses’, but thereafter the attacks on the them entered another bloody phase. As for the reign of Henry VII (1485 – 1509), it had hardly got going before burnings began again in London, Canterbury and at the Pit at Norwich. Despite these renewed pressures, the Lollard movement struggled on into the 16th Century but were still being 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 ther were six burnt in Kent and five in the Eastern Counties, including Norwich. The stern measures employed by both the Church and State effectively drove the Lollards underground.
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, Cecily Ormes, wife of a weaver from St Lawrences parish, declared her support for them. She would “pledge on the same cup that they drank on”, she shouted. The civil authorities, often loath to arrest heretics, had no choice; Ormes spent a year in prison sticking to her guns before being executed in September, 1558, shortly before the death of Queen Mary when the burnings ended.
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 the Pit site?
What was to become known as the ‘Lollard’s Pit’ had long been associated with the Church being, as it was at the time, held by the Bishop of Norwich. For generations Norwich’s citizens had used the area, along with the then vast expanse of Mousehold Heath beyond. It was somewhat of an industrial site with early chalk workings 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. Today all traces of that particular chalk pit where Lollard supporters were burned is long gone; the site is now occupied by the Lollards Pit public house and car park on Norwich’s busy Riverside Road.
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 blue plaque fixed to its wall marking the site of the infamous pit. Inevitably, it is now 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 spirits are not confined to the bottles on the other side of the bar!
One final point: 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 it was under the site of the old Gasometer on Gas Hill, some say it lies beneath the back bar of the ‘Lollards Pit’ Public House, 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.
Interestingly, With regard to Thomas Bilney; he did not consider himself to be a Protestant. “He was to the last perfectly orthodox on the power of the Pope, the sacrifice of the Mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the authority of the church.” Thomas Bilney did however preach, just as the Lollards did, against Saint and Relic veneration, disapproved of the practice of pilgrimage and did not believe in the mediation of the Saints. He may also have rejected the teachings of Martin Luther. So why did the ‘Protestant’ Alliance sponser the above memorial?