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William Sawtrey (died March 1401) was an English Roman Catholic priest who was executed for heresy.
Sawtrey was born in Norfolk, England. He was a follower of John Wycliffe, the leader of an early reformation movement called Lollardy. Sawtrey was a priest at two churches, St. Margaret’s in Lynn and Tilney in Norfolk.
Sawtrey's association with Lollardy
Sawtrey preached and endorsed Lollard beliefs, including the rejection of Catholic saints and the sacrament of Eucharist. Of the latter, he claimed that "after the consecration [of the host] by the priest there remaineth true material bread" (Trevelyan 334).
As a result of spreading these views, Sawtrey was taken to Henry le Despencer on 30 April 1399. Le Despencer, a bishop in South Elmham, ordered an examination of Sawtrey. The examination lasted for two days. Sawtrey’s examiners claimed that he rejected free will, and that he did not believe in worshiping images and embarking on pilgrimages. He was therefore charged with heresy and sent to an Episcopal prison. Sawtrey denounced Lollardy upon his release. He abjured privately at first, but then publicly in Lynn on May 25, 1399. He appeared before le Despencer in St. John’s Hospital the next day, and swore on the Gospels that he would never again preach Lollardy. He also promised to never hear confession without a license from le Despencer.
In 1401, Sawtrey moved to London and began working as a parish-priest at St. Osyth’s, where he continued to preach Lollard beliefs. It is possible that he moved to London in order to distance himself from le Despencer, but he had not removed himself from the anti-Lollard sentiment of the Catholic church. One year earlier, De heretico comburendo (Statute of Heresies) was passed. The statute calls for the burning of heretics either plainly rejecting Catholicism, or accepting Catholic beliefs but return to their previous heretical beliefs. Sawtrey was summoned to appear at St. Paul’s on 12 February 1402.
Sawtrey appeared before Archbishop Thomas Arundel. Before convocation, Sawtrey was delivered the following heretical charges: failure to “adore the true cross” (National Biography 869), belief that a priest’s time spent in hourly prayers could be better spent preaching and spreading the word of God, his opinion on the temporalities of the church and on how the money could be put to better use, preaching on adoration of mankind over angels, and finally his belief in consubstantiation. Sawtrey resisted, and was once again charged with heresy.
Sawtrey demanded a copy of his charges and was given 18 February to make an appeal. At his appeal before Parliament he defended his beliefs with quotes from St. John, St. Paul, and St. Augustine. His defense was heavily questioned by Arundel, who spent three hours questioning of the topic of the Eucharist alone, all the while trying to convert him back to Catholicism. Sawtrey resisted, and on 23 February charges were once again made against him. He was condemned and “through seven successive stages he was degraded from priest to doorkeeper, then stripped of every clerical function, attribute, and vestment” (National Biography 870)
Sawtrey was convicted and sentenced to death on 26 February 1401. In March, he was taken to Smithfield, and publicly burned at the stake. He was the first follower of Lollardy to die for his beliefs. He and John Purvey, a friend and follower of John Wycliffe who also was tortured for his beliefs, were the two most egregious cases against Lollardy committed under the Statute of Heresy.
The lower classes of England were quick to catch on to Lollard ideas, especially about dispersing Church funds to aid people in need and to ease lower class financial stresses caused by heavy taxation. The representatives of the lower class made efforts on two occasions to convince King Henry IV and Parliament to appropriate the Church’s money and to use it for the people of England. The Church reacted against this proposal and, with the help of the King, set forth a number of statutes to protect Church temporalities. Among these orders was the Statute De heretico comburendo, which stated that heresy was punishable by means of public burning.
The severity of Sawtrey and Purvey’s punishments created a wave of Lollard supporters. Among them was John Oldcastle, a knight and captain for the Prince of Wales. He protected and hid preachers from the Statute of Heresy. Oldcastle and other Lollard-sympathizing knights pled with King Henry IV to change the law. They argued that the King should take the money the Church was wasting and put it into England’s armory, almshouses, and universities. Many students of Oxford University were also Lollard sympathizers. Students translated Wycliffe’s work and began to debate the lawfulness of Bible translations.
However, despite their efforts, the persecution of Lollards continued. The knights’ arguments were shot down, and Oxford was discredited by the Church. Nevertheless, Lollard believers continued practicing their faith in an underground network below the Church’s radar.
After John Wycliffe's death, Archbishop William Courtenay began to defend his beliefs in 1382. He argued concepts such as consubstantiation, the belief that the Eucharist is still indeed bread and that body of Christ exists simultaneously with the bread. He also used the Bible to explain that certain mass ceremonies were not specifically ordered by Christ. He defended the belief that, “a priest in mortal sin could not administer the Sacraments." He also supported Wycliffe in his opinion about confession, which was that if a man is truly contrite after his verbal confession, then no other action is necessary. The final point he argued was that of papacy. In his life Wycliffe had proposed that Pope Urban VI should be the last pope and that people govern themselves under their own laws.
- Feiling, Keith. A History of England. London: Macmillian, 1950. p. 284. Print.
- MacFarlane, K.B. John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity. London: English Universities Press LTD, 1966. pp. 150-151. Print.
- The Dictionary of Nation Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900. Ed. Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. pp. 869-879. Print.
- Trevelyan, George Macauly. England in the Age of Wycliffe. London: Longmans, Green,and Co., 1904. pp. 293, 334. Print.