RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry heresy Lollardy preaching doctrine friars riot conflict suppression arrest punishment
Subject: Lollardy at Coventry
Original source: Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book
Transcription in: Mary Dormer Harris, ed. The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register. London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 96-97.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Coventry
Date: 1424


On 30 November 1424, one John Grace, who was at that time called John Grace hermit – and since then men have said he was a monk, then a friar, and after that a recluse – came to this city and preached for 5 days consecutively in the Little Park, saying that he was a licenciate and had a licence to preach from the bishop's officials in this diocese, and that he had preached to the canons at the close in Lichfield for 3 consecutive days, and after that he preached at Birmingham, and next at Walsall, then at Coleshill, and thence came down here. At that time this John Grace was highly reputed among the populace for his preaching, since he was very graceful in his speech, and saintly in the way he lived, and performed and demonstrated many marvels. Because of his reputation, many men were prepared to believe what was said about him in the past, and that encouraged the people to be more receptive to his preaching. Nonetheless, on 30 November after John Grace had preached, it was rumoured that he was not a licenciate and had no licence to preach, notwithstanding that he himself stated in every sermon he gave that he was a licenciate and had such a licence.

On the afternoon of the same day, once Evensong was over, Richard Croseby, Prior of St. Mary's church in Coventry, intended (it was commonly said) to go into the pulpit in the church of Holy Trinity to denounce as accursed all those who listened to the sermon of John Grace. And so, because of the behaviour of the Prior, and what was said by one Master John Bredon, one of the Greyfriars in Coventry, making critical comments among the people, the rumour spread among the populace that the Prior and Friar Bredon wanted to curse all those who had heard John Grace preach. Because of that rumour, neither the Prior nor Friar Bredon were willing come out of the church until the mayor was present; despite the fact that they could well enough have gone wherever they wanted, Heaven knows!

Because of what had happened, the story was spread in the countryside that the commons of Coventry had rioted and planned to kill the Prior and the friar – which, God knows, was not the case, nor was any such thing attempted or plotted. Word of this came to the king's council, which was at that time in London, and it had a letter sent to the mayor, bailiffs, and commons of this city, in the following words: "Trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well; forasmuch as it was recently reported to us and some of our councillors that a certain person, a sometime monk, etc."


Puritanical criticism of the Church, many of whose institutions had become very worldly, was nothing new in the Late Middle Ages, and Lollardy simply provided a new, doctrinal focus. It found strong sympathy in the Midlands in the late fourteenth century, including at Coventry, which became notorious as a base for the heretics. The citizens' long political struggle with the Prior, who had lordship over half the town, may have contributed to the anti-clericalism felt by some. At the same time, Coventry was one of several places where seemingly heretical tendencies emerged from the other end of the spectrum: a peculiar devotion to a local cult focused on a purportedly miracle-working statue of the Virgin Mary, which was a particular target for Lollard derision.

Lollard sympathisers included some in positions of power and influence, and they were able to return supporters to parliament. At one such parliament held at Coventry in 1404, the Church came under attack and the demand was made (fruitlessly) that its revenues be confiscated. But even then the crackdown on heretics was underway. At an episcopal convocation of 1413 a number of books were condemned as heretical, and one of the most offensive had been produced at Coventry. Again, the abortive uprising by Lollard Sir John Oldcastle attracted some supporters from Coventry. In 1419 Robert Clerke, alias Taylor, of Coventry was brought before the bishop on a charge of heresy; he recanted and did penance, but it has been suggested his ideas were due more to mental instability than Lollardy.

In general, urban authorities were anxious to deal firmly with heretics, not for reasons of doctrine but simply to prevent any divisions within the community that could lead to a breakdown in law and order. In some Midlands towns, however, we find sympathy or tolerance for Lollards among the authorities. Such at least is evident from the above document, representing the viewpoint that events had been blown out of proportion, a position that may have been taken to try to forestall or limit intervention by external authorities. The document does not imply any overt support per se for Grace, however, and the city rulers must have been concerned about the disorder that had come about; Lollardy incorporated ideas about social equality that were part of what appealed to the lower classes and must have made the ruling class somewhat nervous. In some cases, the authorities over-reacted, as in the famous detention at Leicester of Margery Kempe, returning from her Spanish pilgrimage and en route from Bristol to Lynn; despite her orthodox answers to doctrinal questions, the mayor of Leicester doubted her sincerity, and needed persuasion from the clergy that she could be sent on her way.

Grace was an anchorite friar who had obtained a preacher's licence from Bishop Heyworth. His preaching had caused riots in Staffordshire before he reached Coventry. At this period Coventry was perhaps the principal centre in the Midlands offering support to Lollardy. Prior Crosby was a natural opponent, both because of his ecclesiastical and secular interests in the town. Already, in 1421, he, mag. Bredon (a doctor of theology), and the warden of St. John's Hospital had submitted a proposal to the city authorities for preventing disturbances on Midsummer's Eve and St. Peter's Night, resulting from the large crowds in the streets; they advocated appointing special officers for each ward on those nights and having the mayor or bailiffs patrol the streets with a posse. Possibly they were instrumental in the issue of royal letters patent, in December 1424, ordering Grace's arrest for teaching unorthodox doctrines. The following Easter saw orders for the arrest of seven Coventry men on charges of insurrection; on May 6 two of them and thirty-one others put up bonds to guarantee that they would be obedient to the mayor, would not knowingly support Lollard or other heretical opinions, nor make congregations contrary to the king's peace; sixteen more men gave similar assurances later that year. These were probably the outcome of the investigation into the disturbances resulting from Grace's visit.

Two of the original men whose arrest was ordered, along with two more ordered apprehended in late 1425, remained at large at the beginning of the following year. One was take and brought before the bishop in March 1426, obtained his release by recanting his heresies, and promptly disappeared – he had still not been retaken by 1428. The mayor's account of 1429 refers to £3 having been spent on fines incurred by poor men of the town in relation to some unspecified indictment before the King's Bench; it is not unlikely that these were fines consequent to the investigation into the alleged riot. In 1431, Lollard leaflets were spread around Coventry, but the problem was dealt with locally, without arousing the king's attention. The same year saw executions of some Lollards at Coventry. For a few decades after this, things were quieter, but Lollardy made a strong reappearance in the 1480s and helps explain why, under the Tudors, Coventry was strongly Protestant.



"Little Park"
This was part of the grounds of Cheylesmore manor, in the southern suburb of Coventry.

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Created: March 14, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003