The Peasants’ Revolt and the Blackfriars Trial

As well as religious reformation, the subject on everyone’s lips was political reform. The people slowly but surely lost faith in the nation’s leaders and decided to take matters into their own hands. This came to a head in 1381 when the common man rose up against the landlords and government. They had had enough of being beaten down and humiliated, forced to live in poverty while the leaders lived in luxury. The immediate cause of the revolt was due to the high rate of tax that had been recently imposed, which was said to be needed to finance the King’s war effort against the French. The long-term cause dated back to the Black Death of 1348-1351, as the pestilence had decreased the working population drastically, thus shifting the economy from the traditional villeinage (the word villain is derived from this) where the peasants were required to perform basic duties for the lord of the manor in payment for their holdings, to being more wage-based. The tension between the ruling and working classes increased as the wealthy expected greater productivity for lower and lower wages. This meant that the peasants were finding it increasingly difficult to provide food, clothing and homes for their families.

The rebels were not undisciplined as some commentators suggest, but many of them had the self-respect and discipline of soldiers, having been armed and trained in the military. Many expert bowmen were found in the rebel ranks. In the forests lurked formidable allies of the movement, Robin Hood types, peasants whom upper-class injustice had driven out of the villages, poachers, broken men, criminals and discharged soldiers of the French war. These formidable elements of social revolt had been flamed by a propaganda of what we would term today Christian Democracy, demanding in God’s name justice for the impoverished and homeless. England was shaken to its foundations at such an uprising of the common people. No wealthy man was free from the effects of the revolt be he secular or clerical, even Archbishop Sudbury was captured by the angry mob and beheaded, which in itself revealed that they were challenging all the supposed authorities of the land.

In London William Courtenay, now elected as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, found just what he was looking for to silence John Wycliffe. He used the Peasant’s Revolt, which was putting fear in the hearts of the aristocracy, to blacken Wycliffe’s name, but he knew that he was not involved in it but actually sought to stop it happening. It was in fact another priest, John Ball, who was directly associated with the Peasants’ Revolt, and who had been released from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s prison to take a leading part. He, along with Wat Tyler, the leader of the rebels, denounced the rich for their injustice to the poor. John Ball declared, “What right do they have to rule over us? Why do they deserve to be in authority? If we all came from Adam and Eve what proof do they have that they are better than we? Therefore why should we labour for them while they live in luxury?” Out of his preaching came the rhyme that was upon the lips of many poor people, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was the gentleman?” The problem for John Wycliffe was that John Ball quoted him, so the Archbishop had what he saw as sufficient evidence against him, and laid the blame for the uprising at the door of the reformer.

The revolt brought Wycliffe’s hopes of political reform to a close. It appears that the Church and Parliament united together in pointing the finger of guilt at Wycliffe. The revolt in fact caused the wealthy to turn defiantly against the new religious movement associated with Wycliffe. Fear of economic and political insurrection sent the ruling classes back to the altars of Rome. The one clear outcome of the Peasants’ Revolt was to delay the full extent of the English Reformation for about another 150 years. Wycliffe said of this coming together of opposing groups, “Herod and Pilate have become friends.” Though thousands of peasants were being hung and disembowelled for their part in the revolt, but for God’s grace Wycliffe could have easily suffered the same fate if the Church had been allowed to have its way. Archbishop Courtenay sought the authority of Pope Urban VI before he acted against Wycliffe, and soon as he received word from the Vatican he called what is known as the Blackfriars Synod on 17 May 1382. Those sitting in judgement on Wycliffe in the monastery of Blackfriars included eight bishops, fourteen doctors, four monks and fifteen friars. There is some doubt about whether Wycliffe himself was invited to attend the session.

Just as the proceedings were getting underway the courtroom shook as a violent earthquake hit London. So powerful was the shaking that masonry fell and buildings collapsed. The members of the council asked for the trial to be adjourned, for they felt that the quake was an omen. Two interpretations for the earthquake surfaced as the effects of the shaking disappeared. John Wycliffe was to speak of it as the judgement of God, and called it The Earthquake Synod. Archbishop William Courtenay took a different view, stating, “This earthquake foretells the purging of this kingdom from heresies, for as there are shut up in the bowels of the earth many noxious spirits which are expelled in an earthquake, and so the earth is cleansed but not without great violence, so there are many heresies shut up in the hearts of reprobate men, but by the condemnation of them, the kingdom is to be cleansed; but not without trouble and great commotion.” The court accepted the Archbishop’s interpretation for the earthquake and so continued with the trial of the reformer.

In all twenty-six propositions, which were selected from Wycliffe’s writings, were read out. These were either proclaimed to be heretical or erroneous. At the conclusion of the trial the bishops declared that the doctrines and teachings of John Wycliffe were forbidden throughout all dioceses in England. Courtenay especially wanted to rid Oxford of Wycliffe’s influence, but for the time being was hindered from doing so by the new chancellor, Robert Rigge, a sympathiser of Wycliffe. Wycliffe had himself objected to the purpose of this trial since, as a member of the University, he was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. Nevertheless through some unknown intrigue the chancellor was forced to reverse his support of the reformer. Robert Rigge finally sought pardon as he repented on his knees before the Archbishop. The next move of Courtenay to cleanse Oxford of Wycliffe was to appeal directly to King Richard II. He told the young king, “If we permit this heretic to appeal continually to the emotions of the people, our destruction is inevitable. We must silence him.” Unfortunately the king unwisely gave the Archbishop the authority to imprison any person who held doctrines that were contrary to Roman Catholic dogma. The leaders of the Church recovered their boldness and along with Parliament moved against the followers of Wycliffe, so for the first time the tracking down and burning of heretics was seen on these shores.

To Wycliffe it must have appeared as if the whole world was encircling him and coming in for the kill. The government was against him, some of his friends were disowning him rather than expose themselves to the wrath of Rome, and the University was casting him off, but God was still with him. A few faithful followers stood with him despite the obvious dangers for doing so.