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Six hundred years on: the Norfolk priest who championed the laity

31 January 2020

Six hundred years on, Alex Irving considers the legacy of Richard Caister


John Wyclif (c.1320s-31 December 1384) preaching

John Wyclif (c.1320s-31 December 1384) preaching

I HAD never heard of Richard Caister (d.1420) before taking up the post of Assistant Curate at St Stephen’s, Norwich, in 2017. My first exposure to him was hearing the St Stephen’s community choir sing­ a choral setting of his metrical prayer. I was struck by the content of the prayer, and became even more interested on hearing that its author was a historic incumbent of St Stephen’s.

An ambiguous figure, Caister was, in some ways, a typical, English late-medieval priest, associated with the forms of spirituality which you might expect for a clergyman of that time. His will includes invocations of Mary, and his burial place became a shrine of national importance through the 15th century.

In other ways, he had character­istics that one might associate with a more radical figure. His one remain­ing literary contribution, for ex­­ample, expresses convictions that are more consistent with elements of the thought of John Wyclif (d.1384), and Lollardy.

Exploring this tension raises per­­ti­n­ent contemporary questions about clericalism, language, and our congregations’ desire to engage with high Christian doctrine.


BORN in Norfolk (either in Caistor St Edmund or Caister-on-Sea) in the second half of the 14th century, Caister first surfaces in the records of Merton Priory in Surrey, when, on 1 October 1385, he received a licence to be ordained.

Caister entered ministry at a turbulent time in the history of the Church in England. Dissenting tra­ditions were beginning to become more influential and drawing more stringent censure. In 1384, Wyclif, the Oxford academic who chal­lenged the institutional Church on a range of issues, including the doc­trine of transubstantiation and the terms of availability of scripture in the English language, was excommunicated.

The powerful dissenting faction known to us as Lollardy grew up during Wyclif’s life, and spread quickly after his death. Central to Lollardy was the rejection of the axiomatic assumption that Latin was the only suitable vehicle for theo­logical and spiritual discourse; a rejection of the necessity of auricular confession; and the insistence on access to scripture in the English language. During Caister’s lifetime, Lollardy would be a significant spirit­ual and political force, chiefly among lay people, and it was tar­geted by both secular authorities and ecclesial legislation.

After his ordination in 1385, Caister most probably took a junior position in the diocese of Norwich. He was installed as the Vicar of Sedge­ford in 1397, before being trans­ferred to St Stephen’s, in the centre of Norwich, in 1402.

In the opening years of the 15th century, Norwich was a city on the up. It received a Royal Charter allowing the citizens to elect their own mayor, and several of the early mayors of Norwich lived within the parish of St Stephen’s.

The bishop who appointed Caister to this sig­nificant parish was the formidable Henry le Despenser (d.1406), a fierce opponent of Lol­lardy, who oversaw the condemna­tion and sub­sequent execution of the priest William Sawtrey, in 1401, for his association with nonconformity.

Caister’s appointment to St Stephen’s, a short walk from Nor­wich Cathedral, does not suggest radical convictions. Despite this, the Protestant historian John Bale (writing in the late 1540s) described Caister as sympathetic to Wyclif’s thinking.

Even though Bale’s characterisa­tion may have been driven by a desire to add historical legit­imacy to the Protestant movement, there are good reasons to argue that, in some ways, Caister skirted fairly close to the outer edges of the orthodoxy of his day.

A man with a sensitive pastoral heart, Caister did not behave as one particularly interested in advancing his own career or currying favour with his superiors. Reports fre­quently comment on his simplicity of life and his overriding concern for his parishioners, but it is in his friend­ship with Margery Kempe that this aspect of his character is most clear.

Kempe, with her claims of visions of Jesus and prophetic utterances in public, was not universally popular among the clergy. Her activity sug­gested that she, a lay person (a wo­­man, even), enjoyed a relation with God unknown by most priests.

Kempe writes that Caister listened to her for two hours one afternoon to hear what she would tell him about the love of God. It was the beginning of a long-lasting friend­ship, in which Caister became the confessor of Kempe and went in her defence at her heresy trials before le Despenser, as Kempe puts it, “put­ting the love of God before any worldly shame”.


CAISTER was clearly an extra­ordinary preacher. The medallions associated with his shrine, of which at least six designs exist, all depict him in the pulpit. In several of these designs, the Holy Spirit is seen to be hovering around his head, and, in others, the presence of the Father is portrayed above the canopy of the pulpit in the likeness of a flash of light.

The implication is that Caister’s preaching, by the light of the Spirit, communicated the light of the Father through the Word. Bale suggests that Caister’s sermons on a range of topics were published (in English), none of which survive today. There are reports that, in his preaching, Caister would publicly criticise other clergy for a variety of misdemeanours — something ex­­plicitly prohibited in the ecclesi­ast­ical legislation of his day.

MUSEUM OF LONDONA medallion associated with the Richard Caister shrine

The most significant indication that there might be something to Bale’s claim that Caister favoured Wy­­cliffite doctrine is the contrast between Caister’s one surviving literary work (a metrical prayer) and the convictions of the Church in England at the beginning of the 15th century.

Under one very influential read­ing, the vibrant tradition of English vernacular theology in the 14th century — represented by individuals such as Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich — was squashed by restrictive legislation, at the opening of the 15th century, designed to establish limits around the theological and spiritual dis­course of the laity.

Certainly, the development of a sophisticated tradition of theology which used the language of the com­mon people (English), not the lan­guage of the Church (Latin), had the potential for the prolifera­tion of ideas inconsistent with the position of the institutional Church.

Moreover, the cross-pollination of vernacular theology with affective piety (in which the centre of gravity does not fall on the sacramental ministry of the Church, but on individual and internal prayer and devotion) gave rise to specific dis­­course that effectively consti­tuted what has been called the de­mocrat­isation of spirituality. Lollardy is one significant example of the con­fluence of these ideas, which is, perhaps, one reason that it was such a potent force.

Promulgated in 1409, Archbishop Thomas Arundel’s Constitutions Against the Lollards sought to estab­lish control over religious speech and thought in England. If the problem faced by the Fourth Lateran Council in the 13th century was the ignorance of the clergy and laity, the problem facing the ecclesial Estab­lish­ment in the early 15th century was the too eager pursuit of know­ledge.

The alteration of the character of English vernacular theology in rela­tion to Arundel’s Constitutions has no better example than Nicholas Love’s The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus (1410). Written in English, it is a theological assault on the capa­city of the vernacular (and by ex­­tension, the laity) for theological thought and speech.

Love charac­terises the laity as both mentally and spiritually un­­sophisticated, perpetually limited to the foothills of the religious life and theological insight.

The supremacy of the clergy is po­liced by their Latinate learning, which opens up to them whole vistas of theological and spiritual sophist­ication stored in the traditions of the Church which remain closed to the laity.

At the heart of Love’s thought is a clear separation between the ma­­terial and the spiritual, a separation that includes the divinity and the humanity of Christ. This basic dualism also has linguistic form in the separation of the vernacular and Latin.

For Love, the vernacular belongs with the humanity of Christ and material reality, whereas Latin belongs with the divinity of Christ and the spiritual. The result of this is that, if the union of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ is to have any efficacy to the lay person, it can be only by the media­tion of the Latinate priest.

Caister’s metrical prayer describes a very different theological land­scape. It indicates theological ideas that are far more sympathetic to the capacity of the laity to engage with high Christian doctrine. Caister is unapologetic and adventurous in his use of the English language, im­­pli­citly affirming its suitability to communicate the doctrine of the Church. The setting of the prayer is an individual praying directly to Jesus and asking for forgiveness.

Whether putting a form of con­fession in the English language for personal use can be understood as implicitly undermining the necessity of auricular confession is a contested matter, but this, at the very least, affirms that the language of the common people is appropriate for spiritual discourse.

Moreover, the problem such as Caister presents it is not one of the inherent limitations of the laity or their language, but is the problem of sin — common to all humankind — overcome only through the redemp­tive life and death of Christ.

Among all of this, Caister demon­strates an affinity with the affective tradition so characteristic of Lollardy and the vernacular tradition in Eng­land. He identifies both the be­­liever and the Church in a common re­­la­tionship of dependence on Christ. This is not the work of a man at ease with the high clericalism of his time.


THIS year, St Stephen’s, Norwich, is marking the sixth centenary of the death of Caister. “‘Grant Me Grace’: The Richard Caister Project” seeks to describe who Caister was, and the nature of his life and significance. The project also sets out to explore areas of ongoing relevance that Caister and his particular context might have to the ministry of the gospel today.

Caister’s pastoral practice was, seemingly, untouched by the politics of his day. He was clearly not a man who chose the path of least resist­ance, and he had clear principles that shaped his service: a commitment to clear preaching, a concern for the poor, and a readiness to listen to, and learn from, those outside the ordinary channels.

There are continuities between Caister and the ministry of the gos­pel in St Stephen’s today. There remains a strong em­­phasis on the Word of God coming to us in the power of the Spirit of God alongside the prioritisation of people — the latter being expressed, in part, through a café that serves hundreds of people a week and resources our work with rough-sleepers and those struggling with addictions of various kinds.

Present, too, is the expectation that all members of the Church, both lay and ordained, share a common dependence on Christ and share in the ministry of Christ. Caister un­­doubtedly saw himself as a preacher and teacher, but he also understood that the laity are more than capable of engaging with and articulating doc­trine in language that resonates beyond the Church’s walls.


The Revd Dr Alex Irving is Assistant Curate of St Stephen’s, Norwich.
The Caister Project includes an exhibi­tion, workshops, and a series of public lectures: www.ststephensnorwich.org/the-caister-project.

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