Lollard Knights & Associates OLDCASTLE, Sir John (c.1370-1417)
The future lollard leader was born in about 1370 and by 1397 had inherited modest family estates, consisting of the manor of Almeley, near Kington, lands in the neighbouring parishes of Kinnersley and Letton, and property in and around Hereford. Little is known of his early life, but by 1394 he had married Katherine verch Richard (whose mother was heir to lands in Buckinghamshire), and by 1396 their first son, another John, had been born. Like many other Herefordshire gentlemen, he may have begun his career in the service of the Mortimers, for in July 1397 he took out royal letters of protection as accompanying two Mortimer retainers (his uncle, Thomas Oldcastle*, and Thomas Walwyn II*) to Ireland, where they were to join Roger, earl of March, the King’s lieutenant.
By 1400 Oldcastle had been knighted, and in the autumn of that year he served on Henry IV’s campaign against the Scots, first under the banner of Lord Grey of Codnor and later in the King’s own retinue. With the outbreak of Owen Glendower’s revolt Sir John’s military services were required nearer home, and by November 1401 he was acting as captain of Builth castle, with a garrison of 60 men. In the following year he took command of Hay, with a force of 40 men-at-arms and 120 archers, and in September 1403 he was commissioned to receive the submission of Welsh rebels in the surrounding area. He was still in charge, jointly with John ap Harry*, in November 1404. His services did not go unrewarded, and in April 1406 he was granted annuities of £40 from the duchy of Lancaster revenues, and a further 40 marks from the issues of Monmouth. Then, in February 1407, he and ap Harry shared a royal lease of the Mortimer lordship of Dinas, Breconshire. During the following summer and autumn he assisted Prince Henry in besieging his rebellious subjects in Aberystwyth castle. Meanwhile, in January 1404, Oldcastle had been elected to Parliament for Herefordshire. This was to be his only appearance in the Commons, and nothing is known of his activities during that unexceptional session. Next April he was appointed a member of the county bench, and during 1406-7 he officiated as sheriff. His closest associate at this time was apparently his old comrade, John ap Harry, the two men being feoffees of each other’s principal estates, but he also had links with Sir John Chandos* (for whom he was a trustee) and Thomas Walwyn II. Sir John’s fortunes advanced dramatically early in 1408 when (perhaps through the influence of Prince Henry) he obtained the marriage of Joan de la Pole, the sole heir both of her father and of her maternal grandfather, John, Lord Cobham, who died in January the same year. This union brought him a life interest not only in the Cobham estates (consisting of Cooling castle and six manors in north Kent, two in Wiltshire, two in Northamptonshire, and ‘Cobham’s Inn’ in London), but also in the many de la Pole properties and the lands which Joan held as dower from her three earlier marriages. More significantly, the alliance was also the basis for his personal summons to Parliament as a baron: he was first called to the Upper House on 26 Oct. 1409, and continued to receive such writs until his condemnation in September 1413.
It seems probable that by the date of his elevation to the peerage Oldcastle was already a convinced lollard. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that he derived his beliefs from the heretical evangelist, William Swynderby, who had preached at Almeley during his youth in the early 1390s; and he certainly held strongly unorthodox views by September 1410, for he then wrote to Wok of Waldstein, a leading Bohemian Hussite nobleman, and Wladislas of Zwierzeticz, a scholastic follower of Hus, congratulating them on their opposition to the clergy at Prague. Perhaps it was at this time, too, that he wrote to King Wladislas of Bohemia, urging him to support the reformers.8 With all this in mind, it is difficult not to see Oldcastle’s hand in two pieces of anti-clerical (if not actually lollard) legislation promoted by the Commons during the first session of the 1410 Parliament (the Parliament to which Sir John was first summoned as a peer). It was first proposed to disendow the Church to the extent of confiscating the temporalities of the higher clergy, thus providing (according to some chroniclers) funds both for the King and for the establishment of 15 new earls, several thousand knights and esquires, and 100 almshouses. Another petition asked for such a modification of the statute against heretics (ad Heretico Cornburendo) as would almost abrogate it. Neither bill was successful, but Archbishop Arundel’s activities during the session indicate that the Church was severely alarmed. On 1 Mar. 1410 he ordered the retrial in London of John Badby of Evesham, a heretic of extreme views, who had been imprisoned at Worcester ever since his examination before Bishop Peverell in January 1409. Being found obdurate, Badby was publicly burned at Smithfield on 5 Mar. in the presence of Prince Henry, his brother Prince John, and the duke of York. He was only the second man to die for the lollard faith, and Arundel may well have deliberately sought his execution to discourage anti-clericals in Parliament. Four days later, moreover, the London clergy were ordered to cite for heresy Master William Taillour, whose attack on clerical possessions had caused a stir in 1406, and soon afterwards several London lollards were arrested.
Arundel’s next move was aimed somewhat more directly at Oldcastle. On 3 Apr. 1410, four days before Parliament was due to re-assemble after a recess, the archbishop informed the dean of Rochester that a certain ‘pretended chaplain’ named John, dwelling with Oldcastle, had been preaching heresy and lollardy in the churches of Hoo, Halstow and Cooling, and especially in the last. He then ordered the dean to cite the chaplain, and to place the churches mentioned under interdict. Two days later, however, the ban was lifted (possibly to allow the wedding at Cooling of Joan Braybrooke, Oldcastle’s stepdaughter, to Thomas*, son of Sir Thomas Brooke* of Weycroft), and it was never re-imposed. Arundel’s actions are hard to explain, but it is at least possible that the interdict was designed to frighten Oldcastle out of further support for anti-clerical measures during the coming session of Parliament. Whether it was lifted because of pressure from Oldcastle’s friends in high places, or removed in return for an undertaking from Sir John himself, is impossible to say, but the bill of disendowment was apparently never again promoted.
Even so, Oldcastle’s support for heresy was by no means at an end. In September following he wrote the letters to Bohemia mentioned above, and he continued to encourage lollard preachers in his Kentish estates, maintaining one of them (Robert Chapell) in his household for at least six months. Surprisingly, his unorthodox views did not terminate his friendship with Prince Henry, and in the autumn of 1411 he was given a command in the expedition sent by the prince to assist the Burgundian party in France against its Orléanist rivals. He was, therefore, probably absent from the Parliament of 1411, but was summoned to the last assembly of Henry IV’s reign, which began on 3 Feb. 1413. During the session (on 6 Mar.) Convocation also met, and on its very first day another attack on Sir John was initiated. A chaplain named John Lay, who was suspected of heresy, had that same day celebrated mass in Oldcastle’s presence: he was at once hauled before Archbishop Arundel, cross-questioned, and ordered to produce his sacerdotal credentials. The incident suggests that Oldcastle was being watched, but no further action was taken and, a fortnight later, the death of Henry IV brought to an end the proceedings of both Parliament and Convocation.
Oldcastle was attending Henry V’s first Parliament (of May 1413) when the reconvened Convocation obtained firmer evidence against him, in the form of an heretical book of his found during a raid on the premises of a London illuminator. On 6 June, therefore, a clerical deputation visited the King at Kennington, and in Oldcastle’s presence displayed the offending tract. Even now, however, Arundel could not secure royal permission to proceed officially against one of the best loved of Henry V’s courtiers (unum de praecarissimis ex magnis domesticis suis). Sir John was plainly still in favour in July, when the King promised him payment for a certain jewelled clasp lately belonging to the ‘lollard knight’, Sir Lewis Clifford (d.1404), for whom Oldcastle had acted as an executor. Indeed, it was not until 21 Aug. that Henry, infuriated by Sir John’s continued obduracy, finally gave Arundel permission to prosecute him.
Oldcastle’s trial and his subsequent revolt need only be touched upon briefly here. After several delays, Sir John was brought to trial at St. Paul’s on 23 Sept. 1413, and, being found obdurate, was two days later excommunicated and relinquished to the secular arm for burning. Henry V, however, still hoping that his old friend might recant, obtained for him a stay of execution of 40 days, during which he was confined to the Tower. Oldcastle contrived to maintain contact with lollards in London, and with their aid escaped from prison on the night of 19 Oct., immediately going into hiding at the house of one William Parchmyner, near Clerkenwell. During the next few months he and his supporters plotted an armed rising, and messages were sent out to lollards all over England to meet on the night of 9-10 Jan. in St. Giles’s Fields. By this time, it was hoped, a picked band of conspirators disguised as mummers would have either kidnapped or murdered the King while he was celebrating Twelfth Night (6 Jan.) at Eltham palace, the intention being either to force Henry to accept lollardy or for Oldcastle to rule in his stead as regent.
The plot, however, was revealed to the government, the ‘mummers’ were arrested, and one of them betrayed the plans for the rising. Thus forewarned, Henry V easily surrounded and totally routed the rebels as they mustered at St. Giles’s Fields. Though rumour made the lollards 25,000 strong, only about 220 men are certainly known to have taken part in the rebellion. Of these, three were knights, 15 were esquires or gentlemen (including Roger* and (Sir) John Cheyne II* of Drayton, Buckinghamshire) and 24 were clerks, among them the secretary of the late John Wycliffe whose doctrines had inspired the insurrection. But the majority were peasants or artisans, some of them coming from as far afield as Derbyshire and Bristol. About 80 rebels were taken, of whom over half were executed, but Oldcastle himself escaped in the confusion.14 On the day after the collapse of Oldcastle’s rising a reward of 1,000 marks was offered for his capture, and he was specifically excepted from the general pardon offered to other lollards. During the next three years and more he was continuously on the run, but his movements can be at least partially traced. He may have remained hidden in London for three weeks after the revolt, but the authorities suspected him of fleeing to his old haunts in Wales, and royal officials there were warned to keep watch for him. During the summer of 1415 he was in the south-west Midlands, and that August (when Henry V departed for his first French expedition) he attempted a new rising in Worcestershire, only to be easily foiled by a local magnate, Richard, Lord Abergavenny. In 1416 there were rumours, more or less substantiated, of Oldcastle’s appearance in Northamptonshire, London, Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire, and at Christmas he was said to have been implicated in a plot to kill the King at Kenilworth. In the early summer of 1417 he was believed to be conspiring with the Scots and other enemies. He was now again in the Midlands, apparently operating from a base at Byfield in Northamptonshire, and it was at nearby Silverstone that in July he narrowly escaped capture.
Henry V clearly still viewed Oldcastle as highly dangerous, capable of raising a new rebellion while he was engaged in his projected conquest of Normandy. Before the King’s departure, and in the second week of July 1417, three of Sir John’s friends were required to give surety that they would neither harbour nor assist him: these were Oldcastle’s stepson-in-law, Thomas Brooke, Brooke’s half-brother, Richard Cheddar*, and Sir John’s old comrade, John ap Harry. The last of these had certainly been assisting the fugitive, specifically by collecting for him the rents of his Herefordshire estates (which ought to have been forfeit to the Crown). Oldcastle himself was living, apparently more or less openly, at his home in Almeley, from about 20 Aug. until the middle of the following October, but despite a tip off from an informer, his neighbour, John Merbury*, and John Brugge*, then sheriff, could not (or would not) capture him.16 Sir John was finally taken near Welshpool, Montgomeryshire, a month later, probably on his way back from a meeting in north Wales with Gruffydd, son of his old enemy, Owen Glendower. His captors took him to their lord, Edward, Lord Charleton of Powys, who was ordered to send him to London under strong guard, and rewarded with the promised 1,000 marks. Two weeks later he made his last appearance before Parliament, but instead of defending himself he preached a sermon to the assembly, and is also said to have declared that Richard II, to whom he referred as his liege lord, was alive and dwelling in Scotland. At the Commons’ request the Lords sentenced the traitor to be executed at once, and on the same day (14 Dec.) he was hanged and burnt hanging at St. Giles’s Fields, the scene of his revolt.
After Sir John’s execution, his widow, Joan, was released from custody in the Tower, and the Cobham lands were restored to her. She subsequently took as her fifth husband Sir John Harpeden. Oldcastle’s children were all by his first wife; their eldest son, John, inherited her family lands in Buckinghamshire, but died in 1420, and Sir John’s own Herefordshire estates were eventually, in 1431, restored to his second son, Henry. The latter’s sister, Maud, had married Roger, son of Richard Clitheroe I* of Ash-next-Sandwich, Kent.