Define: Writ De Haeretico Comburendo

Writ De Haeretico Comburendo
Writ De Haeretico Comburendo
Quick Summary of Writ De Haeretico Comburendo

During medieval England, a writ de haeretico comburendo was a lawful command that permitted the burning execution of individuals found guilty of heresy, which refers to holding beliefs that contradict the teachings of the Church. This writ was issued by the king and exclusively employed in instances where the convicted individual persisted in their beliefs or was reconvicted of heresy after renouncing it. The initial English legislation against heresy was enacted in 1401, granting permission to burn defendants who refused to renounce their heretical viewpoints.

What is the dictionary definition of Writ De Haeretico Comburendo?
Dictionary Definition of Writ De Haeretico Comburendo

The writ de haeretico comburendo, which was first introduced in England in 1401, was a legal instrument used to order the burning of convicted heretics who refused to renounce their beliefs or were found guilty of heresy again after recanting. This writ, often issued by the king or a provincial synod, was employed during the Middle Ages to enforce the law against heresy and to penalise individuals who did not conform to the prevailing religious doctrines of the era.

Full Definition Of Writ De Haeretico Comburendo

The writ De Haeretico Comburendo stands as a stark reminder of a time when religious conformity was rigidly enforced through draconian measures. This legal instrument, used in England, was primarily aimed at suppressing heresy, reflecting the intricate entanglement of church and state during the mediaeval and early modern periods. This overview explores the historical context, legal foundations, procedural applications, and eventual abolition of the writ, providing a comprehensive understanding of its role and impact in English legal history.

Historical Context

Mediaeval Heresy and the Church’s Response

The late mediaeval period witnessed significant religious and social upheaval. Heresy, defined as a belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine, was perceived as a threat to both ecclesiastical authority and societal stability. The Catholic Church, wielding substantial influence over European states, was intolerant of doctrinal deviations. This period saw the rise of movements such as the Lollards in England, followers of John Wycliffe, who criticised the wealth and power of the Church and advocated for reforms.

Church-State Relations

In England, the relationship between the Crown and the Church was complex. While the Church held spiritual authority, the Crown sought to maintain control over its subjects, including their religious beliefs. This symbiotic yet tension-filled relationship laid the groundwork for the issuance of writs like De Haeretico Comburendo, enabling the Crown to assert control over heresy while reinforcing the Church’s doctrinal supremacy.

Legal Foundations of the Writ

Origins and Statutory Basis

The writ De Haeretico Comburendo was formally instituted by the statute 2 Henry IV, c. 15, in 1401, during the reign of Henry IV. This statute, known as the “Act for the Burning of Heretics,” was a legislative response to the perceived threat posed by the Lollards. It empowered secular authorities to execute by burning those convicted of heresy, a punishment previously reserved for the ecclesiastical courts.

Jurisdiction and Authority

The statute established that heretics were to be tried by ecclesiastical courts, but the execution of the sentence—burning at the stake—was to be carried out by secular authorities. This dual jurisdiction underscored the cooperation between church and state in maintaining religious orthodoxy. The writ authorised the Crown to issue orders for the burning of heretics upon conviction by the ecclesiastical courts, effectively bridging the gap between spiritual and temporal law.

Procedural Applications

Investigation and Trial

The process typically began with an investigation by ecclesiastical authorities. Suspected heretics were summoned to appear before a church court, where they were examined and tried. The ecclesiastical judges, often bishops, had the authority to pronounce sentences of excommunication and, upon finding the accused guilty of heresy, to hand them over to secular authorities for execution.

Issuance of the Writ

Once a conviction was secured, the church court would inform the Crown, which would then issue the writ De Haeretico Comburendo. The writ commanded the sheriff or other local officials to apprehend the convicted heretic and ensure their execution by burning. This transfer of authority from church to state was a critical aspect of the procedure, highlighting the collaborative effort to eradicate heresy.


The execution of the writ was a public affair, intended both as a punishment for the heretic and as a deterrent to others. The convicted individual was tied to a stake and burned alive, often in a prominent location to maximise the impact on the community. These executions were designed to instill fear and reinforce the consequences of deviating from accepted religious norms.

Notable Cases

The Case of William Sawtrey

William Sawtrey, a priest and follower of John Wycliffe, was one of the first individuals executed under the statute. In 1401, Sawtrey was convicted of heresy for his outspoken criticism of the Church and his denial of key Catholic doctrines. His execution marked the beginning of a period of intensified persecution of heretics in England.

The Lollard Movement

The Lollard movement, inspired by Wycliffe’s teachings, faced severe repression under the writ De Haeretico Comburendo. Prominent figures such as John Badby and Sir John Oldcastle were executed for their beliefs. Oldcastle, a former companion of Henry V, was particularly notable due to his high social standing. His execution in 1417 highlighted the Crown’s commitment to eradicating heresy, regardless of the individual’s status.

Impact and Controversies

Suppression of Religious Dissent

The writ De Haeretico Comburendo played a significant role in suppressing religious dissent in England. It served as a powerful tool for the Crown and the Church to eliminate opposition and maintain doctrinal conformity. The fear of execution by burning acted as a strong deterrent against the spread of heretical ideas.

Human Rights Violations

From a modern perspective, the use of the writ represents a grave violation of human rights. The punishment of burning at the stake was brutal and inhumane, reflecting the harsh realities of mediaeval and early modern justice. The suppression of free thought and religious expression through such extreme measures is now viewed as a dark chapter in legal history.

Abolition and Legacy

Reformation and Changing Attitudes

The Reformation brought significant changes to the religious landscape of England. The break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII began a gradual shift away from the extreme measures used to combat heresy. However, it was not until the 16th century that the writ De Haeretico Comburendo began to lose its prominence.

Legal Abolition

The formal abolition of the writ came with the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Writ De Haeretico Comburendo in 1677, under Charles II. This act repealed the statute of 1401 and ended the use of burning at the stake as a punishment for heresy. The abolition reflected changing attitudes towards religious tolerance and the rights of individuals to hold differing beliefs.

Historical Significance

The writ De Haeretico Comburendo remains significant in legal history as a symbol of the severe measures taken to enforce religious orthodoxy. Its existence and eventual abolition illustrate the evolution of legal and societal attitudes towards heresy and religious freedom. The writ’s legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding individual rights against oppressive practices.


The writ of De Haeretico Comburendo was a legal instrument deeply rooted in the turbulent religious and political landscape of mediaeval and early modern England. Its use underscores the lengths to which the Crown and the Church went to maintain religious orthodoxy and control over their subjects. While the writ facilitated the brutal punishment of heretics, its eventual abolition marked a significant step towards religious tolerance and the protection of individual rights. Understanding the writ within its historical context provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between law, religion, and society during this period.

The writ De Haeretico Comburendo thus stands as a poignant example of the intersection of law and religion, reflecting the historical struggle for control over spiritual and temporal realms. Its legacy continues to inform contemporary discussions on the balance between state authority and individual freedoms, reminding us of the importance of vigilance in protecting human rights and religious liberties.

Writ De Haeretico Comburendo FAQ'S

A Writ De Haeretico Comburendo was a legal document issued in mediaeval England to authorise the burning of heretics at the stake.

The writ was primarily used during the reign of Queen Mary I of England (1553–1558) to persecute Protestants who refused to convert to Catholicism.

The purpose of the writ was to enforce religious conformity and eliminate heresy by punishing those who held beliefs contrary to the established religion.

By modern standards, the writ was considered highly unjust and violated principles of religious freedom and human rights. It allowed for the execution of individuals solely based on their religious beliefs.

During that time, there were limited legal defences available. However, some individuals could argue that they were not heretics or that they had recanted their beliefs.

The writ was typically issued by the ecclesiastical courts, which were under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church.

There were no specific limitations on the use of the writ, and it could be employed against anyone accused of heresy, regardless of their social status or position.

Exact numbers are difficult to determine, but it is estimated that around 300 individuals were executed under the writ during Queen Mary I’s reign.

The writ fell out of use after the death of Queen Mary I in 1558 and the ascension of her Protestant half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

No, the writ is no longer valid or enforceable. It is considered a relic of a bygone era and is not recognised as a legitimate legal instrument in modern legal systems.

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This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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