Before the 16th century any action taken by Parliament in religious matters was in support of the Catholic Church. Its first concern was to uphold the Church’s authority against any threats to its position.
Since the Norman Conquest in 1066 small communities of Jews had existed among the Christian populations in English towns. Their involvement in finance arose from the fact that Christians were not allowed to practise usury – lending money in return for interest payments.
By the 12th century their influence and ready access to money had made them much hated and subject to harsh exploitation by needy monarchs. Many were expelled from towns, and shameless killings took place such as the massacre at York in 1189.
In 1275 Parliament gave approval to the Statute of the Jewry which barred Jews from lending for profit.
Through this new law Edward I seems to have tried to integrate Jews within society by encouraging their involvement in other commercial activity and areas like agriculture, but the continuing prejudice against them resulted in a royal edict for their expulsion from England in 1290.
They would not be readmitted again until the 1650s.
In 1401 Parliament took action against believers known by the abusive term of Lollards or mumblers. The Lollards included some MPs – who from the 1380s began to speak out against important aspects of the Church and its thinking.
Inspired by the writings of the Oxford academic John Wyclif, they objected to the meanings attached to certain rituals used in church worship. They also felt that more attention should be given to God’s own words as revealed in the Bible, than on interpretations made by the Church.
Before the fifteenth century the English Church had been largely free of this kind of heresy or deviation from its teachings. But in 1401 Parliament enacted a law called De Heretico Comburendo - On the burning of heretics - by which Lollard leaders were liable for imprisonment, trial and execution. It is thought that about 100 people were burned for heresy under this Act.