Reading of John Dyer, the rector of High Ham from 1459-1499 who was married with two sons and whose works were cited in support of Henry VIII’s break from Rome recalled that the area had been known for ‘Lollardy’ for some decades before.
Lollardy was a proto-Protestant movement. Its beliefs were defined by Foxe as opposition to pilgrimages and saint worship (activities from which the Catholic Church derived considerable income; denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was the central Catholic belief about the Holy Communion, and a demand for English translation of the Scriptures.
Margaret Deanesly’s 1920 work on the Lollard Bible notes that:
In Somersetshire the record of Lollardy was continuous, though not striking, throughout the century, and seems to have originated with Purvey ’s preaching in the suburbs of Bristol about 1387; a Bristol burgess also was in 1404 one of the few known possessors of an English Bible at the date.
No Somersetshire Lollards were burned, but several abjured.
In 1413 John Devenish was accused of Lollardy, and of having placed “a scandalous book of the Lollards” in a vicar’s stall. Thomas Smith of Bristol was accused in 1424, and in 1429 William Curayn, of Bristol, was cited for heresy for the fifth time, and, imprisoned by the bishop, he confessed that he had held that “every priest was bound to preach the Word of God openly, and that Oldcastle and Wycliffe were holy martyrs.”
In 1449 John Young, an old and infirm chaplain of S. Cross, abjured similar errors, and agreed to surrender all his heretical books.
In 1455 bishop Beckington complained to the duke of Somerset that the duke’s tenants at Langport neither “dreaded God nor lived by Holy Church”; they ministered the sacraments and buried the dead themselves, and even alleged the duke’s support for so doing, though the bishop refused to believe that this could be true. In 1459 Thomas Cole, a baker, abjured, and in 1475 there were still many heretics in the diocese.
It might be assumed that John Dyer, vicar of High Ham, advocate of married priests, was among those who might have been regarded as ‘heretics’.
There is a sense of satisfaction that the people of the communities around High Ham were people who dissented from the doctrines and the authority of the church. In that early Protestantism with its insistence on a Bible in the vernacular and an individual faith, there are roots of much that is now assumed in Western democracy, including individual conscience and freedom of religious practice.
Being something of a Lollard in my inclinations, I am glad that there is no danger of having to abjure.