John Wycliffe was born c 1323 in the Yorkshire village of Hipswell and after local primary school found himself at Oxford, probably about the age of fifteen as was then usual. Though he would accept a number of Church appointments, Oxford would always remain the center of his life. His career seems to have begun at Baliol, and he studied natural science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology. Advancement to degrees was not the fairly straightforward things it is today and it took him over thirty years before he attained the doctorate in theology. In the meantime he had served as the Master at Baliol and later as the head of Canterbury Hall—a residence for men preparing for the secular priesthood. Wycliffe himself was a secular priest. After only a few years at Canterbury Hall, the new Archbishop—Simon Langham—replaced Wycliffe as head of the Hall with a monk. Wycliffe appealed his deprivation to Rome but without satisfaction. Wycliffe seems to have turned against the monastic and religious clergy from this point.
There was another event at this time that poisoned the feelings of many English towards the papacy. If you remember our entry on King John, I mentioned that John had been forced to cede England to the Pope and receive it back as a feudal holding. This was, as I said, largely symbolic but it did involve the paying of an annual tribute of one thousand silver marks. This was at the time equivalent to about £ 660; today it would be several million dollars. In any event, over the years the tribute had ceased being paid to the pope and no one noticed. Then in 1365 Pope Urban V demanded the tax once again. Parliament—remembering the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire—reacted strongly and declared that King John and, indeed no king or other person, had the authority to cede the sovereignty of England and no tribute would be paid. The pope backed down but anti-papal feeling was running high in England. And remember at this time the popes were living in Avignon where they were very much disposed politically in favor of the French, the enemies of England.
As a theologian, Wycliffe was particularly interested in the scriptures and espoused the older patristic approach of doing theology based in the scriptures rather than the new scholastic approach which saw theological principles in the light of Aristotelian logic. His study of the scriptures gave him a desire that they should be available to the common people—at this time there was no English translation and the scriptures were available only in Latin. Granted, more people knew Latin in the fourteenth century—any educated man (and the relatively few educated women) knew Latin—but that still was only a handful of the population. Wycliffe had been “given the rectory” of Lutterworth—that is, appointed the rector (we would say pastor) of Lutterworth parish in Leicestershire and while he continued his work at Oxford he spent considerable time in the parish and it was there he made the first English translation of the scriptures in an attempt to make them accessible to the common person.
Wycliffe’s reading of the scriptures soured him on the wealth and power of the institutional Church. The Gospels, in particular, can do that. The extravagance of the papal court at Avignon was a scandal to him and the greed with which churchmen accumulated salaries and appointments in order to have more luxurious lives stood in sharp contrast with the poverty of Christ and his apostles. Wycliffe saw the religious orders to be no better. The monasteries held vast wealth in lands and Church ornaments. Orders such as the various mendicant groups—Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians—once founded in poverty had become known for good food and drink, comfortable life, and immoral behavior. Wycliffe saw the hope for renewal of the Church in secular priests who would live poor lives among the people teaching and preaching the scriptures.
Wycliffe believed that the true Church of Christ was a pure and poor Church, very different from the Institutional Church of the hierarchy and monks. He spoke of an “invisible Church of the elect”—an idea that would surface two centuries later with John Calvin. This “invisible Church” was comprised of those holy souls whom God had predestined to salvation. No one knew with certainty who were among these forechosen. You could look at a Sunday congregation or a pilgrimage assembled at Canterbury or the throngs of faithful gathered to see the Pope and only God knew who belonged to him and who did not. Such a view made not only the hierarchy but the clergy themselves irrelevant to the plan of salvation and it is not surprising that the Church’s axe fell on the priest of Lutterworth. Gregory XI dispatched to England five copies of a bull condemning Wycliffe in May 1377. But Wycliffe had a protector in John of Gaunt, the uncle of Richard II and, during Richard’s minority, his regent. Joan of Kent, the King’s mother, as well as Henry Percy, the Lord Marshal of England also supported him. It was a question of England vs. the foreigner—always a flash point for the English. Many of the nobility supported Wycliffe because they were jealous of the land that the Church had accumulated and wanted to seize it; the London mob was also pro-Wycliffe as they too resented the wealth and power of the Church while they lived with struggle and hard work and had little to show for it. But in the end it was his Englishness that saved Wycliffe. Wycliffe was one of them and represented England; the Pope was a foreign prince and they resented a foreign prince claiming authority in England. Perhaps the bishops and even the Crown had eventually caved in to the papacy but in the hearts of many English, they still wanted independence.
Wycliffe was indicted several times in episcopal courts and had to defend his doctrines but he never was convicted of heresy nor was he deprived of his living. On December 28th 1384, the feast of the Holy Innocents, while saying Mass in his parish church, he suffered a stroke and three days later he died. He was buried beneath the floor of his church.
Wycliffe’s ideas spread through the universities of
Europe and in Prague they were taken up by an energetic and evangelical young
chaplain, Jan Hus. Hus was not so
fortunate as Wycliffe. He was charged
with heresy and when he came to the Council of Constance to defend himself, the
Emperor broke faith with the safe conduct he had been guaranteed and Hus was
burned at the stake as a heretic. The
same council posthumously declared Wycliffe a heretic and at the orders of Pope
Martin V, his body was exhumed some 31
years after his death, burned, and his ashes thrown into a local river. But Wycliffe’s influence survived where his
ashes did not.