John Wycliffe was a 14th-century English scholar, theologian, professor, and reformer. He is considered as one of the first reformers of the Church during the Late Medieval Period. He studied at Oxford and was known as a brilliant teacher and writer. John Wycliffe’s criticism of the policies of the Avignon popes was useful to the powerful Duke of Lancaster. Pope Gregory XI later condemned John Wycliffe’s beliefs as heresies in a papal bull in 1377 and forbade him to preach them any longer. He translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into Middle English with his friends during the last years of his life. John Wycliffe, the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” died in 1384. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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Early Life and Career
John Wycliffe was born in 1324 or 1329 in the village of Hipswell in North Riding of Yorkshire. He came from a well-to-do family who lived in the village of Wycliffe-on-Tees in Yorkshire. Little is known about his life as a boy, but he was one of the fortunate ones who survived the Black Death. His family had enough money to send him to Oxford during the mid-1330s. It was said that he studied either at the Queen’s College, Merton College, or Balliol College in Oxford. However, it is mostly likely that he attended Merton or Balliol College.
It was in Oxford that he learned logic, philosophy, canon and civil law, mathematics, and theology. He became fluent in Latin—a skill that came in handy when he translated the Bible during the later years of his life. He became the Master of Balliol College in 1360. Wycliffe left the job to serve as a vicar of Fillingham in 1361 and returned to Oxford to study again in 1363 and 1368. He received his bachelor’s degree in divinity in 1369 and finally became a doctor of theology in 1372.
While serving as a vicar of Fillingham, John Wycliffe requested the papal court in Avignon to provide him with additional allowance (prebend). Pope Gregory XI, however, did not grant this request and this rejection became the early source of his resentment of the papacy. In 1374, John Wycliffe served at the rectory of Lutterworth after his appointment by Edward III.
Wycliffe’s Politics and Criticism of the Avignon Papacy
King Edward sent John Wycliffe as one of England’s envoys who would settle the conflict with the papal legates in Bruges in 1374. The conflict stemmed from the Statute of Provisors which was passed by the English Parliament in 1351. The king had the right to appoint provisors (deputy clerics) to a benefice (rectory, vicarage, or curacy) even when it was not yet vacant. Before 1351, the pope could also appoint provisors, and his right to appoint them even overrode the king’s. The English resented this as many provisors appointed by the pope did not even live in England.
The fact that the pope was French and was entirely dependent on the French king during the Hundred Years’ War made matters worse. The Parliament was also worried that the charitable works were being neglected even if the money came from the English tithes. The negotiations in Bruges between the English envoys of Edward III and the papal legates failed. John Wycliffe became the rector of Lutterworth parish after the unsuccessful negotiations in Bruges.
Perhaps it was in Flanders that John Wycliffe met the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt (Ghent). The Duke of Lancaster knew that Wycliffe was supportive of the English nobility, so he used it to advance his political ambitions. When he came back to England, John Wycliffe started to preach against the abuses of power within the Catholic Church.
It seemed to those who were present during his appearance in Parliament in 1371 that John Wycliffe supported the government’s plan of seizing church properties whenever necessary. He also encouraged the English government to keep the revenues within the realm which undoubtedly pleased John of Gaunt. Wycliffe also wrote tracts and articles that condemned some doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. His criticism of the Church made the English bishops uncomfortable, so they convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury to interfere.
King Edward III died in 1377, and he was succeeded by his young grandson Richard II. As the new king was still a boy, the unpopular Duke of Lancaster became his regent. The Hundred Years’ War with France still raged on in the continent, and the English treasury was drained. To add funds to the crown’s treasury, John of Gaunt introduced a poll tax. Everyone—from the peasants to the clergymen—was required to pay one groat (a silver coin) to fund a prolonged war. The poll tax made the unpopular duke one of the most hated men in England. It did not help John Wycliffe that the duke was his supporter.
William Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury and an enemy of the Duke, summoned Wycliffe to St. Paul’s Cathedral because of the ideas that he preached. He was escorted in Canterbury by John of Gaunt, Lord Percy and some friars from Oxford. Many residents of London were also present to witness the event. It was a fiasco. The discussion became a shouting match between Wycliffe’s supporters and enemies. It descended into a brawl, and John of Gaunt had to flee for his life.
On May 22, 1377, the pope sent bulls condemning John Wycliffe and his teachings. Wycliffe was imprisoned in the Black Hall at Oxford after the papal bulls reached the university. He was released later, but he was ordered to appear at the Lambeth Palace in 1378 to defend himself. Some residents of London who sympathized with Wycliffe interrupted the proceedings. The Queen Mother herself did not allow the bishops to do anything harsh against Wycliffe. The Archbishop called for a second trial, but the council followed the Queen Mother orders and did not issue a sentence. He was only commanded not to preach his “heretical ideas” again, but John Wycliffe only ignored it.
John of Gaunt, meanwhile, became even more unpopular when he imprisoned two English squires who held a Spanish hostage. They had refused to hand the hostage to the authorities and instead fled to the Westminster Abbey. The authorities dragged the two squires out of the sanctuary which was a direct violation of the right of asylum provided by the church. John Wycliffe backed the authorities and defended their actions in Parliament in front of the pope’s envoys.
John of Gaunt enjoyed Wycliffe’s full support, but the duke saw that he was fast becoming a liability. The duke started to abandon John Wycliffe in 1378, but by this time, the theologian had also gained a lot of followers. They would later be known as the Lollards, and they, in turn, preached Wycliffe’s sermons to the people. Still, the authorities at Oxford allowed him to teach at the university until 1381.
It was during this difficult time when John Wycliffe and his disciples translated the Bible from Latin Vulgate into English. Nicholas Hereford, one of Wycliffe’s closest associates in Oxford, translated the Old Testament up to the book of Baruch. Wycliffe translated the rest of the Apocrypha and portions of the New Testament, but many books were left untranslated even after his death. Other disciples took up the pen and continued to translate the Bible well into 1388. It was curated by his assistant, John Purvey.
1381 was a difficult year for John Wycliffe after he published his denial of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation refers to the doctrine that during mass, the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ. John Wycliffe insisted that the bread and wine were mere representations of Christ, and were not his actual body and blood. This rejection of transubstantiation outraged the priests who then rejected his ideas.
John of Gaunt had already withdrawn his support from Wycliffe. But even if they were on good terms, the duke was busy suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to be of any help. In response to Wycliffe’s “heresy,” Chancellor William de Berton of Oxford assembled the university’s leading theologians into a council. The council then condemned him and his beliefs. They also did not allow him to teach the denial of transubstantiation in Oxford. Those who continued to teach Wycliffe’s heretical ideas would be punished with imprisonment or excommunication. Wycliffe immediately appealed his sentence to King Richard II, but many of his former supporters had abandoned him, so the appeal was denied.
Death and Condemnation
John Wycliffe left London in 1382 and returned to Lutterworth to spend the last years of his life there. He continued to serve the parish until December 28, 1384 when he suffered a stroke while celebrating mass. He died two days later.
Wycliffe remained controversial even after his death. In 1414, he was declared as a heretic along with the Czech priest Jan Hus in the Council of Constance in Germany. Wycliffe’s bones were removed from the grave and burned as punishment for his heresy. Afterward, his ashes were scattered in the Swift River.
Picture by: Thomas Kirkby (1775–c.1848) – http://artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-wycliffe-c-13301384-221608/search/keyword:wycliffe/page/1/view_as/grid, Public Domain, Link
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.” Encyclopædia 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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