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A Protestant martyr, Richard Hunne, hastened England’s Reformation

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, London, Religion on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about religion originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Richard Hunne's arrest, picture, image, illustration

The Bishop of London ordered a search of Richard Hunne’s house, where books advocating Proestantism were found which resulted in Hunne’s arrest and imprisonment in Lollards’ Tower. Picture by C L Doughty

As you dodge the London traffic that hurtles round the cathedral you are treading on part of St. Paul’s Churchyard. If you stand on one of the traffic islands in the middle of the road, you are standing on the site of the Lollards’ Tower.

This tower was built at the west end of the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral and was used by the bishop of London as a prison for those convicted of religious offences. Thirty feet above, on a Saturday in December, 1514, a man swung from a silken belt fixed to a staple in a beam. His name was Richard Hunne and his death helped to change the course of English history.

England in the early sixteenth century was still a Roman Catholic country. But scattered throughout the land were small groups of men and women who clung to the beliefs of the Lollards. The Lollards had appeared in the fourteenth century and they were the followers of John Wycliffe, whose ideas, in many ways, were like those of the Protestants.

When the movement was suppressed in the fifteenth century, its remaining adherents went underground, taking with them copies of their English Bible and other works which contained their ideas. These were handed around small circles of worshippers during the rest of the century, and in this way elements of Lollard belief were kept alive.

Early in the sixteenth century, they were joined by a more general feeling of hostility towards the church. It was a feeling which grew as people watched wealthy prelates and prosperous monasteries flourish, seemingly at their expense; and heard friars preaching a life of abstinence while they indulged themselves to excess.

Thus although the Reformation sprang from the teachings of Martin Luther and the continental theologians, much of the way had already been prepared in England and their views, therefore, found a sympathetic response in several parts of the country.

Nevertheless, the Church did not stand by idly while underground Lollardry and open anti-clericalism were practised. The bishops of each diocese sent out their officers to uncover heresy and smell out critics. The bishop’s summoner was a feared and hated policeman. He was supported in his work of detection by those who informed on their neighbours for money or for malice. The Church had its own courts too, for dealing with religious offenders and its judges worked hard to stamp out heresy and stifle opposition.

Richard Hunne was not by origin a religious zealot. He was a prosperous merchant – tailor and a freeman of the city of London. His reputation amongst his fellow businessmen was high. Then tragedy struck. His son, Stephen, a baby of five weeks, died. Richard took the tiny body to the parish priest for burial. The baby was buried; then the priest claimed his traditional fee, the robe in which the infant had been baptised.

Richard refused. Like many others, he saw no reason why the clergy should enjoy this particular privilege but, unlike them, he was determined to make a stand. He not only refused to part with the robe on the grounds that it was his and not the baby’s, and that the priest had no right to it, but he took the priest and other church officers to law over this and other matters.

The litigation was complex but at least one aspect was clear. If Richard won his case, he would have found a way by which opponents and critics of the Church could make their protests effective. He would have found a way to attack many clerical privileges. He knew perfectly well what he was about. So did the bishop of London, Richard Fitzjames.

Before the case could be brought to a decision, Fitzjames intervened. He ordered Richard’s house to be searched. Lollard books were found there. That was enough. Fitzjames had Richard arrested and confined him in the Lollards’ Tower.

On Saturday, 2nd December, he sent for the prisoner at his palace in Fulham. Richard was taken there and questioned by the bishop. When his examination was over he was taken back to the prison. There he was left in the charge of the bishop’s chancellor, Doctor William Horsey, and, more particularly, in the custody of Charles Joseph, the bishop’s summoner, and John Spalding the cathedral bellringer. This was not, as it happened, the best of choices for gaolers, since Joseph was one of the church officers, who had been attacked in Richard’s court case.

On Saturday Richard was alive. But on Monday morning, at ten, when a serving boy and two of the bishop’s men took him his single meal of the day, they unlocked the door of his room and beheld a fearful sight.

Swaying slightly in the draught from the stairway, Richard’s body hung from a black silk belt, secured to a staple hammered into the wooden beams of the ceiling.

They rushed to tell Doctor Horsey. The prisoner, they gabbled, had committed suicide. Some days later, however, when a coroner had had time to view the body, a different story came to light. Richard had been assaulted and strangled before he had been hanged. The crime was not suicide. It was murder.

At once a full-scale enquiry was launched into the whereabouts of all connected with the prison. The gaolers were questioned and their alibis checked. The probing finger of the investigators came nearer and nearer to the summoner, Charles Joseph. In the end he confessed. But, more important, he alleged that he had acted on the orders of Doctor Horsey.

Now the bishop’s chancellor was a very eminent lawyer and a very important man. This was not an accusation that could be shrugged off. Horsey, Joseph and Spalding were all indicted for murder but they did not stand trial. Instead they disappeared quietly from the scene while Bishop Fitzjames covered their retreat.

Richard Fitzjames was a stubborn man, brought up to believe in the unquestioned authority of the Church. He would brook no trial of his chancellor. He did not, however, go on the defensive. Instead, he struck out in attack.

He ordered Richard’s body to be tried posthumously for heresy. He found it guilty and handed it over to the city authorities to be burned. Not only did the judgment disgrace Richard’s memory, it impoverished his family since his property was immediately forfeit to the Crown. While the crowds howled for Horsey and Joseph, Richard’s body burned. The bishop had won.

But it was not a complete victory. The bishop had prevented the critics of the Church from openly attacking his chancellor and he had sealed off the Hunne affair from any further investigation. But, he had increased the hostility of those who resented the arrogance of the Church and he had further antagonised those who believed that Hunne had been imprisoned in the first place simply because he was an embarrassment to the ecclesiastical authorities. In so doing he had created trouble for himself and his successors.

For the rest of his episcopate in London, the bishop was plagued by growing hostility from the people and by the first trickle of Protestant writings from Germany.

Had he made a better showing in the Hunne affair, he might have been able to rely on the faithful to reject the new creed. Instead, his crude attempts to protect his officers had laid the Church wide open to attack.

Throughout the pamphlets and speeches and confessions and threats that multiplied as the Reformation spread, the name of Richard Hunne constantly reappeared. The ghost of the corpse in the silken noose stalked the bishop until the end. And had its revenge.

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