Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, executed as an heretic and traitor near St. Giles's Fields, London, in December 1417, became a figure of sharp controversy at the end of the sixteenth century. Oldcastle was presented on stage in both the anonymous The Famous Victories of Henry V and in Shakespeare's 1&2 Henry IV as the close companion of the errant Prince of Wales and as a participant in robbery at Gad's Hill. Shakespeare developed the role to include his involvement in the campaign against the rebellion which led to the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, and his subsequent rejection by the newly crowned Henry V. His presentation of Oldcastle as thief, liar, cheat and coward, together with the character's comically resourceful wit and intelligence, appears to have caused such offence that Shakespeare was quickly persuaded to change his name to Falstaff, and all printed texts retain the changed ascription. For those of a Puritan persuasion, Oldcastle was a figure of veneration, an early English Protestant martyr who had given his life in the defence of religious principles, derived from the teachings of Wycliffe, which were very close to their own in the rejection of Roman Catholic dogma and the power of the Papacy. John Bale's Sir John Oldcastle and John Foxe's Acts and Monuments set the appropriate tone. Oldcastle was presented as a Protestant saint and martyr, persecuted and hounded to death by a malicious and conniving Romist clergy: a victim of those spiritual and political structures to which the English Reformation was opposed. Foxe nominated a specific day in the year (5 February)1 to Oldcastle's memory as part of an attempt to establish a Protestant calendar in competition with the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating saints' days.

The historical Oldcastle appears to be an unlikely candidate for the dramatists' comic vice figure or the theologians' saint and martyr. He was born in the late 1370's into a minor Herefordshire family holding property at the village of Ameley close to the Welsh border.2 Whilst the area was remote from the political centres of power, it had considerable strategic importance since the control of the Marches was vital for the containment of the Welsh rebellion. The monarchy relied on knights such as the Oldcastles for the administration and defence of the border3 and it is likely that Sir John Oldcastle gained an early military reputation in border warfare. Certainly he was in continual royal service from 1400, taking part in Henry IV's expedition into Scotland in the autumn of that year, and in subsequent years he was employed against the Welsh rebels, acquiring positions of increasing responsibility. By 1404, Oldcastle had been appointed Superintendent of Hay and Builth and was the Knight of the Shire of Herefordshire in Parliament, and in 1407 he was a member of the main army in the expedition against Glendower under the command of Henry, Prince of Wales.

Oldcastle might have remained a minor captain and local Herefordshire magnate but for his marriage in 1408 to Joan Cobham who had inherited, on the death of her grandfather, John, the third Lord Cobham, vast estates and considerable wealth. By this union the twice-married Oldcastle found himself possessed of lands in Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Wiltshire and Kent, including Cooling Castle, `one of the most formidable strongholds in the country',4 together with the title Lord Cobham which entailed his attendance at the Parliament of 1409 as a member of the Upper House. Oldcastle's fortunes also appear to have flourished with the development of a close relationship with the Prince of Wales, for he seems to have been of the Prince's party when, in 1411, he was a member of the successful expedition to France in support of the Burgundian party against the Armagnacs. Henry IV had reservations about the expedition but the small force, led by the Earl of Arundel, was strongly supported by Prince Henry, acting as President of the Council on account of his father's illness.5

The precise nature of Oldcastle's relationship to the Prince can only be surmised. A friendship may have been established during the Welsh campaigns, and it is possible that Oldcastle could have hoped for further advancement on the accession of Henry V in March 1413. However, the seeds of his downfall were already sown with his sympathy for Lollard views. As early as 1410, the Dean of Rochester had been warned by Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, that one of Oldcastle's chaplains had been preaching Lollardy in the area and particularly at Cooling, although nothing came of this enquiry. How Oldcastle came to hold his Lollard sympathies is unknown. It is possible that he acquired them in his youth since Herefordshire was heavily infected by Lollardy in the late thirteenth century,6 but it is certain that throughout his royal service he was leading a double life. He was in correspondence with members of the Hussite reform party in Bohemia, and there is some evidence that he supplied them with Wycliffite material. It is possible that he may have been party to the anticlerical proposals, presented to Parliament in 1404 and 1410, which were designed to confiscate Church resources and land for the King's use.7

Oldcastle's Lollard views were publicly revealed in June 1413, the month in which Wycliffe's works were formally condemned. An heretical pamphlet containing sheets of exceptional religious depravity had been seized from a Paternoster Row illuminator who testified that it belonged to Sir John Oldcastle. He was summoned before the King and the most offensive passages were read aloud. Henry, deeply shocked, asked Oldcastle if he agreed that such work should be condemned. He agreed, but, accepting their ownership, stated that he had scarcely read the papers and had thought nothing of the matter.8 Whilst some members of the clergy desired to indict Oldcastle immediately, the hierarchy, in deference to the King's friendship for him, was more cautious. Henry, consulted as to procedure, asked for a delay in presenting the indictment in order to allow him to persuade his friend to conform. The King's arguments proved fruitless, and by August he had referred Oldcastle's case to the clergy's jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Oldcastle had returned to Cooling and closed his gates against the world. Arundel's sumner, sent to Cooling Castle, was refused entry and the Archbishop then ordered letters citatory to be placed on the doors of Rochester Cathedral. Oldcastle, who refused to attend the summons to appear at Leeds Castle on 11 September, was immediately excommunicated and cited to defend himself before Arundel on 23 September.

On that day, Oldcastle was brought from the Tower of London9 to the Chapter House of St. Paul's to appear before the Archbishop. In the course of his trial, transferred on 25 September to Blackfriars, Oldcastle steadfastly held to his views: that after consecration the bread remained bread; that confession to a priest was not necessary for salvation; that the cross was not to be adored; and that the Pope was the head of Antichrist. Given these statements, condemnation was inevitable.10 Arundel had no course other than to excommunicate him and hand him over to the secular authorities for execution as an heretic. In the normal course of events, heretics were executed within days of their sentence. Unusually, however, Oldcastle was returned to the Tower and, perhaps at the King's suggestion, allowed forty days to reconsider his position. Although the Protestant apologists present the trial as an exercise in malice and duplicity on the part of a corrupt clergy, with Oldcastle as innocent victim, it is clear that he was given every opportunity to save himself; indeed, Waugh argues that Arundel treated him very well throughout the proceedings.11

The stay of execution provided an opportunity for Oldcastle's escape from the Tower on 19 October. Some reports suggest that he escaped by stealth, others that he was sprung from prison by friends 컴 a London parchment maker, a Shropshire scrivener and a Warrington Franciscan. He appears to have gone into hiding in London and participated in the planning of the failed Lollard rising of January 1414,12 although Bale and Foxe attempt to deny that Oldcastle had any part in a rebellion or, indeed, that any rising took place. Contemporary documents and chronicles, however, confirm the existence of the revolt which aimed to overthrow both church and state, and murder the King, his brothers, the nobility and the church hierarchy. Records of pardons, a less reliable source perhaps, suggest that the rebels also wished to despoil the churches, force members of religious orders to earn their living, divide the kingdom into a number of fiefdoms and proclaim Oldcastle as regent. The Essex organisers offered sixpence a day to all who would support Oldcastle in the enterprise.13

The rising was planned for the night of the 9/10 January whilst the King was celebrating Christmas at Eltham Palace where he was to be assassinated. Simultaneously, the rebels' main force was to assemble at Ficket Field (St. Giles's Fields) and, augmented by supporters from London, take control of the capital. Henry V, forewarned of the rising by the confession of Lollards arrested in London, acted swiftly. Moving to Westminster, he ordered the gates of the city to be secured and, advancing his forces towards St. Giles's Fields, the Lollard rebels were apprehended as they arrived. Whilst Oldcastle escaped the debacle, the other principals were soon taken and dealt with. Sir Roger Acton 컴 who had fought in the Welsh Marches and was apparently Oldcastle's chief lieutenant 컴 John Beverley, a priest, and John Brown, said to be Oldcastle's esquire, were executed together with some sixty others, including a Robert or William Morely (Murley), a wealthy citizen of Dunstable, who was said to have been promised the fiefdom of Hertfordshire on the success of the rising.

With the failure of the rebellion, Oldcastle went underground. Although outlawed in June 1414, by the end of the year the King had proclaimed an amnesty for him on condition that he gave himself up and submitted to his sovereign. Oldcastle failed to appear and early in 1415 seems to have instigated an abortive insurrection in the West Midlands against Lord Abergavenny. He was also suspected of being involved in the Southampton plot against the King. There is evidence to support this as the Earl of Cambridge appears to have been ready to join forces with disaffected Lollard groups, and Oldcastle is mentioned in letters written to the King by Sir Thomas Gray and Cambridge after their arrest,14 which imply that Oldcastle was expected to join with Glendower in raising the Marches and the Welsh. During the next two years, Oldcastle appears to have moved about the country, spending much of his time in the Midlands and the West of England, even living in his manor at Ameley in 1417.15 On one occasion he was almost apprehended at St. Albans. A number of his close supporters were taken, however, and several English books were seized `full of blasphemy against the Virgin Mary', together with others in which pages honouring the Virgin and the Saints had been mutilated.

Towards the end of 1417, Oldcastle, after a stout resistance, was finally captured near Welshpool. He was delivered into the custody of Edward Charleton, the Lord of Powis, who was ordered to convey him to London. On 14 December 1417, he was arraigned before Parliament, which he declared was incompetent to judge him whilst his liege-lord, King Richard, was alive in Scotland.16 Such a statement was treason enough. Oldcastle was condemned to be hanged as a traitor and burnt hanging in chains as an heretic. The King was campaigning in France and the sentence was not delayed. Oldcastle was taken to St. Giles's Fields, the site of the failed rebellion, where, in the presence of the Dukes of Bedford and Exeter, he was hanged and burnt by a fire which also consumed the gallows.

To what extent Oldcastle, in his time, was a representative of a popular movement is debatable. Certainly he found assistance and managed to avoid arrest for almost four years. He was protected by establishment figures such as the Abbot of Shrewsbury and the Prior of Wenlock,17 and, if we accept the report of the widespread rumours that he would rise again after three days, he had considerable charisma. Yet the records show that, despite an apparently close friendship with the King, he continually fomented rebellion against the religious and political establishment, and towards the end of his life may have been the victim of religious mania.18 Formally he was, for Catholic chroniclers and propagandists, not only an heretic, but also a proclaimed outlaw, a rebel and a traitor. Sixteenth-century Protestant apologists, on the other hand, had the problem of legitimising a figure who presented a direct challenge to the popular monarchy of Henry V.

To John Bale must go the credit for gathering together much of the material concerning the Oldcastle story. In his A Brief Chronicle concerning the Examination and Death of the Blessed Martyr of Christ, Sir John Oldcastle, the Lord Cobham (1544) Bale focuses attention on the Church's persecution, on its attempt to subvert sympathy for Oldcastle's death, on the treachery of Lord Powis (`monied with Judas') and, especially, on his glorious martyrdom:

As he was coming to the place of execution, and was taken from the hurdle, he fell down devoutly upon his knees, desiring almighty God to forgive his enemies... Then was he hanged up there by the middle in chains of iron, and so consumed alive in the fire, praising the name of God so long as his life lasted. This is set within a Biblical context and likened, as an example to the people, to the death of Christ:
Thus resteth this valiant Christian knight, Sir John Oldcastle, under the altar of God (which is Jesus Christ) among that godly company which, in the kingdom of patience, suffered great tribulation with the death of their bodies for His faithful word and testimony, abiding there with them the fulfilling of their whole number, and the full restoration of His elects...Sir John Oldcastle was brent in chains at London in St. Giles's field, under the gallows, among the lay people, and upon the profane working day, at the Bishops' procurement. And all this is unglorious, yea, and very despisable unto those worldly eyes. What though Jesus Christ his master afore him were handled after a very like sort? For he was crucified at Hierusalem, without the city, and without the holy synagogue, accursed out of the church, among the profane multitude, in the midst of thieves, in the place where as thieves were commonly hanged, and not upon the feastful day but afore it, by the Bishops' procurement also.

John Foxe's inclusion of much of Bale's account (often repeated verbatim) in his Acts and Monuments (1583) ensured Oldcastle's prominence as a Protestant martyr. It is Foxe's version that became popularly known19 and is the most likely source for the dramatists of 1&2 Sir John Oldcastle. In Foxe this persecution is set firmly within the context of the Catholic Church's determination to `repress the growing and spreading of the Gospel' by those whom the clergy pejoratively `misnamed to be Lollards'. The King is presented as sympathetic towards Oldcastle, but manipulated by those of the clergy `of more crafty experience', and bound by their insistence on Catholic dogma. Nevertheless, Foxe depicts Henry as taking the trouble to hold two private interviews with Oldcastle before angrily consigning him to trial by the clergy in the face of Oldcastle's determined opposition to the established church and offer of himself for trial by the code of knighthood. Foxe's account repeats Bale's dismissive attacks on Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his clergy, `glozing glaverers', who are shown acting falsely in the King's name. Arundel is represented as Caiaphas, acting in `moody madness, without just proof', subjecting Oldcastle to `cruel threatenings', and intimidating the secular arm by `most terrible menacings of curses and interdictions'. The monolithic power of the Church against Oldcastle is stressed, together with the clergy's duplicity in misleading the general public. As regards the Ficket Field affair, Foxe uses his forensic skills to reduce the notion of an armed rebellion to an absurdity 컴 `Here might be demanded...in what order of battle 'ray they marched, what captains, under-captains, and petty captains they had to guide the wings, and to lead the army?' 컴 stressing instead the legitimacy of the activity of assembling, necessarily privately for fear of persecution, in order to hear their priest, John Beverley.

Holinshed, who shows much more regard for the objective weighing of evidence, represents the King as a kindly pastor, urging the clergy, `rather by gentleness than by rigour to reduce him to the fold', and interceding personally with Oldcastle: `right earnestly exhorted him and lovingly admonished him'. Whilst Henry's role in persecuting Oldcastle is diminished by Holinshed, his active resourcefulness and skill as a military tactician are stressed in the account of the suppression of the Ficket Field rebellion. Although Holinshed shows a balanced historical approach in acknowledging uncertainty amid the conflicting accounts of events, some admiration for Oldcastle does emerge from his account. For example, the loyalty that the knight inspired in his supporters is highlighted by the fact that Henry's generous offer of reward produced no result: `By this it may appear how greatly he was beloved, that there could not one be found that for so great a reward would bring him to light'. As regards the guilt of those involved in the Ficket Field affair, Holinshed takes care to represent the view that those punished might have been persecuted more on religious grounds 컴 `feigned causes surmised by the spirituality' 컴 than for disloyalty to the crown.

The dramatists of Sir John Oldcastle, Pt. 1 and the poetaster John Weever, drawing their material in part from Bale, Foxe and Holinshed, were careful to isolate the monarchy from direct involvement in Oldcastle's `persecution'. The King had therefore to be presented as a positive character, or at the very least a neutral figure, weighed down by the responsibilities of state and vulnerable to the manipulation of cunning counsellors.

To other sections in the Introduction:


1 Oldcastle died in December 1417. Foxe's calendar gives the date as 1418, 6 February in the 1563 edition and 5 February in the 1596 edition. His failure to give the correct date drew sharp criticism from the Catholic polemicist Robert Parsons: `[Foxe] appointed vnto them their seueral festiuall dayes in redd letters (which were the dayes of their hanginge) as vnto solemne martyrs, the first vpon the 6. Ianuary with this title: Syr Roger Acton Knight martyr, And the other vpon the fifth of February with this inscription in his calendar: Syr Iohn Oldcastle L. Cobham martyr. Whereby we may see, that these men do not measure things as they are in them selues: but as they serue to maintaine their faction.' (A treatise of three conversions of England from Paganism to Christian Religion... (1603) p. 491. Quoted by David McKeen, Thesis, p. 986).

2 For a full discussion of Oldcastle's life see W.T.Waugh, `Sir John Oldcastle', English Historical Review, vol. XX (1905), 434-456 & 637-658.

3 See E.F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century: 1399-1485 (1961), p. 103.

4 Waugh, p. 438.

5 See Harold F. Hutchison, Henry V (1967), p. 59.

6 See Waugh, p. 441, and Peter Heath, Church and Realm 1272- 1461 (1988), p. 183.

7 See Heath, pp. 257-58.

8 See Hutchison, p. 79.

9 It is unclear how Oldcastle came to be held in the Tower. Bale suggests that, having prepared a statement of his faith, he had attempted to petition the King, who, displeased with his behaviour, handed him over to the clergy. See Foxe, who closely follows Bale, Appendix B, ll. 139ff.

10 For the central importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist see Miri Rubin, `Corpus Christi: Inventing a Feast', History Today 40 (July 1990), 15-21.

11 Waugh, p. 452.

12 See Jacob, pp. 130-32, and Waugh, pp. 637-38.

13 The insurgents were largely drawn from the lower orders, e.g. artisans, weavers, smiths and corn dealers who were led by their chaplains; see Jacob, p. 132.

14 See T.B.Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot (1988), pp. 126, 166 and 168, and Jacob, p. 146.

15 See Jacob, p. 133.

16 In the autumn of 1417 the Scots had made an incursion into England which was legitimised by the claims of a pseudo-Richard II.

17 See Jacob, p. 133.

18 See Waugh, p. 658.

19 Editions of Acts and Monuments were frequently reprinted well into the 17th century.