The Chapter House of York
Wycliffe, even though he was a priest himself and had a rather comfortable living as the rector of Lutterworth, was scandalized by the wealth and worldliness of the clergy. Moreover, there seems to have been some personal rancor in Wycliffe towards the hierarchy and the religious orders because of the way his own career at Oxford had been thwarted when Archbishop Langham replaced him as head of Canterbury Hall with a monk. But personal issues aside, Wycliffe had legitimate reason for criticizing the Church and its hold over the economic and political structures of England. I am not inclined to think that his voice was the trumpet that gave out the tune to which everyone else danced, however. I think rather that Wycliffe was simply the scholar who systematically developed a theology that articulated what many people in England had already felt. In other words, he gave voice more than he gave leadership to the rebellion against the Church.
Moreover, I estimate Wycliffe to have been sincere in his criticism while I think others were motivated by other and less noble reasons. Wycliffe’s chief protector, John of Gaunt—uncle of the King (Richard II) and Regent during the King’s minority, and other nobles were jealous of the immense wealth in land held by the Church. Their support for Wycliffe was based in their desire to secularize the lands belonging to the monasteries and to the various bishoprics of England and put these lands at the disposal of themselves and their fellow nobles. Land represented wealth—land provided rents from the vast populations that lived on them and worked the land. These rents were going to the Churches and abbeys and being poured into immense building projects of the medieval cathedrals and monasteries. The rents were also providing for the vast libraries of the monasteries, the silk and brocade vestments used in worship, the gold and silver bejeweled altar ornaments. Of course the production of such artifacts created employment among thousands of craftsmen, builders, quarrymen, and others hired by the Church, but they also provided what had become a very luxurious lifestyle for the monks and for the clergy.
The pomp of the clergy not only excited the jealousy of the nobility, but alienated many of the working class folk as well. Priests and friars talked about the poverty of Christ and his disciples but they themselves lived far from simple lives. Pious folk would see Christ hanging naked on the crucifix but then be puzzled by the vestments worn by the clergy at his altar and even more disgusted by the elegant horses they rode or fine houses in which they lived attended by servants. At the same time that the Church had accumulated so much corporate wealth, many individual priests charged exorbitant fees for baptisms and weddings and funerals. The clergy had become a cash-making profession rather than a vocation of preaching the Gospel. People felt trapped—their salvation depended on these rites but these rites were available only for great charge.
Thus when Wycliffe came along and said that the clergy should be poor and humble folk, ministering to the poor and humble as a peer and not as a great person who made his power felt over lesser ones (remember Matthew 20:25?)—his message resonated with many people. When Wycliffe said that the True Church was not a collection of prelates and priests but of those pious souls of pure heart and good intention—souls known with certainty only to God—people felt inspired. The clergy, on the other hand, felt threatened and betrayed—here, one of their own, was undermining their control and power. They struck out at Wycliffe. He was several times made to answer charges of heresy though he was never, in his lifetime, convicted. Posthumously the Council of Constance condemned his writings and his exhumed corpse was burned as a heretic. But striking at Wycliffe’s cadaver did not destroy the movement. Those who adhered to his ideas were called “Lollards” from the middle Dutch word, lollaerd, a mumbler or one who mutters.
There were many Lollards in late fourteenth and in fifteenth-century England. It wasn’t an organized movement. There was no Lollard hierarchy. Most continued going to Mass, were married at the Church porch (as was the custom of the day), had their children baptized, their dead buried with the rites of the Church. One thing that did distinguished them from “good Catholics” was that they often possessed copies of the scriptures in English—Wycliffe had provided the first English translation since the days of King Alfred. They would meet and discuss the scriptures. Sometimes their ideas took them far afield of Catholic orthodoxy in regard to the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the ability of the priest to absolve sins. They were seen as much a threat to the State as to the Church since over time they more and more became a movement among the working classes which resented not only the wealth of the Church but the wealth and political power of the nobility. They would be the first to rally to Protestant ideas in the sixteenth century but in the meantime were often arrested, tried, and burned at the stake for their lack of religious orthodoxy and their political radicalism. At Lambeth, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, there is the famous “Lollards’ Tower” which was used as a prison for Lollards awaiting execution. But we can see cracks appearing in the fabric of Catholic England a century and a half before Henry VIII. And those Lollards who did die for their religious convictions became the heroes in the minds of many people—not for their distorted ideas of Christian doctrine but for the courage they showed in facing down the institutional Church even to the cost of their lives. sanguis martyrum semen christianorum.