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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 17: Early years of King Henry's rein 1413 - 1415


Thomas Arundel, although out of favour, was still Archbishop of Canterbury, and he now counselled extreme action against the Lollards. The fact that they and the Archbishop heartily loathed each other did not prevent Doctor Patrington and Friar Netter from adding their voices to the same cause, and this time they found a ready ear in the King. They soon found the prominent target they were looking for. A book belonging to Sir John 0ldcastle, who had now become Lord Cobham by marriage,   was found at the shop of a limner [an illustrator] in London. It was full of black heresy. The King was persuaded to speak to 0ldcastle, his old friend and comrade-in-arms, about about the errors of his ways. This had no effect, and 0ldcastle was, with some difficulty which was only resolved with Royal assistance, arrested and sent to the Tower. In September 1413 he was brought before Convocation, the same Court which would have tried John Wyclif himself in 1377 if he had not been rescued by John of Gaunt, [page ]. The Archbishop tried hard to convince 0ldcastle that he was wrong on theological grounds. He was aware that he was dealing with an old friend of the King, and he had not forgotten what had happened to the Constitutions of 0xford. Would the King's new found sense of piety be equal to the condemnation of an old comrade-in-arms? He could not be sure, and anyway a recanted heretic as prominent as 0ldcastle would be of much greater value than a burnt martyr. Oldcastle, an intelligent and articulate man, hedged and frequently turned the argument back onto the Archbishop. Things were not going at all well, and Convocation found it very hard to pin Oldcastle down. Oldcastle has frequently been accused of cowardice in even contemplating the abandonment of his beliefs, but torn between his faith and a ghastly death, it is hard to blame him. In the end, he did not abandon them, and what seems to have sealed his fate was his outburst to the crowd:-

"These men are bent on damning me, they mislead themselves and you, and will drag you down to Hell! Therefore, beware of them!"

That was too much. Oldcastle was condemned to be burnt at the stake, and burnt he would have been if he had not escaped from the Tower. There was much talk of the King's complicity, but a stern and just ruler as King Henry V saw himself to be would hardly have set a condemned criminal at liberty. Lollardy had many supporters, and it far more likely that a sympathetic gaoler aided Oldcastle to escape, although there seems to be no record of anyone being punished for doing so.

Lollardy now abandoned its generally passive stance, and if King Henry V ever had any sympathy for an old comrade, no medieval King, and particularly this King, either could or would overlook treason. Notices were pinned to church doors advocating rebellion. 100.000 men were said to be prepared to rise in armed revolt, with 50, 000 in London alone. The Abbeys were to be dissolved and their riches distributed. A plot was discovered to install Oldcastle as Regent, and some Lollards, disguised as mummers, were to seize the King and his brothers at the Christmas festivities. The amateurish nature of the whole affair is revealed by this very proposal; how a few actors were to seize the King in the midst of his Household knights and his armed guards is far from clear. The Mummers were arrested and a further plot was uncovered, indeed it must have been an open secret, to amass a great number of people in St Giles's Fields outside Temple Bar to take up arms with support from the City.

Those who tramped the weary miles from far and wide to St Giles's Fields on that fateful night of January 9th 1414 found the King waiting for them with his three brothers and a strong armed force. The City Gates had been closed to prevent any help from that source. Most managed to make good their escape in the confusion, but many were arrested and were hanged on the four gibbets erected for the occasion. Some had fires lit beneath their dangling feet to speed their journey to Hell. Oldcastle himself was not caught. He took refuge with sympathisers, and in spite of the massive rewards offered by the King, he was not betrayed. He remained at liberty until 1417 when John, by now Duke of Bedford and Regent of the Realm whilst the King was in France, eventually managed to lay hands upon him. He was dispatched to eternity in the same manner as his followers in St Giles's Fields.

King Henry V was well aware that Lollardy was too strong a movement to suppress entirely, but he had shown that rebellion in any shape or form or for whatever cause would not be tolerated. For the moment he was content that Lollardy had been stamped on hard. To complete the matter, a Statute was passed by the Parliament which met in Leicester in April 1414 requiring every public official, from the Chancellor down to the village constable, to swear an oath to be diligent in seeking out Lollards and bringing them to justice. The civil powers for dealing with them were passed to the Church, which would take the blame for any excesses. This seems to have been effective, as the Lollards gave no further trouble during the rest of King Henry V's reign.

King Henry V had every intention of carrying out his Father's promise to deal with lawlessness which, until now, had never been wholly fulfilled. His own first Parliament had drawn attention to this in a pointed fashion, and he was not disposed to ignore it. Lawlessness had been endemic to England for many years, and was to return during the reign of his son, King Henry VI. Quotations from the Paston letters, although they refer to later years after Henry's death, give some of the flavour. Margaret Paston wrote to John Paston on 7th January 1462:-

"God for Hys holy mersy geve grace that ther may be set a good rewyll and a sad in this contre in hast, for I herd nevyr sey of so myche robry and manslawter in thys contre as is now within a lytyll tyme."

In short, murder, banditry, rioting, highway robbery,  beating and killing people and stealing their goods, together with bribery and intimidation of juries to defeat the ends of justice were rife, and indeed had been for some time.

A King such as King Henry V had no difficulty in recognising that people who engage in such activities understood one language only, that of prompt arrest and condign punishment. There was no substitute for hard blows, followed by a few hangings, administered by the forces of law and order. Armed with a suitable Statute passed by the same Leicester Parliament, he bade the Sheriffs to lay some malefactors by the heels and dispatched the Judges on Special Commissions to try them [The Leicester Parliament did not confine its attentions to the land. A Statute was also passed to suppress piracy]. The Court of King's Bench soon had a huge backlog of cases to deal with. Henry saw to it that there were enough hangings to make a suitable local impression, and frequently pardoned the lesser offenders with a strong hint that the way back to polite society lay in military service, of which there would soon be plenty. It is hard to say how many took the hint. It has been estimated that as high a proportion as 12% of King Edward III's armies consisted of criminals working their way back to respectability. There is no reason to suppose that Henry's armies were any different. The result was a degree of peace and quiet in the countryside such as it had never previously known, and this did much to endear the King in the eyes of his later Parliaments.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003