RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Colchester Norwich heresy Lollardy beliefs doctrine Church suppression trial confession capital punishment
Subject: The fate of heretics
Original source: Item 1: Register of William Alnwick, Bishop of Norwich, ff.41-42; item 2: Essex Record Office, Colchester borough records, D/B 5 R2 (Red Paper Book), f.82
Transcription in: 1. Norman Tanner, ed. Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-31. Royal Historical Society, Camden 4th series, vol.20 (1977), 185-87; 2. W.G. Benham, ed. The Red Paper Book of Colchester, Colchester, 1902, 52.
Original language: 1. Middle English; 2. Latin
Location: Norwich and Colchester
Date: 1428-30


[1. Confession and recantation]

In the name of God, before you the worshipful father in Christ, William by the grace of God Bishop of Norwich, I, John Fynch tiler, resident of the parish of Crouch Church in Colchester, recently arrested in the town of Ipswich of your diocese under suspicion of heresy and imprisoned, [as] your subject, on the grounds that I have been associated and in communication with heretics – that is, with Laurence Tyler, Dutchman, and with his servant John Laborere and others – whose doctrines I have heard, learned, understood, and spread; [viz.] all the errors and heresies which are written and included in this indenture, which I have held, believed and affirmed:

First, that the sacrament of baptism by water, in the common form customarily [performed in] the Church, is neither necessary nor helpful to the increase of bliss, for every child is sufficiently baptized in the blood of Christ's passion, and needs no other baptism.

Also that confession ought to be made only to God, not to any priest, for no priest has the power to absolve a man of any sin.

Also that a simple agreement between man and woman to love one another is sufficient for the sacrament of perfect matrimony, without any verbal contract or any solemnization in church.

Also that it is not lawful to swear [an oath] for any purpose.

Also that every man may lawfully carry out any physical activity, excepting sinful, on Sundays and all other festivals which priests command be kept holy by order of the Church.

Also that every man is obligated to cease paying and withhold all tithes and offerings from curates and priests, and give them to poor people.

Also that no man is obliged to fast at Lent, the Ember Days, Fridays, nor the eves of saints [days], when priests command fasting.

Also that all prayers ought to be directed only to God, and not to other saints.

Also that pilgrimages should not be undertaken, except to the poor people.

Also that no reverence or worship of any kind ought to be done to any images.

The which errors and heresies I heard, understood, spread, held and affirmed since Christmas 1427. For the which errors and heresies I, John Fynche, was brought to justice before mag. David Pryce, Commissary of my lord [the bishop] of London, sitting in judgement in St. Nicholas' church in Colchester and proceeding against me, accused of heresy, around Michaelmas 1428. Before which mag. David Pryce, I – judicially impeached on articles of heresy and errors which I did in truth hold, believe and affirm before that time – denied and swore false oath on the mass book, which I touched with my body, that I never held, believed, nor affirmed any heresies. And so I falsely cleared myself of all [charges of] error and heresy before the same mag. David. And since the time that I foreswore myself falsely on the mass book I have on many occasions listened to, learned, spread, held, believed and affirmed those heresies and errors of which I swore untruthfully that I was not guilty.

Because of which – and many other errors and heresies – I am summoned before you, worshipful father, who has responsibility for my soul. Let me declare absolutely to you that what I have affirmed, believed and held are plain errors and heresies, in contravention of what the Church of Rome has determined [as doctrine]; for which reason I willingly follow and uphold the doctrine of Holy Church and put aside any kind of error and heresy, and return with a good will and heart to the authority of the Church. Considering that Holy Church does not reject those who turn back towards it, and that God does not desire that a sinner die but rather that he reform and live, with a pure heart I confess, detest, and despise my errors and heresies, and acknowledge the opinions as heretical and erroneous, and repugnant to the faith of the Church of Rome and the entire universal Holy Church. And to the same extent that I, through the things I held, believed and affirmed, showed myself to be corrupt and unfaithful, I shall henceforth prove to be uncorrupt and faithful, and I promise to adhere to the beliefs and doctrine of Holy Church. And all kinds of error, heresy, doctrine, and opinion contrary to the faith of Holy Church and to what the Church of Rome has determined – notably the opinions stated above – I abjure and forswear, and swear by these holy gospels which I am touching with my body that from henceforth I shall never hold errors, nor heresies, nor false doctrines against the faith of Holy Church and what the Church of Rome has determined. Nor shall I obstinately defend any such things. Nor shall I support or [allow] anyone else [to support], openly or privately, any person holding or teaching such kinds of things. From this time forth I shall never receive, support, advise, or protect heretics or anyone suspected of heresy. Nor shall I give any credence to them. Nor shall I knowingly have any association with them, not by socializing with them, nor giving them advice, gifts, help, favour, or comfort. If I learn of any heretics or persons suspected thereof, or of their supporters, advisors, or protectors, or of any persons holding private conventicles or assemblies, or [of persons] holding divergent or separate opinions from the common doctrine of the Church, I shall promptly and readily inform you, worshipful father, or your vicar-general in your absence or the diocesans. So help me God at the holy doom and these holy gospels.

In witness of which, I inscribe here with my own hand a cross +. And to this part of the indenture which will remain in your register, I imprint my signet. And the other part of the indenture I receive under the seal of office of your vicar-general, to remain with me for the rest of my life. Given at Norwich in the chapel of your palace, 20 September 1430.

[2. Execution]

Memorandum that on 27 October 1428, during the term of John Beche and Robert Selby as bailiffs of the town of Colchester, a certain William Chivelyng tailor of Colchester was, in the church of St. Nicholas, Colchester condemned for heresy before mag. David Pryce, vicar in spiritual matters of the reverend dom. William, Bishop of London, and for that reason was handed over to the custody of those bailiffs. In consequence of which he was taken to the Colchester moothall and there held in prison. At that time that bailiffs requested from the king's Chancery a writ from the king [authorizing] the burning of William Chivelyng. Which writ was in the following words:

Henry, by the grace of God King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, to the bailiffs of his town of Colchester, greetings. Mag. David Pryce, vicar-general of William, Bishop of London, in the absence of the bishop but with the agreement of the clergy of the bishop's diocese, due process of law having been followed in all regards, has pronounced and declared a definitive judgement that William Chivelyng tailor of Colchester as a manifest heretic is condemned, in accord with canon law, sanctions and legal customs in such cases; so that the vicar has certified to us, through our Chancery, that Holy Mother Church has nothing further that it may do in this matter. Therefore, we being devoted to the cause of justice and supportive of the Catholic faith, wishing to maintain and defend Holy Church and its rights and liberties, and to tear out by the roots such errors and heresies in our kingdom of England, to the best of our ability, and to inflict a fitting punishment on convicted heretics – considering that such heretics who are convicted and condemned in the way indicated above, according to both human and divine law and to canon law customarily observed in such cases, should be burned in fiery flames – we order you as firmly as we can that the aforesaid William, who is now in your custody, be placed in the fire in some open and public location within the liberty of the town, the reason for the proceeding having been announced to the populace; and that he in that fire be burned. This you are to have done as a clear example to other Christians of how abhorrent is this kind of crime. Should you fail to carry this out in any regard, it will be at your peril. Witnessed by myself, at Westminster, 2 November 1428.
By authority of which writ from king, addressed to the bailiffs, the heretic William Chivelyng as burned before the tower at Colkynescastell on 4 November 1428.


East Anglia was one of the regions of England in which Lollardy was evident in the early years of the reign of Henry VI; although it appears to have been predominantly a rural phenomenon – at least in Suffolk and Norfolk – there is evidence that it had taken root in Colchester (although not to the degree it had in some towns, such as London, Bristol or Coventry). In the opening years of the century, Essex had not come under much scrutiny by those rooting out heresy. In 1405 there had been an investigation of books, suspected of containing heresy, in possession of some Colchester citizens; but, since these were returned, we may assume the suspicions were groundless. In 1414 we hear of a group at Colchester alleged to hold secret readings of books written in English. Again we need not take that as an indication of a heretical sect. But that was the year of Sir John Oldcastle's rebellion, and Essex is believed to have made the largest contribution of dissidents to his forces.

The quick suppression of the rebellion encouraged heretics to lie low throughout the remainder of Henry V's reign. But during the last years of his episcopate, Bishop Wakering of Norwich renewed the investigative efforts, and his successor, Bishop Alnwick, was even more determined to renew the persecutions; these efforts suggest that Lollard communities were become large and lively again, and they seem to have been in communication with each other, as the leaders moved from place to place, in part to keep ahead of the law; certainly we can see connections between the Essex and Kent communities of Lollards. We hear of "schools" of heretics, where their beliefs were passed on to new converts; one was hosted in the home of a Colchester cordwainer, John Abraham, who had become a freeman there in 1416, after migrating from nearby Great Tey.

Between 1428 and 1431, as part of a general attempt to suppress Lollardy throughout the country, 60 men and women went on trial in the diocese of Norwich. The Bishop of London's people were also active in Essex, and John Fynch was first arrested there, but saved himself from an abjuration of his heretical beliefs by lying. In Norfolk and Suffolk Lollardy focused on villages and small towns and did not have much impact on the large towns. This was just part of undercover survival of heretical beliefs; there is virtually no evidence of any influence from the continent, although Fynch's connection with a foreigner – apparently of the same profession as he – is an exception.

The above copy of the confession and recantation is part of a longer record of Fynch's trial, which however does not add a great deal beyond the above extract; the records of inquisitions are quite formulaic, partly because the authorities were only interested in recording those elements of an accused heretic's answers that related to a set of questions considered pertinent to the charge. This could have served, in consequence, to lump together under Lollardy individuals whose religious attitudes may have varied widely. Fynch lived in Crouch Street in the southwestern suburb of Colchester; he was not a burgess of any prominence, not apparently being one of the freemen. Colchester being in the diocese of London, he appears to have been snared only through his visit to Ipswich, where perhaps he was involved in meetings with other heretics. His confession and recantation were doubtless drawn up by his advocate, notary public John Wylly, and were read out by Wylly to the court, following which Fynch placed his right hand on the Bible and swore to the accuracy of the statement and signed one copy of the document with a cross.

None of the 60 persons tried is known to have been sentenced to death – a punishment normally given only to relapsed heretics. Public flogging and/or solemn penance were the judgements handed out. As one who was, in effect a lapsed heretic – only his perjury having saved him from prior conviction in Colchester, at the time of the Chivelyng affair – Fynch was fortunate to escape execution. He received a stern warning from the bishop never to reoffend, upon pain of burning, and the sentence of three public floggings in the cathedral and city marketplace, and several appearances over the following three years, to do penance before the bishop. However, the last entry in the record of his trial states that he failed to appear at the Cathedral on the February 1431 date assigned for his first flogging; we hear no more.

At the same time as the investigations were going on in East Anglia, Archbishop Chichele was taking similar action in Kent. Several dozen Lollards were arrested and, after confessions were made to a plot for an abortive uprising, some were hanged. Other suspects fled Kent into East Anglia, only to be captured and executed there. One of these was the unrepentant William Chivelyng. Upon his condemnation by the Church, the bailiffs lost no time in obtaining permission from the king to make an example of him, nor in burning him at the stake once they had the king's writ. The speed with which they fulfilled their duties may owe something to a dispute underway at that time between the Colchester authorities and the abbot of St. John's, one episode in an ongoing battle over jurisdiction, with a series of related documents copied into the borough register, the Chivelyng execution being one. In the context of the bill the abbot had written to the king, complaining of various offences committed against him by the bailiffs supported by a community "among whom some have been discovered, rumoured or accused of Lollardy" [Red Paper Book, p.54]; the abbot returned later in his letter to the same theme, asking the king to order the bailiffs not to countenance Lollardy within the community. The date of this document is uncertain, but according to the town clerk's notation it would have been written a matter of weeks before the Chivelyng affair. The bailiffs were doubtless anxious to demonstrate their catholic zeal, so that the king did not take the abbot's side for that reason. We hear in 1429 that John Abraham was dead, so perhaps he too was caught up in these executions. William Caleys, a priest connected with the Colchester Lollards, was burnt at Chelmsford in 1430.

This did not extinguish Lollardy in Colchester, though it must have cowed it for a while. At the beginning of the next century, the heresy was to emerge in some of the leading families of Colchester society. Of these the Bardefields supplied, from the head of the family, a borough bailiff in 1505, although John Bardefield escaped a trial for his beliefs by dying during his ballivalty. It may have been he or his father who had in 1463/64 been dismissed from the office of sergeant-at-mace after falling out with the bailiffs, although he regained favour and twice held the ballivalty himself in the 1490s. The Cowbridges, who were said to have been Lollards since Wycliffe's day and were associated with Bristol, likewise provided a bailiff, in the person of Robert Cowbridge, in 1501/02 and 1507/08. Robert's daughter married a John Bardefield of the younger generation.



"Crouch Church"
A name by which St. Mary's-at-the-Wall parish was sometimes known, because the Crouched Friary was in that parish.

"Ducheman" was a generic term applied to those from the Low Countries or parts of Germany.

The reference to pilgrimages to the poor people perhaps refers to charitable visitations.

Tradition had it that Colchester castle had been built by this legendary figure, one of the possible candidates for the Old King Cole of nursery rhyme fame.

main menu

Created: March 14, 2003. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2019