Monday, 1 September 2014

Ludschurch and the Lollards

Ludschurch is a fascinating if somewhat forbidding place. Some months ago I revisited the place and even in bright sunlight it still has an all pervading gloomy atmosphere. In 1680 the historian Dr Plot described” the stupendous cleft in the rock... the sides steeped and so hanging that it preserves snow all summer”.  It is alleged the deep ravine proved useful when hiding cattle from marauding Scots during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745

The place has strong spiritual connotations and people remain drawn to it today as our ancestors once were. The name Ludschurch might have derived from Lugh the Celtic deity honoured in the festival Lughansa on 1st August. There are stories that sacrifices took place to appease the God as well as visiting sacred areas linked with water. Or the name might come from Llud who appears with his wife Llefelys in the collection of Welsh myths  called the Mabinogion. Their son was Gawain. The link between the writer of the medieval allegorical poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Ludschurch was first made by Professor Philips in a letter to the “Times” in 1958.

 In other accounts the chasm is connected with the Lollards the heretical group who first came to prominence in the 14th century as followers of the radical priest John Wycliffe who believed in a simpler faith. The Lollards, whose  name is thought to originate from an early Dutch word meaning to mumble, attacked the wealth and luxury of the Church. They believed that the Bible should be in English and disapproved of the veneration of images or pilgrimages. The movement was considered by the powerful as a direct attack on their authority and they sought to suppress it. It has been called an early form of Protestantism.

The local story dates from the reign of Henry V who was zealous in his attempts to root out heresy. A local group led by landowner Walter Lud Auk held religious meetings at Ludschurch. They were attacked by soldiers and Walter’s granddaughter named Alice was killed  and then buried near the entrance. The earliest record of the incident was in the 1550s during a period of repression directed against Protestants, so the story could be simply be a myth. However, Lollards were supported by sympathetic aristocrats such as John Oldcastle of Herefordshire( and a model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff)  who rebelled against Henry V in 1414 . He had backing in the remote country areas of the Welsh borders and across the North Midlands. Some support for the rebellion existed in Derbyshire and Burton on Trent and there is an account that Oldcastle took refuge in Lollard supporting communities along the Staffordshire and Derbyshire border. (Nothing however, suggests a Ludschurch connection with Oldcastle). He was eventually caught and executed and the movement lost support among the aristocracy and the middle class as it was now tainted with revolt.

One striking aspect and that is the influence of women , a distinction it shares with another medieval heretical movement the  Cathars. Among the Suffolk Lollard heretics investigated in the 1420s were a number of women. Joan Broughton who was burned at the stake in 1494 was so stout in her opinions that “all the doctors could not turn her from use of them”.