John Wycliffe was a highly significant figure in the religious culture of 14th-century England, and his works remained influential for hundreds of years. In a later age he was called the ‘morning star of the Reformation’ by Protestant historians, meaning that his ideas were thought to have laid the foundations of the religious reform which took place in England in the 1530s.
Birth and early life in Oxford
Wycliffe was born at some point in the mid-1320s, probably in the village of Wycliffe in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He went to Oxford in around 1350 and was ordained a priest in 1351. He seems to have spent most of the 1360s in Oxford because in 1361 he was elected the head of Balliol College. Wycliffe devoted his life to academic writing on theological topics, although he was briefly an envoy for the Crown in 1374 when he was sent to Bruges to negotiate clerical taxes. In the same year he was made rector of Lutterworth in Leicestershire.
Wycliffe was a religious reformer and he saw serious failings in the Church. He was concerned about what he saw as corruption in the Church hierarchy and the difficulty that ordinary people had in reading the Scriptures. In Wycliffe’s day, the Bible was in Latin and therefore it was impossible for people who weren’t educated to understand it. Wycliffe also had some radical ideas about the Eucharist – the wine and bread that is symbolically consumed in Christian church services. He argued that this bread and wine did not actually turn into the body of Christ in the ceremony – a view that put him at odds with the conventional teaching of the Church.
Protection, arrests and rebellions
Wycliffe was lucky not to have been burned as a heretic in his lifetime. Throughout his life he was protected by powerful friends. He was repeatedly summoned to appear before royal and Church officials. In 1376 he was called before the King’s Council, but a riot broke out and the meeting was abandoned. In May 1377 Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls (public decrees) condemning Wycliffe’s views. These decrees did not arrive in England until Christmas 1377, whereupon Wycliffe was arrested. He was subsequently released and then summoned to a meeting with Archbishop Sudbury and Bishop Courtney. In the spring of 1378 Wycliffe appeared before the authorities in Lambeth, but the investigation was interrupted by Sir Lewis Clifford who was sent by Joan of Kent, the mother of the king.
Despite this royal protection, in May 1382 Wycliffe was condemned at the Blackfriars Council. In June of the previous year there had been a rebellion in England, known as the Peasants’ Revolt: a group of rebels had marched on London, where they burnt buildings (including the Savoy Palace, the palace of John of Gaunt) and murdered anyone they encountered who was thought to be associated with the government. It’s unclear what influence Wycliffe’s works had on the rebels, but his ideas became associated with them.
Death and afterlife
In his later years Wycliffe retreated into obscurity, spending the rest of his days in Lutterworth. He died in 1384, but his ideas lived on for much longer.
Wycliffe’s followers were called ‘Lollards’. The word ‘Lollard’ comes from the Middle Dutch lollaerd, meaning ‘mumbler, mutterer’. The word was originally associated with particular Christian fraternities who were thought to be excessively and falsely pious.
In the spring of 1428 a group of churchmen dug up the bones of Wycliffe and burned them. This grisly enterprise was carried out at the instruction of Pope Martin V. Thirteen years earlier in 1415 Wycliffe had been condemned as a heretic at an ecclesiastical council called the Council of Constance. There, Jan [or John] Hus, a theologian who had been influenced by the writings of Wycliffe, had been burnt at the stake. Like Hus, the Church persecuted those who followed or were influenced by Wycliffe, regarding them as heretics.
Further information about the life of John Wycliffe can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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