One of the earliest movements in the lineage of English Protestantism, the Lollards, arose in the late 14th century inspired by an early English translator of the Bible. It was a full-fledged class revolt, went underground, then resurfaced during the English Reformation.
In the 14th century, Lollard, Lollardi or Loller was a popular slur against those with little formal education, including people who could read and write in English but not in university Latin. The term is believed to have originated with the Anglo-Irish monk Henry Crumpe, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary it most likely derives from Middle Dutch terms meaning “mumbler” or “mutterer.” Such might be the response of a lowly, unschooled person intimidated by a scholar or an authority figure. By the mid-15th century and later, the term had come to mean a heretic, in general.
The movement was initially led by John Wycliffe (1320–84), a prominent theologian dismissed from Oxford University in 1381 for, as he himself described it, “barking against the Church.” Many of the themes that would later emerge in Protestantism are present in his theological views.
Wycliffe emphasized the Bible over the teachings of popes and clerics, adding that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy. He juxtaposed the “invisible church of the elect,” meaning those predestined to be saved, against the “visible” Catholic Church. He rejected purgatory, clerical celibacy, pilgrimages, the selling of indulgences and praying to, or invoking, saints.
He also viewed the monastic orders as “sects” that supported what he regarded as an imperial papacy and called friars neither scriptural nor sincere, but motivated by “temporal gain.” He sought the extinction of monasticism and the dissolution of the monasteries.
Wycliffe gained considerable political support with his political writings and speeches on ecclesiastical matters. He defended the privileges of the state and claims for the supremacy of the monarchy over the priesthood. In 1378, in the papal ambassador’s presence, he delivered an opinion in Westminster Abbey before Parliament, concerning the right of asylum. He argued that criminals who had taken sanctuary in churches could lawfully be dragged out.
What brought him longer-lasting fame, though, was translating the Bible. In the Middle Ages, biblical translation was discouraged; the Latin Vulgate originally translated by St. Jerome was viewed as the standard version. Among fragmentary Old English Bible translations, there’s a lost translation of the Gospel of John by the Venerable Bede made around 735, a number of passages of the Bible that Alfred the Great circulated in the vernacular about a century later, and from around 990 a full and freestanding version of the four gospels known as the Wessex Gospels. Wycliffe's Bible was translated in 1383 from the Vulgate and may have been the first to be read by ordinary English people—of course, as the translator drifted into controversy, the translation was banned.
Although Lollardism was denounced as a heresy, Wycliffe and the Lollards were initially sheltered by John of Gaunt—also known as the first Duke of Lancaster and a member of the House of Plantagenet—and other anticlerical nobility, who may seen clerical reform as a means to acquire new sources of revenue from England’s monasteries. A group of gentry active under the radar during the reign of Richard II (1377–99) was known as “Lollard Knights” because of their agreement with Wycliffe's ideas.
These attitudes changed dramatically after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, a major uprising across large parts of England.
The revolt had various causes, including tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s and high taxes to pay for the Hundred Years’ War with France. The trigger for the revolt was a scuffle that occurred in Essex on May 20, 1381, when a royal official attempted to collect unpaid poll taxes. A violent confrontation rapidly spread across the southeast of the country, drawing in a broad base of rural society, including local artisans and village officials, who rose up in protest, burned court records and opened local jails. The rebels demanded a reduction in taxes, an end to serfdom and the removal of a number of senior royal officials and judges.
Wycliffe and other Lollards opposed the revolt, but because a prominent leader of the peasants preached Lollardism the royalty and nobility saw the movement as a threat not merely to the Church, but to English society in general. The king mobilized 4,000 soldiers who tracked down and executed most of the rebel leaders; by November, about 1,500 rebels had been killed. Thereafter, the Lollards’ small measure of protection evaporated, a change in status aided also by the 1386 departure of John of Gaunt from England.
Religious and secular authorities strongly opposed Lollardism. A primary opponent was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry IV who, despite being John of Gaunt’s son, got Parliament to pass a law called De heretico comburendo in 1401. The statute declared that “divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect … they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people . . . and commit subversion of the said catholic faith.” It ordered that “this wicked sect, preachings, doctrines, and opinions, should from henceforth cease and be utterly destroyed.”
The law did not actually name or ban the Lollards in particular, but it barred translating or owning the Bible and authorized death by burning for heretics, a punishment that was meted out to Lollards through the 16th century. Instances of persecution are recorded in the Diocese of London, where 310 Lollards were prosecuted or forced to abjure between 1510 and 1532; in Lincoln, 45 cases against Lollardism were heard between 1506 and 1507, and in 1521 there were 50 abjurations and 5 burnings. In 1511 Kent, 41 Lollards recanted and 5 were burned at the stake.
Lollards were absorbed into Protestantism during the English Reformation. A member of the hierarchy who supported the English Reformation, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall of London, called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of Wycliffe’s heresy. Lollards were last persecuted between 1554 and 1559 under the Revival of the Heresy Acts during the reign of Queen Mary I of England.