Oldcastle, John, Baron Cobham (d. 1417), soldier, heretic, and rebel, came from a Herefordshire family that emerged in the fourteenth century.
Family background and early connections with heresy
Oldcastle's great-grandfather Peter is the earliest recorded member of his family, and his grandfather, another John, represented the shire in parliament in 1368 and 1372. His father, Richard, was more obscure, but cannot have been insignificant, for he was the first of the family to be knighted, probably, although only conjecturally, after service in the French wars. It is not known when he died, but possibly it was when Oldcastle was still young. During his youth Oldcastle's most prominent relative was his uncle Thomas, the sheriff of Herefordshire in 1386 and 1391. He was a trusted royal servant, for in 1393 the king ordered him to act against anyone interfering with the trial of the Welsh Lollard layman Walter Brut. Thomas also served Bishop John Trefnant of Hereford (d. 1404), and in 1394 was involved in arbitration concerning the bishop's right to the chase of Malvern. He was alive in 1397, but died early in the fifteenth century, when his widow, Alice, married a former knight of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. Thomas's will was strongly orthodox, endowing masses for his soul and those of members of his family. John Oldcastle's date of birth is unknown; unreliable estimates of it range from around 1360 to 1378. The earliest record of him was in 1397, when he received letters of protection to go to Ireland with the earl of March. As he was then described as 'esquire', a birth date in the mid-1370s seems probable. In Easter term 1400 he appeared as plaintiff in a suit in the court of common pleas concerning the advowson of the parish church of Almeley, the village that was the centre of his family's power. The plea was adjourned, but no record of a settlement survives. He had been knighted by the autumn of the same year, when he served with Henry IV's army in Scotland.
Although it cannot be proved, Oldcastle may have been attracted to heresy when still young, as the area in which he grew up had seen manifestations of religious radicalism during these years. Sir John Clanvow (d. 1391), the author of the pious tract The Two Ways (in which he identified himself with the despised Lollards), had estates at Hergest, Herefordshire, and Michaelchurch-on-Arrow, Radnorshire, both within a few miles of Almeley, and Walter Brut's more limited lands lay close to Hereford. Even more significant is that when Bishop Trefnant attempted to cite the fugitive Lollard evangelist William Swinderby before his court, two parish rectors to whom the citation was directed were those of Almeley and Whitney-on-Wye, which lay between Almeley and Michaelchurch. Swinderby had allegedly preached at Whitney on 1 August 1390 and Oldcastle, then perhaps in his mid-teens, may have been influenced by him. Possibly Clanvow, who was still alive in 1390, may have protected Swinderby, before his own departure for the East on a crusade during which he died. There is considerable evidence of heretical activity in the Welsh marches—the Lollard priest Richard Wyche came from the diocese of Hereford, William Thorp is associated with Shrewsbury (the place of origin of Sir Roger Acton, who was executed after Oldcastle's rising), and Richard Colfox is described as 'of Cheshire' in a pardon granted after the same rebellion. Connections existed between the Clanvow family and Oldcastle, which may have drawn him into association with the survivors of the Lollard knights whom the chroniclers identified in Richard II's time. In 1404 Oldcastle was named (with Colfox) as an executor of Sir Lewis Clifford, and two overseers of the will were Sir Thomas Clanvow (Sir John's heir and probably his nephew) and Sir John Cheyne (d. 1414), another knight with known Lollard sympathies. (Although Clifford was originally a Devonian, he secured the castle of Ewyas Harold in Herefordshire from the family of his second wife, Eleanor de la Warr. Cheyne was probably the youngest of the Lollard knights identified, belatedly, by the St Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham.) Oldcastle, therefore, was already associated with religious radicalism by 1404, although as yet not necessarily very actively.
Glyn Dwr's rising brought Oldcastle into prominence as a military leader on several occasions. In September 1403 he was appointed to receive into the king's grace any rebels who surrendered in various south Wales lordships, and in 1404 he and John ap Harry, another prominent local man, who, despite his evident Welsh origin, served three times as parliamentary knight of the shire, were described as captains of the castle of Hay. They remained close associates throughout the Welsh wars, and as custodians of certain Mortimer lands, in the king's hands because of the earl of March's minority. In 1404 he was also commissioned to investigate reports of the provision of food from the shire to the Welsh rebels, and in 1405 he and other royal servants conducted similar investigations in both Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. He also gave non-military service, as knight of the shire in the first parliament of 1404, receiving payment of his expenses for seventy-five days, as a collector of the subsidy in 1404, as a Herefordshire commissioner of the peace in 1404, 1405, and 1406, and as sheriff in 1406-7. During his year as sheriff, however, he was not always present in the shire for he received a pardon for the escape of a prisoner from his custody, on the grounds that he was absent as keeper of Carmarthen Castle. In September 1407 he was at the surrender of Aberystwyth to the royal forces, and was clearly recognized as a man of some importance, as his name was mentioned among the knights present by the St Albans chronicler. His services attracted rewards, including the grant of a wardship in Wales in November 1408.
Some time before June 1408 Oldcastle's second marriage transformed him from a Herefordshire knight with predominantly local interests into one of the greater men of the realm. With his first wife, Katherine ferch Richard ab Ieuan, he had three daughters and two sons, John, who died in 1420, and Henry, who eventually recovered the family estates and played an active part in the shire community from the late 1420s until his death about 1460. (Some writers have suggested that these were half-brothers, but they probably were children of the same marriage.) His second wife, Joan (d. 1434), was of higher social standing, the granddaughter and sole heir of John Cobham, third Baron Cobham, who had died in January 1408. She had already been widowed three times, and had one surviving daughter, with her second husband, Sir Reginald Braybrooke. How far she herself was responsible for choosing Oldcastle as her fourth husband is unknown, but although widows could often be independent in their choice of later partners, it is unlikely that she would have chosen Oldcastle if he had not been a rising man, who could assist in managing her extensive estates, and who would be acceptable to the society within which she moved. Possibly Richard, Lord Grey of Codnor (d. 1419), whose estates bordered on the Cobham lands in Kent, and under whom Oldcastle had served in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, might have provided a link between her and her new partner. The Cobham properties were widespread, in Norfolk, Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, Kent—where Cooling Castle was a major stronghold—and London. One of Oldcastle's actions as Lord Cobham, which reflects his marital influence, came in February 1410, when he reached an agreement to marry his stepdaughter to Thomas Broke, the son of a Somerset knight of the same name. Although Broke and his father were never accused of heresy, their wills are couched in similar tones to those of some Lollard suspects. Possibly similar religious sensibilities led Oldcastle and the elder Broke to become associates.
His marriage extended Oldcastle's area of service to Kent; in both 1409 and 1411 he was appointed to commissions de walliis et fossatis on the Thames. He was also summoned individually to every parliament from 1410 until he was accused of heresy in 1413, probably iure uxoris, although he may have been called as a trusted royal servant who had effective control over substantial estates. Certainly in the writs of summons he is described merely as 'John Oldcastle, chivaler' rather than as Lord Cobham. (It is perhaps significant that after his death, his wife's fifth husband was not similarly summoned.) In October 1409 he participated in a tournament at Lille, with two other Englishmen against three Frenchmen. This reflects his new social status, and the recognition of his military capacity is further demonstrated by his being part of the small force that was sent to France in 1411 under the leadership of the earls of Warwick and Arundel to aid the duke of Burgundy. His involvement in this expedition may have been at the wish of the prince of Wales, then dominant in the council, under whom Oldcastle had served in the Welsh wars.
Growing involvement with Lollardy
By this time, however, Oldcastle's interest in heresy is documented for the first time since 1404. Possibly as a member of the upper house he may have promoted various anti-clerical measures in the parliament of 1410 and thereby drawn hostile attention to himself. Certainly, in that April, Archbishop Thomas Arundel (d. 1414) instituted inquiries into the suspect preaching of a chaplain called John, who was living in Oldcastle's house and had been preaching heresy in various Kentish churches, including Cooling. The archbishop laid the churches under interdict and cited the chaplain for trial, although he went into hiding. The interdict was relaxed out of respect for Lady Cobham, possibly on account of her daughter's marriage to Thomas Broke. The interdict may have been simply a warning shot, but it may not have been coincidental that the anti-clerical measures were dropped. But although Oldcastle may have shown more caution publicly, he continued to favour Lollardy, and may even have been recognized as a leader of the sect (if it can be so called). Possibly his baronial rank gave him additional standing, even ahead of his acquaintance Sir John Cheyne, the last Lollard knight of the older generation.
This prominence was reflected in two letters written to Bohemia on 8 September 1410, one by the Lollard priest Richard Wyche to Jan Hus, the other by Oldcastle to one of Hus's lay patrons, Woksa of Waldstein. Although Oldcastle's letter was dated from Cooling and Wyche's from London, the dating makes it clear that they were accomplices. The length of their acquaintanceship is unknown, for although Wyche himself came from the diocese of Hereford, no evidence survives of earlier contact with Oldcastle. This letter was not isolated; Oldcastle remained in touch with the Bohemians, indeed in 1411 writing to King Wenceslas himself, mentioning that he had been in touch with Hus. Although the English ecclesiastical authorities must by now have suspected him of unorthodoxy, he avoided heresy proceedings until after Henry V's accession. Even after these had already begun, a royal warrant of 20 July 1413 to him for the payment of 400 marks, in settlement of a debt, suggests that he could have hoped to benefit from royal patronage from Henry, who, according to the St Albans chronicler, was personally friendly to him.
Trial and rebellion
Probably the new king's undoubted orthodoxy gave Archbishop Arundel the confidence to act against heresy. When convocation met in March 1413, shortly before Henry IV's death, action was taken against a chaplain, John Lay, who claimed to have celebrated mass in Oldcastle's presence. During the summer evidence was accumulated against Oldcastle, and the seizure of various heretical tracts belonging to him enabled the archbishop to challenge him on his beliefs, and to do so in front of the king. He was the first influential layman to be publicly accused of heresy, although the church authorities almost certainly knew that various knights, often with court connections, had extended patronage to Lollard clergy, whose views they presumably accepted. Possibly Arundel had been watching Oldcastle, whom he might have suspected, justifiably, of being the most prominent heretical layman in the country, and was hoping, by attacking him, to deal a serious blow to all religious dissent. Oldcastle's social prominence, and his friendship with the king, compelled Arundel to move carefully. The proceedings were protracted, and marked by both royal intervention and a futile attempt by Oldcastle to avoid facing the court by returning to Cooling Castle and barricading himself in there. After he was brought to trial, the archbishop proceeded cautiously, trying to elicit a clear statement of his beliefs (something that Oldcastle for a long time tried to avoid giving). But when Oldcastle was challenged on the question of papal authority, he broke out into a tirade against the church, denouncing the pope as the head of Antichrist, the prelates as his members, and friars as his tail. Arundel, in the end, had no option but to condemn him, although one need not distrust the official record that suggests he was more concerned with trying to bring Oldcastle back to the fold of the church than with condemning him. Equally clearly, he was faced with a man whose sincerity in his beliefs was unquestioned, and who, in the last resort, would not avoid the issues. After the trial, an account of it, based on the archbishop's register, was circulated to the country because the events are recorded in both the St Albans chronicle and the Fasciculi zizaniorum. By publicizing Oldcastle's beliefs the archbishop was clearly determined to make an example of him, presumably hoping that this might remove the Lollard threat to the church.
After the heresy trials of Henry IV's reign, condemned offenders were sent to early execution, but Oldcastle's social standing and his relationship with the king gave him another chance. He was reprieved, and sent to the Tower of London for forty days, to be given an opportunity to recant. But he was not securely held, and escaped on 19 October, with the assistance of some London allies. His precise movements are unknown, but he established contacts with various Lollard communities, and attempted to mount an armed revolt with the aim of taking the king captive. It was an ill-considered enterprise, nor is it clear what he might have done if he had succeeded in seizing Henry and his brothers. The revolt was more a desperate attempt at revenge than a calculated plan to overthrow the existing order in church and state. It did reveal, however, that Oldcastle as leader commanded substantial loyalty, as well as something of the extent of heretical activity throughout the realm, for although there were only a few hundred active rebels (far from the 20,000 suggested by royal propaganda and reproduced by the St Albans chronicler), their geographical origins were widespread, extending from Bristol in the west through the midlands to Essex.
The authorities, however, penetrated the plot before it came to fruition; indeed, rewards were given on 5 January to two men for disclosing it to the king. When the rebels converged on London on the night of 9-10 January, they walked into a trap and were rounded up. Over forty were executed, and seven were also burnt. Oldcastle himself escaped from the rendezvous at St Giles's Fields, just outside London, but thereafter was a man on the run. Hardly surprisingly, he was excluded from the general pardon to the rebels on 28 March, along with ten of his closest supporters, but later he might still have come to terms with the king, who issued a general pardon in December. A further pardon to him is recorded a year later, in December 1415. His failure to emerge from hiding to claim this probably reflects his religious convictions; however willing the king might have been to forgive his treason, Henry could not guarantee immunity from renewed ecclesiastical measures against heresy, and Oldcastle presumably felt that it was safer to lie low. As late as January 1417 the proclamation of a reward for taking him affirmed that he was refusing to sue for pardon, but was persevering in his nefarious intention of destroying the church and the king. His lands were forfeited and remained in royal hands for many years. A further effect of his rebellion was to blacken the whole reputation of Lollardy by associating it with treason.
Last years and execution
Oldcastle was not captured until 1417, but his movements in these years are virtually unknown, as he was constantly on the move, trying to keep ahead of his pursuers. Various sources, both chronicle and documentary, mention alleged sightings of him, but few are reliable. Probably his main hiding places were in the midlands and the Welsh marches, and the most likely genuine traces of him are those that led to action against individuals alleged to have sheltered him, such as John Prest, vicar of Chesterton in Warwickshire, later pardoned for entertaining him on 5 August 1415, and a chaplain of Piddington in north Oxfordshire, executed for sheltering him in October 1416. He was reported at different times to have been at Malvern, or between Shrewsbury and Oswestry, but although his name is associated with various outbreaks of heretical activity, his presence cannot be proved. Equally unverifiable, although not impossible, are accusations of conspiracy with the pseudo-Richard II and the Scots, and with the earl of Cambridge, and there may be more substance in alleged contacts with the Welsh rebels. He certainly had contacts in Wales; his secretary, Thomas Payn, came from Glamorgan.
Only in 1417 did the authorities obtain a clear lead. In July Oldcastle was in Northamptonshire, later going west to his own lands in Hereford, where he lay low from August to mid-October. He then went north, where he met Gruffudd ab Owain, a son of Owain Glyn Dwr. He was eventually taken, after a struggle, on the lands of Edward Charlton, Lord Powys (d. 1421), by Ieuan and Gruffudd, two sons of Sir Gruffudd Vaughan, in November. The news of his capture reached Westminster by 1 December, and he was brought there, where parliament was in session. When charged with treason before it on 14 December Oldcastle retorted by preaching the mercy of God and saying that he should be left to it. Attempts to silence him may have brought forth a retort that his true king, Richard II, was alive in Scotland, although this is reported only by Walsingham and not in the official record. Walsingham also suggests that he claimed that he would rise on the third day, but this story is otherwise unattested. He was already a condemned heretic and outlaw, so there was nothing to prevent his immediate execution and burning, and the sentence was carried out the same day.
Influence and afterlife
Oldcastle's support was limited, and the suppression of his revolt easy. Various possible supporters had been rounded up after the failure at St Giles's Fields and there may have been further arrests during later Lollard scares. Oldcastle's wife, Lady Cobham, was also imprisoned and was only released from the Tower on 17 December, three days after her husband's death. Her treatment suggests, however, that she herself was not suspected of treason or heresy, for her son-in-law, Sir Thomas Broke, and a Kentish esquire, Richard Cliderow, who had married a daughter of Oldcastle, were granted some of her property in London to hold to her use as early as October 1414. Broke himself was in custody for a time, but clearly was not regarded as a rebel, although his own religious predilections may have been sympathetic to an evangelical style of piety. Nor were Oldcastle's sons apparently suspected of involvement in their father's treason; the elder, John, was granted lands inherited from his maternal grandmother in June 1417, before his father's capture and death.
Oldcastle's posthumous history also merits comment. Contemporary political verses denounced him, and although he was regarded as a manly knight he was also seen as a man who would overturn the temporal as well as the spiritual order. (Writers suggested that a knight should concern himself with war rather than with matters of religion.) He was not particularly remembered by the Lollards immediately after his death; the only early description of him as a martyr was by William Emayn of Bristol in 1429. But his fame survived (though how is not known), for references to him reappear in early Reformation propaganda; in 1531 A Boke of Thorpe or of John Oldcastelle was condemned by Bishop John Stokesley of London (d. 1539). This recorded the sufferings of famous Lollards, and was clearly intended to inspire their followers. In the 1540s John Bale produced an improved version of the narrative of Oldcastle's trial, describing him as a 'valyaunt captayne'. Indeed, Bale attempted to set up Oldcastle in place of Becket as a hero for emulation in the new world of the Reformation. He also provided the material on which John Foxe drew for his Acts and Monuments, the so-called book of martyrs, the master-work of English protestant historiography in which Sir John features significantly. The contrary hostile tradition, depicting Oldcastle as a malign companion of Henry V's youth, culminated in his being presented in that role in William Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays (1597). The perceived insult to a previous holder of his title led to protests by the tenth Baron Cobham, which in turn caused Oldcastle's name to be replaced by that of Falstaff (itself adapted from that of the fifteenth-century soldier Sir John Fastolf). Protestant opinion must also have favoured the change, which in 2 Henry IV resulted in the epilogue's being extended to include a formal disclaimer, 'for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man'.
John A. F. Thomson
Sources Chancery records, T. Walsingham, The St Albans chronicle, 1406-1420, ed. V. H. Galbraith (1937), W. W. Shirley, ed., Fasciculi zizaniorum magistri Johannis Wyclif cum tritico, Rolls Series, 5 (1858), D. Wilkins, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, 3 (1737), F. Taylor and J. S. Roskell, eds. and trans., Gesta Henrici quinti / The deeds of Henry the Fifth, OMT (1975), W. T. Waugh, 'Sir John Oldcastle', EngHR, 20 (1905), 434-56, 637-58, K. B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the beginnings of English nonconformity (1952), K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian kings and Lollard knights (1972), J. A. F. Thomson, The later Lollards, 1414-1520 (1965), W. W. Capes, ed., The register of John Trefnant, 1 (1914), HoP, Commons, GEC, Peerage
[John A. F. Thomson, 'Oldcastle, John, Baron Cobham (d. 1417)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008]