1884 photograph of Lollards' Tower at Lambeth
Palace--London Residence of the Archbishops
Richard Hunne was a merchant-tailor in the City of London in the early sixteenth century. His infant son, Stephen, died in 1511 and his funeral was at the Church of Saint Mary Matfellon, Whitechapel, London. The priest, Thomas Dryffeld, demanded the infant’s christening gown in which the tiny corpse was dressed, for a fee. Now this sounds gruesome to the modern reader, but it was standard in the Middle Ages that the various trappings of a funeral—the pall that covered the body, any cloths or bunting with which the church was draped for the funeral, and even the shroud in which the corpse was dressed belonged to the priest by ways of fee. Also any candles or other decorations that were used went to the priest. They would be resold to the undertaker (or in the case of candles, to the chandler) who could then sell them to the next grieving family for re-use. The baby most likely, at least by custom, would not have been buried in the Christening gown in any case but have been simply wrapped in linen or wool before being interred. Nevertheless Richard Hunne begrudged the priest the gown. He was a tailor, a very wealthy tailor, and the gown was of some more than usual value. Hunne could have afforded it. He was a man of means. But on principle he would not give in. It is difficult to know psychological motives of a person long dead unless they have left us some strong indication, and Hunne probably did not even understand himself why he was so tenacious on this point. Perhaps he was angry over the death of his son; that is a normal reaction at the death of someone we love. And the anger over the death of a child often is directed towards God—or religious figures who “represent” God to us—because we simply don’t know where else to direct it. We just don’t know why, on Hunne’s part, this escalated as it did, but it did.
Dryffeld for his part would not give in either and had Hunne summoned before the Archbishop’s court at Lambeth for settlement. The auditor of the case, Cuthbert Tunstall, would later be Bishop of London under both Henry VIII and Queen Mary. Tunstall had no axe to grind and simply applied the law. Hunne was ordered to give over the Christening gown or its value—6s 8d (probably about $225.00 in today’s money). There was no further punishment and Tunsall ignored Dryffeld’s demands that Hunne be excommunicated. One would think that the end of the matter. It wasn’t.
Hunne went to St. Mary Matfellon for evensong on December 27th, the feast of Saint John the Evangelist. The priest conducting the service, this time Henry Marshall, Dryffeld’s vicar, recognized him and stopped the service, shouting that that Hunne was an excommunicate (he wasn’t, as I just wrote) and under the curse of the Church. The service, Marshall shrieked, could not continue until Hunne left. The scene was costly to Hunne’s business as devout Catholics would have nothing to do with an excommunicate. On the other hand, it seems Hunne was baiting the priest for this church, Saint Mary Matfellon, was not Hunne’s parish and was over two miles from Hunne’s home. Moreover, Hunne had brought a party of friends with him to the service and they all stomped out together. In the event, Hunne sued Marshall for slander in the Court of King’s Bench.
The case is very complex and we don’t need to go into all the details as we will only end up losing our point, but it involves the fact that in England at the time there were two judicial systems—the King’s and the Church’s. Certain offenses were to be tried in Church court—Hunne’s refusal to pay the mortuary fee to the priest, for example, was a matter for an ecclesiastical court, not the King’s Bench. Also, certain persons could only be tried in Church court, the clergy—from the Archbishop of Canterbury down to the lowliest parish clark—in point of fact. This privilege of exemption from the King’s Justice was a sore point for many going back to the time of Thomas Becket whose fights with Henry II were on this exact point of clerical exemption from civil law. At this very moment, Parliament was debating a bill to strip the lower clergy (those below the rank of subdeacon, such as acolytes, lectors, porters, etc.) of privilege in Church courts, demanding that they be tried for their crimes as everyone else in King’s Bench. Hunne by bringing the slander case against a priest into the King’s Bench was denying the right of the Church to try a case involving a member of the clergy. This implied that the Church was subject to the Crown. This was a dangerous compromise of clerical privilege. The Bishop of London thus went on to have Hunne arrested for “heresy.” The “heresy” substantially is denying the supremacy of the Church over the State.
Hunne was confined in Lollards’ tower—the prison reserved for heretics—in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, Lambeth Palace. Two days later, December 4th, 1514 he was found hanging in his cell. The jailers said it was suicide. The coroner’s jury said it was murder. Witnesses came forward and testified that they had heard members of the Bishop of London’s household plan the murder. One witness said that a servant of the Bishop had told him, the witness, that Hunne would be dead by Christmas. It seems that agents of the Bishop of London had attempted to murder Hunne in his cell by inserting a red-hot wire through his nostril into his brain—leaving no trace of violence and making the death appear natural. However there was a struggle, and in the struggle Hunne’s neck was broken. The corpse was hung to make it appear that the broken neck was the result of him having committed suicide by hanging.
Hunne was posthumously judged guilty of heresy and his body burned. As a convicted heretic, the Church confiscated his estate—leaving his wife and children penniless. This caused a huge outcry among the merchants of the city. Hunne was one of them, a member of the Guild of the Merchant Tailors, one of the guilds that controlled the political establishment of the city. When the Reformation came to England, it was slow to spread among the nobility and among the working classes—but it spread like wildfire among the business classes. They were educated and they were self-made men (and women) and they were ready to move on from the world of clerical privilege and control.
This story is one of many stories—more dramatic than most, but still only one—that hows the loss of confidence in the hierarchy and the clergy on the part of the Middle Class. Part of this was the remnants of the Lollard movement which had encouraged a strong evangelical fervor among the laity that differentiated the Lollards from the religious establishment. But it was more complex than that. You had, in the Middle Class, an educated group of people who were interested in religion but also had sufficient education to think for themselves and think critically. They were not inclined to accept ideas simply on “authority,” but wanted their questions answered and their opinions heard. We need today to be careful in the Church for we too have an educated laity who think for themselves and no longer accept something just because “Father says so.” Moreover, many of the laity today are better educated than the average priest—something not true sixty years ago—and even more educated and urbane than our bishops. Authority today is answerable to its constituents. Certain people in the Church may not like that, but they have to wake up and smell the coffee: thing have changed whether they like it or not. Very frankly, the abuses of authority in the American Church by prelates like Cardinals Burke or George or Law or the late Cardinal Hickey, or Archbishops Cordileone, or Lori, or Bishops Morlino, or Finn, have put the Church on some perilously think ice. Part of Pope Francis’ appeal to people is that he seems to be more dialogical, or at least more aware of their perspectives and questions than his predecessors. This is not a time for authority to be exercised peremptorily. Indeed we see here those who understand authority as power (abuse) and those who understand authority as service and we need leadership whose trigger-finger is not quite so itchy as others would have it. The tooth-paste does not go back into the tube and an educated and critically-thinking laity need far more sophisticated response from Church leadership than they have been getting in some circles. It is a new day and a new day requires new ways of doing things.