On this day in Tudor history, 4th December 1514, in the reign of King Henry VIII, Richard Hunne was discovered dead in his cell in the Lollard’s Tower at St Paul’s.
The merchant tailor and leading member of the Lollard community in London had been arrested for heresy in October 1514. Hunne was found hanging from the ceiling of his cell, and it was claimed that he had used his own silk girdle to commit suicide. However, a coroner’s inquest ruled that the hanging had been faked and that Hunne was murdered.
But why was Richard Hunne murdered? And why had he been arrested in the first place? Was it just for heresy, or was there more to it?
You can read more about Hunne’s case in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs at https://www.exclassics.com/foxe/foxe142.htm
The murder of Richard Hunne
On this day in Tudor history, 4th December 1514, merchant tailor and leading member of the Lollard community in London, Richard Hunne died.
Hunne had been arrested for heresy and imprisoned in “Lollards’ Tower” at St Paul’s on 14th October, following the discovery of a Wycliffite Bible at his home. His body was discovered hanging in his cell from a silk girdle. It was claimed that he had committed suicide, but a coroner’s jury ruled that the hanging had been faked, and that he had been murdered.
Let me tell you more about Hunne, his arrest and death, but first let me explain what a Lollard was.
A Lollard was a follower of the teachings of the 14th century theologian John Wycliffe. Wycliffe denied transubstantiation, that is to say the miracle of the Eucharist, emphasised the authority of scripture over all else, and attacked the role of the pope, regarding the office as having no scriptural basis and the pope as the Antichrist.
And now let me introduce you to Richard Hunne…
Nothing is known of Hunne’s early life, but he worked as a merchant tailor in the parish of St Margaret New Fish Street, in London, and was a wealthy man. His wife was the daughter of Thomas Vincent, a leading member of London’s Lollards.
In 1511, Hunne and his wife lost their five-week-old son, Stephen, and the usual practice of the time was to give Thomas Drifield, rector of St Mary’s, Whitechapel, the baby’s bearing sheet from the christening as a mortuary payment. Hunne refused to do this, saying it was not due, and in 1512, the rector sued Hunne for payment at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Court of Audience at Lambeth. Unsurprisingly, the court found in favour of the rector. Then, in December 1512, Hunne turned up at vespers at St Mary’s, only to find that Thomas Marshall, the priest, refused to go on with the service until he had left, crying out “Hunne, thou art accursed and standest accursed!”, meaning that Hunne was excommunicated.
In January 1513, Hunne sued Marshall at the King’s Bench for slander, pointing out that the priest’s words had damaged his business and reputation. He also sued Marshall, Drifield, and all those who had been involved in Drifield’s case against him over the mortuary payment, for praemunire. The case was adjourned, but then heresy proceedings began against Hunne.
On 14th October 1513, a search was carried out on Hunne’s home and a Wyclifite Bible was found. Hunne was arrested and imprisoned at St Paul’s Cathedral in the Lollard’s Tower. On 2nd December, Hunne was taken to Fulham and examined by Richard Fitzjames, Bishop of London. Martyrologist John Foxe writes that he was questioned regarding six different issues – speaking out against the payment of tithes, saying that bishops and priests were the scribes and pharisees that crucified Christ, saying that bishops and priests were teachers and preaches but not “doers” and that they took “all things” but gave nothing, saying that he defended a woman named Joan Baker and her opinions, a woman who had “abjured of many great heresies” and that he’d said that the bishop of London and his officers “have done open wrong to the said Joan Baker, in punishing her for heresy; for her sayings and opinions be according to the laws of God; wherefore the bishop and his officers are more worthy to be punished for heresy than she is.”. He was also accused of “keeping divers English books, prohibited and damned by the law; as the Apocalypse in English, Epistles and Gospels in English, Wickliff’s damnable works, and other books, containing infinite errors, in the which he hath been long time accustomed to read, teach, and study daily.”
Following his examination, Hunne was sent back to Lollard’s Tower, where, according to Foxe, the bishop’s summoner Charles Joseph was relieved of his custody and bell-ringer John Spalding was put in charge. On the morning of this day in history, 4th December 1514, Hunne was discovered dead in his cell. Fitzjames and his chancellor, Dr William Horsey, stated that Hunne had committed suicide, that he had hanged himself from a hook in the ceiling used his silk girdle. They then tried him posthumously for heresy, adding to the charges that he had denied the miracle of the Eucharist and the veneration of saints. On 20th December 1514, Hunne’s remains were burnt.
However, a coroner’s jury found that Hunne had been murdered due to there being signs of a struggle and Hunne being tortured. They ruled that he had been throttled to death and then his dead body hanged to make it look like suicide. Dr Horsey and Hunne’s gaolers, Charles Joseph and Spalding were arrested, Joseph while trying to flee.
Hunne’s death caused such a scandal that Henry VIII heard of it and ordered his council to look into it. The people of London were angry and were sympathetic to Hunne’s family. So high was feeling in London, that Bishop Fitzjames appealed to Cardinal Wolsey to prevent his chancellor from being tried, concerned that he’d be found guilty “though he was as innocent as Abel”. Horsey escaped trial, and John Foxe records that, instead, he was sent away from London to Exeter, and sadly Hunne’s property was not restored to his widow and children because he had been found guilty of heresy.
Richard Hunne’s story is a sad one. Although he did hold beliefs that were deemed heretical then, his arrest and murder appear to have been more about the trouble he was causing for the clergy in London.
If you’re interested in reading more about Richard Hunne, including the sentence of the coroner’s inquest into his death, I’ll share a link to John Foxe’s chapter on him in his Book of Martyrs, although you have to take into account that Foxe was not even born at the time and was viewing Hunne as a Protestant martyr.