RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Northampton mayor heresy Lollardy priests preaching doctrine political conflict maladministration disturbances intimidation election offences punishment
Subject: Town authorities accused of abetting Lollardy
Original source: Public Record Office, Ancient Petitions 7099 (English translation of 17th century, in British Library, Cott. MSS. Cleopatra E.II, f.201)
Transcription in: Edgar Powell and G.M. Trevelyan, eds. The Peasants' Rising and the Lollards, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1899, 45-50.
Original language: French (but transcript is from the English translation)
Location: Northampton
Date: 1393


Richard Stermesworth of the town of Northampton lays a complaint before our sovereign lord the king and his council against John Fox, mayor of that town of Northampton: that, whereas it is ordained by statute as well as by the laws of Holy Church that Lollards should be punished, etc., the mayor has presumptuously abused his office by using his royally-granted power within the town of Northampton to authorise Lollards to preach, in despite of the Bishop of Lincoln and his curates.

Also, that the mayor is [himself] a Lollard ... supporting within his household one Richard Bullocke, a chaplain who has been convicted of many heretical errors before the Archdeacon of Northampton, and similarly one James Collyn, formerly an apprentice in the mercers' trade in London, who was the first adherent and promoter of Lollardy in Northampton. The mayor also associates with and takes advice from one Thomas Compeworthe of Oxfordshire, who has been convicted before the Chancellor and University there of many [doctrinal] errors and heresies, and one Nicholas Weston, an apostate Carmelite friar who became a Lollard without permission from his order. The mayor has engineered Friar Nicholas becoming chaplain of the parish church of St. Gregory at Northampton, where he may preach Lollardy in comfort and encourage those townspeople who hold false beliefs.

The mayor has drawn into his circle of advisors William Northwold, a Lollard and one who engages in instructing and taking confession from those lay people of the town who are Lollards, without licence from the Bishop. This William, under false credentials, occupied the archdeaconry of Sudbury for some seven years and, upon leaving that post, took with him a huge sum of money made through simony, which he uses to pay for accommodation at the house of St. Andrew in Northampton, where he has brought about such arguments between the Prior and the monks that the house is near ruin, and many of the monks have abandoned it. William caused similar trouble at Mekkesworth, at Osney, in the house of St. John at Bedford, and elsewhere. All his behaviour, both in England and in the court of Rome, has involved simony and underhanded dealings; notwithstanding which, he is still in Northampton among the Lollards and heretics, who look on him as a prophet speaking with an angel's tongue.

Also, the mayor has set the whole town on the path towards become Lollards, so that the town is now wholly governed by them, no one daring to oppose them for fear of being killed. All vulgar persons corrupted by Lollardy who come into the town are received with courtesy and treated better than others, as if they were prophets.

Also, on the day after Christmas last, the mayor brought with him one Robert Braibrok, a chaplain and Lollard deceiver, to preach in All Saints church at Northampton, in despite of the Bishop and contrary to a prohibition issued to him. He preached various falsehoods to strengthen the Lollards. As a result of that sermon, the same day disputes broke out between one man and another throughout the town, thanks to what the mayor had done.

Also, [the day] before the festival of St. Hilary [13 January] last past the mayor brought with him one ... parson of the church of Wynkpole, a Lollard deceiver, to preach etc.; the preacher being supported in this by the mayor and the power of all the Lollards of the town who had assembled by pre-arrangement. This preacher went up into the pulpit to preach, when the vicar of the church, after the Offertory of the parochial mass, returned to the altar to sing his mass; upon which the mayor, highly indignant, went up to the vicar at the high altar and seized him by the back of his robes, to make him stop performing the mass until after the preacher had preached. The vicar responded "I may not". After which, the parson preached falsehoods and heresies to the congregation. That same day, after dinner, the parson, together with the mayor and many of the Lollards, came to preach in the same church. There he preached falsehoods and heresies, condemning the people's devotion to Holy Church, pilgrimage, images, painted tableaux, the Church's display of elaborate and expensive [art]works, and the use of chalices made of gold or silver in divine services; he also condemned statutes both of the king and the Church. ... On which occasion Richard Stermesworth cried out at the preacher, "Now, now!" to try to make him shut up, and ordered him to "come down, false Lollard" without saying anything more or further jeopardising the peace; Richard Stermesworth was not aware that others were in league with the preacher. Upon which the mayor hastily arose, along with many Lollards – both of the town and of the countryside – and with force and arms, in infringement of the peace, and tried to seize Richard and kill him in the church. And some of the armed Lollards prepared an ambush for Richard outside the church, intending to kill him; Richard was escorted out of the church by some of his friends, but they immediately took him back inside, alarmed by the enemies waiting outside. Then the mayor, to please the Lollards, came and arrested him for breach of the peace. The Lollards meanwhile were so infuriated and ill-willed towards Richard that they would have killed him, and he escaped only with difficulty, being secretly conveyed to the vestry, to protect his life, until the uproar had died down. All the other people inside the church, who were not aware of the conspiracy of the Lollards, fled in confusion and for fear of their lives. ... Upon which, William Broughton and John Tony, chaplains, rang the church bells to bring people back to their senses. After that, the mayor went into the pulpit to encourage the preacher to continue with his sermon etc. and ordered the congregation to keep silent and pay attention to the sermon, on penalty of death; the mayor remained in the pulpit, close to the preacher, until he had finished his sermon. After the sermon the mayor and Lollards, with great pride and merriment, escorted the preacher to the mayor's house. The Lollards then returned to the churchyard of that church and, using sharp language, threatened violence to anyone who contradicted any point made in the sermon. Consequently the whole town has become Lollard, because no-one dares speak out against their views, for fear of the mayor and the Lollards.

Also, on 14 January the mayor, fearing to be blamed for what had taken place, called to him eight or nine of the 24 chief men to assist him in preparing an indictment of Richard for the disturbance. ...


Also, Richard declares that the mayor, with the agreement of the Lollards there, sent messengers to Oxford and other places to hire Lollard preachers to come to Northampton every Sunday during Lent last, by the cross in the churchyard next to the marketplace of Northampton. That cross was given added solemnity by the mayor decking it out with tapestries and other decorations during the times when sermons were given. By the instructions and arrangements made by the mayor, those preachers preached there in support of Lollardy, contrary (as already mentioned) to the Bishop's prohibition etc. After arriving in town, several of those preachers were at pains to borrow furred hoods and habits to wear during their sermons, so that the common people would take them for important clergymen, thereby bolstering the credit of Lollardy.

Also, the mayor behaves so high-and-mighty in the town that the commissaries of the Bishop of Lincoln dare not hold court within the town to enquire into Lollardy.

Also, on 23 February last the mayor and others went to the monastery of St. Andrew's in Northampton, to request William Northwold to preach to them. They brought him back with them with great solemnity, he being dressed in a fur-lined cape and coat and with a cap upon his head, as if he were a doctor or master of divinity – whereas he never pursued any degree at school. After the Offertory of the mass, this Master William went up into the pulpit to preach, even though the vicar (under orders from the Bishop) had previously forbidden him, and preached with great pride and daring during the time when the vicar had returned to the altar to sing mass. He paid no attention to the mass or the divine service, nor the elevation of the sacrament, but disturbed the vicar with the loudness of what he was saying. So that, when the vicar made several attempts to begin the opening of the mass by note in a loud voice, not a single chaplain dared make the responses, for fear of the mayor. As a result, the vicar was greatly distressed and with much regret was obliged to complete his mass without note.

Also, on 9 March last William made his way again to the cross, dressed in furs as before, to preach there. Prior to the sermon, William withdrew into the vestry of All Saints church until the congregation assembled. In that place there came to him officers of the Bishop and of the Archdeacon of Northampton, with a special commission and letters from the Bishop to prohibit William from preaching and to summon him before the Bishop to answer certain charges; which command he completely disregarded. Thereupon the mayor arrived with a large crowd of the common people and openly berated the officers for what they had done, and asserted publicly that he and the commons would have William preach that day at the cross, in despite of the Bishop, the Archdeacon, and all their officers. Furthermore, he ordered those officers, because of what they had done, either to leave or to stay at their own risk. And, taking out of the commissioners' hands the Bishop's letters, the mayor escorted William to the cross to preach. The officers remained in the vestry until the mayor returned to order them to come out and listen to the sermon. They having no inclination to do so, asked the mayor for leave to return safely to their inn and from there to ride out of town without any fear of attack; this was allowed them. The mayor then returned to the cross to hear the sermon, which William had delayed until his return. Then he began as best he could, asking the commons to pray for him and to assist him in his case against the Bishop and his officials, whom he described as followers of the devil and disciples of the Antichrist, wrongfully persecuting him contrary to God's laws. All this was done by the mayor and William in support of the Lollards and in contempt of Holy Church.


The Midlands were an important source of support for the Lollard uprising led by Oldcastle in 1414, and continued later into the century to be a centre for the heresy despite Oldcastle's failure. Leicester in particular had proved fruitful ground for it; which is not to say the town was taken over by it, but that division in the population led to some disturbances. In Northampton the situation is less well documented, other than for the complaint recorded above, which has always been taken at face value by historians, in the absence of other evidence.

John Fox was evidently, by 1393, one of the more prominent townsmen. Most probably a merchant involved in the wool or cloth trade (although the only clear evidence of commercial activity I have yet uncovered is the debt of £60 he incurred ca.1388 to a London armourer), he had served as one of the town bailiffs in 1379 and had represented the borough in the parliament of late 1381. A further sign that he must already have been among the upper ranks of the local ruling class is that in 1384 was twice called on by the king to serve as a commissioner: first, acting together with the escheator of Northamptonshire, to investigate an intrusion into a property in Braunston in which the king had a temporary interest; and a few months later to work with two other burgesses to organize a group of carpenters, masons and labourers to construct a gaol in Northampton castle; little could Fox have guessed that he would one day become one of its residents. Shortly after these appointments, Fox was elected to his first mayoralty (1384/85). He is found on royal commissions later in the decade. In October 1386 he was investigating extortions and oppressions by the king's ministers of the town, castle, and county; the king's ministers of the town would have included the town bailiffs, and it may be significant that one of the pair then in office was Richard Stormesworth. The second commission, the following year, was to investigate the counterfeiting of seals of the pope, archbishop of Canterbury and other ecclesiastical dignitaries in order to forge papal bulls and episcopal mandates – acts attributed to French spies operating in England.

Richard Stormesworth is even less in evidence prior to the events of 1393. His ballivalty indicates that he, like Fox, was a member of the ruling class, although less experienced and less prominent. In 1391 there is a passing reference to rent due from a tenement and 6 shops of which he had become the owner as a result of his marriage to Katharine. The header of the post-medieval English translation of his complaint identifies him as a "woolman", and the occupation of wool merchant is confirmed by the reference to him in October 1395, when he obtained a pardon from the king for infringement of the wool statute; this event is pertinent to the 1393 affair. An indication further to that of 1386, mentioned above, that Stormesworth may have been involved in a political vendetta, is that in November 1388 the king had sent an order to the county sheriff not to proceed with any arrest of Stormesworth, against whom Simon Daventry had complained of intimidation; Daventry had been mayor in the same year that Stormesworth was bailiff and was, like Fox, a leading citizen (also serving as mayor in 1380/81 and 1390/91).

A further instruction from king to sheriff was issued on 28 March 1393. It ordered the restoration to Stormesworth of his goods seized by mayor John Fox. Fox had acted, according to information earlier returned to the king (via the sheriff) by the Northampton bailiffs of that year, upon a complaint being brought against Stormesworth by Wiliam Brace of Northampton (bailiff 1381) and Thomas Wryght of Walgrave (a village a few miles northeast of Northampton) related to a contract concerning a sale to them of wool and weights that proved to be in infringement of the wool statute. The timing is unlikely to be a coincidence, but whether we have the situation here of a trumped-up charge being brought to disable Stormesworth's own complaint of heresy, or whether the latter's complaint was an effort to stymie the charge brought by Brace and Wryght, is difficult to say. On the one hands, doubts about the validity of the latter charge may be suggested by the king's order that Brace and Wryght appear before his council the following month, bringing the contract with them – it appears that the mayor was himself in possession of one of the two copies. On the other hand, Stormesworth had agreed to stand to justice and had found guarantors for that: Thomas Neweton of London and Matthew Swettenham of Northamptonshire; in 1394 Stormesworth witnessed a grant of property by Swettenham, concerning lands in London and Cheshire.

This royal order was in response to a petition from Stormesworth. There is no indication that he brought up the matter of Lollardy, though he might have used that to suggest why the action had been taken against him. Quite possibly there were some grounds to the charge brought against him, and certainly he later felt it necessary to purchase a royal pardon (although this is not necessarily an admission of guilt). Although Stormesworth's petition about Lollardy is undated, presumably it had already been placed before the king. Doubtless there were some grounds to the charges, although it is difficult in the absence of other evidence to know to what degree they may have been exaggerated or dramatised. The section of his petition, omitted by Powell and Trevelyan, dealing with the felony indictment brought against him indicates that Fox tried to pack the jury with Lollards and an enemy of Stormesworth (William Pysford, one of the bailiffs – and as an officer of the court, an inappropriate choice as juror); despite which, one of the jurors so strenuously refused to agree to the jury presentment condemning Stormesworth that he was thrown in prison. It seems likely that Stormesworth had some political rivalry with Fox which could have motivated the accusations; and yet we cannot ignore the possibility that political hostilities were the result of religious differences.

At any rate, the king took the charges seriously – or at least felt it advisable not to dismiss them. He deprived Fox of the mayoralty and on 24 April advised the bailiffs and community of Northampton of the fact, without specifying the reasons, and instructed them to elect a new mayor. On May 4, he advised the constable of Nottingham castle that he would shortly have Fox delivered to him, and was to keep him in custody until further orders. Stormesworth capitalized on the situation by managing to obtain a letter under the king's signet commanding the townsmen to elect him as mayor. This must have met with resistance from Fox's supporters in the borough government, and they appear to have written the king to protest this interference in their electoral process. On September 22 a further royal order was directed to the mayor, bailiffs, and community of Northampton again ordering them to elect a mayor – this time for the coming term (the electoral year began in September), but freely, on the basis of their customary procedures, and to ignore any previous royal order concerning Stormesworth. The king placed one condition on this, which was that they choose "no man impeached or defamed for evil opinions and unsound doctrine, or in any wise suspect" [Cal. Close Rolls, 1391-96, 167], and noted that Fox had been deposed by him because of disputes in the town about unorthodox doctrines. At the same time the king stated that Stormesworth was unqualified to hold office in local government because of the charges pending against him; these charges are not specified, but the terminology used by the king reads as if taken from the counter-complaint by Fox's party, and talks of felonies, deceits and evildoings committed against the king and some of the people of the town, and of Fox's scheming to rid himself of such charges by obtaining the king's support for his election as mayor, contrary to the borough liberties.

This was not quite the end of the affair. How long was Fox's incarceration is not clear, but in 1395 he staged a comeback and won election to a new mayoralty. The opposing party must have complained to the king, who in October sent strongly worded orders to the bailiffs and community of Northampton to arrange for a new election, reminding them that he had previously disqualified Fox from the mayoralty and any role in borough government. It was in the same month that Stormesworth obtained his pardon and thereby removed his former disqualification, although if this was a prelude to a new bid for office it was unsuccessful. Curiously, the same month saw a royal pardon granted to John Fox wool merchant of Benniworth, Lincolnshire, for infringing the wool statute; whether this was the same person as the Northampton man is unknown. Fox, however, persevered in his efforts to regain power and evidently had strong support in the town; following Richard II's fall from power, he was chosen mayor again in 1399 and re-elected in 1400.



"William Northwold"
This cleric had already been in and out of hot water several times. In 1380, as parson of Timworth in Suffolk, he found guarantors, in the persons of four London mercers of whom one was a John de Northwold, after the archdeacon of Sudbury had accused him of threatening him and his officers. In December 1384, the king ordered the sheriffs of London to free William Northwold, they having imprisoned him after he had been unable to find guarantors following his arrest on suspicion that he planned to travel abroad on business contrary to the interests of the king and many of his subjects. As indicated in Stormesworth's complaints, Northwold had somehow managed to procure appointment to the archdeaconry of Sudbury before 1386, when he was allied with another cleric, Hugh de Gaudeby; in March the pair were putting up £1000 bonds to one another for some unspecified reason. June 1386 saw orders for Northwold's arrest sent into Suffolk, with instructions he be brought before king and council (although they were cancelled three weeks later), and this may be associated with a chaplain, John Elys, finding guarantors in July that he would neither do, nor procure, harm to the archdeacon. The dispute between them all was to come before the king. In 1390 we hear of him again, this time under the title of parson of West Walton (Norfolk), when he obtained a royal pardon for his outlawry for failing to show up in court to answer a plea of debt of £24 owed to the Bishop of Norwich. Just a couple of months after his involvement in the Northampton affair, he again had to obtain a pardon for outlawry, this time for failing to answer Richard Charman, in Suffolk, concerning a plea of debt of £20.

The sale of ecclesiastical positions, promotions etc.

Possibly Maxworthy in Cornwall, or Mackworth in Derbyshire.

Location of an abbey near Oxford.

"24 chief men"
I.e. the town council.

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