John Wycliffe - Reformer - There is a film on his life under 'films' on this website.
John Wycliffe (or Wyclif) was born between 1324 and 1330, depending on which biography you read. As with many people who lived so long ago, there is very little information available on his early life. He was born near Richmond, in Yorkshire, to a propertied family. Part of the property owned by his family was the village of Wycliffe-upon-Tees.
Wycliffe probably went to Oxford University in 1345. He became a junior fellow at Merton College in 1356 and Master of Balliol around 1360. He was clearly a brilliant man, becoming an expert in biblical, philosophical and theological studies. He had a penetrating mind which was much admired.
The England of his time was torn apart by the Black Death between 1348 and 1351. It is estimated that 30-40% of the entire population died from the outbreak. Isolated populations, like monks in monasteries, were particularly badly hit with up to two-thirds of the clergy dying at this time. Across the world approximately 20% of the population died from this outbreak.
It is difficult to comprehend the effect this would have had on the Church and on society, and how it must have influenced Wycliffe in his thinking and attitudes. People had to live under the shadow of the Black Death for centuries to come. There were three more outbreaks during Wycliffe’s lifetime.
Wycliffe was appointed to the living of Fillingham in Lincolnshire in 1361. He received a considerable income from this appointment which enabled him to carry on with his studies in Oxford. He was also appointed Prebend of Aust on the Bristol Channel. Wycliffe was clearly guilty of pluralism (having more than one Church benefice at one time) and of absenteeism, as he spent most of his time in Oxford. These were accepted practices at the time to enable scholars to continue their studies, but in later years Wycliffe spoke out virulently against pluralism and absenteeism. In 1368 he gave up Fillingham to become Rector of Ludgershall, then he transferred to Lutterworth in 1374, where he remained until his death.
Until 1371 Wycliffe led the life of an academic, studying and teaching. He became recognised as the leading philosopher and theologian of the age; not only in England, but also in Western Europe. He was an expert at debate and arguing; skills which stood him in good stead in the trials that were before him. Wycliffe stretched the boundaries of ideas regarding the Church and State while he was at Oxford. Some of the things he said would not have been tolerated had he not been the eminent scholar he was, or in the scholastic environment of the University. Scholars were given a lot of flexibility as it was known that they would have endless debates on different subjects to develop their theories.
One subject that Wycliffe debated was that of ‘Lordship’. He argued that lordship could only be held from God, and that you could only possess it if you were a righteous man in a state of grace. Therefore, anyone holding lordship lost it if they abused their authority, because they were no longer righteous. This thought process could lead to people overthrowing authority everywhere on the grounds that someone in power was sinning, but Wycliffe was careful to frame his argument in a way that would not support this view. He said that all Church matters should be judged according to what it said in the New Testament. Clearly, the New Testament does not talk about the disciples having huge estates and great wealth; which was the position of the abbots, monks and priories in Wycliffe’s time. Only by giving up all their wealth could the monks etc become righteous men again, as their wealth had been accumulated sinfully, at the expense of others. Wycliffe later wrote ‘On Divine Dominion’ and ‘On Civil Dominion’, expanding his thoughts on lordship, which for now were only expressed in the confines of the University.
Wycliffe’s writings from 1371 were generally against the clergy and the Pope. He recognised how corrupt the Church system was. Apart from the enormous wealth of the Church, which was much resented, there was little spreading of the gospel. The plague had reduced the numbers of clerics so much that many unsuitable men filled the gap, so the preaching of the Gospel was more the preaching of myth and legend. Most of the Bishops were in fact administrators employed by the government, so they spent little time, if any, pastoring their flock. Added to all this was the privileged position of the clergy. They were not taxed and they were only subject to Church courts if they committed a crime, and then they were hardly ever punished.
At this time England was in an expensive war with France, so the king needed money. The burden for this rested squarely on the people as the clergy were exempt. So resentment towards the clergy rose to an all-time high.
The Duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III, had ambitions to run the country. His father was near the end of his life and his heir was sick and would die a little later. The Lord Chancellor was the Bishop of Winchester, who worked to protect the clergy from contributing towards the costs of the war, but he was removed by Parliament in 1371. Lancaster took advantage of the situation, taking over the reins of government.This was crucial for what the Lord had in store for Wycliffe, because Lancaster was his patron.
Wycliffe inspired the lay demands of the 1371 Parliament for clergy to be excluded from governmental posts, and for the government to take over ecclesiastical lands to pay for the war. The demands were not acted upon, but the threat was enough incentive for the clergy to vote to financially support the war.
The relationship between the Pope and the King of England was normally pretty feisty. There was a status quo in place for most of the time, which was that the Pope would generally appoint bishops that the king wanted. Lesser appointments were often the Pope’s choice, normally a non-resident foreigner; and huge amounts of taxes went from the coffers of the clergy into those of the pontiff.
In 1373 the king decided to raise with the Pope some of the complaints about excessive papal control. A discussion over the issues was held at Bruges in 1374, and this is the first time we see Wycliffe in a political role. He went to Bruges as one of the Commissioners, but he only remained there a few months, and does not seem to have had a significant part in the proceedings.
Despite always speaking out against the clergy, Wycliffe was hoping to be made a bishop, but he was passed over in 1375. One cannot but aim a charge of hypocrisy against the great man. Over the next few years he wrote political pamphlets for his patron, the Duke of Lancaster. This helped make Wycliffe an enemy of one of Lancaster’s opponents, the Bishop of London, William Courtenay. Wycliffe’s statements about the Pope did not endear him to Courtenay either. Wycliffe said that the Gospel was the only source of religion and that the Pope could be reprimanded by even laymen if he did wrong.
In 1377 Courtenay, as a way of attacking Lancaster, called Wycliffe to St Paul’s Cathedral to answer charges about his teachings. The crowds that came into the streets were massively against Lancaster and Wycliffe, and they had to walk through this heated throng to get to the Cathedral. Wycliffe was accompanied by his patron and the Earl-Marshal, powerful supporters at this difficult time. There were strong words between Courtenay and Lancaster, so much so that the crowd attacked the Duke and the Earl-Marshal, and they were barely able to make their escape. There were riots in the streets for the next few days. Wycliffe was issued with an injunction against preaching his doctrines.
Later that year Edward III died, being succeeded by Lancaster’s nephew Richard II. This meant that Lancaster fell from power, and therefore Wycliffe’s political days were numbered. He was however asked his view of withholding taxes from the Pope, replying that the Pope had forfeited any rights to the taxes because of his corrupt nature. He went further, but the government only needed a threat to keep the Pope in line. He was also asked his opinion on ‘sanctuary.’ The law said that if anyone sought sanctuary in a church then he could not be summarily executed. This rule had been abused for years and it needed reform. Wycliffe came up with a paper on the subject, but as usual he went too far for the politicians.
Wycliffe’s enemies sent thirteen propositions to the Pope, complaining about his teachings. Gregory IX sent letters to the king, the archbishop of Canterbury and the University of Oxford denouncing Wycliffe. In these letters the Pope was commenting on points of ecclesiastical authority rather than central beliefs. The Pope demanded Wycliffe’s arrest, but nobody seemed in a hurry to carry out his orders, mainly because nobody was exactly pro the Pope. Eventually, he was summoned to Lambeth Palace to answer the charges, but he was not arrested. On attending the enquiry he was told not to discuss the contentious issues in public or in the University.
Gregory XI died, so the matter of Wycliffe was dropped, because attention transferred to the Great Schism of 1378 when there became two Popes, each vying to be top dog. So Wycliffe was to be left alone until he died; something that probably would not have happened had he not lived at such a time in history.
The Great Schism meant that the government had no need to threaten the papacy with reform to get its way. The Popes would be in a conciliatory mood for some years to come. This meant the end of Wycliffe’s role in politics, and it was also the end of any possibility of Church reform until the reign of Henry VIII. Wycliffe stayed at Oxford until 1381, when he was forced out; so he went to Lutterworth, where he stayed until he died.
Wycliffe in ‘retirement’ switched from promoting ideas in support of his patron, to writing what he really thought. These were the years that crystallised his undying reputation as a reformer.
One of Wycliffe’s main teachings was on the authority of Church leaders. He said that God’s grace was available for all Christians, whatever leaders had to say. He not only attacked Church authority, but also the superstitions of the Church such as the selling of indulgencies, saint idolatry, pilgrimages etc and the corrupt privileges of the abbots etc. He went back to the New Testament as the model for the Church and Christian living. He came against the idea that a layman needed a priest to be the mediator between him and God; everybody had access to God directly. He believed in the priesthood of all believers which Luther was to highlight later. Of course, such a teaching would mean that the power of the clergy over the life of simple Christians would be taken away.
Another of the subjects Wycliffe wrote about in his ‘On Apostasy’ and ‘On the Eucharist’ was the Eucharist. The Eucharist was central to the service; during the Reformation it was replaced by the sermon as the main focus. By attacking the Eucharist he was attacking one of the main tenets of the Catholic Church, and so was guilty of heresy as far as the Church was concerned. The lowly Christian loved the Mass which was so full of pomp and symbolism. Wycliffe was opposed to the almost ‘worship’ of the Mass, and he was also against the idea of transubstantiation; which was the belief that the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ when they were consumed.
In 1380 Wycliffe had to defend his views on the Eucharist at Oxford, and he lost the majority of his support through this teaching. His attack on transubstantiation was condemned at Oxford in 1381 and Lancaster came to ask him to stop speaking on this subject. Wycliffe set out his views in his ‘Confession’, increasing his opposition. The Blackfriars Synod of 1382 proscribed his doctrines.
A third subject for Wycliffe’s pen was the importance of Scripture. He pointed all his arguments to the Bible, which was for him the supreme authority for any discussions on doctrine. This was something that grew on him the more he studied, and was only developed in his later years.
In 1378 he published ‘On the Truth of Holy Scripture.’ In this he said that it was the right of every Christian to read the Bible. The Bible was God’s Law, so everyone needed to read it and it had to be the ultimate authority on doctrine. The Bible alone was needed for salvation; there was no need for custom or tradition, canon law, prayers to the saints etc. He said that failure to know the Bible was failure to know Christ.
Wycliffe’s beliefs were probably similar to those of Alfred and indeed similar to many Christians today. The problem was that hierarchical Church in England and in Rome had pulled Christians from the truth. The old adage ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is the main reason for the sins of the Church. Hierarchical Church always wants to control.
The clergy used the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, but most of them knew little Latin. There were instruction books in English to attempt to help the people understand the Bible, but most people had little understanding. So Wycliffe planned to translate the Vulgate Bible into English; stripped away of all the notes that that been added over the years, giving the people the pure Word. It is doubtful if Wycliffe himself did much of the translating, but he undoubtedly was the driving force behind it and he supervised the work. A follower of Wycliffe, John Purvey, was to write the Bible that was to go far and wide across England. It was not finished until 1395, long after Wycliffe’s death, but it is still known as Wycliffe’s Bible or sometimes the Lollard Bible. Lollard was a name given to Wycliffe’s followers, and was meant to be a term of derision, meaning ‘mumbler’, but it became a badge of pride. Amazingly, there are still over 100 copies of the Bible in existence, even though owning a copy was banned in the fifteenth century. The translation was a hugely difficult task; one cannot exaggerate the accomplishment.
Wycliffe had some very ardent followers amongst the scholars of Oxford; men who wanted to pass on his ideas to others. They spread these new ideas, and followers appeared in different parts of the country. Laymen began preaching these ideas around the country; something which was against the law, but it was at first ignored. There was a huge need for the people to hear the Gospel. Many of the clergy who were meant to do this job were either too ignorant or too lazy to perform their duties. These Lollards would go around the country dressed in a simple red robe and a staff. They would have little or no money, relying on the generosity of the people.
At the time of Wycliffe being attacked in Oxford there occurred something which, although it had little to do with Wycliffe and the Lollards, indirectly destroyed any chance of reformation and the preaching of the true Gospel for more than 150 years. For years the government had passed laws that made the life of the peasant more difficult. Increased taxes, plague, war and famine all took their toll, and by 1381 feelings were so high that some rose in revolt.
Wat Tyler and the rebels took London, causing much fear and concern in the government. One of the leaders was a dissident clergyman, John Ball, so it was not difficult for the enemies of Lollardy to make a connection between Ball and Wycliffe’s teachings. The Lollards were therefore tarred with the same brush, as it were, as the followers of the Peasant Revolt. This unjustifiable link remained for many years and was used to repress the Lollards.
Courtenay, who succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury after the murder of his predecessor in the Revolt, attacked the Lollards at the Blackfriars Synod of 1382. He persuaded the Synod to make judgement on 24 of Wycliffe’s teachings. Ten were found to be heretical and the rest erroneous. Having made these judgements, they were then used to attack Lollards. Wycliffe was left alone, but his closest followers were attacked, some being excommunicated. The king declared that anyone who supported any of the ten propositions would be put in prison.
Wycliffe was left alone by Courtenay, possibly because a stroke was considered to have rendered him helpless. However, in the two years before his life was finally curtailed by another stroke on the last day of 1384, Wycliffe wrote a torrent of tracts from his parish of Lutterworth. His thoughts were powerfully summarised in his work ‘Trialogue’, in which truth, falsehood and understanding had a conversation in which great truths were boldly professed. In it he says:
“The Church has fallen because she abandoned the Gospel and preferred the laws of the people. Although there should be a hundred Popes in the world at once, and all the friars living should be transformed into cardinals, we must withhold our confidence from them in the matter of faith except so far as their teachings are those of the Scriptures.”
Wycliffe is considered to be the first Christian reformer and grand-father of the Reformation. His views were taken up by John Huss (Jan Hus), the Czech reformer. Huss spoke out against the Catholic Church, proposing reforms. He agreed to go to the Council of Constance to discuss the matter under Sigismund of Hungary’s promise of safe passage, but he was arrested, tried and burned at the stake in 1415. His teachings and those of Wycliffe were later to strongly influence Martin Luther.
Although Wycliffe died in peace, the Pope had some sort of revenge, for in 1428 he ordered that Wycliffe’s bones be dug up, burned and then scattered on the River Swift which runs beside Lutterworth. His books were banned and burned, but it was too late to stop the truths he spoke from burning in people’s hearts all over the nation and over Scotland too.
He was an immensely brave man who obeyed God’s call on his life. He knew what was right and he knew that he had to speak out, whatever the personal cost. Despotism by Church or State is the natural enemy of the Truth, so conflict is bound to arise. When we find that the Word of God is falsely declared, or where it is prevented from being spoken, we must stand up against such perfidy.
Lollards were the Protestants of today. They did not believe that there was any difference between a layman and clergy; we all hear directly from God and we can all study and preach the Word of God. Their teachings were popular because they taught the truth. It was said that every second person one met was a Lollard. This was probably an exaggeration, but whatever the truth, Lollardy spread significantly across the land. They must have contrasted hugely with the clergy, travelling in simple robes compared to the luxury shown by the bishops etc.
Richard II became king at the age of ten. The beginning of his reign was rule by Council, but by 1389 he had taken control of the government. He was, like most kings of that period, an orthodox Christian who would normally follow what the Church said. In 1395 he was in Ireland when Lollards petitioned Parliament for a general reform of the Church. “Abolish celibacy, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, offerings to images, auricular confession, war, arts unnecessary to life, the practice of blessing oil, salt, wax, incense, stones, mitres and pilgrim staffs. All these pertain to necromancy and not to theology.”
They pinned their ‘Twelve Conclusions’ to the doors of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. However, Arundel, Archbishop of York, went to Ireland to tell the king what had happened. Richard returned to tell Parliament that they were to ignore the petition and he threatened the leaders of the Lollards with death if they continued their support of it. It appears that Parliament was more concerned with pleasing the king than with justice. Persecution comes about when Parliament forgets the biblical roots to the Common Law.
In Europe, the Pope had the Inquisition to hunt down and punish heresy. Heresy was basically anything that was contrary to the main tenets of doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and a trial often ended in the death of the culprit. However, in England there was no Inquisition, because kings wanted to keep their independence and the full power of the Pope out of the country. Over the previous ten years, Lollards had been arrested and many made to recant. If they recanted they were free to carry on with their lives; if they didn’t they were excommunicated and possibly imprisoned. If someone recanted and then was found guilty of heresy again, they were technically subject to the ultimate penalty – death. However, up until this time nobody in Britain had been put to death for heresy.
In 1399 Richard made the mistake of disinheriting Henry, the son of John of Gaunt, after his father had died. Over the previous two years Richard had executed and exiled many nobles whom he had a grievance against. Henry invaded, and meeting little resistance, put Richard in prison and became Henry IV. Arundel saw what was coming, so he deserted Richard and put the crown on Henry’s head. Henry felt obligated to Arundel; also he was concerned about the damage that preachers could do to the stability of his reign, so he allowed the Church to come against the Lollards.
As far as Arundel was concerned, the Pope was against the Lollards. Lollardy threatened the Church’s power over the people and Arundel probably did think that their views were heretical, so Lollardy had to be extinguished.
Henry got the De heretico comburendo Act passed through Parliament in 1401. This Act forbade unlicensed preaching, forbade sects to have meetings or schools and instructed that heretics be burned. It is surprising that the Commons allowed such a despotic Act to go through, especially as several of them had Lollard leanings. There was some resistance, but perhaps they were afraid of the Church and a king who had just taken the crown by force.
Part of the Church’s argument for burning to be included in the Act was that it was founded on ‘precedent’. As there was no precedent, Arundel hurriedly made sure that there was one by burning William Sawtre at the stake.
William Sawtre (also known as Sir William Chatris), who was parish priest of St Scithe the Virgin in London, had already been up before the Bishop of Norwich as a heretic, but he had recanted. However, he continued to teach and preach about matters which were contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, so he was picked up again and he came before Arundel and his council at the Chapter House of St Paul’s. There were eight charges laid against him, the first being “That he will not worship the cross on which Christ suffered, but only Christ that suffered upon the cross;” and the eighth “That after the pronouncing of the sacramental words of the body of Christ, the bread remaineth of the same nature that it was before, neither doth it cease to be bread.”
Sawtre admitted to the charges, with the question of Transubstantiation being debated at length. Arundel found him guilty, saying, “...do pronounce, decree, and declare, by these presents, thee William Sautre, otherwise called Chatris, parish priest pretensed, personally appearing before us, in and upon the crime of heresy, judicially and lawfully convicted as a heretic, and as a heretic to be punished.”
As would happen often in the future regarding martyrs, Sawtre recanted. However, re-gaining his courage when he came again before Arundel, Sawtre confirmed his ‘guilt’ and was sentenced by the whole council to degradation. Degradation involved being dragged to St Paul’s, having his hair shaved off and a layman’s cap put on his head. He was then handed over to the secular authorities, namely the Earl-Marshal of England.
Arundel urged Henry IV to issue an execution warrant quickly. “Whereupon the king, ready enough and too much to gratify the clergy, and to retain their favours, directeth out a terrible decree against the said William Sautre, and sent it to the mayor and sheriffs of London to be put in execution.” The king further wrote, “…firmly enjoining you that you do cause the said William, being in your custody, in some public or open place within the liberties of your city aforesaid, the cause aforesaid being published unto the people, to be put into the fire, and there in the same fire really to be burned, to the great horror of his offence, and the manifest example of other Christians. Fail not in the execution hereof, upon the peril that will fall thereupon."
Sawtre was taken to Smithfield and he became the first martyr in England to be burned at the stake.
Arundel sought out Lollardy wherever he could. In 1407 he presided over a Synod which passed articles to suppress Lollardy in Oxford and across the country. They forbade the translating of the Bible into English and the reading of the English Bible without explicit official permission. The articles made it very difficult for students at the universities to study Wycliffe’s works and they significantly stopped Lollards preaching around the country. Later Arundel visited Oxford again, forcing all traces of Lollardy out of the teachings of the University and ordering them to refuse admission to anyone suspected of Lollardy.
Although Arundel wanted to stamp out Lollardy, he only put two people to death before he died in 1414; Sawtre as an example and then John Badby in 1410. Badby was a tailor from Evesham who was accused of, and admitted to, “that the sacrament of the body of Christ, consecrated by the priest upon the altar, is not the true body of Christ by the virtue of the words of the sacrament; but that after the sacramental words spoken by the priests to make the body of Christ, the material bread doth remain upon the altar as in the beginning, neither is it turned into the very body of Christ, after the sacramental words spoken of the priests.” He was brought before Arundel and his council at St Pauls, found guilty and then burned at Smithfield. Arundel and Prince Henry tried to get him to repent, but Badby held fast to his beliefs.
Some bishops were unhappy with heretics being executed, so they did not prosecute as much as they might have. Despite the cruel laws Lollardy continued, but it had to go underground. The authorities were definitely worried that the teaching could create unrest amongst the people. The Peasants revolt started this concern, but the uprising led by Sir John Oldcastle, who was a Lollard, gave them more cause for concern, and there was yet another planned uprising in 1431.
Despite the actions against it, Lollardy spread, particularly in East Anglia, the West and in London. It also went to Scotland, being particularly active in Ayrshire. An Englishman called James Reseby went to Scotland to preach Lollardy, but he was caught and burned at the stake in Perth in 1407. Quintin Folkhard suffered the same fate there in 1410. The authorities used the Inquisition in Scotland to root out Lollardy. Four or five men were burned there in total, but Lollardy did not disappear; it had gone underground to appear again in the sixteenth century.
The same happened in England; Lollardy continued quietly in various parts of the country and was still around at the start of the Reformation. However, there were still 10-20 Lollards burned before the end of the century and many others recanted when caught.
The rest of the century was one of baronial disputes, civil war and monarchs wanting absolute government. The feeling of the people of that time can be summed up by the citizen’s of London petition to Richard III in 1483. “We be determined rather to adventure and to commit us to the peril of our lives and jeopardy of death, than to live in such thraldom and bondage as we have lived long time heretofore – oppressed and injured by extortions and new impositions against the laws of God and man, and the liberty and laws of this realm wherein every Englishman is inherited.” Clearly, the Common Law was being abused.
The one advantage of a strong monarchy was that they were not inclined to allow the Pope to exercise his full authority in England. Most of the bishops were administrators, not holy men, so the state of the clergy declined even further. The ignorance, laziness, drunkenness and immorality of the clergy were recognised, and reform was even planned in 1455, but it came to nothing.
Despite the state of the clergy the common man was very religious, many attending Mass every day. What kind of faith they had is questionable as many were superstitious.
It seems that Lollardy became stronger after the turn of the century. “There were 45 indictments in the Chiltern region in 1506 and 1507; as many in Kent around Tenterden in 1511; a hundred prosecutions between 1510 and 1518 in London; and more than this in the Newbury area of Amersham. Around 30 were burned in the first twenty years of the century. There was no longer any attempt to convert the heretics, just to find them guilty and stamp out Lollardy. There was no longer any perceived threat of disorder, but the Church saw in it a threat to their authority and power.
Lollardy did not necessarily merge with Lutheranism; it carried on through the sixteenth century.“They were essentially non-conformist and sought to draw a barrier between Church and State whereby the individual could be free to believe as he would and preserve his conscience against the command of others.” Lollardy carried on into the seventeenth century and beyond through the Independents, and they could be seen as the ancestors of Evangelical Christians today who are not in a denominational church.
The abuses of the Church and of the Common Law would finally be dealt with (at least for the time being) during the Reformation.