Skip to main content Accessibility help

William Swinderby and the Wycliffite Attitude to Excommunication

  • IAN FORREST (a1)


The early Wycliffite William Swinderby expressed some strong criticisms of excommunication. He was alarmed that churchman thought that it was their power, rather than God's power, that consigned a soul to hell. The rhetoric of sentences of excommunication in this period was indeed intended to frighten offenders into compliance with ecclesiastical judgements, but the theory and practice of excommunication was in fact far less simple that the Wycliffite criticism of it allowed. This article examines Swinderby's attitude towards ecclesiastical sanctions in light of Wyclif's own ideas, and the theory and practice of excommunication in the late medieval Church. Swinderby's links with early Wycliffism are elucidated and the relationship between Wycliffism and the Church is looked at in a new light.



Hide All

1 A recent summary of biographical knowledge on Swinderby can be found in A. Hudson, ‘Swinderby, William (fl. 1382–1392)’, ODNB.

2 Good introductions to the subject are provided by D. Logan, Excommunication and the secular arm in medieval England: a study in legal procedure from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Toronto 1968, 13–24, and E. Vodola, Excommunication in the Middle Ages, Berkeley 1986, 28–43.

3 L. K. Little, Benedictine maledictions: liturgical cursing in romanesque France, Ithaca 1993, 34–8, 232–4; Helmholz, R. H., ‘Excommunication and the Angevin leap forward’, Haskins Society Journal vii (1995), 139. Genevieve Steele Edwards, ‘Ritual excommunication in medieval France and England, 900–1200’, unpubl. PhD diss. Stanford 1997, illustrates the variety in local excommunication formulae in the intervening period. I owe these references to Sarah Hamilton.

4 Logan, Excommunication and the secular arm, 25–42.

5 The St Albans chronicle: the Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham, I: 1376–1394, ed. J. Taylor, W. R. Childs and L. Watkiss, Oxford 2003, 588–90.

6 Reg. Buckingham, fos 236v, 242r. On fo. 242r there is also an undated mandate to all the regular and secular clergy of Leicester archdeaconry ordering the proclamation of Swinderby's excommunication for contumacy, to be repeated until further notice, which would only have added to his antipathy to the practice of excommunication. For an overview of anti-heretical activity in that diocese see A. K. McHardy, ‘Bishop Buckingham and the Lollards of Lincoln diocese’, in D. Baker (ed.), Schism, heresy and religious protest (Studies in Church History xviii, 1972), 131–45.

7 The legal process referred to here is the appeal for a writ of prohibition, removing a case from episcopal into royal jurisdiction, for which see The medieval court of arches, ed. D. Logan (Canterbury and York Society xcv, 2005), pp. xlvi–xlvii.

8 Knighton's chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. G. H. Martin, Oxford 1995, 286–8.

9 St Albans chronicle, 592–4. Knighton refers to this article alone in his first summary account of Swinderby's ideas: Knighton's chronicle, 310.

10 Hudson, Premature Reformation, 69–71.

11 Reg. Buckingham, fo. 23r–v.

12 Fasciculi zizaniorum magistri Johannis Wyclif cum tritico, ed. W. W. Shirley (RS, 1858), 279–80.

13 Reg. Buckingham, fos 239v–240r. On the process of retrospective formation of the social categories ‘Wycliffite’ and ‘Lollard’ see A. Cole, ‘William Langland and the invention of Lollardy’, in F. Somerset, J. C. Havens and D. G. Pitard (eds), Lollards and their influence in late medieval England, Woodbridge 2003, 45, where he calls this ‘back-formation’.

14 Reg. Buckingham, fos 242v–243r. A William Welber is also mentioned as present at the trial.

15 Ibid. fo. 243v. In this context ‘denouncer’ is akin to ‘promoter’ or prosecutor: H. A. Kelly, ‘Lollard inquisitions: due and undue process’, in A. Ferreiro (ed.), The devil, heresy and witchcraft in the Middle Ages: essays in honor of Jeffrey B. Russell, Leiden 1998, 279–303.

16 Reg. Trefnant, 238–9.

17 The abjuration was to take place in the cathedral, the prebendal church of St Margaret and the parish church of St Martin in Leicester, the church of the Blessed Mary in Newark and the parish churches of Melton Mowbray, Hallaton, Market Harborough and Loughborough on successive Sundays. A copy of the mandate for the abjuration, addressed to the official of the archdeacon of Leicester, the sequestrator in the archdeaconry, and Stephen Syresham the vicar of Barrow on Soar, as well as all other clergy, is copied into Knighton's chronicle, 314–22.

18 Reg. Trefnant, 231. Buckingham sent the copy of the process from London on 10 February 1390.

19 Ibid. 235–6.

20 On the textual creation of Swinderby's Hereford trial records see Hudson, A., ‘The problem of scribes: the trial records of William Swinderby and Walter Brut’, Nottingham Medieval Studies xlix (2005), 80104.

21 On linguistic aspects of the vernacular documents submitted to Trefnant by Swinderby, possibly already circulating in the diocese as bills, possibly transcribed by a Welsh scribe at Hereford, see Black, M., ‘Lollardy, language contact and the great vowel shift: spellings in the defence papers of William Swinderby’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen lxxxxix (1998), 5369.

22 Reg. Trefnant, 241–2. On offerings and customary payments see R. H. Helmholz, The ius commune in England: four studies, Oxford 2001, 135–86. Swinderby drew a distinction between a priest who took voluntary offerings for services like marriages and burials, and one who ‘sold’ his services, refusing to perform them if he were not paid. In support of this he cites Matthew xxi.12 (‘Et intravit Iesus in templum Dei et eiciebat omnes vendentes et ementes in templo’; referred to by Swinderby as ‘vendentes et ementes ejecit de templo’) and two canons from Gratian's Decretum: C.1 q. 1 c. 100 (referred to by Swinderby as ‘primo ii, cap. Nullus’) and C.1 q.1 c.105, in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg, Leipzig 1879–81, repr. New Jersey 2000, i. 398, 399–400. The subtle distinction and the learned citations show that he was sensitive to canonical rulings on this subject.

23 Reg. Trefnant, 245, 247.

24 Ibid. 246–7, citing Augustine: ‘Nemo tollit peccata, nisi solus Christus’, from Gratian, D. 4 de cons c. 141, Corpus iuris canonici, i. 1407.

25 Reg. Trefnant, 247–8.

26 Ibid. 241.

27 Ibid. 272.

28 Hudson, Premature reformation, 315–21.

29 ‘excommunicator debet primo in materia sue excomunicacionis cognoscere voluntatem divinam, quia aliter mentiretur’: J. Wyclif, De officio regis, ed. A. W. Pollard and C. Sayle, London 1888, 232.

30 Compare Wyclif's statement above with the disbelief in William Thorpe's 1407 ‘testimony’ that ‘ony preest dar seie men to be acursid wiþouten grounde of Goddis word’: ‘The testimony of William Thorpe’, in Two Wycliffite texts, ed. A. Hudson (EETS ccci, 1993), 67.

31 Matt. xvi. 19.

32 ‘non est possibile sacerdotem vel laicum quidquam solvere vel ligare, nisi illa solucio vel ligacio sit in celis’: De civili dominio: liber primus, ed. R. L. Poole, London 1885, 281.

33 ‘nemo habet potestatem diffinitive sentenciandi, nisi prius habeat potestatem cognoscendi’: ibid. 282; cf. ‘in asoiling & cursing þei feynen hem vnknowun power & in fablis of þis power þei blasfemen & harme þe chirche … for noon mai conprehende þis power siþ it is with outen noumbre’: ‘Of the Church and her members’, English Wyclif tracts, 1–3, ed. C. Lindberg, Oslo 1991, 143, 167, 160. The author goes on to say that men should be sure of whom God has already absolved or excommunicated, predestined for salvation or foretold for damnation, before issuing these worldly ‘censures þat þe fend blowiþ’.

34 John Purvey in Fasciculi zizaniorum, 398. See also English Wycliffite sermons, ed. A. Hudson and P. Gradon, Oxford 1983–96, ii. 2–3.

35 Decrees of the ecumenical councils, ed. N. P. Tanner, London 1990, i. 425, art. 39. Compare with the condemned opinion of Hus, also at Constance, ibid. i. 430–1, art. 19. The standard Wycliffite line is that Peter received the keys because of his particular faith and virtue, but because there is no apostolic succession through the papacy, popes cannot claim this power. An alternative in some texts is that Jesus gave the keys to all the Apostles, not just Peter, and so the powers of binding and loosing are so dispersed as to merely mean ‘doing good in the world’: ‘De papa’, and ‘Of the Church and her members’, in English Wyclif tracts, 104, 123, 145–9; ‘Thirty-seven conclusions’, in Selections from English Wycliffite writings, 123. Thomas Cole, prosecuted by Bishop Bekynton of Bath and Wells in 1460, abjured the belief that ‘God yave power to Petir, beyng a good man and an holy man, to bynde and to lose, and to his successoures beyng as good as he was, and els not’ [my italics]: Hudson, Premature reformation, 329. This was the view taken by Marsilius of Padua in his discussion of the nature of priesthood: G. Garnett, Marsilius of Padua and the ‘truth of history’, Oxford 2006, 80.

36 J. Wyclif, De ecclesia, ed. J. Loserth, London 1886, 5; A. Kenny, Wyclif, Oxford 1985, 49–56.

37 De civili dominio: liber primus, 274, 276; De officio regis, 231; The Middle English translation of the Rosarium theologie, ed. C. von Nolcken, Heidelberg 1979, 55.

38 ‘Non enim habent isti vicarii potestatem ad dampnandum hominem ad Gehennam vel tradendum sathane’: De officio regis, 231. The Rosarium theologie, 55–6, argues that it is impossible, therefore, to bind someone who is innocent in God's eyes, or loose someone who is guilty in God's eyes.

39 Decrees of the ecumenical councils, i. 425, art. 46. See also De civili dominio: liber primus, 277–8.

40 Johannis de Wiclif tractatus de officio pastorali, ed. G. V. Lechler, Leipzig 1863, 13. The author of the tract known as ‘The grete sentence of curs expounded’ wrote that ‘þes ben not gostly fadris of Cristene soulis, þat wolen dampne hem to helle bi here cursyng for a litel rotyn dritt’, and elsewhere that ‘Certis it semeþ alle þis cursyng is for here owne coveitouse, not for synne of þe peple and trespas ayenst God, for þanne þei schulden more curse þere were more synne and more dispit ayenst God and his law; but þis is not don, as alle witti men may opynly see; þerfore þei cursen wrongfully, and so cursen hemself, and envenymen þe pepel þat þei diden wiþ’: Select English works of John Wyclif, ed. T. H. Arnold, Oxford 1871, iii. 309, 310.

41 Decrees of the ecumenical councils, 425, art. 41; De civili dominio: liber primus, 275.

42 Ceremonies and processions of the cathedral church of Salisbury, ed. C. Wordsworth, Cambridge 1901, 246. See also C. 11 q. 3 c. 32 and C. 24 q. 3 c. 9: Corpus iuris canonici, i. 653; i. 992–3.

43 Quattuor sermones, ed. N. F. Blake, Heidelberg 1975, 85. For spitting see John Mirk, Instructions for parish priests, ed. G. Kristensson, Lund 1994, 107.

44 Councils and synods with other documents relating to the English Church, II: A.D. 1205–1313, ed. F. M. Powicke and C. R. Cheney, Oxford 1964, ii. 1040–1; C. 11 q. 3 c. 41, in Corpus iuris canonici, i. 655.

45 Helmholz, ‘Excommunication and the Angevin leap forward’, 135–6.

46 Ceremonies and processions, 246. Another version of this text, BL, ms Burney 356, fo. 53v, reminds priests that people who meet with and talk to excommunicates are only to be excommunicated themselves so as ‘to bring them to amendment’.

47 ‘nisi resipiscant & ad satisfaccionem veniant’: Quattuor sermones, 85.

48 Aquinas, Summa theologie, 3-supp., q. 22, a 2, resp., cited in Vodola, Excommunication, 43.

49 Vodola, Excommunication, 40–7. This change is of course part of the shift described by Helmholz, ‘Excommunication and the Angevin leap forward’.

50 Vodola, Excommunication, 45

51 VI 5.11.1, in Corpus iuris canonici, ii. 1093; Innocent iv, In quinque libros decretalium commentaria apparatus, Venice 1570, app. X 2.20.54, v. Per exceptionem.

52 C. 23 q. 4 c. 25 with Glossa ordinaria v. medicina; Glossa ordinaria to C. 24 q. 3 c. 37, v. disciplina.

53 Helmholz, R., ‘Excommunication as a legal sanction: the attitudes of the medieval canonists’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtgeschichte. Kanonistische Abteilung xcix:lxviii (1982), 202–18.

54 Manifest sin ‘is hard to be heled by sooft salues of prechyng and techyng of men of holy cherche, therefore lest they enfecte othir men by yeuel ensaumple they have power to cast suche a gostely mesel oute fro holy cherche’: BL, ms Harleian 2383, fo. 55r.

55 Lollard sermons, ed. G. Cigman (EETS ccxciv, 1989), 88.

56 On doubt and circumspection in canon law see Forrest, Detection of heresy, 14–19, 164–5. The prevalence of this view among canon lawyers may have surprised the Wycliffite author of ‘De papa’, English Wyclif tracts, 92, who saw human law as arrogant for claiming to identify sin and virtue: ‘for crist tau3te þat hoolynesse shulde be hid in mennus hertis/& not shewid to þe puple in sensible signes wiþ oute fruyt’. Cf. sentiments of the Lanterne of li3t, in Hudson, Premature reformation, 319.

57 Select English works of Wyclif, iii. 272.

58 The works of a Lollard preacher, ed. A. Hudson (EETS cccxvii, 2001), 181.

59 Forrest, Detection of heresy, 64.

60 Logan, Excommunication and the secular arm, 25–42.

61 On the following manuscripts see A. E. Hartung (ed.), A manual of the writings in Middle English, 1050–1500, New Haven 1967-, vii. 2573–5; O. S. Pickering, ‘Notes on the sentence of cursing in Middle English’, Leeds Studies in English n.s. xii (1981), 229–44; and L. E. Boyle, ‘A study of the works attributed to William of Pagula: with special reference to the Oculus sacerdotis and Summa summarum’, unpubl. DPhil thesis, Oxford 1956, ii, passim. I have benefited from discussing the Middle English texts with Jenni Nuttall.

62 Society of Antiquaries, London, ms 687, p. 558.

63 Bodl. Lib., ms Bodl. 110, fo. 165r; ms Bodl. 736, fo. 192v; ms Burney 356, fos 52r–53v; BL, ms Harleian 335, fos 21r–24v; ms Royal 11.B.X, fo. 175v; Lambeth Palace Library, ms 172, fo. 173r.

64 Bodl. Lib., ms Bodl. 736, fo. 192r; ms Douce 60, fo. 161r; ms Douce 103, fo. 134r–137v; BL, ms Add. 33784, fo. 164r–v; ms Arundel, fo. 118r; ms Burney 356, fos 52v–53r, 53r–54v; ms Cotton Claudius A. II, fos 125v–128r; ms Harleian 335, fos 21r–24v; Lambeth Palace Library, ms 172, fo. 172r. For the canons against support networks of heretics see Forrest, Detection of heresy, 17, and Paul Ormerod and Andrew Roach, ‘The medieval inquisition: scale-free networks and the suppression of heresy’, Physica A cccxxxix (2004), 645–52.

65 Bodl. Lib., ms Bodl. 110, fo. 165v; BL, ms Burney 356, fo. 52v; ms Harleian 2383, fo. 52r–v; ms Harleian 4172, fos. 14v–15r. Failure of secular authorities to act against heresy, resulting in excommunication, was a central plank of Innocent iii's bull Excommunicamus (X 5.7.13), Corpus iuris canonici, ii. 787–9, trans. in Decrees of the ecumenical councils, i. 233–5.

66 On lay reporting of heresy see Forrest, Detection of heresy, 68–76, 164–8, 171–206.

67 BL, ms Burney 356, fo. 54v; Society of Antiquaries, ms 285, p. 15.

68 Bodl. Lib., ms Rawl. A. 381, fo. 2v.

69 Lambeth Palace Library, ms 172, fo. 172r. This text is the only one in which the list of excommunicable offences begins with heresy, the position given to heresy in the satirical ‘Grete sentence of curs expounded’, dated to c. 1383. The variation in general sentence texts means that the Wycliffite author of the ‘Grete sentence’ was likely to have been responding to a text very local in time and place. Given that the Lambeth manuscript has as its flyleaves letters dated to 1382 and 1383, it is possible that this was the source of the Wycliffite satire.

70 Bodl. Lib., ms Bodl. 123, fo. 2v.

71 De civili dominio: liber primus, 275; De officio regis, 232; Decrees of the ecumenical councils, i. 425, art. 41.

72 The only circumstance in which Wyclif thought it would be possible to know the will of God was revelation, his habitual fall-back position: M. Wilks, ‘Predestination, property and power: Wyclif's theory of dominion and grace’, in Wyclif: political ideas and practice: papers by Michael Wilks, Oxford 2000, 21.

73 Ibid. 20.

74 Matt. xiii. 25–6. See Forrest, Detection of heresy, 157.

75 Tractatus de officio pastorali, 22.

76 Hudson, Premature reformation, 375 n. 91.

77 Ibid. 378.

78 English Wycliffite sermons, iii. 120.

79 Select English works of Wyclif, iii. 296.

80 Reg. Trefnant, 244, 272–3; Select English works of Wyclif, iii. 308, 450; English Wycliffite sermons, ii.85.

81 English Wyclif tracts, 102; English Wycliffite sermons, ii. 191.

82 English Wycliffite sermons, ii. 71. Oddly, perhaps, Wyclif, in De ecclesia, 154, sees lay judges as alternatives to ecclesiastical ones, without addressing how they would be more in tune with God's will. On Wyclif's attitude to canon law see most recently S. E. Lahey, Philosophy and politics in the thought of John Wyclif, Cambridge 2003, 147–60.

83 R. Copeland, ‘William Thorpe and his Lollard community: intellectual labour and the representation of dissent’, in D. Wallace and B. Hanawalt (eds), Bodies and disciplines: intersections of literature and history in fifteenth century England, Minneapolis 1996, 199–221.

84 M. Wilks, ‘The early Oxford Wyclif’, in Wyclif: political ideas and practice, 34. H. B. Workman argued, on the basis of citations in the earlier Latin works, that ‘we might suspect that at one time he contemplated taking his degree’ in canon law: John Wyclif: a study of the English medieval Church, Oxford 1926, i. 102. I owe this reference to Rory Cox.

85 English Wyclif tracts, 162. On harm done to the excommunicator by a false excommunication see De mandatis divinis, ed. J. Loserth and F. D. Matthew, London 1922, 385.

86 De ecclesia, 153; De officio regis, 232. Wyclif's emphasis on the auto-excommunication of the sinner shows him to have been in favour of the idea of excommunication latae sententiae: excommunication incurred simply by virtue of committing one of the sins listed in the general sentence of excommunication. However, Helmholz, ‘Excommunication and the Angevin leap forward’, 147–8, points out that even excommunication latae sententiae required the specific citation and sentencing of the offender by a judge for it to be publicised and come into effect. Wyclif approved of the first, but not the second, part of this process.

87 Emily Steiner, ‘Lollardy and the legal document’, in Somerset, Havens and Pitard, Lollards and their influence, 161–2 n. 21, points out that Wycliffites made the same mistake for indulgences as they did for excommunications, a similarity also dealt with in A. Hudson, ‘Dangerous fictions: indulgences in the thought of Wyclif and his followers’, in R. Swanson (ed.), Promissory notes on the treasury of merits: indulgences in late medieval England, Leiden 2006, 197–214.

88 Hudson, ‘The problem of scribes’, 85, 89, and Premature reformation, 227.

89 On the relevant canonical definition of heresy see Reg. Trefnant, 272; Hudson, Premature reformation, 278n; and Forrest, Detection of heresy, 15.

An earlier version of this paper was read as the Were Lecture on Wyclif in the University of Oxford, Hilary Term 2007. I would like to thank the lecture audience, particularly Benjamin Thompson, Kantik Ghosh and Rory Cox, for their perceptive criticisms, and Lesley Smith and Anne Hudson for reading the paper in draft and making many invaluable suggestions.

William Swinderby and the Wycliffite Attitude to Excommunication

  • IAN FORREST (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed