Sir William Sautre

William Sautre was one of the many witnesses for the truth of the gospel in an age when strict conformity to the establishment was the watchword.

Tertullian’s dictum, “Christ is truth, not habit,” was long forgotten and the megalithic Roman church had long been grounding her usurped authority upon herself, taking it into her hands to punish any, whether man or woman or child, who dared to raise his voice in protest against her abominable beliefs and practices.

Her persecuting mania, under cover of serving God and preserving His truth, was the full flower of errors that began to appear in the early centuries. One of them was Augustine’s treatment of the Donatists in the fifth century: when he did not succeed in persuading them to return to the catholic fold he increasingly added the pressure until he found biblical ground for physical coercion in the words recorded in one of Christ’s parables, “Compel them to come in.”

If Augustine had foreseen what his mistaken exegesis would lead to, he would have shrunk in horror to see what the succeeding centuries saw, how the papacy twisted the words of the venerable church father to its own profit.

De Heretico Comburendo

In 1399 the convocation of Oxford decreed that “no man hereafter, by his own authority, may translate any text of Scripture into English or any other tongue by way of a book, pamphlet or treatise.” The use of the Holy Bible was forbidden. To one who owned a Bible it meant imprisonment. To engage in translation was punishable by death.

Such opposition to the Bible is by no means unique to England. The Council of Valencia in 1229 placed the Bible on the index of forbidden books. “We prohibit also the permitting of the laity to have the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament.”

This law became known as “De Heretico Comburendo” and was passed by Henry IV.

The first man to perish at the stake under this law was William Salter, a minister of London.

Flickering light in a dark age

Coming to the early fifteenth century, the reader of church history finds it almost a desert...and yet the light was not fully extinguished. The doctrine of the Scriptures had been lately sounded yet once more through the pen and preaching of John Wycliffe.

After his death the influence of his doctrine still spread far and wide reaching even to the continent as far as Bohemia to the hearts of Jerome of Prague and John Huss.

But the effect of Wycliffe’s bold testimony was felt most in his own native England. Lollardy, as the movement that sprang spontaneously from his labours was known, spread far and wide, affecting the common man and even the Roman clergy.

Their struggle against the corrupt church, posing as the bride of Christ (whereas in truth it was the prostitute that had forsaken Him) is a reminder for us today how we need to remain faithful to whatever the Lord is pleased to teach us through His blessed Word.

The following story is of a man who, though wavering through fear, yet sealed his testimony for Christ whom he loved, with his own blood. How many more souls suffered tribulation, “being cast out of the synagogue,” only the day of eternity will tell.

The chronicle of Sautre’s life

William Sautre was a good man and a faithful priest, inflamed with zeal for true religion. He was wont to preach far and wide, but the matter was brought up before the bishop. In due course William Sautre was brought before the bishops and notaries appointed to hear his case.

When the time arrived, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of his council provincial assembled in the chapter-house, began to hear the case against William Sautre, known as Chatris, who was a chaplain.

It soon became known that Sautre had formerly, before the bishop of Norwich, renounced and abjured several “heretical and erroneous doctrines;” after such abjuration, he still publicly and privately held, taught, and preached the same conclusions that were in antagonism with Romanism as then prevailed, to the great peril and pernicious example of others, as it was held.

The chancellor of the archbishop read out the accusations against Sautre, the parish priest of the church of St. Scithe the virgin, in London. It appears that among other things Sautre affirmed that:

1. he will not worship the cross on which Christ suffered, but only Christ that suffered upon the cross.

2. he would sooner worship a temporal king, than the aforesaid wooden cross.

3. he would rather worship the bodies of the saints, than the very cross of Christ on which he hung, if it were before him.

4. he would rather worship a man truly contrite, than the cross of Christ.

5. he is bound rather to worship a man that is predestinate, than an angel of God.

6. if any man would visit the monuments of Peter and Paul, or go on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas, or any whither else, to obtain any temporal benefit; he is not bound to keep his vow, but he may distribute the expenses of his vow upon the alms of the poor.

7. every priest and deacon is more bound to preach the word of God, than to say the canonical hours.

8. after the pronouncing of the sacramental words of the body of Christ, the bread remains of the same nature that it was before. It does not cease to be bread.

Sautre’s deliberation and defence

To these conclusions or articles, being thus read, the archbishop of Canterbury required sir William to answer. The accused asked for a copy of such articles and for some time to reflect upon them.

The archbishop commanded a copy of such articles or conclusions to be delivered then and there unto sir William, assigning the Thursday then next ensuing for him to deliberate and give his answer.

The hearing continued under the supervision of Nicholas Rishton, the auditor of the causes and business of the archbishop.

William Sautre exhibited a certain scroll, containing the answers unto certain articles or conclusions given unto him.

A good confession

He read it out:

“I William Sautre, priest unworthy, say and answer, that I will not nor intend to worship the cross whereon Christ was crucified, but only Christ that suffered upon the cross; so understanding me, that I will not worship the material cross, or the gross corporal matter: yet, notwithstanding, I will worship the same as a sign, token, and memorial of the passion of Christ.

And that I will rather worship a temporal king, than the aforesaid wooden cross, and the material substance of the same. And that I will rather worship the bodies of saints, than the very cross of Christ whereon he hung; with this addition, even if the very same cross were before me, as touching the material substance.

And also that I will rather worship a man truly confessed and penitent, than the cross on which Christ hung, as touching the material substance.

And that also I am bound, and will rather worship him whom I know to be predestinate, truly confessed, and contrite, than an angel of God: for that the one is a man of the same nature with the humanity of Christ, and so is not a blessed angel. Notwithstanding I will worship both of them, according as the will of God is I should.

Also, That if any man hath made a vow to visit the shrines of the apostles Peter and Paul, or to go on pilgrimage unto St. Thomas’s tomb, or any whither else, to obtain any temporal benefit or commodity, he is not bound simply to keep his vow upon the necessity of salvation; but he may give the expenses of his vow in alms amongst the poor, by the prudent counsel of his superior, as I suppose.

And also I say, that every deacon and priest is more bound to preach the word of God, than to say the canonical hours, according to the primitive order of the church.

Also, touching the interrogation of the sacrament of the altar, I say, that after the pronouncing of the sacramental words of the body of Christ, it does not cease to be very bread simply, but remains bread, holy, true, and the bread of life; and I believe the said sacrament to be the very body of Christ, after the pronouncing of the sacramental words.”

Focus upon transubstantiation

He was questioned whether he has renounced his errors. Sautre remained firm and answered that he had not. And then consequently (all other articles, conclusions, and answers above written immediately omitted), the said archbishop examined the same sir William Sautre, especially upon the sacrament of the altar.

First, whether in the sacrament of the altar, after the pronouncing of the sacramental words, remains very material bread or not! This being the crux of the matter and the very heart of Romish religion, Sautre somewhat waveringly answered that there was very bread, because it was the bread of life which came down from heaven.

After that the said archbishop demanded of him, whether, in the sacrament, after the sacramental words rightly pronounced of the priest, the same bread remains, which did, before the words were pronounced, or not. And to this question William answered in like manner as before, saying, that there was bread, holy, true, and the bread of life.

After that, the archbishop asked him, whether the same material bread before consecration, by the sacramental words of the priest rightly pronounced, be transubstantiated from the nature of bread into the very body of Christ, or not?

Whereunto sir William said, that he knew not what that matter meant.

The archbishop assigned to sir William time to deliberate, and more fully to make his answer the next day; and continued this convocation till the day after.

Then the archbishop demanded, whether that material bread being round and white, prepared and disposed for the sacrament of the body of Christ upon the altar, wanting nothing that is meet and requisite thereunto, by virtue of the sacramental words being by the priest rightly pronounced, be altered and changed into the very body of Christ, and ceaseth any more to be material and very bread or not? Then William, deridingly answering, said, he could not tell.

Consequently, the archbishop demanded, whether he would stand to the determination of the holy church or not, which affirms, that in the sacrament of the altar, after the words of consecration being rightly pronounced by the priest, the same bread, which before in nature was bread, ceases any more to be bread?

To this interrogation Sautre said, that he would stand to the determination of the church, where such determination was not contrary to the will of God.

This done he demanded of him again, what his judgement was concerning the sacrament of the altar: who said and affirmed, that after the words of consecration, by the priest duly pronounced, remained very bread, and the same bread which was before the words spoken.

Sautre sentenced

Since Sautre would not be persuaded of transubstantiation, the sentence was read out against him:

“In the name of God, Amen. We, Thomas, by the grace of God archbishop of Canterbury, primate of England, and legate of the see apostolical, by the authority of God Almighty, and blessed St. Peter and Paul, and of holy church, and by our own authority, sitting for tribunal or chief judge, having God alone before our eyes, by the counsel and consent of the whole clergy, our fellow brethren and suffragans, assistants unto us in this present council provincial, by this our sentence definitive, do pronounce, decree, and declare, by these presents thee William Sautre, otherwise called Chatris, parish priest pretensed, personally appearing before us, in and upon the Crime of heresy, judicially and lawfully convicted as a heretic, and as a heretic to be punished.”

Recantation under pressure

Later Sautre, under pressure, is said to have renounced and revoked all the heresies that were charged against him. He took an oath that from that time onwards he would never preach, affirm, or hold the former doctrines.

As concerning the first conclusion, that he said he would not worship the cross. He confessed himself to have erred, and that the article was erroneous, and submitted himself.

And as touching the second article, that he said he would rather worship a king, he confessed himself to have erred, and the article to be erroneous, and submitted himself; and so forth of all the rest.

A re-affirmation of the truth

Many martyrs have wavered at the prospect of suffering and death. Being intimidated a number of them have appeared to have denied what they believed, but then, by the grace of God richly supplied to them, they stand fast and go as it were cheerfully to their appointed end, to glorify God even to the shedding of their blood.

This was the case with William Sautre. Here is how it happened. On the twenty-third of February, 1401, the articles of recantation were read in his hearing. Afterwards the bishop asked him whether he plainly understood and knew such process, and the contents within the document; and he said, ‘Yea.’

And further he demanded of him, if he would or could say or object any thing against the process, and he said. ‘No.’

The archbishop of Canterbury demanded and objected against sir William, as many others more did; that after he had, before the bishop of Norwich, revoked and abjured, judicially, divers errors and heresies, among other errors and heresies by him taught, held, and preached, he affirmed, that in the same sacrament of the altar, after the consecration made by the priest, as he taught, there remained material bread; which heresy, amongst others, as errors also he abjured before the aforesaid bishop of Norwich.

So Sautre answered smiling, or in mocking, saying and denying that he knew of the premises. Notwithstanding, he publicly affirmed, that he held and taught the aforesaid things after the date of the said process made by the said bishop of Norwich, and that in the same council also he held the same.

Then finally it was demanded of sir William, why he ought not to be pronounced as a man fallen into heresy, and why they should not further proceed unto his degradation according to the canonical sanctions. But Sautre remained silent.

Whereupon the aforesaid archbishop of Canterbury, by the counsel and assent of the whole council, and especially by the counsel and assent of the reverend fathers and bishops, priors, deans, archdeacons, and other respected doctors and clerks present in the council, fully determined to proceed to the degradation and actual deposing of the said William Sautre, as re-fallen into heresy, and as incorrigible.

Sentence of degradation

With what irony is the sentence filled! How the prophecy of Christ is fulfilled again and again: “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yet the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think the he doeth God service” (John 16:2).

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen. We Thomas, by God’s permission archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, and legate of the apostolic see, do thee William Sautre, otherwise called Chatris, chaplain pretensed, clothed in the habit and apparel of a priest, a heretic and one relapsed into heresy, by our sentence definitive, condemned, by the counsel, assent, and authority, and by the conclusion of all our fellow brethren, our co-bishops and prelates, and of the whole clergy of our provincial council, degrade and depose from the order of a priest. And in sign of thy degradation and actual deposition, for thine incorrigibility we take from thee the paten and chalice, and do deprive thee of all power of celebrating the mass, and also we pull from thy back the casule, and take from thee the priestly vestment, and deprive thee of all manner of priestly honor....

Moreover, by the authority of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and our own, and by the authority, counsel, and assent of our whole council provincial above written, we do degrade and depose thee, William Sawtre alias Chatrys, from the orders, benefices, and privileges, and the habit and fellowship of the church, for thy pertinacy incorrigible, before the secular court of the high constable and marshal of England, being here personally present before us; and do strip and deprive thee of all and singular clerkly honors and distinctions whatsoever, by these writings.

Also, in sign of thy actual degradation and deposition, we have caused thy crown and clerical tonsure in our presence to be rased away, and utterly to be abolished, like unto the form of a secular lay man; and a coloured cap to be put upon the head of the same William, as a secular lay man; beseeching the court aforesaid, that they will regard favourably the said William unto them thus recommitted.”

And the darkness comprehendeth it not

Thus William Sautre, the servant of Christ, being utterly thrust out of the pope’s kingdom, and deposed from a clerk to a secular layman, was committed unto the secular power.

But the bishops persisted in calling upon the king, to cause him to be brought to a quick execution.

So the king, ready enough and too much to gratify the clergy, and to retain their favours, issues a terrible decree against Sautre, and sent it to the mayor and sheriffs of London to be put in execution.

In so condemning Sautre, they condemned themselves. “And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:3).

The secular decree against Sautre

In bringing the account of Sautre to a close, the martyrologist John Foxe brings forward the following points for reflection.

“Thus it may appear how kings and princes have been blinded and abused by the false prelates of the church, insomuch that they have been their slaves and butchers, to slay Christ’s poor innocent members.

See, therefore, what danger it is for princes not to have knowledge and understanding themselves, but to be led by other men’s eyes, and especially trusting to such guides, who, through hypocrisy, both deceive them, and, through cruelty, devour the people.

As king Henry IV., who was the deposer of king Richard, was the first of all English kings that began the unmerciful burning of Christ’s saints for standing against the pope; so was this William Sautre, the true and faithful martyr of Christ, the first of all them in Wickliff’s time, that I find to be burned in the reign of the aforesaid king, which was in the year of our Lord, 1401.

After the martyrdom of this godly man; the rest of the same company began to keep themselves more closely for fear of the king, who was altogether bent to hold with the pope’s prelacy. Such was the reign of this prince, that to the godly he was ever terrible, in his actions immeasurable, of few men heartily beloved; but princes never lack flatterers about them.

Neither was the time of his reign very quiet, but. full of trouble, of blood and misery.”

Concluding remark

We lack details of Sautre’s life and ministry, being totally dependent upon the few extant records on hand. But God knows His own and He will vindicate them at the last day. “Blessed are you when men persecute you and speak evil of you...Great is your reward in heaven.”

The house of faith in our Lord Jesus is filled with such men as Abraham and David and Paul, but also with men of little renown in the estimate of the world. The world is not worthy of such, but they have obtained a good report through their faith, for they feared the invisible God, their Creator and Redeemer.

May we be imbued with such courage and faithfulness as they exhibited, in the cause of Christ and the gospel of grace.