The great process by Lord Thomas of Canterbury against John Oldcastle, knight, Lord of Cobham, in which lies open his examination, imprisonment and excommunication

This key text for all histories of John Oldcastle is an account of Oldcastle's trial on September 25th 1413, and the events leading up to it. As the final paragraphs make clear, it was sent by Archbishop Thomas for distribution by bishops throughout their dioceses. The material within it was to be related by preachers in the vernacular in an effort to combat the Lollard heresy.

This is a dramatic text at a number of levels. Unlike most heresy trial records (see, for example, those from Norfolk between 1428 and 1431), it is a relatively full and detailed account of the form of the trial. Additionally, however, it is a text from which preachers are themselves to base performances. The execution of Oldcastle, after his eventual capture in 1417, is yet another striking dramatic performance, which this text in some ways underpins.

The text is preserved among the Fasciculi Zizanorum Magistri Johannis Wyclif cum tritico, ed. by Walter Waddington Shirley, The Rolls Series, 5 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1858), pp. 433-50. On this collection see James Crompton, "Fasciculi Zizaniorum," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 12 (1961), 35-45, 155-66. The first half, not reproduced here, outlines Thomas's intentions for the letter and an account of the long train of events leading up to the trial, which you can find from your secondary reading, or in places such as the 1911 Encyclopedia.

And because of the series of things already already mentioned, and other clear indications, and proofs of events, we perceive that the same Lord John, in defence of his various errors, fortifies and encastellates himself against the keys of the Church, as was made known, from which cause a vehement suspicion of heresy and schismaticism rose up against him. We decree once more that the Lord John be apprehended for summoning to court, if he can be, or [summoned] through edict as before, that he may be manifest in our presence on the Sabbath day immediately after the feast of St Matthew the apostle and the coming feast of the Evangelist; if he has any reasonable cause why he ought not to be tried for the same most serious matter, just as for a common heretic, schismatic, and enemy and adversary of the universal Church; why, indeed, he, personally exposed, should not be proclaimed as such, and the help of the secular arm solemnly involked against him; and in the future to be answering, doing and receiving, regarding each and every point which justice will require.

On which deadline, that is on the day of the Sabbath immediately after the aforementioned feast of St. Matthew, the 23rd day of the aforesaid month of September, the Lord Robert of Morley, knight, keeper of the Tower of London arrived in person, arriving in our presence in the house of the chapter of the church of St. Paul, in London, before those sitting on the raised seats and those standing by us, our venerable associates Lords Richard of London and Henry of Winton, by the grace of God bishops, and with him he brought the aforementioned Lord John Oldcastle, knight, and he set him before us.

To which Lord John Oldcastle, thus present in person, we related the whole series of proceedings, as are contained in the transactions of the previous day, within good and cautious limits and in a very gentle manner: in a straightforward fashion, the same Lord John, of and regarding the articles laid out above, in the convocation of the aforementioned prelates and clergy of our office, that it had been made known, that it had become known and laid bare; and summoned in this way, and excommunicated through his stubbornness. And after he had arrived at this, we offer those prepared the same absolution.

However, the Lord John paying no attention to the offer, declined altogether to seek absolution; and thus, turning aside to other things, he said that he would willingly read out, before us and our aforementioned associates, the faith of his which he held and maintained. And thus, permission sought and won, he drew from his folds a certain indented paper, and read out loud through the contents of the same, and indeed handed the same paper over to us. And of the articles concerning which he was examined, the gist follows, and is thus:

[At this point, the text is in Middle English, which I reproduce]

I Johan Oldcastell knyght, lord of Cobham, wole that alle crysten men wyte and understone, that y clepe Almyghty God in to wytnesse that it hath be, now is, and ever, with the help of God, schal be myn entent and my wylle, to byleve, feythfully and fully, alle the sacramentys that ever God odeyned to be do in holy chirche.

And more over for to declare me in these foure poytys, I byleve that the moost worschipful sacrament of the auter is Crystis body in fourme of bred; the same body that was born of the blyssyd virgyne oure lady seynt Mary, doon on the crosse, deed & beryed, the thrydde day roos fro deth to lyve, the whyche body is now glorefyed in hevene.

Also as for the sacrament of penawnce, y bileve that is it nedeful to every man that schal be saved to forsake synne, & to do duhe penaunce of synne before don, with trewe confession, veray contricion, & duhe satisfaccion, as Goddys lawe lymyteth and techeth, and ellis may he not be savyd. Whyche penaunce y desyre alle me to doo.

And as off ymages I understonde that they be not of byleve, but that they were ordeyned, sythe the byleve was 3yne of Crist, by suffraunce of the chyrche, to be kalenderys to lewyd men, to represente & bryng to mynde the passyon of oure Lord Jesus Cryst, and martirdoom & good lyvyng of other seyntis. And that hoso it be that doth the worschyp to deede ymagys that is dewe to God, or putteth feyth, hope, or trust in help of hem, as he scholde do to God, or hath affeccion in oon more than in an other, he doth in that the grete synne of mawmetrie.

Also I suppose thys fully, that every man in thys erthe is a pylgrym toward blis or toward peyne; & that he that knowyth not, no wyle not knowe, ne kepe the holy commaundementys of God in hys lyvynge here, al be it that he goo on pylgremage to alle the world, & he dye so, he schal be damnyd. And he that knowyth the holy comaundementys of God & kepyth hem to hys ende, he schal be savyd, though he nevyr in hys lyff go on pylgremage, as men use now, to Cantirbery or to Rome, or to eny other place.

[Middle English ends]

With that paper, with these articles contained therein, being examined when it is presented by the aforementioned John, we discussed them with our aforementioned associates, and also many doctors, and skilled men; and at length, at the counsel and agreement of the same, we then said this to the aforementioned Lord John Oldcastle: ‘Well, Lord John, in many good and perfectly catholic things are contained in this paper; but you have this deadline so as to respond regarding other things smacking of errors and heresies, to which, in the contents of this paper, there is no a clear response: and therefore you have to declare more about those, and your faith and the declarations made in that same paper: specifically, whether or not you hold, believe and affirm that in the sacrament of the altar, after the rite of the consecration is done, material bread remains? And also whether you hold, believe and affirm that it is necessary to undertake the sacrament of penance [confession], that each who has enough [access to] priests should confess his sins to a priest ordained by the Church?

Having said these things thus, amongst many and various said by the aforementioned Lord John Oldcastle, he replied explicitly that he did not wish to declare differently from the aforesaid, nor otherwise than was contained in his aforementioned paper, to reply to those things in any other way. Whereupon we, feeling pity for the Lord John, then said this in a beneign and affable fashion: ‘Beware, Lord John, because if you do not clearly reply to these articles at the legal deadline already set for you, we can, ordered by a judge, pronounce and declare you a heretic.’

However, Lord John bore himself as before, and did not wish to reply otherwise. However, we, along with our aforementioned associated and others of our council, subsequently took counsel, and by the common counsel of the same we declared to that Lord John Oldcastle what the Holy Roman Church had determined in these matters, following the pronouncments of the blesses Augustine, Hieronymus and Ambrosiusm and of other saints: which decisions all Catholics ought to observe. To which the same Lord John replied that he wanted indeed to believe and to observe whatever the Holy Church had determined, and whatever God wanted him to believe and observe; but that if our lord the Pope, the cardinals, archbishops and bishops, and the other prelates of the Church had the power of determining such things, he did not want then in any way to maintain them.

With that, we, still pitying him, in the hope of better consideration, present to the same Lord John the set points about which the same Lord John had to respond more clearly, and we gave him the terms written in Latin, translated into English for his more ready comprehension, about which we commanded him, and cordially requested, that on the next Monday thereafter, he should give his response fully and clearly. Which determinations indeed we translated on the same day, and he on the next Sunday thereafter indeed to be freed; of which determinations the gist follows, and is thus:

[This is again in the Middle English]

The feyth, and the determinacion of the holy chyrche towchyng the blysful sacrament of the auter, is thys: that after tha sacramental wordys ben seyd be a prest in hys masse, the materyall bred that was before is turnyd into Crystys verray body; and the materyal wyn that was byfore, is turnyd into Crystys veray blood, and so there levyth in the auter no materyal bred, no materyal wyn, the whiche were there before the seyinge of the sacramental wordys. How leeve 3e thys article?

Holy chirche hath determined that every crysten man levyng here bodelych in erthe oughte to be schryne to a prest ordryd be the chirche, iff he may come to hym. How fele [3e] thys artycle?

Cryst ordeyned seynt Petir the apostil to be hys vycaire here in erthe; whos see is the chirche of Rome; ordeynyng & grauntyng the same power that he 3af to Petir scholde succede to alle Peterys successorys, the whiche we callyn now popys of Rome. By whos power, in chirches particuler, special ben ordeyned prelatis as archebischopys, byschopys, curatys, and other degrees; to whom chrysten men oughte to obeye, after the lawes of the chirche of Rome. This is the determinacion of holy chirche. How fele 3e thys article?

Holy chirche hath determyned that it is needeful to a crystyn man to go a pylgrimage to holy placys, and there specyally to worschype holy relyques of seyntes, apostlys, martires, confessourys, and alle seyntes approvyd be the chirche of Rome. How feele 3e thys artycle?

[Middle English ends]

On that Monday, that is the 25th day of the aforementioned month of September of course, in the presence of us and our aforementioned associates, and with the addition of our venerable brother Benedict, by the grace of God bishop of Bangor and by our order and mandate; of our counsellor and minister, that is Master Henry Ware, the officer of our court at Canterbury; Phillip Morgan, doctor of both laws; Howel Kyffyn, doctor of canon law; John Kempe and William Carleton, doctors of law; and John Wytnam, Thomas Palmere, Robert Wombewelle, John Whytheed, Robert Chamberlayn, Richard Dodyngtone, and Thomas Walden, university lecturers in Scripture; and moreover James Cole and Johns Stevens, our notaries appointed for these matters; each and every one was sworn on the holy gospel of God, touching the book, that of and regarding the aforesaid matters, and in the whole of this issue, they would offer their true counsel and duty, and without hatred, fear, love or favour they would reply just as though in the presence of God.

And they proceeded; the aforesaid Lord Robert of Morley, knight, keeper of the Tower of London appeared, and led in with him the aforementioned Lord John Oldcastle, and he stood before us. We recited the acts of the previous day, affably and gently; and, as we previously rcounted, in what way he--and it is that same John--would be excommunicated; and we asked and requested that he should seek and admit in accordance with his obligation the absolution of the Church.

To which Lord John explicitly replied then, in that very place, that the would seek no absolution on these matters from us, but from God alone.

Therefore we gently and in a calm manner asked and requested the same Lord John that he give your [sic] clear response of and concerning the contents of the aforementioned paper, the decision of the Church translated for him, and about the articles put to him; and firstly about the sacrament of the eucharist.

To which article, amongst others, he said and responded that just as Christ, passing here on earth, had in himself divinity and humanity, but with his divinity veiled and invisible under his humanity, which was evident and visible in him, so in the sacrament of the altar is the true body and the true bread; it is bread indeed which we see, and the body of Christ, which we do not see, is veiled beneath it. And he explicitly denied the faith concerning matters to do with the sacrament in the aforementioned paper, the decision of the Church, translated for him by us, determined by the Holy Roman Church and blessed men of learning, for the future and the present. But he said that if it is the decision of the Church, and after the Church became endowed, and poison was spread in the Church, and not before, it is done against the sacred Scripture.

Regarding even the sacrament of penance and confession, he said and asserted then the same, that if someone had been placed in any grave sin, from which he did not know how to escape, he might extracate himself and be good to go to some holy and prudent priest, so as to take his advice. But that he might confess his sin to some special curate or an elevated priest, even if he had an abunance of them, is not necessary for salvation and for that sinner to be purged, because one can wipe out sin of this sort only with contrition.

Regarding the adoration of the holy cross, he said and asserted then the same, that one should only worship the body of Christ, which hung on the cross, because that body alone was and is the cross for adoring. And asked what honour he himself did to the image of the cross, he replied with explicit words: that he did that honour alone to it which would clean it well and place it in good care.

As regards the power of the keys, our lord the Pope, archbishops, bishops and other prelates, he said that the pope is the true Antichrist, that is, the head of the same; archbishops and bishops, and also other relates, his limbs; and brothers his tail. Which popes, archbiships and prelates one should not obey, unless they should be models of Christ and of Peter in life, in habits and company; and that he is the successor of Peter who is better in life, and purer in habits, and none other.

Moreover, the same Lord John said in a loud voice, with his hands extended, in an address to the bystanders: ‘Those who judge, and want to condemn me, will lead you all astray, and the lead both themselves and you to the inferno: beware of them therefore!’

Once these things had been said by him thus, with tear-stained face we spoke again and again to the said Lord John, exhorting him with what words we could, that he return to the sole Church--that he believe, and maintain, what the Roman Church believes and maintains. He replied explicitly otherwise: that he did not believe, nor maintain it, as he had said before.

We saw therefore that we could not make progress with him, as was evident; at last, with grief of heart, we proceeded to the declaration of a definitive sentence in this matter.

[At this point, Bale’s translation of 1544 is conservative, so I quote his version:]

In the name of God. So be it. We Thomas, by the sufferance of God archbishop of Canterbury, metropolitan, and primate of all England, and legate from the apostolic seat of Rome, will this to be known unto all men. In a certain cause of heresy, and upon divers articles, whereupon sir John Oldcastle, knight, and Lord Cobham, after a diligent inquisition made for the same, was detected, accused, and presented before us in our last convocation of all our whole clergy of our province of Canterbury, holden in the cathdral church of Paul’s at London; at the laeful denouncement and request of our universal clergy in the said convocation, we proceeded against him according to the law (God to witness), with all favour possible: a following Christ’s example in all that we might (which willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he be converted and live), we took upon us to correct him, and sought all other ways possible to bring him again to the church’s unity, declaring unto him what the holy and universal church of Rome hath said, holden, determined, and taught in that behalf. And though we found him in the catholic faith far wide, and so stiffnecked that he would not confess his error, nor purge himself, nor yet repent him thereof; we yet pitying him of fatherly compassion, and entirely desiring the health of his soul, appointed him a competent time of delibertion, to see if he would repent and seek to be reformed: ad since we have found him worse and worse. Considering therefore that he is incorrigible, we are driven to the very extremity of the law, and with great heaviness of heart we now proceed to the final publication of the sentence definitive against him.

[The text adds a rubric here not included in Bale: ‘Here follows the sentence of excommunication laid against Oldcastle’]

Christ we take unto witness, that nothing else we seek in this our whole enterprise, but his only glory. Forasmuch as we have found by divers acts done, brought forth, and exhibited, by sordry evidences, signs, and tokens, and also by many most manifest proofs, the said sir John Oldcastle, knight, and Lord Cobham, not only an evident heretic in his own person, but also a mighty maintainer of other heretics against the faith and religion of teh holy and universal church of Rome; namely about the two sacraments of the altar and of penance, besides the pope’s power and pilgrimages; and that he, as the child of iniquity and darkness, hath so hardened his heart that he will in no case attend unto the voice of his pastor; neither will he be allured by strait admonishments, nor yet be brought in by favourable words: the worthiness of the cause first weighed on the one side, and his unworthiness again considered on the other side, his faults also aggravated, or made double through his damnable obstinacy: we being loth that he which is naught should be worse, and so with his contagiousness infect the multitude: by the sage counsel and assent of the very discreet fathers, our honourable brethren and lord bishops here present, Richard of London, Henry of Winchester, and Benet of Bangor, and of other great learned and wise men here, both doctors of divinity and of the laws canon and civil, seculars and religious, with divers other expert men assisting us, we sententially and definitively by this present writing judge, declare, and condemn the said sir John Oldcastle, knight, and Lord Cobham, for a most pernicious and detestable heretic, convicted upon the same, and refusing utterly to obey the church again, committing him here from henceforth as a condemned heretic to the secular jurisdiction, power, and judgment to do him thereupon to death. Furthermore we excommunicate and denounce accursed not only this heretic here present, but so many else besides as shall hereafter in favour of his error either receive him or defend him, counsel him, or help him, or any other way maintain him, as very faulters, receivers, defenders, counsellers, aiders, and maintainers of condemned heretics.

And that these premises may be the better known to all faithful Christian men, we commit it here unto your charges, and give ye strait commandment thereupon by this writing also, that ye cause this condemnation and definitive sentence of excommunication concerning both this heretic and his faulters to be published throughout all your dioceses in cities, towns, and villages by your curates and parish priests, such time as they shall have most recourse of people. And see that it be done after this sort: As the people are thus gathered devoutly together, let the curate every where go into the pulpit, and there open, declare, and expound this process in the mother tongue in an audible and intelligible voice, that it may well be perceived of all men, and that upon the fear of this declaration also the people may fall from their ill opinions conceived now of late by seditious preachers. Moreover we will, that after we have delivered unto each one of you bishops (which are here present) a copy hereof, that ye cause the same to be written out again into divers copies, and so to be sent unto the other bishops and prelates of our whole province, that they may also see the contents thereof solemly published within their dioceses and cures. Finally we will, that both you and they signify again unto us seriously and distinctly by your writings, as the matter is without feigned colour in every point performed, the day whereupon ye received this process, the time when it was of you executed, and after what sort it was done in every condition, according to the tenor hereof, that we may know it to be justly the same.

[At this point, the original text concludes with orders by Richard Clifford, bishop of London, and Robert Mascall, bishop of Hereford, to distribute the text.]