Born around the year 1320, near old Richmond, Yorkshire, John Wycliffe was sent to Oxford University, where he rose to become master of Balliol College by 1361 and, some years later, a doctor of theology. His expertise with English law and Canon law was not merely the result of his interest in the subject, but of a deep-rooted desire to see English liberties defended and maintained. From the time of King John a tribute had been paid to the Pope in acknowledgment of his supremacy. In 1365 a demand was received from Pope Urban V for this money, along with arrears covering more than 30 years. The next year, Parliament decided that King John in unilaterally agreeing to the tribute, acted beyond his right, that the feudal tribute would be resisted. Seeing their determination, the pope dropped his demand, but not without generating some controversy on the part of the members of the monastic orders in England.
In reply, Wycliffe wrote a tract in which he legally defended the stand Parliament had taken. His argument was couched in the words of various Lords in Council: “It is the duty of the Pope to be a prominent follower of Christ; but Christ refused to be a possessor of worldly dominion. The Pope, therefore, is bound to make the same refusal. As, therefore, we should hold the Pope to the observance of his holy duty, it follows that it is incumbent upon us to withstand him in his present demand.”(John Wycliffe and His English Precursors)
The tribute was not the only money that the Pope endeavoured to obtain from England. The poor hovels of the peasantry contrasted with the large stone houses and castles of the wealthy landowners. Lacking education and being subject to great ignorance, the peasants were suffering to a great extent by frequent pestilence and famine, that had culminated in the Black Death of 1349. From time to time a Papal Nuncio and his servants travelled through the country gathering collections and taking them to Rome. On the occasion of one such visit in 1372, Wycliffe wrote a legal treatise attacking this practice. Moreover, Wycliffe established himself as defender of the course upon which Parliament had embarked. So it was not surprising that in 1374 Wycliffe was appointed as one of the commissioners for the king in negotiations at the papal conference in Bruges, where complaints against the Roman Church were presented. In the same year, Wycliffe was nominated to the rectory of Lutterworth, possibly because of his services to the king.
The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders that held possessions, to whom his theories were dangerous. Oxford and the episcopate were later blamed by the Vatican, which made the charge that by so neglecting their duty, the breaking of the ‘evil fiend into the English sheepfold’ could be noticed in Rome before it was in England. Wycliffe was summoned before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, on 19 February 1377, “to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth”. Matters would probably have gone against him had it not been for the intervention of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and other influential allies. Consequently, the Pope issued five bulls against Wycliffe, condemning his doctrines as heretical and recommending that action be taken against him. Consequently, in March, 1378, he appeared at the episcopal palace at Lambeth to defend himself. The preliminaries were not yet finished when a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of saving him; the king’s mother, Joan of Kent, also took up his cause. The Bishops, who were divided, satisfied themselves with forbidding him to speak further on the controversy.
Just how long Wycliffe’s friends could have protected him is uncertain. As it happened, the death of Pope Gregory XI brought about a situation that threw the Church into such a struggle that Wycliffe was all but forgotten in continental Europe. The actions of the new Pope, Urban VI, quickly alienated some of the powerful cardinals. Protesting that he was elected under duress, they withdrew their support, and returned to Avignon. When this failed to move Urban, in 1378 these cardinals elected their own Pope, Clement VII, producing what history has labelled the Great Papal Schism.
As people and nations lined up with one or the other of the Popes, Wycliffe became more and more disgusted. He had been prepared to support the Pope that proved himself to be genuine in his claims. However, seeing each Pope condemning the other and preparing to go to every length to gain power and position, Wycliffe declared that both Popes were false. His eyes were opening to the hypocrisy associated with the office to which he had hitherto viewed as the spiritual authority. To what or to whom could he turn for the true spiritual authority of God and Christ? The Bible alone was the sole standard of truth, the source of all true knowledge about spiritual things. Today such an idea does not seem unusual, but this was at a time when the circulation of the Bible was severely restricted by the Church (with very little of it available in English). The clergy were furious with Wycliffe for teaching that the “bare text,” the original inspired Scriptures with nothing added, had greater authority than the “glosses,” the ponderous traditional explanations in the margins of church-approved Bibles. It was the undiluted message of God’s Word that he wished to make available to the common man.Wycliffe prepared a treatise entitled “On the Truth of Holy Scripture,” and one of its main points was to draw a clear line between Scripture and tradition. “We concern ourselves with the verities that are, and leave aside the errors which arise from speculation on matters which are not.”
Soon Wycliffe discerned that the Scriptures ought to be preached to the people, that there should be little difference between a priest and a layman, and that the ordinary peasant should be able to read the Bible for himself. With some of his associates, he set about translating the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. To use the original languages would then have been unheard of in England. Greek had been neglected for centuries, and Wycliffe had little knowledge of it. Between 1379 and 1382 the work of translation moved ahead with great urgency. At the same time, Wycliffe furthered the teaching of itinerant preachers who travelled through the land with the Word of God. Likely, the Christian Greek Scripture portion of the translation was completed by 1382. Doubtless, translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was then in progress under the supervision of Nicholas of Hereford, a zealous follower of Wycliffe, and John Purvey, who was Wycliffe’s secretary for some years. The resulting translation was very literal in its renderings, even to the point of ignoring the idiom of the English language, but it did put the entire Bible within reach of the common people for the first time.
For many years John Wycliffe had been convinced of the importance of the bread and wine. In 1381 his desire to separate Church teaching and tradition from what is taught in the Holy Scriptures resulted in his attack on the idea of Transubstantiation. First propounded in the ninth century, this doctrine held that, upon consecration by the priest, the bread and wine actually changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe’s argument rested upon the passages in the Gospels and Paul’s writings that bear directly on the issue, and upon many other related texts. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the true vine,” he did not mean that he had become a literal vine, or that a literal vine had been changed into the body of Christ. (John 15:1) Rather, this was an illustration used to teach an important truth. In exposing this tradition by means of God’s Word, Wycliffe emphasized that Transubstantiation was not a doctrine of the early church, and that even Jerome held to the Biblical concept. Of all the outspoken reforms demanded by Wycliffe, this one was perhaps the hardest for the Church to bear. The doctrine of the Mass was a principal means by which the people were held in subjection to the authority of the Church. Even his strong ally, John of Gaunt, went to Oxford seeking to silence Wycliffe on the matter, but without success. The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 aroused yet more opposition to Wycliffe. Thousands of insurgents under Wat Tyler and other peasant leaders marched on London, burning and killing, and finally executing Archbishop Sudbury before they were defeated.
In part, Wycliffe was blamed for this rebellion, for it was claimed that his teachings had stirred up the people to question the authority of their superiors. This deflected attention away from the burdensome poll taxes of Richard II. In 1382, William Courtenay, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, called an ecclesiastical assembly of notables at London. During the consultations on 21 May, an earthquake occurred; the participants were terrified and wished to break up the assembly, but Courtenay declared the earthquake a favourable sign which meant the purification of the earth from erroneous doctrine, and the result of the “Earthquake Synod” was assured.
Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. The former had reference to the transformation in the sacrament, the latter to matters of church order and institutions. It was forbidden from that time to hold these opinions or to advance them in sermons or in academic discussions. All persons disregarding this order were to be subject to excommunication. Oxford, where Wycliffe’s most active helpers were; was laid under the ban, and consequently, Nicholas of Hereford went to Rome to appeal. On 18 November 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford; he appeared, though apparently broken in body in consequence of a stroke, but nevertheless determined. He still commanded the favour of the Royal Court and of Parliament. Neither was he excommunicated then, nor deprived of his living at Lutterworth.
That Wycliffe still continued to remain a free man must be attributed to the continuing support of some of his powerful friends, and to the attitude of Parliament, which had not yet proved to be the lackey of the new archbishop. From Lutterworth, Wycliffe continued to write and to inspire his followers. His attention particularly focused on the actions of the Bishop of Norwich, one Henry le Spencer, who had distinguished himself in the Peasants’ Revolt, bringing about the defeat of the rebels in Norfolk.
The proud Bishop, with this newly won reputation, decided to take part in the Papal Schism. In 1383 he obtained from Urban VI a bull giving him authority to organize a crusade against Clement VII. He quickly gathered an army by promising absolution and giving Letters of Indulgence to those who would serve under him. Wycliffe had already spoken about the Schism in no uncertain terms, and he next wrote a tract called “Against the War of the Clergy.” He likened the Schism to two dogs quarrelling over a bone. This squabble was contrary to the spirit of Christ, he contended, because it involved worldly power and position. Promising anyone forgiveness of sins through participation in such a war was based on a lie, said Wycliffe. The crusade proved to be a miserable failure, and the disgraced Bishop returned to England. Earlier, in 1382, Wycliffe had suffered a stroke that had partially disabled him. Two years later a second stroke left him paralyzed and speechless. He died a few days later, on December 31, 1384.
By 1395, a group of Lollard partisans within Parliament formulated the ‘Twelve Conclusions’, a manifesto drawn up in English, serves as a statement of Lollard belief at the close of the fourteenth century. It condemned the subordination of the Anglican Church to Rome, Transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and its untoward moral consequences, the consecration of material objects, images, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, and the preoccupation of the church with increasingly ornate and costly buildings. In addition, it denounced clergy as temporal rulers and judges, declared violence and war as contrary to New Testament teaching, and denied that confession to a priest was necessary for divine forgiveness or salvation. As a demand for reform, they do not include the central, long established Lollard demands for free availability of the scriptures in the vernacular English, and the importance of teaching the Bible to ordinary lay persons. It should be remembered that not all professing Lollardy necessarily held all these beliefs.
The church had found many reasons to despise Wycliffe. First, he condemned the clergy for their excesses and immoral conduct. “Our priests are so busy about worldly preoccupations that they seem better bailiffs or reeves than..priests of Jesus Christ.” Additionally, some of Wycliffe’s admirers misused his teachings to justify their armed rebellions. Wycliffe had never advocated violent uprisings. In a letter to Pope John XXIII in 1412, Archbishop Arundel referred to “that wretched and pestilent fellow John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, that son of the old serpent, the very herald and child of antichrist.” Climaxing his denunciation, Arundel wrote: “To fill up the measure of his malice, he devised the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue.” Indeed, what enraged church leaders was that Wycliffe had wanted to give people the Bible in their own language.
His followers, the Lollards, were more determined than ever to keep Wycliffe’s work alive. The origin of the name “Lollard” went back to the 14th century in the Netherlands. However, after the death of Wycliffe, this name really came to the fore. It is derived from the Middle Dutch lullen (from which comes the English word “lull,” archaically meaning to sing, hum or chant), and hence denotes ‘a praiser of God.’ Along with the idea of praise is the Middle English loller (Latinized as lollardus), designating an idle vagabond or lounger. The Lollards were anything but idle.
John Purvey and others saw the need to revise Wycliffe’s translation, in spite of the zeal with which the Catholic hierarchy sought to destroy it, on the basis of what they saw as mistranslations and erroneous commentary. Just as Luther’s version later had great influence upon the German language, so Wycliffe’s, by reason of its clarity, beauty, and strength, influenced the English language as the King James Version was later to do.
The prologue to the second Wycliffe version describes some of the principles used in the translation. The Latin text was not simply accepted as it stood, for the translators realized that errors and corruptions had crept in through the centuries. As many old editions as possible were collected and compared “to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss”—a method almost unheard of in those days. In arriving at a purer Latin text, the translators also endeavoured to find the most correct and accurate meaning of difficult words and phrases, and to understand something of the grammar used. Finally, the translator would stick “as clearly as he could to the sentence” and would then have the work checked and corrected. (The English Hexapla ) The result was an English translation in which an effort was made to keep the sense of the Latin while using the English idiom. Indicative of the popularity of the revision may be that today there still exist about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial, containing the translation in its revised form, as contrasted with about 30 of the original translation.
A simple comparison will demonstrate the difference between the two Wycliffe versions. A modern translation of Hebrews 1:1, 2 reads: “God, who long ago spoke on many occasions and in many ways to our forefathers by means of the prophets, has at the end of these days spoken to us by means of a Son.” The first Wycliffe version reads: “Manyfold and many maners sum tyme God spekinge to fadris in prophetis, at the laste in thes daies spak to us in the sone.” Notice the improved sense attained through the use of English idiom in the second Wycliffe version: “God, that spak sum tyme bi prophetis in many maneres to oure fadris, at the laste in these daies he hath spoke to us bi the sone.” (Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts)
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The Bible was appealed to in support of what was taught. In training the preachers, Wycliffe himself had stressed the need to follow the simple instructions that Jesus had given when he sent out the 70 disciples. (Luke 10:1-11) The Lollards were to look to friends for food and a bed, and were simply attired, often with a russet cloak to distinguish them. Lollardy spread from Oxford and Leicester through the Midlands, the Welsh Border country and the West of England. “Nicolas Belward is one of the same sect and hath a New Testament which he bought at London for four marks and forty pence, and taught the said William Wright and Margery his wife and wrought with them the space of one year and studied diligently upon the said New Testament.” (Foxe’s Acts and Monuments) During the remaining years of the 14th century, the Lollard movement continued to grow, but mostly remained within the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe had always worked to convert the Church from within, and his followers continued his aims for some time. But as Lollard influence increased in the country, more controversy was generated. The Lollard preachers did not display the niceties of reasoning shown in Wycliffe’s writings. They roundly denounced pilgrimages, superstitions, indulgences, saints, shrines and the use of images. Gradually, certain prominent Lollards realized that they could no longer remain within the Church. However, the hold of the Church was so great that, when caught, many preachers renounced their new beliefs for fear of torture and excommunication. Inevitably, persecution drove the movement underground.
The dawn of the 15th century still saw the Lollards being supported by influential friends who had helped to ward off attacks upon them. But the new king, Henry IV, owed his ascendancy to the Roman Church. Although his father, John of Gaunt, had been one of Wycliffe’s most loyal friends, Henry of Lancaster was the very opposite. In 1401 a statute was passed by Parliament that gave the bishops the real backing for burning heretics.
When brought to trial in 1401, John Purvey recanted. However, another outstanding leader, William Sawtry, refused to alter his conviction that, after consecration by a priest, the bread was still material bread and did not undergo transubstantiation. After two days of argument, he was burned at the stake in Smithfield cattle market, London. Despite this victory, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, trod his way carefully. There was much support for the Lollards. When John Badby, a tailor from Evesham in Worcestershire, was brought to the stake in 1410, young Prince Henry personally came to try to urge him to change his mind. At one point the wood was pulled away, but all persuasion failed. The fire was finally lit. When the prince became king as Henry V, he still decided to continue his father’s policy. He seized an eminent Lollard, Sir John Oldcastle, thinking that such an example might be more effective in putting down the heretics. When Oldcastle succeeded in escaping from the Tower of London, and escaping to Wales, his supporters rose in arms to defend him, despite renouncing war as being against the principles of Christianity. Failing in an effort to kidnap the king at Eltham, near London, they marched to St. Giles’ Fields in London to join other groups. But they were all captured or defeated. Although Oldcastle escaped and avoided capture for three years, he was finally arrested and burned at the stake in 1417. Incidentally, it has been held Oldcastle served as a model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
The use of the Bible became a focal point of persecution. An earlier statute, passed at the Council of Toulouse in 1229, prohibited laymen from having any copy of the Scriptures in the vernacular, but it was not enforced in England. However, an episcopal license was supposed to be required before any translating of the Bible could be undertaken. In 1408 a Convocation of Canterbury decreed that no part of the Bible should be translated, and that no one should read “any such book, pamphlet, or treatise, now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe or since . . . publicly or privately, upon pain of greater excommunication.” This was further strengthened in 1414 by a law that penalized persons who read the Scriptures in English. They were to forfeit their land, cattle, goods and life.
Certain local Bishops issued other decrees, notably in Somerset and Lincolnshire. In Lincolnshire “James Brewster was charged because he had a certain little book of Scripture in English.” Agnes Ashford had taught a man “part of the Sermon on the Mount.” Brought before six Bishops, Agnes was especially warned not to teach these things, even to her own children.
Meanwhile, on the continent, in an endeavour to end the destructive Papal schism, the Council of Constance was called in 1414 by Emperor Sigismund. Richard II’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia, in contact with John Hus and others, helped her native land hear of Lollardy. So once again, the alarming effects of Wycliffe’s writings were up for consideration. The Papacy could now see the results in countries widely separated from each other, principally England and Bohemia. Wycliffe was declared the leader of heresy in that age. His books were to be burned, and ‘his remains taken from his grave and cast out of ‘consecrated ground.’ To two successive Bishops of Lincoln such an action was so repugnant that it was not carried out until 1428. Then, Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned, and his ashes were scattered over the nearby river Swift.
A testimonial of 1572 depicted Wycliffe striking a spark, Hus kindling the coals, and Luther holding aloft the burning torch. Wycliffe set in motion many of the ideas and principles that surfaced in the 16th century when the Reformation removed some of the tradition and false teaching that had grown through the centuries. Aptly is he recognized as the ‘Morning Star’ of the Reformation.
GV Lechler (1878) John Wycliffe and his English Precursors