John Wyckcliffe and the
The simpler beliefs in
the Scriptures, Protestantism as it later became known, was making renewed progress in England from about the beginning of the 14th century and received an essential boost when a Bible in the vernacular was produced. There had been earlier translations including the Psalms, but the Anglo Saxon translations of the twelfth century were no longer of use – the language of King Arthur was no longer understood by the majority. John Wyckcliffe
(ca1324 -1384) produced his manuscript version of the New Testament,
written in Old English and translated from the Latin Vulgate, in 1380. The Old Testament
followed in the next two years. In many ways Wyckcliffe was the English
Knox – a zealous and outspoken man and a catalyst for change. He tempted retribution from the
priests on many an occasion but managed to avoid the martyrs fire. His contribution to the English Reformation took the classic form of three stages; First, to resist (attack) the papacy; Second preach the gospel to the poor, and Third, put the people in possession of the word of God
Wyckcliffe first entered the lists against Rome on a political front when Pope Urban V
(1362-70) demanded the payment of a feudal tribute of 1000
marks, first made by King John (r1199-1216) to Innocent III, and
only occasionally sought by subsequent Popes. Edward III resisted the claim and Wyckcliffe, then at Oxford,
took up resistance to the Roman priests. His enlightened arguments
stirred up the zeal of members of the Houses of Parliament with
the result that both Commons and the Lords unanimously declared:
“.. that no prince had the right to alienate the sovereignty of the kingdom without the consent of the other two estates, and if the pontiff should attempt to proceed against the king of England as his vassal, the nation should rise in a body to maintain the independence of the crown.”
The expected response
from Rome asserted that canon law applied and the king should be
deprived of his fief. Wyckcliffe responded firmly
” the canon law
has no force when it is opposed to the word of God.”
Since then the papacy
has ceased to lay claim – in explicit terms at least, to the
Sovereignty of England.
Having been made a
chaplain to the king and subsequently conferred with a doctorate of
theology, Wyckcliffe taught that “The Gospel is the only source of
religion” and alarmed the Roman church again with his statement
“The Roman pontiff is a mere cut purse, and, far from having the right to reprimand the whole world, he may be lawfully reproved by his inferiors, and even by laymen.”
The articles that were collected from Wyckcliffe`s sermons and adduced in evidence against him
as heresy were :
That the holy eucharist , after the consecration, is not the very body of
Christ, but figurally.
That the Church of Rome is not the head of all churches more than any other church is; nor that Peter had any more powers given of Christ than any other apostle had.
That the Pope of Rome hath no more in the keys of the church, than hath any other within the order of priesthood.
If God be, the lords Temporal may lawfully and meritoriously take away their temporalities from the churchmen offending “habitualiter”
If any temporal Lord do know the church so offending, he is bound under pain of damnation, to take the temporalities from the same.
That the gospel is a rule sufficient of itself to rule the life of every christian man here, without any other rule.
That all other rules, under whose observances divers religious persons be governed, do add no more perfection to the gospel, than doth the white colour to the wall.
That neither the pope, nor any other prelate of the church, ought to have prisons wherein to punish transgressors.
These sentiments and other sayings were assiduously collected and forwarded to Rome where Pope Gregory XI and a group of twenty three cardinals deliberated on his alleged transgressions. Inevitably charges of
heresy were made and Wyckcliffe was summoned before a Church court at St Paul`s
Cathedral on 12 February 1377. At the convocation however, a furious
spat between Courtenay, the arrogant bishop of London, son of the Duke of Devonshire, and John of
Gaunt, third son of the Duke of Lancaster and the most powerful man in
the land took centre stage. Wickcliffe was dismissed with an injunction
against preaching his doctrines. This prompted questions by the people why he had been `silenced` when not guilty of an offence. At this time the Pope sent an epistle, more like a command, to the new king, Richard II, asking him to assist in the arrest and imprisonment of Wyckcliffe who was again summoned before the
archbishop at Lambeth Palace in the June of that year. But the Queen
mother sent an order to the meeting that they were not to proceed
against Wyckcliffe who again walked free while the priests were left fearing for their lives.
About 1379-80 Wyckcliffe
became more involved in the religious issues, particularly opposition to the Mass and the concept of transubstantiation. Most of his arguements were an appeal to plain reason. The adoration of a piece of bread he saw as simple idolatry and the conduct of an officiating priest to remake his maker he proclaimed as the ultimate in presumption and blasphemy. He taught at Oxford that there was no justification in the Scriptures nor was it supported by early Church traditions . He declared that nothing was more horrible to him than every celebrating priest creating the body of Christ. The Mass, he held, was a false miracle invented for worldly purposes to give the church power over the people. He also attacked the claimed powers of
the Pope (there were two at this time – in Rome and Avignon). Importantly he saw the need to involve himself, and his followers, in
preaching to the people at large.
The bigotry of Wyckcliffe`s opponents is clearly displayed in comments passed on his translations of the Bible.
“This Master John Wickliffe hath translated the Gospel out of Latin into English, which Christ had intrusted with the clergy and doctors of the Church, that they might minister it to the laity and weaker sort, according to the state of the times and the wants of men. So that by this means the Gospel is made vulgar, and laid more open to the laity, and even to women who can read, than it used to be to the most learned of the clergy and those of the best understanding! And what was before the chief gift of the clergy and doctors of the Church, is made for ever common to the laity” .
“The prelates ought not to suffer that every one at his pleasure should read the Scripture, translated even into Latin; because, as is plain from experience, this has been many ways the occasion of falling into heresies and errors. It is not, therefore, politic that any one, wheresoever and whensoever he will, should give himself to the frequent study of the Scriptures”
The character of
Wyckcliffe showed an
indomitable pride, great energy, audacity, and some allege, a bitter and
unyielding spirit. In this Wyckcliffe was to England as Knox was later
to Scotland. He especially attacked the wealth of the church and
employment of prelates in politics, arguing that the clergy should be
restored to their primitive poverty, and the possessions of the church
should be used for public purposes. His great idea was to carry the Gospel to the people in a very practical way which led him to instruct his most pious followers to
Go and preach, it is the sublimest work; but imitate not the priests whom we see after the sermon sitting in the ale house, or at the gaming table, or wasting their time in hunting. After your sermon is ended , do you visit the sick, the aged, the poor, the blind and the lame, and succour them according to your ability.
His “poor priests” as they became known set of barefoot, staff in hand, and clothed in a coarse robe, who lived off of alms and were satisfied with the plainest food. They frequently slept in hedgerows, graveyards and occasionally a church if admission was allowed. They were met by approving crowds who appreciated their teachings in the common tongue. Among these new preachers was John Ashton who was a very active missionary and consequently pursued by the Church unto death.
opposition and legislation against him, Wyckcliffe recovered from
a severe illness in 1379 and returned to the third phase of his work – the
education of the people through provision of the Gospel in English. Over
a period of some fifteen years or so he had translated the Vulgate Bible
in Latin, In 1380 it was completed and turned over to the copyists for
replication and distribution to the welcoming people. The hubbub that
arose came principally from the priests and friars who said
that “It is heresy to speak of Holy Scripture in English”. Yet more
action was proposed against Wyckcliffe, the more so when he started to
criticise the doctrines of the Roman Church and particularly
the Mass and transubstantiation. The opportunity was also taken by his opponents to
lay the blame for the rising led by Wat Tyler against the rapacity and
brutality of the royal tax gatherers. This led to allegations against
Wyckcliffe and his `poor priests` and yet another attempt to charge him
with heresy by Courtenay. Now Archbishop of Canterbury, Courtenay called a synod in May 1382 to condemn Wyckcliffe and his alleged association with the Peasants Revolt. Their evidence was a claimed confession by John Ball before he was executed, that Wyckcliffe had influenced the rebellion. Like so many of the allegations made by the Church of Rome there is no evidence of the confession, merely allegation to suit their claims. This too came to
nothing, the meeting on 19 May was sundered, literally, by an earthquake
which shook London and Britain as a whole and seen by the members of the
council as a rebuke from God.
further trials and tribulations but undaunted he continued to witness
for the truth right up to his death. With one foot in the grave he foretold that from the monks would come regeneration of the Church saying
” If the friars, whom God condescends to teach, shall be converted to the primitive religion of Christ, we shall see them abandoning their unbelief, returning freely, with or without the permission of Antichrist, to the primitive religion of the Lord, and building up the church, as did St Paul.”
Nearly a century and a half later, the young monk, Martin Luther, in the Augustine monastery at Erfurth, was converted by the Epistle to the Romans, and returned to the spirit of St Paul and the religion of Jesus Christ.
Wyckcliffe was literally struck down by a stroke while elevating the host at a service in his parish church at Lutterworth on 29 December 1384. He died on 31 December 1384. In a final act of persecution and pettiness the Church at its Council in Constance in May 1415 decreed that his body be exhumed, his bones burned and ashes cast into the river. The decree was not in fact executed until 1424 by Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln, by order of the Council in Sienna.
At the Council of Constance, such was the continuing fear of John Wyckcliffe the prelates thundered
and railed against his very memory and his works. The judgment was made on the basis of some 45 selected articles or extracts from Wyckcliffe`s sermons and writings. The decree shows how powerful, and frightening to the prelates, was just the thought let alone the words of the Reformer.
The Rev Merle D`Aubigne,
President of the Theological School in Geneva, and author of the History
of the Reformation, describes Wyckcliffe :
… he “is the
greatest English Reformer; he was in truth the first reformer in
Christendom …. If Luther and Calvin are the fathers of the
Reformation, Wyckcliffe is its grandfather.”
The works of Wyckcliffe and his doctrine was in the public domain, and even nailed on church doors (see Conclusions 1395) at least 122 years before Martin Luther posted his Theses at Wurtenberg in 1517. He thus has a claim to have initiated the Reformation in England and Europe. Luther, however, had greater support from the princes and nobility, whereas Wyckcliffe had support while his focus was the friars, priests and popes but shrank back at this time from a radical and living spirituality. But the day of Reformation was but delayed a while.
The Papal Bull to Oxford University directing action against Wyckcliffe.
The epistle from Pope Gregory to the king (Edward III / Richard II) to support the arrest and imprisonment of Wyckcliffe.