John Oldcastle

Last updated

John Oldcastle
John Oldcastle being burnt for insurrection and Lollard heresy
Born1360/78 ?
Died14 December 1417
London, England
Nationality English

Sir John Oldcastle (died 14 December 1417) was an English Lollard leader. Being a friend of Henry V, he long escaped prosecution for heresy. When convicted, he escaped from the Tower of London and then led a rebellion against the King. Eventually, he was captured and executed in London. He formed the basis for William Shakespeare's character John Falstaff, who was originally called John Oldcastle.



Oldcastle's date of birth is unknown, although dubious and possibly apocryphal sources place it variously at 1360 or 1378. [1] His father was Richard Oldcastle of Almeley in northwest Herefordshire. His grandfather, also called John Oldcastle, was Herefordshire's MP during the latter part of the reign of King Richard II.

Early life

Oldcastle is first mentioned in two separate documents in 1400, first as a plaintiff in a suit regarding the advowson of Almeley church, and again as serving as a knight under Lord Grey of Codnor in a military expedition to Scotland. [1] In the next few years Oldcastle held notable positions in the Welsh campaigns of King Henry IV of England against Owain Glyndŵr, including captaincy first over Builth Castle in Brecknockshire and then over Kidwelly. [2]

Oldcastle represented Herefordshire as a "knight of the shire" in the parliament of 1404, later serving as a justice of the peace, and was High Sheriff of Herefordshire in 1406–07. [2]

In 1408 he married Joan, the heiress of Cobham—his third marriage, and her fourth. [2] This resulted in a significant improvement of his fortune and status, as the Cobhams were "one of the most notable families of Kent". [3] The marriage brought Oldcastle a number of manors in Kent, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Wiltshire, as well as Cooling Castle, and from 1409 until his accusation in 1413 he was summoned to parliament as Lord Cobham. [3]

At some point in his military career Oldcastle became a trusted supporter of Henry, Prince of Wales, later to become King Henry V, who regarded Sir John as "one of his most trustworthy soldiers". [4] Oldcastle was a member of the expedition which the young Henry sent to France in 1411 in a successful campaign to assist the Burgundians in the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War. [4]


Lollardy had many supporters in Herefordshire, and Oldcastle himself had adopted Lollard doctrines before 1410, when the churches on his wife's estates in Kent were laid under interdict for unlicensed preaching. In the convocation which met in March 1413, shortly before the death of Henry IV, Oldcastle was at once accused of heresy.

But his friendship with the new King Henry V prevented any decisive action until convincing evidence was found in one of Oldcastle's books, which was discovered in a shop in Paternoster Row, London. The matter was brought before the King, who desired that nothing should be done until he had tried his personal influence. Oldcastle declared his readiness to submit to the king "all his fortune in this world" but was firm in his religious beliefs.

When Oldcastle fled from Windsor Castle to his own castle at Cooling, Henry at last consented to a prosecution. Oldcastle refused to obey the archbishop's repeated citations, and it was only under a Royal Writ that he at last appeared before the ecclesiastical court on 23 September 1413.

In a confession of his faith he declared his belief in the sacraments and the necessity of penance and true confession, but he would not assent to the orthodox doctrine of the sacrament as stated by the Bishops, nor admit the necessity of confession to a priest. He also said the veneration of images was "the great sin of idolatry". On 25 September he was convicted as a heretic.

King Henry V was still anxious to find a way of escape for his old comrade, and granted a respite of forty days. Before that time had expired, Oldcastle escaped from the Tower by the help of one William Fisher, a parchment-maker of Smithfield. [5]

Open rebellion

Oldcastle now put himself at the head of a widespread Lollard conspiracy, which assumed a definite political character. The plan was to seize the King and his brothers during a Twelfth-night mumming at Eltham, and establish some sort of commonwealth. Oldcastle was to be Regent, the king, nobility and clergy placed under restraint, and the abbeys dissolved and their riches shared out. King Henry, forewarned of their intention by a spy, moved to London, and when the Lollards assembled in force in St Giles's Fields on 10 January they were easily dispersed by the king and his forces. [6]

Oldcastle himself escaped into deepest northwest Herefordshire, and for nearly four years avoided capture.

Apparently he was privy to the Southampton Plot in July 1415, when he stirred some movement in the Welsh Marches.[ citation needed ] On the failure of the scheme he went again into hiding. Oldcastle was no doubt the instigator of the abortive Lollard plots of 1416, and appears to have intrigued with the Scots also.[ citation needed ]

Capture and death

Illustration of the burning of John Oldcastle, 1870 History of the great reformation in Europe in the times of Luther and Calvin.. (1870) (14579132039).jpg
Illustration of the burning of John Oldcastle, 1870

In November 1417 his hiding-place was at last discovered and he was captured by Edward Charleton, 5th Baron Cherleton. Some historians believed he was captured in the upland Olchon Valley of western Herefordshire adjacent to the Black Mountains, Wales, not far from the village of Oldcastle itself in his family's old heartlands. He is said to have been hiding with some Lollard friends at a glade on Pant-mawr farm in Broniarth, Wales, called Cobham's Garden. [7] The principal agents in the capture were four of the tenants of Edward Charleton, 5th Baron Cherleton, two of them being Ieuan and Sir Gruffudd Vychan, sons of Gruffudd ap Ieuan. [8] Oldcastle who was "sore wounded ere he would be taken", was brought to London in a horse-litter. The reward for his capture was awarded to Baron Cherleton, but he died before receiving it, though a portion was paid to his widow in 1422.

On 14 December he was formally condemned, on the record of his previous conviction, and that same day was hanged in St Giles's Fields, and burnt "gallows and all". It is not clear whether he was burnt alive. [9]

Literary portrayals

His heretical opinions and early friendship with Henry V created a traditional scandal which long continued. In the old play The Famous Victories of Henry V , written before 1588, Oldcastle figures as the Prince's boon companion. When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV, Part 1 , Oldcastle still appeared, but when the play was printed in 1598, the name was changed to Falstaff (modelled after John Fastolf), in deference to one of Oldcastle's descendants, Lord Cobham. Though the fat knight still remains "my old lad of the Castle", the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader. In Henry IV, Part 2 an epilogue emphasises that Falstaff is not Oldcastle: "Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a' be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man." In 1599, another play, Sir John Oldcastle , presented Oldcastle in a more kindly light.


The record of Oldcastle's trial is printed in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (Rolls series) and in David Wilkins's Concilia, iii. 351–357. The chief contemporary notices of his later career are given in Gesta Henrici Quinti (Eng. Hist. Soc.) and in Walsingham's Historia Anglicana. There have been many lives of Oldcastle, mainly based on The Actes and Monuments of John Foxe, who in his turn followed the Briefe Chronycle of John Bale, first published in 1544.

For notes on Oldcastle's early career, consult James Hamilton Wylie, History of England under Henry IV. For literary history see the Introductions to Richard James's Iter Lancastrense (Chetham Society, 1845) and to Grosart's edition of the Poems of Richard James (1880). See also W. Barske, Oldcastle-Falstaff in der englischen Literatur bis zu Shakespeare (Palaestra, 1. Berlin, 1905).


  1. 1 2 Waugh 1905, p. 436.
  2. 1 2 3 Waugh 1905, p. 437.
  3. 1 2 Waugh 1905, p. 438.
  4. 1 2 Waugh 1905, p. 445.
  5. Riley 1868, p. 641.
  6. Seward, pp. 42–45.
  7. Meic Stephens (1998). The New Companion to the Literature of Wales. University of Wales Press. p. 256. ISBN   978-0-7083-1383-1.
  8. Calendar of Close Rolls, 1419–22, p. 196
  9. E H. Thompson (1890). From the Thames to the Trosachs: Impressions of Travel in England and Scotland. Cranston and Stowe. p. 14.

Related Research Articles

John Falstaff recurring character in several of Shakespeares plays

Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare and is eulogised in a fourth. His significance as a fully developed character is primarily formed in the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, where he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V of England. A notable eulogy for Falstaff is presented in Act II, Scene III of Henry V, where Falstaff does not appear as a character on stage, as enacted by Mistress Quickly in terms that some scholars have ascribed to Plato's description of the death of Socrates after drinking hemlock. By comparison, Falstaff is presented as the buffoonish suitor of two married women in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Owain Glyndŵr Welsh rebel and prince

Owain ap Gruffydd, lord of Glyndyfrdwy, also known as Owain Glyndŵr or Glyn Dŵr, was a Welsh leader who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence with the aim of ending English rule in Wales during the Late Middle Ages. He was the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales.

Henry V of England 15th-century King of England and Duke of Aquitaine

Henry V, also called Henry of Monmouth, was King of England from 1413 until his death in 1422. Despite his relatively short reign, Henry's outstanding military successes in the Hundred Years' War against France made England one of the strongest military powers in Europe. Immortalised in Shakespeare's "Henriad" plays, Henry is known and celebrated as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England.

<i>Henry IV, Part 1</i> play by Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 1 is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written no later than 1597. It is the second play in Shakespeare's tetralogy dealing with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. Henry IV, Part 1 depicts a span of history that begins with Hotspur's battle at Homildon in Northumberland against Douglas late in 1402 and ends with the defeat of the rebels at Shrewsbury in the middle of 1403. From its first performance, it has been an extremely popular play both with the public and critics.

<i>Sir John Oldcastle</i> 17th-century play sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare

Sir John Oldcastle is an Elizabethan play about John Oldcastle, a controversial 14th-/15th-century rebel and Lollard who was seen by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries as a proto-Protestant martyr.

<i>Henry IV, Part 2</i> play by Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 2 is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written between 1596 and 1599. It is the third part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and succeeded by Henry V.

Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham

Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham (22 November 1564 – 24 January 1618 /3 February 1618, lord of the Manor of Cobham, Kent, was an English peer who was implicated in the Main Plot against the rule of James I of England.

The History of Herefordshire starts with a shire in the time of Athelstan (895–939), and Herefordshire is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1051. The first Anglo-Saxon settlers, the Magonsætan, were a sub-tribal unit of the Hwicce who occupied the Severn valley. The Magonsætan were said to be in the intervening lands between the Rivers Wye and Severn. The undulating hills of marl clay were surrounded by the Welsh mountains to the west; the Malvern Hills to the east; the Clent Hills of the Shropshire borders to the north, and the indeterminate extent of the Forest of Dean to the south. The shire name first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was derived from "Here-ford", Old English for "Army crossing", the location for the city.

John Fastolf 15th-century English knight

Sir John Fastolf was a late medieval English landowner and knight who fought in the Hundred Years' War. He has enjoyed a more lasting reputation as the prototype, in some part, of Shakespeare's character Sir John Falstaff. Many historians argue, however, that he deserves to be famous in his own right, not only as a soldier, but as a patron of literature, a writer on strategy and perhaps as an early industrialist.

Powys Wenwynwyn

Powys Wenwynwyn or Powys Cyfeiliog was a Welsh kingdom which existed during the high Middle Ages. The realm was the southern portion of the former princely state of Powys which split following the death of Madog ap Maredudd of Powys in 1160: the northern portion (Maelor) went to Gruffydd Maelor and eventually became known as Powys Fadog; while the southern portion (Cyfeiliog) going to Owain Cyfeiliog and becoming known, eventually, as Powys Wenwynwyn after Prince Gwenwynwyn ab Owain, its second ruler.

Caister Castle

Caister Castle is a 15th-century moated castle situated in the parish of West Caister, some 5 km (3.1 mi) north of the town of Great Yarmouth in the English county of Norfolk.

Baron Grey of Powis

The title Baron Grey of Powis (1482–1552) was created for the great-grandson of Joan Charleton, co-heiress and 6th Lady of Powis (Powys) and her husband, Sir John Grey, 1st Earl of Tankerville (1384–1421) after the death of Joan's father, Edward Charleton, 5th Baron Cherleton (1370–1421) left the title in abeyance.

Sir Gruffudd Vychan was a Welsh knight who supported the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr against the English, captured the Lollard John Oldcastle and was finally executed after the murder of Sir Christopher Talbot.

Events from the 1410s in England.

Edward Charlton, 5th Baron Charlton

Edward Charlton, 5th Baron Charlton, KG (1370–1421), 5th and last Lord Charlton of Powys, was the younger son of John Charlton, the third baron, and his wife, Joan, daughter of Lord Stafford.

John Grey, 1st Earl of Tankerville

John Grey, 1st Earl of Tankervillejure uxoris6th Lord of Powys, KG, was an English peer who served with distinction in the Hundred Years' War between England and France under King Henry V.

Benedict Nichols, also spelt Nicholls was a priest and bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, successively a parish priest in England, a canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and Bishop of Bangor and Bishop of St David's in Wales.

Sir Walter Devereux of Bodenham and Weobley was a prominent knight in Herefordshire during the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. He represented Hereford in Parliament, and gave rise to the Devereux Earls of Essex and Viscounts of Hereford.

Oldcastle Revolt

The Oldcastle Revolt was a Lollard uprising directed against the Catholic Church and the English king, Henry V. The revolt was led by John Oldcastle, taking place on the night of 9/10 January 1414. The rebellion was crushed following a decisive battle on St. Giles's Fields.

Thomas Brooke (died 1418)

Sir Thomas Brooke (c.1355-1418) of Holditch in the parish of Thorncombe in Devon and of la Brooke in the parish of Ilchester in Somerset, was "by far the largest landowner in Somerset" and served 13 times as a Member of Parliament for Somerset. He was the first prominent member of his family, largely due to the great wealth he acquired from his marriage to a wealthy widow. The monumental brass of Sir Thomas Brooke and his wife survives in Thorncombe Church.