When England decriminalized heresy

Before we can talk about when heresy stopped being a crime in England, we have to talk about when heresy became a crime. And before we can do that, we have to talk about what heresy was. Or is, if you like. And before we can do that in any thorough way, we need to gather up all the time the world has available and use it to study the subject.

Which we’re not going to, predictably enough. We’ll take the shortcut. 



For heresy to exist, you need orthodoxy: a set of fixed beliefs–preferably religious and powerful–to not believe in. Or since no one will know what you believe unless you make it public, to disagree with. No public disagreement, no heresy. 

Mind you, you don’t have to be the person making your disagreement public. Some other helpful soul can do that for you. It may or may not match any belief you recognize, but good luck proving that. However it happens, the public ingredient has to be added if we’re going to follow the recipe.

Although multiple religions have their battles over orthodoxy, the word heresy is heavily linked to Christianity, although its root comes from a word with no particular negative connotations that meant cult. From its early days, though, the Catholic Church got to work deciding what the one and only correct set of beliefs was and organizing a way to divide correct beliefs from heretical ones, at which point heresy became ba-a-a-ad.


Irrelevant photo: I thought, given the topic, we might need something nice to look at. These are begonias.

In spite of that, believers kept coming up with new and more interesting heretical beliefs. Consult Lord Google on the subject and he’ll lead you to lists: the top 10 heresies of Christianity; the 6 great heresies of the Middle Ages; the complete list of heresies in the Catholic Church. The internet loves lists, especially numbered ones. 

I don’t particularly. We’ll skip them. 

If you’re serious about this, you’ll make a distinction between heresy and schism. I’m not and we’ll skip that too.

I know. You’re disappointed. But let’s define heresy: Canon Law–the ecclesiastical law of medieval Europe–defined it as “error which is voluntarily held in contradiction to a doctrine which has been clearly stated in the creed, and has become part of the defined faith of the church,” and which is “persisted in by a member of the church.”


Heresy as a crime

It’s a big jump, though, from heresy being something the church isn’t happy about to heresy becoming a criminal offense. The first step toward that–

Hang on. Can you step toward a jump? Oh, probably. That’s close enough not to mess up my metaphor. 


The first step is that state and religion have to meet, mate, and intermingle their DNA. Be careful when someone proposes that, no matter how many good intentions the proposal’s dressed in. It gives religion the state’s power in punishing heresy and the state a claim to god’s endorsement, which in theory at least means it can’t be challenged. On anything. Because god said so. Neither of those things has, historically speaking, brought out the best in the people involved. 

Before Christianity mingled its DNA with state power, back when it was itself a persecuted minority religion, it advocated freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Once it merged with the state and saw the error of its ways, freedom of conscience lost its appeal and it started to impose its views on everyone, since they were, by definition, the right ones.

But even if you have the authority to stamp out heresy, how do you establish who the heretics are? Let’s quote from T.M. Lindsay’s “Heresy” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition, which is in turn in the online encyclopedia. Theodora, (The link’s above if you want it–or if you don’t.)

“Pope Innocent III [1198  to 1216] declared that to lead a solitary life, to refuse to accommodate oneself to the prevailing manners of society, and to frequent unauthorized religious meetings were abundant grounds of suspicion; while later canonists were accustomed to give lists of deeds which made the doers suspect: a priest who did not celebrate mass, a layman who was seen in clerical robes, those who favoured heretics, received them as guests, gave them safe conduct, tolerated them, trusted them, defended them, fought under them or read their books were all to be suspect.” 

To be on the safe side, lay people could follow Pope Alexander IV’s advice and simply not argue about matters of faith. Basically, they could shut up and believe what they were told.

The church had its own laws and legal system, and it could inflict churchly punishments on people–things like excommunication–but you know how sometimes you just feel the need to hit things with a larger hammer? It was like that, and as early as the fourth century, you’ll find Christian emperors putting heretics to death, and as time whent on we can add torture to the list of risks heretics faced. Or people presumed to be heretics.

By the thirteenth century, witchcraft was getting mixed up with heresy (it all had something to do with the devil, so why not?), and by the fifteenth century the belief had taken root deep enough in the culture that when Protestants started rejecting Catholic beliefs, witchcraft never made the reject list. 


But weren’t we supposed to talk about England?

Sorry, yes, we were. I was trying to find a starting point for heresy being a crime and ended up on a European tour, but let’s come back to England. 

In 1401, Henry IV introduced de Heretico comburendo into common law, allowing a diocesan to sentence a heretic to burn at the stake without consulting the synod or the crown. 

What’s a diocesan? As far as I can figure out, the bishop in charge of a diocese. What’s a synod? A church assembly of one sort or another. Listen, this isn’t my world and that’s the best I can do at short notice. The point is, the diocesan could pronounce sentence on his own say-so, and the sheriff then had to light the match, or its era-appropriate equivalent, since matches hadn’t been invented. So church and state were joining hands in getting rid of those pesky heretics, who kept cantering past, in spite of centuries of effort to keep everyone inside the orthodox corral.

What’s common law? Oh, please. You don’t want to get into that. At least not now. Can we just pretend we know what we’re talking about and move on? What matters is that being condemned as a heretic was enough to get you killed. For both church and state, that worked well until–

You know how I said that in order to have heresy you have to have orthodoxy? Well, this business about killing heretics became problematic when the definition of orthodoxy turned from a solid to a liquid–in other words, during the Reformation. When England was Catholic Protestants were heretics. But then England became Protestant, and Catholics were the heretics. But nothing’s ever quite that simple, because more Protestantly Protestants were also heretics. And just when you thought you had all that figured out, England went Catholic again. Then it went Protestant again. Then it fought a civil war but both sides were Protestant, by which time everyone was so dizzy they had to sit out a few dances.

While they’re out from underfoot, let’s backtrack a bit: Under Elizabeth I (Protestant) heresy laws were repealed, but the authorities could still dig out that old bit of common law, de Whatsitum in Latinensis,  and get the sheriff to light the match. Which still hadn’t been invented. So the repeal was incomplete.

In 1612, Edward Wightman was burned at the stake for heresy. This happened when James I and VI was the king (Protestant, and he was a single person, not two, in spite of all the numbers he had to drag around). Wightman was the last person burned for heresy in England, but he didn’t know that and for a long time no one else could count on it either.

Now we move forward again. Our dancers have recovered, the civil war’s over and the king’s Protestant. The country’s therefore Protestant, as is parliament. But wait, the king’s heir is Catholic.

Let’s pause there for a moment. The king still had the power to tip the country from  one church into another and no one in power can be sure they wouldn’t be looking at a pile of dry wood and a sheriff fingering his imaginary matchbox when power shifts. They don’t know that Wightman’s the last of his particular brand of martyr.

I know, I’ve changed tenses. Doesn’t it all feel exciting in the present tense?

So in 1677, parliament abolishes burning at the stake as a punishment for heresy. This effectively decriminalizes it. And, not incidentally, takes away a powerful weapon that any future Catholic government, should there be one, could use against their nervously and publicly Protestant selves.

To placate the bishops in parliament, they allowed bishops and ecclesiastical courts to continue punishing heresy, blasphemy, and atheism under ecclesiastical law, but not by death. 

Defenses of the freedom of conscience were in the air, but they weren’t what moved the lawmakers. Self-preservation was.

38 thoughts on “When England decriminalized heresy

  1. I’ve been thinking, and writing, about something that touches on this subject this week. In the days before newspapers, radio, TV and internet how did people know things? I was interested in how people knew who their king was, but the same thing applies to religious belief. You knew what people told you. If your priest’s understanding of Christianity had gaps or twists in it, yours would be even worse. If a council was held on one side of Europe, it could take years for its decisions to make their way to the other side and those decisions could be misinterpreted. Few people had access to books to check what they were being told and they were mostly in Latin anyway. I’m not convinced that everyone who was labelled a heretic knew that they were a heretic. I know that all heretics believe that they’re following the true faith, but I mean that they didn’t necessarily know what was officially considered the true faith.

    Up until the late fourteenth century England was fairly relaxed about heresy. It was only when Wyclife started saying that the church’s property should be redistributed and perhaps the pope wasn’t absolutely necessary that the church started to worry. It wasn’t until after Wyclife’s death that the church was able to make the king worry about it too, hence the heresy laws.

    Liked by 1 person

      • In England it was at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In other countries it was much earlier. The Cathars were attacked in France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and there was another heretical group in northern Europe that were similarly persecuted. The authorities of mainland Europe were far more ready to persecute and burn heretics than the English were. It wasn’t until Mary’s reign that we came into our own in that respect. Although a few heretics were burned at the begining of the fifteenth century, heresy disappeared/went underground until the Reformation was in full swing.

        Burning witches was another continental habit that came late to England. It seems to have been a bit of a personal obsession of James I.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wouldn’t be surprised to find that criminalizing heresy followed closely on the heels of heresy–or, to be neutral about it, alternative strands of Christianity–becoming powerful enough to threaten the church, and since they were intertwined, the state. Until that happens, why bother?

          It would be interesting to study the fear of witchcraft in tandem with the fear of heresy, since the two aren’t entirely unrelated.


  2. Well, the various groups who settled The 13 Colonies while seeking “religious freedom” soon made it plain the such freedom only applied to them. So discouraging, and it seems magnified today.
    “NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition !”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This raised all sorts of interesting questions. such as who was the last person to burnt at the stake and when (Edward Wightman in 1612) so burning people had really gone out of fashion by 1677. Curiously other horrible punishment lasted for longer on the statute books. I always remember that the Cato Street conspirators where the last “traitors” to be excuted and beheaded in 1820. Their heads were stuck on spike. There was a political cartoon of it in our “A” Level text book. I struck me as especially grim. You can see it here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_Street_Conspiracy#/media/File:A_May_Day_Garland_for_1820.jpg

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That seems like a particularly nasty form of capital punishment. Particularly for something that couldn’t really be proven. Guess since it was both Church and State they wanted something especially gruesome.

    Liked by 1 person

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