According to his biographer, Anne Hudson: "There is good reason to think that Wycliffe was a member of the Richmondshire family from the North Riding village of Wycliffe; he can probably be identified with either Johannes filius Willelmi de Wykliff or Johannes filius Simon de Wycliff, the first of whom was ordained acolyte on 18 December 1350, and both of whom were ordained subdeacon on 12 March 1351, deacon on 18 April 1351, and priest on 24 September 1351. This would suggest he was born in the mid-1320s." (1)
After graduation John Wycliffe taught at Oxford University. He resigned in 1361 to take up the living of Fillingham, Lincolnshire. In 1362 he accepted the prebend of Aust, Gloucestershire, and in 1368 he became the curate of Ludgershall, Wiltshire. (2)
John Wycliffe became a renown lecturer in theology and philosophy. On 26th July 1374, Wycliffe was appointed as one of five new envoys to continue negotiations in Bruges with papal officials over clerical taxes and provisions. The negotiations ended without conclusion, and the representatives of each side retired for further consultation. (3) It has been argued that the failure of these negotiations had a profound impact on his religious beliefs. "He began to attack Rome's control of the English Church and his stance became increasingly anti-Papal resulting in condemnation of his teachings and threats of excommunication." (4)
John Wycliffe antagonized the orthodox Church by disputing transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Wycliffe developed a strong following and those who shared his beliefs became known as Lollards. They got their name from the word "lollen", which signifies to sing with a low voice. The term was applied to heretics because they were said to communicate their views in a low muttering voice. (5)
In a petition later presented to Parliament, the Lollards claimed: "That the English priesthood derived from Rome, and pretending to a power superior to angels, is not that priesthood which Christ settled upon his apostles. That the enjoining of celibacy upon the clergy was the occasion of scandalous irregularities. That the pretended miracle of transubstantiation runs the greatest part of Christendom upon idolatry. That exorcism and benedictions pronounced over wine, bread, water, oil, wax, and incense, over the stones for the altar and the church walls, over the holy vestments, the mitre, the cross, and the pilgrim's staff, have more of necromancy than religion in them.... That pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings made to images and crosses have nothing of charity in them and are near akin to idolatry." (6)
As one of the historians of this period of history, John Foxe, has pointed out: "Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion. This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry." (7)
It is believed that Wycliffe and his followers began translating the Bible into English. Henry Knighton, the canon of St Mary's Abbey, Leicester, reported disapprovingly: "Christ delivered his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer it to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the states of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it out more open to the laity, and to women, who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. In this way the gospel-pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious both to clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people, and what had hitherto been the choice gift of the clergy and of divines, is made for ever common to the laity." (8)
In September 1376, Wycliffe was summoned from Oxford by John of Gaunt to appear before the king's council. He was warned about his behaviour. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey, reported that on 19th February, 1377, Wycliffe was told to appear before Archbishop Simon Sudbury and charged with seditious preaching. Anne Hudson has argued: "Wycliffe's teaching at this point seems to have offended on three matters: that the pope's excommunication was invalid, and that any priest, if he had power, could pronounce release as well as the pope; that kings and lords cannot grant anything perpetually to the church, since the lay powers can deprive erring clerics of their temporalities; that temporal lords in need could legitimately remove the wealth of possessioners." On 22nd May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls condemning the views of John Wycliffe. (9)
John Wycliffe tried to employ the Christian vision of justice to achieve social change: "It was through the teachings of Christ that men sought to change society, very often against the official priests and bishops in their wealth and pride, and the coercive powers of the Church itself." (10) Barbara Tuchman has claimed that John Wycliffe was the first "modern man". She goes on to argue: "Seen through the telescope of history, he (Wycliffe) was the most significant Englishman of his time." (11)
King Edward III had problems fighting what became known as the Hundred Years War. He achieved early victories at Crécy and Poitiers, but by 1370 the French won a succession of battles and were able to raid and loot towns on the south coast. Fighting the war was very expensive and in February 1377 the government introduced a poll-tax where four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. "This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days' labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourers". (12)
King Edward died soon afterwards. His ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, was crowned in July 1377. John of Gaunt, Richard's uncle, took over much of the responsibility of government. He was closely associated with the new poll-tax and this made him very unpopular with the people. They were very angry as they considered the tax unfair as the poor had to pay the same tax as the wealthy. Despite this, the collectors of the tax seem not to have had to face more than an occasional, local disturbance. (13)
In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another poll tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.
The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. "There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich payed less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes." (14)
The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions. John Wycliffe gave a sermon where he argued: "Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... and they perish from hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also. And in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood." (15)
John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. (16) At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be "released by twenty thousand armed men". (17)
It has been claimed that the teachings of John Wycliffe influenced John Ball, a priest from Kent. For example, Thomas Walsingham a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey, stated that Ball "taught the people that tithes ought not be paid" and that he was preaching the "wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe." (18)
Some historians such as Charles Oman have disputed this claim because during his research failed to discover any evidence that Ball and his followers "showed any signs of Wycliffite tendencies". (19) However, Reg Groves quotes Bishop William Courtenay as saying that Ball told him that he was a disciple of Wycliffe. (20) R. B. Dobson has observed: "In their understandable reaction from the deliberately propagated legend that John Ball was John Wycliffe's disciple, historians… have sometimes unduly discounted a not unimportant connection between these two ideologues - that the audience for their respective messages must certainly have sometimes overlapped." (21)
In June 1381, John Ball and Wat Tyler led a march to London. This became known as the Peasants' Revolt. On 14th June, Richard II agreed to the demands of the rebels. This included the end of all feudal services, the freedom to buy and sell all goods, and a free pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. The following day, William Walworth, mayor of London, raised an army of about 5,000 men. Wat Tyler was murdered and the following month John Ball, was hung, drawn and quartered at St Albans. (22)
John Wycliffe denied he was involved in the uprising but as John F. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984), has been pointed out: "At the popular level a distinction between religious and social radicalism is hard to make, and, if Ball can be taken as representative, the poor priests contributed an element of ideological radicalism to the revolt." (23)
In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement. (24) Archbishop William Courtenay urged Parliament to pass a Statute of the Realm against preachers such as Wycliffe: "It is openly known that there are many evil persons within the realm, going from county to county, and from town to town, in certain habits, under dissimulation of great holiness, and without the licence ... or other sufficient authority, preaching daily not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, many sermons, containing heresies and notorious errors." (25)
John Wycliffe died in Ludgershall on 31st December, 1384. He was buried in the churchyard. Afraid that Wycliffe's grave would become a religious shrine, on the orders of Richard Fleming, bishop of Lincoln, acting on the instructions of Pope Martin V, officials exhumed the bones, burnt them, and scattered the ashes on the River Swift. (26)
Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... the poor perish from hunger and thirst and cold... In this manner, the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood....
We must question whether the laws enforcing villeinage are comfortable to the law of Christ; and it would seem that they are not: for it is written in the Bible, "The son shall not bear the injustice of the father."
Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the Pope. There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is King or Urban is king. We make our choice. We accept Edward of England and refute Urban of Rome.
Christ delivered his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer it to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the states of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it out more open to the laity, and to women, who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. In this way the gospel-pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious both to clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people, and what had hitherto been the choice gift of the clergy and of divines, is made for ever common to the laity.
1. That when the Church of England began to mismanage her temporalities in conformity with the precedents of Rome, and the revenues of churches were appropriated to several places, Faith, Hope, and Charity began to take their leave of her communion.
2. That the English priesthood derived from Rome, and pretending to a power superior to angels, is not that priesthood which Christ settled upon his apostles.
3. That the enjoining of celibacy upon the clergy was the occasion of scandalous irregularities.
4. That the pretended miracle of transubstantiation runs the greatest part of Christendom upon idolatry.
5. That exorcism and benedictions pronounced over wine, bread, water, oil, wax, and incense, over the stones for the altar and the church walls, over the holy vestments, the mitre, the cross, and the pilgrim's staff, have more of necromancy than religion in them.
6. That the joining of the offices of prince and bishop, prelate and secular judge, in the same person, is a plain mismanagement, and puts the kingdom out of its right way.
7. That prayer for the dead is a wrong ground for charity and religious endowments.
8. That pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings made to images and crosses have nothing of charity in them and are near akin to idolatry.
9. That auricular confession makes the priests proud, lets them into the secrets of the penitent, gives opportunity to intrigues and other mortal offences.
10. That the taking away of any man's life, either in war or in courts of justice, and upon any account whatsoever, is expressly contrary to the New Testament which is a dispensation of grace and mercy.
11. That the vow of single life is the occasion of horrible disorders, and betrays the nuns to infamous practices.
12. That unnecessary trades are the occasion of pride and luxury.
Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion.
This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry, followed by the archbishop, Simon Sudbury, who took away Wycliffe's salary at Oxford and ordered him to stop preaching against the church. When even that failed, he appealed to the pope.
Nevertheless, Wycliffe continued speaking his mind to the people in his sermons. King Edward was sympathetic to his preaching, and he also had the support of others of high rank including John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, the king's son, and Lord Henry Percy.
The following points, taken from Wycliffe's sermons, summarize his teachings.
* The holy eucharist, after consecration, is not the actual body of Christ.
* The church of Rome is no more important than any other church, and Peter had no more power given to him by Christ than any other apostle.
* The pope has no more power than any other priest. The gospel is enough for any man, without the rules of men, which add nothing to the gospel. Neither the pope nor any other church official has the power or right to punish transgressors.
In 1377, Wycliffe was ordered to appear before his bishops and answer to their charges, since he had continued to preach on these matters after having been told to stop. He appeared before them on Thursday, February 19, 1377, accompanied by four learned friars. The Duke of Lancaster and Lord Percy became involved'in a heated argument with the bishop over whether Wycliffe should be allowed to sit or must remain standing., Soon arguments gave way to threats, the whole assembly joined in taking sides, and the council had to be dissolved before it was even 9:00 a.m. Wycliffe had escaped punishment for his beliefs.
Soon King Edward III died and his grandson, Richard II, took the throne. The Duke of Lancaster and Lord Percy gave up their government positions and retired to private life, but Wycliffe still enjoyed the support of many noblemen. In 1377, Pope Gregory sent a message to the University of Oxford, rebuking it for allowing Wycliffe's doctrine to take root and demanding he be silenced. This encouraged the archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops, who decided to meet and agree on what should be done to punish Wycliffe.