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de Heretico Comburendo


De heretico comburendo is the act of the English parliament passed in 1401 for the suppression of the lol lards. The spread of the ideas of John wyclif by this heretical group was a cause of great alarm to the Church, but the accession of the strictly orthodox Lancastrian Henry IV in 1399 marked the inception of a new phase in the constraint of heresy in England. William Sawtre was burned at Smithfield in early 1401, and the statute De heretico comburendo was passed before the dissolution of parliament on March 10 that same year. The act condemned the preaching and teaching of "wicked, heretical and erroneous opinions" and forbade unlicensed preaching, the teaching or writing of doctrines contrary to the Catholic faith, and the holding of heretical conventicles and schools. The initiative lay with the bishops, who could call in the support of the secular arm. The penalties imposed by the Church courts included imprisonment and fines, and, for refusal to abjure or for relapsing, condemned heretics were to be abandoned to the secular court for public burning in order to strike fear into the minds of others so that false doctrines would be neither sustained nor tolerated. Despite its official sanction and powerful support, the act provoked resentment. Possibly in response to such feelings, as well as to minimize the role of the Church and thus disarm opposition, an attempt was made in 1406 to transfer responsibility for the prosecution of heretics from the bishops to secular officers. The Lollards in parliament requested modifications of the act in 1410, and the Commons, alleging the act's clerical origins, sought a safeguard against oppressive arrests. These efforts were unsuccessful, but a compromise was reached by the statute of 1414, which entrusted the arrest of heretics to secular officers, while preserving the Church's jurisdiction in the resulting trial. But the problem of heresy remained in England and was not permanently settled by these measures. The act was later repealed by henry viii and again by elizabeth i after it had been restored in the reign of mary tudor.

Bibliography: k. b. mcfarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (New York 1953) 149156. f.l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Chruch (London 1957) 384, 819. e. f. jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 13991485 (Oxford 1961) 9496. h. s. bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (2d ed. New York 1963) 251255. b. wilkinson, Constitutional History of England in the Fifteenth Century (London 1964) 379381, 388389. f. d. logan, Excommunication and the Secular Arm in Medieval England (Toronto 1966).

[c. duggan]

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