- Norman P. Tanner
Lollard women (act. c. 1390–c. 1520), were a significant feature in nonconformist and heretical circles before the end of the fourteenth century, and remained so throughout the subsequent history of the Lollard movement. Most of the information about them, even more than for men, comes from the records of prosecuting authorities, and as a result is almost always tantalizingly brief—snapshots taken at the time of their appearance in court. Even so, a rich variety of characters and roles is revealed. It should be noted at the outset, however, that the appropriateness of the term ‘Lollard’ (which originated as a word of abuse) rather than ‘Wycliffite’, as well as the size of the movement and the extent of its dependence on John Wyclif (whose earliest followers do not appear to have included women), are issues much debated by historians. There is also considerable discussion regarding the role of gender in Lollardy, and particularly whether the movement afforded women more, or fewer, opportunities than orthodox religion.
Looking at the best documented examples in chronological order, a formidable personality is presented by Anna Palmer (fl. 1393–1394). An anchoress living in a house next to St Peter's parish church in Northampton, in 1393 she was summoned before Bishop John Buckingham of Lincoln (d. 1399) on fifteen charges of heresy and the separate one of incontinence, as well as of being the principal hostess of Lollards (receptrix lollardorum) in the area. She was said to have received prominent Lollards in her house at night, while secret conventicles and illicit congregations were held. When she appeared before the bishop she denounced him as Antichrist and his clerks as Antichrist's disciples, and informed him proudly that she did not wish to answer the charges against her, except the charge of incontinence, which she denied. Her intransigence brought her detention in the episcopal prison at Banbury and a summons the next year to a further examination in London, at which point she disappears from record.
Christina More (fl. 1412–1414) and her husband, William (who was a member of the governing class of Bristol), formed a prominent Lollard household in that town in the early years of the fifteenth century. They kept a Lollard chaplain, William Blake. On her husband's death in 1412 Christina took over both the management of his estate and his patronage of Lollards, even to the extent of equipping Blake and a servant named James Merrshe, and perhaps other servants, for their part in Oldcastle's rising in 1414. On this account she was among eight Lollards from Bristol who were prosecuted by Bishop Nicholas Bubwith of Bath and Wells (d. 1424), and maybe her social position alone saved her from a worse penalty than trial and purgation.
Wives of Norfolk
Between 1428 and 1431 Bishop William Alnwick of Norwich (d. 1449) conducted a determined and unusually well-documented campaign against heretics in his diocese. Two women stand out in the records of the trials that resulted. The first of these, Margery Baxter (fl. 1428–1429), was described as the wife of William Baxter, wright, of Martham when she was brought to trial in October 1428. William had already been convicted as a heretic but his wife's greatest reverence was reserved for the former priest and Lollard evangelizer from Tenterden in Kent, William White, whom she called 'a great saint in heaven and a most holy doctor ordained and sent by God' (Tanner, 47). She admitted having transported White's books from Yarmouth and hiding him in her house for five days, as well as having learned from him the six heretical articles charged against her. The articles are notable for their radical nature and social content: only the person who keeps God's commandments may be considered a Christian; the sacrament of confession is to be avoided because it implies a lack of hope in God's mercy; pilgrimages should be made only to poor people; capital punishment and all other killing of humans is wrong; every good person is a priest; oaths are permissible only in a law court. She abjured her errors and was sentenced to severe and exemplary penance: she was to receive four floggings at her parish church on successive Sundays, and two more in a market place—probably that of nearby Acle—and to present herself with other penitents to do 'solemn penance' in Norwich Cathedral on the next Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.
Six months later, in April 1429, Margery was again brought before Bishop Alnwick charged with heresy. By this time she and her husband appear to have moved to Norwich. In these proceedings only the depositions against her survive, but they have a ring of truth about them, and once again suggest a formidable and intriguing personality, somewhat eccentric, an individualist remarkable for her strength of mind and irreverence, especially towards the clergy and orthodox religion. According to these depositions, she proselytized other people, sometimes alone and sometimes with her husband, both in their houses and in her own home, preferably, it seems, at night, or just as she met them. A vivid picture of her activities was given in evidence by Joan Clyfland of Norwich. Margery visited her home in midwinter and, 'sitting and sewing by the fire' (Tanner, 44), she instructed Joan and Joan's two teenage servants, Joan Grymle and Agnes Bethom, in a lengthy question-and-answer session. The situation provided perfect circumstances for an indoctrinating conversation—in all-female company, Joan Clyfland's husband being absent—and is very suggestive of how women might use their domestic roles to proselytize.
When a Carmelite friar threatened to denounce Margery as a heretic after she had tried unsuccessfully to convert him, she in turn threatened to denounce him for sexually harassing her, and warned that her husband wished to kill him, thus escaping detection. She denounced the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy of pope, cardinals, and bishops, 'for they falsely and cursedly deceive the people with their false mawmentries and laws to extort money from simple people in order to sustain their pride, luxury and idleness' (Tanner, 49). Her own bishop of Norwich she referred to as Caiaphas. Of her own invulnerability she was convinced: even if she was convicted of Lollardy she would not be burnt, since she had 'a charter of protection in her womb'—an interesting remark, suggesting the belief that women were exempt from being burnt if they were pregnant. In fact, however, she may have escaped death, the penalty of a relapsed heretic, by agreeing to witness against another person from Martham, John Pyry.
If Margery Baxter was something of a loner, the other prominent Lollard woman to appear in Alnwick's court, Hawise Mone (fl. 1428–1430), was a social Lollard par excellence. She was the wife of a prosperous shoemaker, Thomas Mone, of the town of Loddon. Their household was a hive of Lollard activity: those directly involved included, in addition to themselves, a daughter and three men who were, or had been, their servants or apprentices of Thomas. 'Schools of heresy' were held in 'privy chambers and places' of theirs (Tanner, 140)—presumably in their house in Loddon—which many people attended and in which William White and other leading Lollards taught. Hawise was also accused of organizing in her home what appears to have been a ritual breaking of the Lenten fast, in which she and several other people ate a meal of pork on the day before Easter Sunday. In the fast-breaking, moreover, she acted independently of her husband, who was absent from the proceedings. Indeed, she appears to have been at least as important as her husband for Lollardy in the area, perhaps more so, in both her organizational ability and her knowledge of the movement's teachings. Margery Baxter appreciated her highly. Hawise, she said, was the 'most distinguished and wisest woman' (ibid., 47) in her knowledge of the teaching of William White. She was tried and convicted in August 1430, a fortnight before her husband, and abjured her heresies. Nothing more is heard of her thereafter.
Early sixteenth-century Lollard women
Joan Washingby [née Ward] (d. 1512) of Coventry was an enterprising Lollard of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. She had learned her heresy from Alice Rowley, a leading Coventry Lollard, about 1490. When still a young woman she had moved first to Northampton and then to London, perhaps going from one Lollard household to another. In London, where she stayed for three years and married, she lodged with a bedder called Blackbyre, whose wife, Joan, was already a Lollard. She and her husband, Thomas Washingby, a shoemaker who was also a heretic, then moved to Maidstone in Kent, possibly also a Lollard centre at this time, where in 1495 she had to abjure her heretical beliefs. Later she returned to Coventry and participated actively once more in the Lollard movement in the town. Finally the ecclesiastical authorities caught up with her again, and in March 1512 she was condemned as a relapsed heretic and handed over to the secular arm to be burnt. She is known to have owned at least one Lollard book, and there is some evidence to suggest that she used her travels to distribute such books among members of the movement.
Agnes Grebill (d. 1511) was a poignant case. Knowledge of her comes largely from the evidence given against her, mostly by members of her own family, at her trial in 1511. According to this information, her husband, John, was a weaver in Tenterden and later in neighbouring Benenden, Kent; she was first taught Lollard beliefs by him towards the end of the reign of Edward IV, when she was aged about thirty. She had two sons and a daughter, though whether John was the father of the sons is unclear, since at one point they are described as her 'natural sons'. Initially her husband appears to have continued to take the lead, but with her co-operation. They instructed the children in their beliefs and became central figures in a wide network of Lollards in Kent.
When in 1511 she was brought to trial before Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury (d. 1532), Agnes Grebill was at least sixty years old. Why members of her family betrayed her is unclear, especially since the family had sworn itself to secrecy at an earlier date; it may well be that those concerned were granted lenient treatment in their own trials in return for witnessing against her. She was accused of heretical beliefs and practices regarding the seven sacraments, especially the eucharist, images, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, holy water, and blessed bread. Her husband provided the crucial depositions against her, supported by her two sons. Confronting them in person, she wholly rejected their allegations and wished her sons had never been born. Again, four days later, she protested her innocence. Rejecting her protestation, the archbishop pronounced her an obstinate heretic and handed her over to the secular arm to be put to death.
Functions and standing
Other women provide some further glimpses. Many opponents of Lollardy, mainly clerics, criticized the movement for advancing women beyond their station in religious matters, notably as teachers and preachers; some thought that women priests existed among them. Of the last, no clear instances are known, and in any case, in view of the emphasis placed by Lollards on the priesthood of all believers and downgrading of the sacerdotal priesthood, the issue may have been not very important. Certainly there was a wide range of roles and activities within the Lollard movement that were open to women, as has already been seen.
Regarding the celebration of the eucharist by women, there was the case mentioned by Henry Knighton (d. c.1396), an opponent of Lollardy, under the year 1391:
There was a certain matron in the city of London who had an only daughter whom she instructed to celebrate mass, and she set up an altar with its furnishings in her secret chamber, and got her daughter for many days to dress as a priest and go to the altar and to celebrate mass after her manner; but when she reached the sacramental words she prostrated herself before the altar and did not consecrate the sacrament; but rising completed all the rest of the mass to the end with her mother assisting and attending her devotion.Chronicon Henrici Knighton, vel Cnitthon, monachi Leycestrensis, ed. J. R. Lumby, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 1889–95, 2.316–17; translation in Aston, 454–5
A report eventually leaked out through a woman neighbour who attended the service, and the case came to the ears of the bishop of London. The daughter was discovered, her priestly tonsure was exposed to public view, and she herself was put to penance.
Recitation and rote learning were exercises in which women often seem to have played a leading role: Reginald Pecock, bishop of Chichester (d. in or after 1459), who was generally well informed about Lollardy, thought that quoting scripture was characteristic of women Lollards. In the early sixteenth century Alice Colins (fl. 1521), wife of the learned Richard Colins of Ginge in Berkshire, was reported as famous among Lollards for her good memory, so that 'when any conventicle … did meet at Burford, commonly she was sent for, to recite … the ten commandments and the epistles of Peter and James' (Hudson, 191); her daughter, Joan, was able to recite the elements of religion and knew by heart the epistle of James, and the daughter of a fellow Lollard was sent into service in the Colins household, precisely so that 'she might be instructed there in God's law' (McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy, 98). Alice Rowley of Coventry, mentioned earlier, often read publicly before men. Alice Gardiner of Colchester, from the 1490s onward, was another woman who seems to have busied herself educating the next Lollard generation.
A broad spectrum of social backgrounds was represented among Lollard women, though the very highest ranks of society appear largely absent, as was the case among men. There is evidence of Lollard women among the urban élites of London, Coventry, and Bristol, at least in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lady Jane Yonge, who was suspected of heresy and may have died a Lollard martyr, was the widow of Sir John Yonge, lord mayor of London; her mother, Joan Boughton, was burnt for Lollardy at Smithfield in 1494. There is some evidence of wives of Lollard knights who sympathized with their husbands' views—for example, Dame Anne Latimer, widow of Sir Thomas Latimer of Braybrooke (d. 1401)—but the majority seem to have come from the artisan classes, here too following the pattern among Lollard men. Of the several thousand Lollards who are identifiable between the 1370s and 1530s, women represented something like a quarter, though there seems to have been a marked increase, both proportionally and absolutely, in the years after about 1490. Most of them were married to Lollard men. That many women were Lollards must have feminized the movement in many ways. On the whole their roles were channelled within the accepted social norms, but some women, through favourable circumstances, were able to attain positions of prominence both within the movement and in society at large.
- The acts and monuments of John Foxe, ed. J. Pratt [new edn], 8 vols. (1877)
- A. Hudson, The premature reformation: Wycliffite texts and Lollard history (1988)
- C. Cross, ‘Great reasoners in scripture: the activities of women Lollards, 1380–1530’, Medieval women, ed. D. Baker, SCH, subsidia, 1 (1978), 359–80
- M. Aston, ‘Women Lollard priests?’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 31 (1980), 441–61
- N. P. Tanner, ed., Heresy trials in the diocese of Norwich, 1428–31, CS, 4th ser., 20 (1977)
- S. McSheffrey and N. Tanner, eds., Lollards of Coventry, 1486–1522, Camden 5th ser., 23 (2003)
- A. Hope, ‘Lollardy: the stone the builders rejected?’, Protestantism and the national church in sixteenth century England, ed. P. Lake and M. Dowling (1987), 1–35
- S. McSheffrey, Gender and heresy: women and men in Lollard communities, 1420–1530 (1995)
- N. P. Tanner, ed., Kent heresy proceedings, 1511–12, Kent Records, 26 (1997)
- woodcut (7 godly martyrs in Coventry, burned), repro. in Actes and monuments of John Foxe, new edn (1583), 973
- Wyclif [Wycliffe], John [called Doctor Evangelicus] (d. 1384), theologian, philosopher, and religious reformer
- Alnwick, William (d. 1449), bishop of Norwich and Lincoln
- White, William (d. 1428), priest and Lollard heretic
- Boughton, Joan (c. 1414–1494), Wycliffite heretic
- Lollard knights (act. c. 1380–c. 1414)
- Latimer, Sir Thomas (1341–1401), soldier and alleged heretic