Tag Archives: John Wyclif

The Lollards

Last week I wrote about John Wyclif as a man who articulated views that were not terribly unusual in his time and I want to look this week at others who held similar views, but were not as fortunate as Wyclif when church and state began to crack down on those they considered heretics after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 showed them how dangerous those views might be. It was one thing for an Oxford theologian like Wyclif and his aristocratic/royal supporters to call for the church to be dispossessed of its property and for clerics to give up their secular positions, it was quite another for “uneducated peasants” to take matters into their own hands.

The Lollards, as those who agreed with Wyclif’s teachings were called, were not an organised group; they didn’t even come from the same social strata. They were nobles, clerics and laymen. The only common denominator was that they all wanted to reform a church that had become corrupt.

Depending on who you believe, lollard either derives from a Dutch word meaning ‘to mumble’ or from ‘lolium’ the Latin for weed. I don’t really understand why a Dutch word would be used for a group of English heretics, but I can understand why a Latin word could.

It was used in a letter from the pope to the chancellor of Oxford University in which he said the university had allowed itself to become infected with weeds (lolium) by which he meant heresy. He was referring to the parable of the wheat and the tares in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which a farmer sows wheat in his field and his enemy sows weeds. The farmer decides not to dig up the weeds in case he pulls up the wheat with them, thus reducing his harvest, but when harvest time came he would dig up the weeds first and burn them. At that time heretics weren’t burned in England, but they were in France and Italy. It was, however, a practice that was taken up with enthusiasm in England in the sixteenth century.

I wrote last week that the papacy had fallen into disrepute after the move to Avignon in the early fourteenth century, but in the middle of the century, the Black Death had harmed the church as a whole. Monks, priests and bishops, including an archbishop of Canterbury, had died along with everyone else. If God had withdrawn his protection from the church, it could only mean the church didn’t please Him. If it didn’t please him, things needed to change.

Oxford, where Wyclif taught, was seen as a hotbed of heresy and archbishops of Canterbury had been trying to bring the university to order for years and it wasn’t until the 1390s, when the religious atmosphere in England had fallen more in line with what was required by the pope, supported by Richard II and Thomas Arundel, a very strong-minded and powerful archbishop of Canterbury, that they succeeded.

The closet followers of Wyclif were Nicholas Hereford, Philip Repingdon, John Aston and Laurence Bedeman. They were students and masters at Oxford and were also theologians. When church and state began to clamp down on heretical beliefs about the mass, they, unlike Wyclif, were still young men, who had quite a lot to lose, and they hadn’t spent as much time as he had mulling over the theology.

In 1382 they were persuaded on threat of excommunication to recant, which they did, not only in private to the church authorities, but also in Oxford in front of other scholars and masters. Philip Repingdon eventually became bishop of Lincoln and a persecutor of Lollards.

Nicholas Hereford, however, had to recant a second time, having run away to appeal to the pope, who put him in prison. He escaped, but was arrested in England in 1386 and escaped again. In 1388 he was captured again and (probably) tortured. He then recanted.

Some Lollards were probably bribed with money to retract what they had formerly believed. Even the chronicler Henry Knighton, an enemy of Wyclif’s, could see that these confessions changed nothing for the people who made them, as they were not dissuaded from their beliefs. What was important to the church at this point, though, was that the confessions were made publicly in front of people who knew the people confessing and who knew what they had done. This priority changed as time went on, however.

By the time John Pulvey, probably Wyclif’s closest follower and the man who wrote down his treatises and who translated the Gospels into English, was asked to recant in 1402, the threat was no longer excommunication, but burning. He had been in prison since the late 1380s and had been tortured. Just to make sure he understood that the threat was real, a priest called William Sawtre was burned alive, the first Englishman to be burned for heresy. After Purvey’s recantation many Lollards followed his example. Some did not and were burned.

At least eight knights in the royal household and possibly Richard II himself were Lollards. The king was certainly slow to come to the aid of the church against them and Queen Anne received a copy Purvey’s English Gospels. The regent, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt was, of course, Wyclif’s protector. Richard’s attitude changed after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the church emphasised the links between Lollardy and popular unrest. By the end of the 1380s he had become an unyielding defender of orthodoxy. For the same reason support for Lollardy lessened among the landholders and the wealthy.

In January 1395 Richard was in Ireland. A parliament was held in Westminster while he was away and Lollards nailed their manifestoes to the doors of Westminster Hall, where the parliament was being held, and St Paul’s, where important sermons were preached to the people of London. Richard’s council asked him to return, which he did as quickly as possible. He immediately set to work in support of orthodoxy, starting with those closest to him. One of the Lollard knights in his household was made to swear an oath recanting his heresy. Once he had done this, Richard told the knight he would be executed if he went back on his word. The knight concerned had given loyal service to Richard’s grandfather and father, and had been one of the executors of his mother’s will. More junior members of the household were also made to renounce their beliefs.

It’s no accident that the real persecution of the Lollards began soon after Henry IV usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399. One way of making his reign appear legitimate was to be ultra-orthodox in religious matters. It might also have been an act of deflection. If people were worried about being burned for their religious beliefs, or their friends being burned, they were less likely to draw attention to the illegitimacy of Henry’s reign. As the son of John of Gaunt, he probably also wanted to ensure that no one ever thought to suggest that he also might be tainted by Lollardy.

It is generally thought that Geoffrey Chaucer, who was friendly with many highly-placed Lollards and was also a protégé of John of Gaunt, wasn’t one himself, but Lollardy certainly informs The Canterbury Tales, which was written at this time.

Lollardy eventually died out in the second half of the fifteenth century, or went far enough underground to be left alone. It was over a hundred years before calls for the church to reform were heard all over Europe.

Richard II by Nigel Saul
Life of Chaucer by Derek Pearsall
Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones
England, Arise by Juliet Barker
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, Medieval Theology

John Wyclif

John Wyclif

Having avoided political controversy last week, I thought I’d have a go at religious controversy this week. I apologise in advance, because I know that I’ll be using terms that aren’t in everyday use and I won’t always remember to define them. Please call me out in the comments section if anything isn’t clear.

In a very rare post about a single historical person, I’m looking at the proto-Protestant John Wyclif. He was probably born in the late 1320s or the early 1330s in Yorkshire. For a short time he was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford in the 1350s. In 1360 he was Master of Balliol and he received his doctorate in theology in 1372. By this point he was considered the leading master of theology at the university. Even his many enemies admired his intellect, but they were nonetheless his enemies and worked against him.

It’s easy to understand why he is often considered a proto-Protestant, as many of the things that he advocated were core beliefs of Protestants in the sixteenth century and for the same reasons. He believed that being part of the church did not necessarily mean that one was a member of the elect. He said that even the pope might not be saved. In fact, he was even more outspoken, but we’ll come to that.

Like the reformers of the sixteenth century, he read the Bible thoroughly and studied the Church Fathers. This led him to challenge the church’s view of what happened in the mass and he said that there was no reason to believe that the bread and wine physically became Christ’s body and blood, a doctrine that had only been confirmed in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council. Wyclif’s view was fairly commonplace and was not considered problematic even in the middle of the fourteenth century. By the 1370s it made him a dangerous man.

Wyclif lived in a time in which the church was letting the laity down. They were being urged to confess, but the church couldn’t deal with the spiritual concerns that arose from the concomitant self-examination. Increasing literacy meant that lay men and women were reading the Bible and spiritual works and were becoming more evangelical at the same time as the church was becoming more legalistic. It wasn’t a good combination. Thanks to Wyclif and his followers, the Bible was being translated into English and many theological works were written in English, which made it accessible to people who weren’t members of the clergy.

Wyclif himself wrote in Latin for an educated and learned audience, but a group of his followers went out preaching in English about his teachings. Despite this, he believed that the Bible and any discussion about it should be in English. The church wanted to keep both the Bible and any discussions in Latin, which few people understood.

Henry Knighton, a contemporary chronicler expressed the church’s view, “This Master John Wyclif translated into the Anglic (English) -not Angelic-tongue, the Gospel that Christ gave to the clergy and the doctors of the Church, that they might minister it gently to laymen and weaker persons, according to the exigence of their time, their personal wants, and the hunger of their minds; whence it is made vulgar by him, and more open to the reading of laymen and women than it usually is to the knowledge of lettered and intelligent clergy; and thus the pearl of the Gospel is cast forth and trodden under the feet of swine.” This was a view that continued to hold sway even two centuries later when the Reformation was finally making it possible for people with no understanding of Latin to read the Bible. As an aside, the Gospels were originally written in a form of Greek that was widely spoken around the Mediterranean in the first century, that is, it was written to be read/heard and understood by as many people as possible, not a select few.

Wyclif wanted the church to be reformed and, like many at the time, thought it was being corrupted by wealth and power. Redistribution of the church’s wealth through taxation and other means was a popular demand. If the clergy held a third of the land in England, it made sense to many people that they should pay a third of the taxes. He also said that the monastic orders should be abolished.

He was the protégé of John of Gaunt, which was a double-edged sword, since John of Gaunt was really unpopular, partly because he wasn’t his father, Edward III, or his brother, the Black Prince. He, John of Gaunt, had made an enemy of William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, and the country as a whole. He was regent for his brother’s son, Richard II, and was widely suspected of wanting to be king himself. It is, of course, not known whether John of Gaunt supported Wyclif because he believed what Wyclif was saying or whether there was a large element of self-interest. Wyclif’s supporters included men who had served in the households of Edward III and the Black Prince, so it’s possible that he did agree with Wyclif.

Less pleasing to John of Gaunt, doubtless, Wyclif questioned the concept of the just war, espoused by St Augustine, at least as far as the Hundred Years War was concerned. John of Gaunt wanted to continue the Hundred Years War, possibly to emulate his older brother, the Black Prince, who had been a very successful commander in the 1340s and 1350s. He was however, not the man his brother had been and nor were the times the same.

In 1374 Wyclif negotiated with the pope on Edward III’s behalf when the pope wanted to tax English clergy to pay for wars he was fighting in Italy. In that year he was given the living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which was in the gift of the king.

On 19th February 1377 John of Gaunt rescued Wyclif from William Courtenay, the bishop of London, and others when he was called to appear before them in St Paul’s accused of seditious preaching. John of Gaunt had become Courtenay’s enemy when he persecuted William of Wykeham, who was Courtenay’s own protégé. Courtenay was very keen to retain the privileges and liberties of the church, the very things against which Wyclif was preaching.

Wyclif addressed the Commons in 1378 to say that debtors did not have the right of sanctuary and that the king could take the property of the church in time of war. The papacy, and by extension the church, was damaged in the fourteenth century by the move to Avignon in 1305 and by the fact that the popes were French and very partisan. This made them less than trustworthy when they were supposed to mediate between the French and the English in the Hundred Years War. In 1378 things became even worse when two different popes were elected, one in Rome and one in Avignon. It’s no surprise that Wyclif identified the pope with the Anti-Christ, another belief of the Protestants.

In 1379 he wrote De Eucharistia which covered his beliefs about the mass.

In 1381 he was blamed by the church for sparking the Peasants’ Revolt, during which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, was beheaded. Wyclif’s old enemy, William Courtenay succeeded him. Wyclif condemned Sudbury’s murder, since there had been no trial and the punishment exceeded the crime, in Wyclif’s eyes, of a cleric exercising a secular job: Sudbury was England’s chancellor (the medieval equivalent of prime minister). He also asked for mercy for the rebels as they had grievances that needed to be resolved. None of this helped his cause with the church.

In May 1382 he appeared before the Commons advocating that the church be broken up. He said that England should stop obeying the pope, churchmen should be removed from secular positions and the church’s property taken over by the king. This was his undoing, for they were also amongst the things demanded by Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt the year before. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders of the revolt had been influenced by Wyclif, simply that Wyclif didn’t hold views that were particularly unusual. The danger with Wyclif was that he could articulate them and back them up with years of studying theology.

Courtenay called him to a council of carefully selected bishops in Blackfriars in that month in order to declare his teachings heretical.  Wyclif defended twenty-four points of his teaching. Ten were declared heretical and the rest erroneous. He was banned from preaching until he had renounced his heresy and done the necessary penance, which he didn’t do. Despite this, he wasn’t excommunicated and he wasn’t made to give up his parish.

Wyclif died in December 1384 after a stroke while he was saying mass in the parish church at Lutterworth, doubtless still believing that Christ was not physically present in the bread or the wine.

Early in the fifteenth century the study of his works was forbidden, as was the translation of the Bible into English. The church in England and the state were so worried about the fuse that Wyclif had lit that a law was made in 1401 that allowed them to burn heretics at the stake. In 1415, Wyclif himself was declared a heretic. It wasn’t a good sign.

Richard II by Nigel Saul
Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod
Life of Chaucer by Derek Pearsall
Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones
England, Arise by Juliet Barker
A Social History of England, 1200 to 1500 ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, The Medieval Church