The brilliant English scholar John Wycliffe is considered one of the leading figures of the early Reformation. It was Wycliffe who was most vocal in his condemnation of the Avignon Papacy’s corruption and greed. In his writings and sermons, John Wycliffe declared the Avignon Papacy as the antichrist. Because of his vocal opposition, Pope Gregory XI condemned John Wycliffe as a heretic. He was also forbidden to teach his beliefs to other people. The Council of Constance held between 1414 and 1418 issued a final condemnation of the English reformer. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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The Avignon Papacy and John Wycliffe
Before the end of the 13th century, a conflict flared up between King Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII. The pope issued a papal bull which excommunicated and deposed the king in 1303. To prevent the pope from issuing the bull, Philip ordered his men to kidnap the pope. Boniface was rescued by his friends, but he died before 1303 ended. He was succeeded briefly by Benedict XI, but he, too, died after several months.
The pope’s throne was vacant for several months before the College of Cardinals elected Philip IV’s nominee in 1305. The new pope was Archbishop Bertrand de Got, and he took the name Clement V. Unlike the previous popes, Clement V did not live in Rome. He stayed in France and became a puppet of Philip IV the Fair. He settled in Avignon in 1309, and the papal seat would remain in the quiet French town for 68 years.
Clement’s six successors stayed in France, and there they lived in prosperity. They were able to expand the bishop’s residence into the magnificent Avignon Palace. The palace was a testament to their wealth, but it also came with a price. Rumors of popes’ scandalous behavior spread from France to different parts of Europe. They were also accused of simony (selling of church positions) and abuse of indulgences to fund their lavish lifestyle in Avignon. Other complaints included:
* The reduction of parish budgets while the popes maintained an extravagant life in Avignon.
* The imposition of heavy taxes on bishops.
* The high prices charged to the people whenever they requested certain church services.
* The corruption and greed of the Avignon popes and their clerics.
The English theologian and reformer John Wycliffe attacked the Avignon papacy and declared it as antichrist in his sermons and writings. The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch himself called it the “Babylonian captivity.” Wycliffe, for his part, persuaded the papacy and the clergy to control their greed and adopt apostolic poverty. The Avignon papacy rejected Wycliffe’s call and issued papal bulls that condemned his beliefs as heresies. He was forbidden from preaching about his “heretical” ideas again.
John Wycliffe, however, gained a lot of sympathizers and followers over the years. Some of them were called the Lollards, and they were the ones who preached his message all over England. His ideas also reached continental Europe. Wycliffe influenced a Czech priest called Jan Hus and he became one of the first reformers in the continent. Jan Hus and John Wycliffe were both condemned in the Council of Constance in 1415.
Gascoigne, Bamber. A Brief History of Christianity. London: Hachette UK, 2013.
Murray, Thomas. The Life of John Wycliffe. Edinburgh: J. Boyd, 1829.
Payton, James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Samworth, Herb. “The Work of John Wyclif and Its Impact.” Accessed January 18, 2017. http://www.solagroup.org/articles/historyofthebible/hotb_0006.html.
Stacey, John. “John Wycliffe.” Encyclop忙dia Britannica. September 18, 2008. Accessed January 18, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wycliffe.
Stephen, Leslie. The Dictionary of National Biography: Wordsworth-Zuylestein. Edited by Sidney Lee. Vol. LXIII. London: Oxford University Press, 1921.
Wycliffe, John. Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliff. London: Printed for the Religious Tract Society, 1831.
Wycliffe, John, and Robert Vaughan. Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe: With Selections and Translations from His Manuscripts, and Latin Works. London: Printed for the Society by Blackburn and Pardon, 1845.
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