The English Reformation is a well-known period in history, when you think of it, you think of King Henry VIII. However, the basis for the English reformation actually originated hundreds of years before The Tudor monarch was even born. In the early 1320’s a man called John Wycliffe was born, he would grow up to be a churchman, theologian and writer. His beliefs and ideas would be the platform on which the later reformers would build their religion. He wanted to make religious teachings more accessible to all and even translated the Bible into English, which naturally the Catholic Church denounced as unauthorised. In 1401, translating a bible would be made into an act of heresy. Wycliffe’s followers would become known as The Lollards.
John Oldcastle was born in the late 1370’s in the village of Ameley, close to the Welsh Border. He would go onto become one of the most well-known Lollard Leaders. The English monarchy relied heavily on knights, such as the Oldcastles to protect the border from Welsh Rebels, and John would spent many years in royal service, he spent time in Scotland, and was promoted to Superintendent of Hay and Builth. In 1407 he was part of the army sent against the Welsh nationalist leader Owen Glendower, under the command of Henry, Prince of Wales, who would later become Henry V. In 1408 John married Joan Cobham, inheriting vast estates and lands, and the title of Lord Cobham, he also gained a seat as a member of the Upper House in Parliament in 1409. He developed a friendship with the Prince of Wales, possibly from their time spent together in Wales.
In 1413 when Henry became King, the rumours of John’s heretic behaviour had already started to circulate. One of his chaplains was accused of preaching Lollardy, and John was accused of maintaining both Lollard preachers and their opinions. It is not known where John gained his Lollard beliefs, however at the time Lollardy was popular in Herefordshire, so he was possibly bought up with those beliefs around him. John refused to recant his views, and was convicted of Heresy. Due to their friendship the King allowed him a stay of execution for 40 days, imprisoning him in The Tower of London, where he managed to escape. He took shelter with another Lollard, William Fisher in Smithfield, where he began to plot against his former friend the King. The plan was to kidnap the King, and introduce the Lollard religious beliefs and policies across the country. A few disguised men would enter Eltham Palace, the Kings residence, and seize him, whilst a second force would take London. On the night of Jan 9th 1414 a meeting of conspirators was to take place at St Giles Field; however the numbers were not what Lord Cobham had hoped for, somewhere between 300 and 1000 men and many influential nobles had failed to be persuaded by the Lollard cause, and had not given their support. On the night before the plan was to take place, a group of Lollard supporters were apprehended at an inn in London, and the plot was revealed. The King was warned by his agents, and the gathering conspirators were either captured or dispersed.
John, Lord Cobham escaped and for the next two years managed to avail capture, spending time in the Midlands and the West of England. On one occasion he was almost caught with a number of his close supporters in St Albans, many of them were taken, and several English books, including mutilated pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Saints were seized. In the November of 1417 John Oldcastle was finally apprehended near Welshpool. He was conveyed to London, in the custody of Edward Charleton. Lord of Powis, and arraigned for treason before Parliament. The sentence was death, he was to be hung as a traitor, and then burned as a heretic. The King was away campaigning in France at the time, and sentence was carried out without delay.
John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham was executed on December 14th 1417 at St Giles Field, the site of his failed rebellion, in the presence of the Dukes of Bedford and Exeter. The gallows on which he was hung were then consumed by the flames.
Lollardy all but died out, the effect of the rebellion must have been the opposite to what John Oldcastle had sought out. Instead of inspiring religious reform, it had created a fear in the nobles that Lollard beliefs were in fact a method to overthrow the current political order. Lollards were suppressed; the church began to stamp out the Lollard movement, many nobles turned away from their previous beliefs. Lollardy became almost forgotten.
Shakespeare however would go on to make John Oldcastle notorious by using him as his inspiration for the popular character of John Falstaff, who appears in three of his plays.