SIR JOHN OLDCASTLE

oldcastleWho (died 14 December 1417) was an English Lollard leader. Being a friend of Henry V, he long escaped prosecution for heresy. When convicted, he escaped from the Tower of London and then led a rebellion against the King. Eventually, he was captured and executed in London. He formed the basis for Shakespeare’s character John Falstaff, who was originally called John Oldcastle.

John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers were the first recognised critics of the established church since the fifth century. Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire in the 1330s – he was a theologian at Balliol College, Oxford, and a ‘realist’ who believed that one’s knowledge is derived from within rather than through the senses. He rejected the Roman church, preferring a church comprising the body of the elect with all authority derived from the scriptures – ‘lordship depended on grace’ – and he denied transubstantiation and believed in the spiritual Eucharist rather than the physical one. Because of his beliefs, Wycliffe wanted the church reformed and its wealth removed.

The most important Lollards were a group of knights who were part of the king’s court. These included Sir William Neville, Sir John Montague and Sir William Beachamp, with sympathetic support and active protection from the Black Prince and John of Gaunt (at least from 1371 to 1382), which reflected traditional noble anti-clericalism.

Their main influence was during the reigns of Richard 11 and Henry 1V. By Henry V’s reign, the Crown and Church had united against the Lollards, had driven their followers underground, and in 1414 had defeated the one public outbreak of rebellion organised by the followers of this cause. This unity was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury-Thomas Arundel. This is where OLDCASTLE comes in.

Oldcastle’s date of birth is unknown, but it was in Herefordshire. His father; and grandfather; also called John Oldcastle, were important people in the area. Oldcastle is first mentioned in two separate documents in 1400, first as a plaintiff in a suit regarding the advowson of Almeley church, (Herefordshire), and again as serving as a knight under Lord Grey of Codnor in a military expedition to Scotland. In the next few years Oldcastle held notable positions in the Welsh campaigns of King Henry 1V against Owen Glendower including captaincy first over Builth Castle and then Kidwelly. Oldcastle represented Herefordshire as a “knight of the shire” in the parliament of 1404, later serving as a justice of the peace, and was their High Sheriff in 1406–07

In 1408 he married Joan, the heiress of Cobham — his third marriage, and her fourth. This resulted in a significant improvement of his fortune and status, as the Cobham’s were “one of the most notable families of Kent”. The marriage brought Oldcastle a number of manors in Kent, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Wiltshire, as well as Cooling Castle, (Kent, nr Rochester), and from 1409 until his accusation in 1413 he was summoned to parliament as Lord Cobham.

At some point in his military career Oldcastle became a trusted supporter of Henry, Prince of Wales, later to become King Henry V, who regarded Sir John as “one of his most trustworthy soldiers”. Oldcastle was a member of the expedition which the young Henry sent to France in 1411 in a successful campaign to assist the Burgundians in the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War.

Lollardy had many supporters in Herefordshire, and Oldcastle himself had adopted Lollard doctrines before 1410, when the churches on his wife’s estates in Kent were laid under interdict for unlicensed preaching. Indeed he had Wycliffe’s works transcribed and distributed.In the convocation which met in March 1413, shortly before the death of Henry 1V, Oldcastle was at once accused of heresy.

But his friendship with the new Henry V prevented any decisive action until convincing evidence was found in one of Oldcastle’s books, which was discovered in a shop in Paternoster Row, London. The matter was brought before the King, who desired that nothing should be done until he had tried his personal influence. Oldcastle declared his readiness to submit to the king “all his fortune in this world” but was firm in his religious beliefs.

When Oldcastle fled from Windsor Castle to his own castle at Cowling, Henry at last consented to a prosecution. Oldcastle refused to obey the Archbishop of Canterbury’s repeated citations, and it was only under a Royal Writ that he at last appeared before the ecclesiastical court on 23 September 1413.

In a confession of his faith he declared his belief in the sacraments and the necessity of penance and true confession, but he would not assent to the orthodox doctrine of the sacrament as stated by the Bishops, nor admit the necessity of confession to a priest. He also called the veneration of images was “the great sin of idolatry”. On 25 September he was convicted as a heretic..

Henry V was still anxious to find a way of escape for his old comrade, and granted a respite of forty days. Before that time had expired, Oldcastle escaped from the Tower by the help of one William Fisher, a parchment-maker of Smithfield.

Oldcastle now put himself at the head of a widespread Lollard conspiracy, which assumed a definite political character. The plan was to seize the King and his brothers during a Twelfth-night mumming,(folk plays), at Eltham, and establish some sort of commonwealth. Oldcastle was to be Regent, the king, nobility and clergy placed under restraint, and the abbeys dissolved and their riches shared out. King Henry, forewarned of their intention by a spy, moved to London, and when the Lollards assembled in force in St Giles’s Fields on 10 January they were easily dispersed by the king and his forces.

Oldcastle himself escaped into deepest northwest Herefordshire, and for nearly four years avoided capture. Apparently he was privy to the Southampton Plot in July 1415, when he stirred some movement in the Welsh Marches. On the failure of the scheme he went again into hiding. Oldcastle was no doubt the instigator of the abortive Lollard plots of 1416, and appears to have intrigued with the Scots also.

In November 1417 his hiding-place was at last discovered and he was captured by Edward Charleton, 5th Baron Charleton. Oldcastle who was “sore wounded ere he would be taken”, was brought to London in a horse-litter. The reward for his capture was awarded to Baron Charleton, but he died before receiving it, though a portion was paid to his widow in 1422.

On 14 December Oldcastle was formally condemned, on the record of his previous conviction, and that same day was hanged in St Giles Fields, and burnt “gallows and all”. It is not clear whether he was burnt alive.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary; Wikipedia; History of Parliament; NNDB;

submitted by Steve

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