Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Oldcastle, Sir John

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OLDCASTLE, Sir John (d. 1417), who had married Johanna, heiress of the noble family of Cobham, and in her right sat in the House of Lords as Lord Cobham, was a nobleman who at once enjoyed the personal friendship of Henry IV. and was a professed follower of Wickliffe and an adherent of Lollardy. His reputation both as soldier and as statesman stood so high that he was selected by the king to command the English auxiliaries sent by Henry to assist the duke of Burgundy in 1411; and his known friendship for the poor preachers and his maintenance of the popular religious cause gained him the title of “the good Lord Cobham.” On the death of the earl of Salisbury in one of the revolts against the house of Lancaster, Oldcastle became the recognized leader of the Lollards; his castle of Cowling became their headquarters; he sheltered their preachers, and openly defied the prohibitions and proclamations of the bishops. He publicly professed his faith in the principal Lollard doctrines and refused to believe what the church taught on the eucharist, penance, the power of the keys, image-worship, and pilgrimages. The house of Lancaster had secured the throne by making promises to the people and to the nobles, and had won the support of the church by promising to put down heresy. This had set the Lollards in opposition to the new dynasty, and their discontent was increased by the ecclesiastical measures of the king. See Lollards. In consequence Lollardy remained a constant source of danger during the reign of Henry IV., giving strength to more than one rebellion, and Henry V., on his accession in 1413, determined to extirpate the heresy. While Henry IV. lived Oldcastle was protected, but in the year of the king's death he was accused in convocation of heresy and of harbouring the poor preachers. Henry V. did all in his power to protect him, laboured to make him give up his opinions, but, finding him inflexible, forbade him to appear at court, and permitted the bishops to proceed against him. A citation was served on him. He refused to receive it. It was accordingly posted on the doors of Rochester Castle. He refused to obey it, was excommunicated, seized, and examined, when he boldly confessed his opinions, and was imprisoned in the Tower, forty days being given him to recant. He made his escape, and his freedom was the signal for a Lollard revolt. The preachers and their followers met in St Giles's fields, and only the vigilance of the king prevented a rising. The enactments against Lollardy became even more severe than formerly. Magistrates were directed to seize suspected heretics and to hand them over to the bishops for trial; and a conviction was punished by death and forfeiture of goods. Oldcastle for some years eluded the vigilance of his enemies, but in 1417 he was seized while in hiding in Wales, taken to London, and burned. His execution was peculiarly barbarous. He was suspended from a gallows by an iron chain, a fire was kindled beneath him, and he was slowly burned to death.

In Mr Wright's collection of political songs there are one or two ballads on Sir John Oldcastle, alluding in no very complimentary terms to his Lollardism. Henry's victories had raised the war-spirit of the English people, and it was thought disgraceful that a knight and a gentleman who in his earlier days had gained the reputation of being a skilful soldier should be associated with people many of whom professed to believe that all wars were sinful. This popular contempt has perhaps led to the idea ably advocated by Mr Gairdner that Shakespeare's character of Sir John Falstaff was meant to represent Sir John Oldcastle.

Compare Lechler's Johann Wiclif, vol. ii. ch. iii.; Gairdner and Spedding, Studies in English History, ch. iii.