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.