Lollardy has been called 'England's first heresy'. It was never an organized movement in the sense of a modern religious or secular organization. There was no 'Head Lollard' or organizational hierarchy of Lollards. Rather, Lollards were simply people tied together by a set of beliefs. Those beliefs varied in focus and intensity from one person to the next, so it is a mistake to think of Lollards as having unified beliefs or set of principals.
What did the Lollards believe?
Having said that, there are certain ideas that were commonly associated with Lollards. Among these are the beliefs that:
- The pope had no part to play in worldly affairs
- The church was too worldly
- Monasticism had drifted from its spiritual foundation
- The Bible should be available to everyone in their own language
- 'Dominion is of Grace', that is, true power is God's, and attempts to use power for individual gain is therefore wrong
- As human beings we are all brothers (this was well before modern politically correct assumption of 'sisterhood' as well)
From these beliefs it was an easy jump to basic principles that today might be deemed socialism or even anarchism. For that reason, though Lollardy started as a purely religious urge towards reforming the established church, it came to be seen by the established social order of nobility and the state as being a threat to their existence; an incitement to upheaval and rebellion.
The origins of Lollardy can be traced to the writings of John Wycliffe (alternately spelled Wiclif, Wicliff, or even Wickliff) Wycliffe was a churchman, writer, and theologian who was born sometime in the 1320s and died on the last day of 1384. He can in many respects be considered the father of the English Reformation. Certainly, his ideas provided a platform upon which the later reformers built.
Wycliffe believed that the church had drifted away from its purely spiritual foundations, and further, that it had no part to play in worldly affairs. He was strongly critical of papal influence in secular life, and sought to make religious teachings more accessible to everyone. He thought that the Bible should be available in the vernacular that is, in the language of the common people, so that everyone could read and understand it, not just those elite members of the church who were educated in Latin.
Wycliffe began a translation of the Bible into English. For the time, this was an act of extreme courage, and one which brought him into direct conflict with the church in Rome. It is worth noting that there were already portions of the Bible available in English, but no complete translation. 'Wycliffe's Bible' as it was called, was widely distributed throughout England, and had a huge influence at the time. Predictably, it was denounced by the Church as an unauthorized and inaccurate translation. Later, in 1401 the Constitutions of Oxford made it heresy to translate the Bible into English.
Enemies of Lollardy
The fascinating aspect of the story of the Lollards is how the movement was first used by the crown as a tool against the influence of the Roman church on secular English affairs, and later suppressed because the views of the Lollards were seen as a threat to established political order inside Britain. So the Lollards went from being allies of the English nobility, to a threat to same nobility (at least in the eyes of the nobility!).
This is readily apparent in the rebellion known as the Peasant's Revolt. This popular uprising, which occurred in 1381, was widely attributed to Lollardy, despite the fact that Wycliffe himself opposed the revolt. Indeed, Wycliffe's staunch ally, John of Gaunt, was one of the men most despised by the rebels. Yet, in the aftermath of the Peasant's Revolt, Wycliffe's beliefs were declared heretical by an ecclesiastical body brought by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Though Wycliffe himself died in 1384, Lollardy as a movement lasted until well into the following century. The term 'Lollard' became a rather generic label to slap on any opponent of the established social or religious order. A modern parallel might be the way in which those who questioned Western political and moral standards in the mid-20th century were often labeled 'communists'.
How widespread was Lollardy?
The short answer is that we don't know, because of course there were no membership cards, or no annual conventions of Lollards. We can, perhaps, get some idea of the influence of Wycliffe's ideas when you consider this contemporary comment; "Every second man that you meet is a Lollard."
Perhaps a more important question is to ask what became of the ideas that Lollardy popularised? Wycliffe and his followers gave voice to a popular desire to move away from the established Roman church, and towards a greater sense of political and religious independence. That desire would eventually result in the upheavals of the English Reformation, the establishment of the Anglican Church, and the slow, often painful move towards democracy.
The Peasant's Revolt
De Heretico Comburendo