In medieval England was heresy dealt with in the kings courts or church courts?

Clearly heresy was a crime against the church but the punishment was death so presumably it must have been dealt with in the royal courts as, to the best of my knowledge, church courts did not sentence people to death. Is this correct?

1 Answer 1


You are correct that Heresy was an offence dealt with by the Church courts. However, the church courts could indeed sentence heretics to death.

If convicted, the offender was then handed over to the State for that sentence to be carried out.

However, this does not mean that the State ordered the death of the offender. They merely carried out the sentence. They also had no discretion in the matter. As noted in the paper A Brief History of Medieval Roman Canon Law in England, the situation was made clear by the English Canonist, William Lyndwood in 1430:

In other words, "heresy was in his view a spiritual crime, and it was for the Church, not for the State, to say what should be done with heretics. If a lay prince refused to execute the Church's law concerning this crime, he was to be excommunicated."

There is a detailed exploration of how heresy was dealt with by the church courts in medieval England in Ian Forrest's 2005 book, The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England.

So, to summarise, heretics were charged by the church courts, convicted by the church courts, and sentenced by the church courts.

Only then were those heretics handed over to the State for that sentence to be carried out.

  • It's worth remembering that Church and State were much less distinct back then.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 0:36
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    @MarkOlson Not in matters of legal jurisdiction. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 0:41
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    @MarkOlson - Viewing "heresy as treason" wasn't something new. Persecution of the Lollards had statutory basis, "De heretico comburendo". I thought this was a nice, neat answer.
    – J Asia
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 4:00
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    @J Aia: Precisely my point: Heresy can only be treason if Church and State are intertwined i a way that is rare today.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 13:08
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    @MarkOlson Actually, heresy as treason only really became a thing in the Early Modern period, where disagreement with the monarch's religion became inseparable from treason. The Lollards were actually often tolerated by the English State (though not by the church) until a prominent Lollard, John Ball, took a leading roll in the Peasants' Revolt. Until there was an overlap of interest both Church and State were very clear about their separate legal jurisdictions. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 15:30

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