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Cobham [1]

Lord (Sir John Oldcastle), a Lollard martyr of the fifteenth century. Of his early life little is known. He was born in the reign of Edward III; married the niece of Henry, lord Cobham, and obtained his title. He entered the military life, and gained great distinction. According to Bayle, "in all adventurous acts of worldly manhood he was ever fortunate, doughty, noble, and valiant." By his military talents he acquired the esteem both of Henry IV and Henry V. In conjunction with Sir Richard Story, Sir Thomas Latimer, and others, he drew up a number of articles, which, in the form of a remonstrance against the corruptions of the clergy, they presented to the House of Commons. He put himself to great expense in collecting, transcribing, and dispersing the works of Wycliffe. He also furnished Lollard itinerant preachers with shelter at his mansion at Cowling Castle, in Kent. These proceedings made him very obnoxious to the clergy. During the first year of the reign of Henry V, the principal subject of debate was the growth of heresy.

Thomas Arundel (q.,v.), archbishop of Canterbury, requested the king to send commissioners to Oxford to inquire into the growth of heresy. The commissioners reported to the archbishop, who informed the Convocation that the increase of heresy was especially owing to lord Cobham, who encouraged scholars from Oxford and other places to propagate heretical opinions throughout the country. The archbishop, accompanied by a large body of the clergy, waited upon Henry, and, having laid before him the offense of lord Cobham, begged, in all humility and charity, that his majesty would suffer them, for Christ's sake, to put him to death. To this humane request the king replied that he thought such violence more destructive of truth than of error; that he himself would reason with lord Cobham; and, if that should prove ineffectual, he would leave him to the censure of the Church. Henry endeavored to persuade lord Cobham to retract, but he returned the following answer: "I ever was a dutiful subject to your majesty, and I hope ever shall be. Next to God, I profess obedience to my king. But as for the spiritual dominion of the pope, I never could see on what foundation it is claimed, nor can I pay him any obedience. As sure as God's word is true, to me it is fully evident that he is the great Antichrist foretold in holy writ." This answer so displeased the king that he gave the archbishop leave to proceed against lord Cobham "according to the devilish decrees which they call the laws of the holy Church" (Bayle).

On the 11th of September, the day fixed for his appearance, the primate and his associates sat in consistory; when, lord Cobham not appearing, the archbishop excommunicated him. Cobham now drew up a confession of faith, which he presented to the king. Being again cited to appear before the archbishop, and refusing compliance, he was committed to the Tower by the king's order. "Upon the 25th of September, 1413, he was brought again by the lieutenant of the Tower before the archbishop, the bishops of London, Winchester, and Bangor sitting upon the bench with him. The archbishop desired Sir John to move for the absolution of the Church in the customary form. He replied he would beg absolution of none but God Almighty. After this, the archbishop desired him to make an express declaration concerning the sacrament of the altar. To which he gave this answer: that as Christ, when upon earth, consisted of the divine and human nature, his divinity being concealed under his humanity, so in the sacrament of the altar there is both a real body and real bread; that the bread is the object of our sight, but that the body of Christ, contained or shrouded under it, is imperceptible to our senses. When he was pressed closer to the point of transubstantiation, he declared expressly against it, adding withal that the common belief in this article was a contradiction to the holy Scriptures; that the decision was modern, and that the Church did not vary thus from the old standard till she was poisoned by being endowed.

And as to penance and confession, he affirmed that if any person happened to be under the misfortune of any great crime, and was not in a condition to disentangle himself, he conceived it would be advisable to make use of the direction of some holy and discreet priest. But then he did not think there was any necessity of confessing to the parish curate, or any other of that character; for that in this case there was needed no more than contrition to cancel the fault and restore the penitent. Touching the worshipping the cross, he maintained that only the body of Christ, which hung upon the cross, ought to be adored. And being further interrogated what regard was to be paid to the resemblance of that cross, to this he replied directly that all the reverence he could pay was only to clean it and keep it handsomely. Being interrogated further about the power of the keys, and what his opinion was of the character and authority of the pope, of the archbishops, and bishops, he made no scruple to declare that the pope was downright Antichrist, and the head of that party; that the bishops were the members, and the friars the hinder parts of this antiChristian society; that we ought to obey neither pope nor prelates any further than their virtue and probity could command; and that unless they imitated our Savior and St. Peter in the sanctity of their lives, the pretense of their commission was not to be regarded; that he who was most unblemished in his conduct, most remarkable for his sanctity, was St. Peter's successor, and that all other titles to Church authority signified nothing" (Hook, Eccl. Biog., 1, 31,7).

Having remained six months in the Tower, he escaped into Wales. In 1414 the king set a price of a thousand marks upon the head of Cobham; and for four years he continued in exile in Wales; but at length his enemies engaged the lord Powis in their interest, who, by means of his tenants, secured and delivered him up. He received sentence of death both as a heretic and a traitor. On the day appointed for his execution (Christmas, 1417) he was brought out of the Tower with his arms bound behind him, but with a cheerful countenance. Arrived at the place of execution, he devoutly fell upon his knees, and implored of God the forgiveness of his enemies. He was hung up alive by the middle, with iron chains, on the gallows which had been prepared, under which, a fire being made, he was burned to death. Jones, Christian Biography, s.v.; Middleton, Memoirs of the Reformers (3 vols. Lend. 1829), 1:98 sq.; England and France under the House of Lancaster (London, 152) p. 60-87: Eclectic Review, 4th series, 16:249; Milner, Church History (Lond. 1829, 4 vols.), 3. 307-329.