The surprising thing about John Oldcastle was the number of roles he played. During his approximately 39 years, he was a knight, a politician, a soldier, a preacher, a baron, a fugitive, a martyr, and the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character, Falstaff.

“Over a century before Luther, John Wycliffe proclaimed Reformation views in England, and a group of preachers, the Lollards, spread his message through the country. After Wycliffe’s death, John Oldcastle sought to protect and advance the Lollard ministry. Against him arose the archbishop of Canterbury, imploring the king to silence Oldcastle and the Lollards. Henry met with his baron and besought him to “submit to his mother the holy Church.” Oldcastle replied, “I am always prompt and willing to obey you, forasmuch as I know you are a king and the anointed minister of God. … But as touching the pope and his spirituality, I owe him neither suit nor service.”

Henry withdrew his support. Oldcastle, finding himself “compassed on every side with deadly dangers,” was seized, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and condemned. But before his execution could occur, “in the night season (it is not known by what means), he escaped out and fled to Wales.”

Henry offered a great reward for his recapture, but Oldcastle remained at large four years. Then “the Lord Powis, whether for greediness of the money or for hatred of the true doctrine of Christ, seeking all manner of ways how to play the part of Judas, and outwardly pretending great favor, at length obtained his bloody purpose and most cowardly and wretchedly took him and brought him bound up to London” (wrote John Foxe).

On December 15, 1418 Oldcastle was taken to Smithfield in London, where martyrs were killed, and “hanged up by the middle in chains of iron, and so consumed alive in the fire, praising the name of God so long as his life lasted.”

By faith we have been made acceptable to God. And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God. … So we are happy, as we look forward to sharing in the glory of God. But that’s not all! We gladly suffer. (Romans 5:1,3)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Dec. 15.

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