Sunday 28 August 2016

Mumbling Knights and Vanishing Priests : Part 1

This is the first of two articles dealing with people and places involved in one of the major religious disputes in Medieval England with which I have very personal connections. These connections will become apparent as you read them. The connections are that I live in Nottingham and worked at Nottingham Castle for seven years; my direct ancestor is John Tansley; and I am also descended from Sir William Neville’s older brother and sister. So, I hope you will forgive this little indulgence.

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with the name Sir William Neville, and that of his partner Sir John Clanvowe. They were friends and confidantes of the king and they lived at Nottingham Castle from 1381 to 1391. They were also a highly respected same-sex couple and were buried together as such.

During the reign of King Richard II in the late 1300s there arose a group of supporters of the religious reformer John Wycliff, an Oxford theologian who believed that all church authority derives from the Bible, not from Rome, and that everyone had the right to read the Bible in their own language.

Wycliff's followers were called Lollards, a name derived from a Dutch word for someone who mumbles (as in the act of praying). Wycliff's most senior sympathisers included the beautiful Joan, Princess of Wales, King Richard II's mother, known as the Fair Maid of Kent. King Richard himself was not a supporter but he was opposed to their persecution in the early years, no doubt through his mother's influence and because many of his friends and courtiers were Lollard sympathisers.

In 1385 some of the so-called Lollard Knights were appointed to attend upon the Fair Maid of Kent. Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville were among them. When Princess Joan died later that year some of these knights, including both Sir John and Sir William, were her executors.

As time passed Lollards were declared to be heretics. Less than ten years later there were condemned to be burnt at the stake. Fortunately, by that time (1402) Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville, as well as Richard II, had died.

Sir John Clanvowe wrote a religious tract known as "The Two Ways". Although this work does not mention either Lollardy or Wycliffe by name it sets down the choices a man can make - the way to heaven or the way to hell. One aspect of Lollard doctrine is shown in the fact that "The Two Ways" was written in English not Latin. When Sir John Clanvowe died in Constantinople in 1391 he had his manuscript of "The Two Ways" with him. It is fortunate that his companions on that journey thought fit to bring the manuscript back to England such a work written by a layman is rare enough, but "The Two Ways" is unique in that it is the only written record by a Lollard Knight that contains Lollard ideas.

Sir William Neville didn’t leave any public declarations of his support for Lollardism like his partner. Yet, in his own way, Sir William exerted some Lollard influence in Nottingham, particularly in its main church, St. Mary’s.

During the 1380s when Sir William was Constable of Nottingham Castle, St. Mary’s church was undergoing an extensive rebuild. It is only in the past thirty years or so that it’s historical significance has been revealed. For many centuries Winchester cathedral had been put forward as the earliest major church in the English Perpendicular style, yet St. Mary’s in Nottingham has now been recognised as predating it by at least a decade.

A famous county historian of the 17th century noted some of the ancient stained glass which contained four heraldic shields. These offer clues to the date and benefactors of the rebuilding work. The shields were identified as those of 1) the royal arms of England, 2) King Richard II combined with his wife, 3) Archbishop Thomas Arundel of York, and 4) the Neville family. For a long time no-one could identify which member of the Neville family this represented. It must have been someone who was around after 1388 (the appointment of Archbishop Arundel) and before 1394 (the death of the queen). Today we know that the only Neville with a connection to Nottingham who fits those dates in Sir William.

The stone masons working on the rebuilding work would have probably been the same ones working on the repairs to Nottingham Castle during the same period. As a Lollard Sir William would have been in favour of a clear, non-ostentatious decoration that appeared in the regular Gothic architecture at the time. A simple style was in keeping with Lollardism. A simple, unfussy style of English Perpendicular is what we see at St. Mary’s, much of which survives to this day.

St. Mary's church, Nottingham, as it is today, very much as it was when
it was rebuilt  in the late 1300s.
One interesting thing to consider is the date on which the new church could have been dedicated. In the 16th century St. Mary’s celebrated its anniversary on the first Sunday in October. You’d think that they would have chosen one of the feast days of their patron saint, but they didn’t. We’ll never for sure why the date was chosen, but think about this – both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe died in the first week of October 1391. Could the dedication of St. Mary’s church have taken place a year or two later on the anniversary of their death? That’s speculation, nothing more.

Sir William Neville wasn’t the only local benefactor to the rebuilding of St. Mary’s. A lot of gentry and wealthy burgesses did so also. Two of these were town mayors and Members of Parliament John Tansley (my ancestor) and his grandson John Samon. When they died they were buried in St. Mary’s. Their tombs can still be seen today. Both would have known Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe and, as leading citizens, may also have met King Richard II.

So, Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were members of the “mumbling” Lollard Knights. But what about the “Vanishing Priest” of this article’s title? For him you’ll have to wait till next week for Part II.

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