Posted by: stpowen | September 9, 2016

The People’s Reformation, Part 4. Wyclif and the early Lollards

Hebrews 11:26, 38.  ‘Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked for the reward………Of whom the world was not worthy……’

Around the middle of the 14th Century, three events occurred which had deep effects upon the people of England and their religious worldview.  The first and most impacting of these was the Black Death.  Beginning in August 1348, this terrible epidemic spread across the land until, by the time it began to decline around the middle of 1350, between 30% and 45% of the population had perished.  In London, a new cemetery at Smithfield was hastily opened but soon ran out of places.  A local landowner donated more space at Spittle Croft, but it became hard to find sufficient people to bury the dead .  The corpses of the common people were packed together in rows and on top of each other five deep.  However, the plague made no distinction between rich and poor, noble or common; among those who died were three Archbishops of Canterbury.  The law courts were closed, Parliament was suspended for a season. In the countryside, whole villages were depopulated.  When a landowner enquired why no one from a certain village had come to pay rent to him, he was told that there was no one left to bring it.

Needless to say, the plague had the deepest effect upon the nations it afflicted.  For a while it seemed as if the end of the world was imminent.  Contemporary writers tell us that the people tended to respond in three ways.  Some threw off all restraint and partied as if there was no tomorrow, as indeed for many, there wasn’t.  Others reacted in suspicion and anger.  Lepers were suspected of spreading the disease, and Jews or gypsies accused of deliberately poisoning the nation.  The Jews had been expelled from England a hundred years earlier, but in various parts of Europe whole Jewish communities were massacred.  But others drew close to Christ in their fear and despair, and it is evident that some of these did not find the comfort they longed for from the rituals and sacraments of the Church.  Such people began to look more deeply at their faith as they sought an eternal refuge from the judgement they saw all around them.

The second event, in 1365, was the revival by Pope Urban V of the claim for 1,000 Marks a year (£667 sterling) from England by way of ‘rental’ for the right of the nation to rule itself.  Readers will recall (1) that back in 1213, King John had capitulated to Pope Innocent III, effectively resigned his crown to the Papal Legate and agreed to hold the realm in ‘feud’- that is on acknowledgement of the Pope as his overlord.  The annual payment of 1,000 marks was a sign of the fealty owed by the English crown and Parliament to the Papacy. The agreement stated that if ever John or his successors should break the agreement, they should lose their right to rule. In fact, the money had not been paid for many years.  Masterful kings like Edward 1 and Edward III had no intention of acknowledging the Pope as their secular master, and the agreement had become a dead letter.

Indeed it is hard to know why Urban might have thought asking for this money would be a wise move.  The Papacy was no longer as dominant as it had been in the days of Innocent III.  In 1302, the French king, Philip the fair, who had had numerous disputes with Pope Boniface VIII, had him  kidnapped and imprisoned, and after his death the French faction of Cardinals succeeded in getting a French Pope, Clement V elected.  Clement never set foot in Rome and after a while, in 1309, Philip installed him in Avignon, then part of the independent state of Provence, but heavily under the influence of France.  There the Papacy remained for the next sixty-eight years, and all Clement’s successors were French, as were most of the cardinals.  The Papacy had become a French poodle.

This was hardly likely to endear the Papacy to the English who were in an almost continual state of war with France.  Urban’s demand for money was met with almost total hostility.  Edward III summoned Parliament in 1366 to consider his demand.  It was only twenty years since the famous English victory over the French at the Battle of Crecy, and one after another the barons and other nobles rose to condemn the Pope’s request.  King John had had no right to give away his kingdom without the consent of the nation, and if Urban wished to subdue England again, let him buckle on his sword and try it!

‘Forasmuch as neither King John, nor any other king, could bring his realm and kingdom into thraldom and subjection but by the common consent of Parliament, the which was not given, therefore that which he did was against his oath at his coronation, besides many other causes.  If therefore, the Pope should attempt anything against the King, the King, with all his subjects, should, with all their force and power, resist the same.’(2)

Another cause of discontent against the Church and the papacy was the custom of the Pope to appoint foreigners to lucrative Church offices and benefices over the heads of the rightful patrons, and the flow of Church revenues out of the country to Avignon.  To prevent these abuses, the famous Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire were passed by Parliament in 1351 and 1353 respectively.  However, these statutes did not end the practices until the Reformation despite further laws being enacted in 1365, 1390 and 1393.  There was a suspicion among many that some of this money found its way to help fund the French army.

Into this time of growing discontent against the Church came John Wyclif (c. 1325-1384).  He is too famous to be covered in depth in this history (3), but some detail is needed to set the scene for what followed.  Wyclif was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and as a young man he would have witnessed the devastation caused by the Black Death, and seems to have been particularly affected by it.  He had gone to study at Oxford University at some time around 1340, and studied under Thomas Bradwardine, briefly Archbishop of Canterbury.  Wyclif seems to have undergone an evangelical conversion around the time of the Black Death.  He is thought by many to have written an anonymous treatise in 1356 entitled ‘The Last Age of the Church’ in which the writer claimed the plague to have been the righteous judgement of God upon the world and the Church for its wickedness and wondered if the 14th Century would not be the time of Christ’s Return.  His conversion to Christ does not seem to have pleased his parents.  Several of his writings allude to the hostility of his family to his beliefs.

Wyclif first came to prominence in 1365, when Pope Urban was trying to extract the 1,000 marks from England.   It was claimed on Pope Urban’s behalf that ‘as vicar of Christ, the Pope is the feudal superior of monarchs, and the lord paramount of their kingdoms………all sovereigns owe him obedience and tribute.’  Wyclif was called upon to reply.  Styling himself ‘the King’s peculiar clerk,’ he replied, ‘Already a third and more of England is in the hands of the pope’- he referred to the estates and accrued wealth of the Church- ‘There cannot be two temporal sovereigns in one country; either Edward is king or Urban is king.  We accept Edward of England and refuse Urban of Rome’ (4).  Wyclif put forward an early version of the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State.  He taught that neither Church not state was the only true source of authority; only God was.  God, said Wyclif, had delegated some of His authority over secular things to the state, and over spiritual things to the Church, but this authority was given to either only on condition that they served God faithfully.  Therefore, if Bishops failed in that duty, the state, having dominion over secular things, was entitled to strip them of their wealth and privileges.

Wyclif had earlier (1360) attacked the abuses of the begging friars.  Increasingly, he then moved his attack onto the Pope.  In the 1370s, in public lectures at Oxford, he was describing the Pope as ‘Anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome.’  His particular venom was reserved for the ‘draw[ing] out of our land poor men’s livelihoods  and many thousand marks by the year of the king’s money for sacraments and spiritual things that is cursed heresy and simony’ (5).

The Papacy was not slow in responding.  In February 1377, in obedience to a papal ‘bull,’ William Courtenay, Bishop of London, summoned Wyclif to appear before him at a tribunal, but the protection of John of Gaunt, younger son of Edward III, prevented Courtenay from bringing him to trial.  In May, Pope Gregory XI summoned him to Rome, charging him with 19 different heresies.   Wyclif declined to go.  The following month, Edward III died after a fifty-year reign to be succeeded by his eleven year-old grandson, Richard II.  However, John of Gaunt and Richard’s mother (widow of Edward the Black Prince) were regents and continued to protect Wyclif when  Archbishop Sudbury tried to put him on trial in January 1378.

Worse was to follow for the Papacy.  Gregory XI had returned from Avignon to Rome, but in March 1378 he died.  Most of the cardinals were still French, but the populace demanded an Italian Pope.  Under pressure, the cardinals elected Urban VI, but a few months afterwards, they declared the election null and void because it had been carried out under duress.  They elected another Frenchman, Clement VII, as Pope and returned to Avignon.  Now there were two rival Popes each excommunicating his rival and hurling anathemas at him, and touting for support amongst the nations of Christendom.  The prestige and authority of the Papacy had hit rock bottom.  When the legates of Urban and Clement came seeking the support of the English Crown, Wyclif declared, “It is not necessary to go either to Rome or Avignon in order to seek a decision from the Pope, since the triune God is everywhere.  Our Pope is Christ.”

At this time Wyclif published a book called The Truth of Holy Scripture.  In it he declared that the Bible was the only source of Christian doctrine and that all the teachings of the Church, the Church Fathers, the Papacy and church councils must be tested against the word of God.  All Christian should have access to the Bible, and it should therefore be translated into the various languages of the people.  He also argued, following in the footsteps of men like Robert Grosseteste and Thomas Bradwardine (6), that preaching, not performing the mass or other sacraments, was the true work of a priest.

Later in 1378, Wyclif wrote On the Church. In this book he declared that the Church was not an outward organization controlled by the Pope and his cohorts, but a spiritual body comprising those eternally elected to salvation.  At any given time it was the body of true believers worldwide.  It was therefore infallibly known to God alone, and its head was not the Pope but the Lord Jesus Christ.  The pope, he said, could be head only of the outward church that existed in Rome.  The following year, Wyclif followed up his theme with The Power of the Papacy, in which he argued that the papacy was of only human origin and that it had no power over any secular government.  Only a pope who imitated the apostle Peter in his holy living and humility could claim Peter’s authority.  A pope who failed to do this was in reality Antichrist.

In 1380, came On the Eucharist.  Here Wyclif laid his axe to the very root of the Church of Rome’s theology, rejecting the doctrine of Transubstantiation which had been officially promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and going back to the earlier teaching of Augustine in the 5th Century and Retramnus in the ninth.  The bread and wine, he argued, were not miraculously changed at the word of the priest, but maintained their own nature.  The believer (and only he) does indeed feed upon Christ, not physically with his teeth, but spiritually in his heart by faith.   ‘The consecrated host which we see on the altar is neither Christ nor any part of him, but the efficacious sign of him.’

Transubstantiation had become the core doctrine of the Church.  The power and prestige of the priesthood was based on the priests’ supposed ability to summon forth the very body and blood of Christ.   Denial of this doctrine is what the martyrs suffered for all the way through the Reformation.   Wyclif did not die, but the book cost him the support of Oxford University and his patron, John of Gaunt.

At around this time, we begin to hear of supporters of Wyclif.  At the beginning they seem to have been Oxford University scholars who had, perhaps, sat under his teaching.  Nicholas Hereford, John Purvey and John Corringham were early disciples and helpers.  Around 1380, or a little before, Wyclif had begun to send out itinerant preachers through the land.  These ‘Bible men’ or ‘poor priests’ were Wyclif’s repost to the Friars who deceived and robbed the people with their relics and indulgences.  They were quickly given the derisive name of ‘Lollard’ by their opponents.  The term seems to mean a ‘mumbler’ or one who sings in a low voice.  Since the two famous medieval books, Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales each contain a brief reference to ‘Lollards’ it seems that the name must have become current very quickly.

In 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt broke out.  A mob marched on London, captured Archbishop Sudbury of Canterbury and executed him.   Wyclif was in no way involved with this, and he had taught very firmly that people should obey the powers that be (Romans 13:1ff).  Both he and the Lollards who followed him held that the people owed complete loyalty to the secular power, even to the point of suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 2:13ff).  However, one of the leaders of the revolt was a priest called John Ball.  Under interrogation, Ball confessed to being a Lollard, though there is no other evidence that he was any such thing.  As a result, the authorities became increasingly suspicious of Wyclif and his followers.  Also, William Courtenay, Bishop of London and a great opponent of Wyclif, now succeeded Sudbury as Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was not slow in using the power of the Church against him.

In 1382, Sudbury convened a Synod of the Church at the monastery of Blackfriars in London.  Often called the ‘Earthquake Council’ because as it commenced, a small earthquake caused some damage to castle walls and church steeples, the synod was a virtual trial of Wyclif.  Twenty-six propositions from his writings were read out including his proposal that after Urban VI, no further Pope should be appointed; ten of them were pronounced heretical and the rest erroneous.  Under pressure from Sudbury, the young Richard II gave him authority ‘to confine in the prisons of the State any who should maintain the condemned propositions.’  This was the start of the persecution that would eventually drive Lollardy underground.  A further meeting, this time at Oxford, focussed its attention on Wyclif’s condemnation of transubstantiation.  Refusing to recant, Wyclif was forced out of Oxford University and retired to Lutterworth where he was Rector.  His last two years were spent completing his famous translation of the Bible with his colleague, John Purvey.

Shortly before this, in 1378, Pope Urban VI promised indulgences for anyone who would fight against ‘schismatics,’ by which he meant supporters of his rival, Clement VII.  This led to the ‘Norwich Crusade,’ named after Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich.  Despenser not only preached the crusade, but actually led it.   It was supposedly to be against Flanders, but in fact he got little further than Calais, and the whole enterprise ended in confusion and disaster and with Despenser being impeached.  Wyclif wrote against the crusade, and Nicholas Hereford, in an Ascension Day sermon at Oxford in 1382 declared that peace would only come if monies collected by the Church remained in England.  Many Lollards were furious at this aggressive war launched in the name of Christ.  William Swynderby, in a letter to the Bishop of Hereford wrote, “For whereas Christ’s law bids us to love our enemies, the pope’s law gives us leave to hate them and kill them and grants men pardon to war against heathen men and kill them……..whereas Christ’s law teaches peace, the pope with his law assails men for money and gathers priests and others to fight for his cause.”  Walter Brut, on trial before the same Bishop in 1393, declared, “Christ, the King of peace, Saviour of all mankind, came to save, not to condemn and by giving the law of charity to the faithful, taught us to show respect, not anger, and not to hate our enemies……..But the Roman pontiff promotes wars and the killing of men in war in exchange for worldly goods.”

Wyclif died at the close of 1384.  The translation of the Bible which he had overseen was complete, but was found to be very literal and rather hard to read.  It was revised by John Purvey, and almost all the copies that we have today are Purvey’s revision.  Although it was a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible and contained that version’s errors, it was a fine effort and Purvey, whose name is all but forgotten today, should be recognized as one of the Fathers of the English language alongside Langland and Chaucer.  With a modicum of effort, it can still be read today.   Here is John 3:16 in his translation:  Forsothe God so louede the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in to him perische not, but haue euerlastinge lyf.’ And here is John 6:35-37: ‘I am the breed of lyf; he that cometh to me, schal not hunger; he that beleueth in me, schal neuer thirste’ (7).

Wyclif’s followers may have felt that they had good cause for optimism as the 14th Century drew to a close.  The Lollard movement was growing strongly with itinerant preachers spreading the evangelical message all over the country and the English Bible finding its way into an increasing number of homes.  At the same time, however persecution began to bite.  William Swynderby was charged with preaching heresy in 1382, and recanted.  Like the apostle Peter, he soon bitterly regretted denying his Lord and retracted his recantation.  When we hear of him last, he was in hiding in 1391.  Walter Brut was tried before the Bishop of Hereford in 1393.Although a layman, he was extremely well educated, answering his accusers in latin and demonstrating  a great command of Scripture, asserting that those who were judging him were not nearly so wise as “sinners, lay persons and simple people to whom God has chosen to reveal Himself.”  Brut appears to have died in prison in 1402 after being convicted of treason.  John Aston, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, was another Lollard who briefly recanted when arrested in 1383 and faced with long years in prison.  However, he later returned to the faith and was expelled from Oxford University, being denounced by the Bishop of Worcester as a dangerous heretic.

The saddest story of these early Lollards is that of Nicholas Hereford.  He was a Fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford and Chancellor of the University in 1382.  He was an outspoken critic of the Pope and of the Church of his day.  “In time of Christ and the apostles,” he wrote, “Many heathen were converted to Christianity……..[but] now in time of antichrist….” The opposite was happening.  “As now men say that they should of love of their faith war on Christian men, and turn them to the Pope, and slay their persons and their wives and children and sever them [from] their goods and thus chastise them.  But certainly, this cannot be the chastisement of Christ, since Christ saith He came not to lose lives but to save them” (8).  However, Hereford was jailed in 1385 by Archbishop Courtenay in Saltwood Castle.  Somewhere around 1389, he recanted completely and became a theological inquisitor of suspected Lollards.  He was rewarded for his treachery by being appointed Chancellor of Hereford cathedral in 1391 and of St. Paul’s in 1395.

Nevertheless, the Lollard or Protestant cause seemed at this point to be advancing.  We hear of a number of ‘Lollard Kinghts’ who supported Wyclif before his death, and his cause immediately afterwards.  These included Sir Richmond Sury, Sir Lewis Clifford, Sir John Clanvow, Sir John Cheyne and various others.  They were sometimes dubbed the ‘hooded knights’ because they failed to remove their hats in the presence of the ‘host’ or consecrated bread.  These men allowed the Lollards to meet on their lands and supported the copying of the Wyclif Bible and other tracts.  In  1395, the Protestants felt confident enough to publish their ‘Twelve Conclusions.’  These were presented to Parliament and attached to the doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.  These are most interesting.  The preface reads:    “We poor men, treasurers of Christ and his Apostles, denounce to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament certain conclusions and truth for the reformation of the Holy Church of England, the which has been blind and leprous many years by the maintenance of the proud prelacy, borne up with flattering of private religion, the which is multiplied to a great charge and onerous [to] people here in England.”  The Conclusions are summarized as follows (9):

  1. The state of the Church. The first conclusion states that the English Church has become too involved in affairs of State, led by the bad example of the Church of Rome.
  2. The Priesthood. This asserts that the ceremonies used for the ordination of priests are without Scriptural basis or precedent.
  3. Clerical celibacy. This claims that the practice of celibacy has led to homosexuality among the clergy.
  4. This states that the doctrine of transubstantiation leads to idolatrous worship of the communion wafers.
  5. Exorcisms & Hallowings. The claim is that these practices as carried out by the priest are a form of witchcraft and incompatible with Christian doctrine.
  6. Clerics in secular offices. This conclusion asserts that it is not proper for Bishops and others to hold secular positions of power.
  7. Prayers for the dead. This declares that prayers for specific deceased people is uncharitable and the payment of clergy for making prayers or masses for the dead is a form of bribery  because it excludes all other blessed dead who are not being prayed for.
  8. Here it is asserted that pilgrimages and veneration of relics and images have no spiritual benefit and are at worst idolatrous in that they worship created things.
  9. Here the writer declares that the practice of confession for the absolution of sins is blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins, and that if indeed priests had that power, it would be cruel and uncharitable of them not to forgive everyone even if they refused to confess.
  10. Wars & crusades. Here it is asserted that Christians should not go to war, especially those promoted by the Church, such as crusades, which are blasphemous since Christ instructed men to love their enemies.
  11. Female vows of chastity, and abortion. Here it is claimed that women who have taken vows of celibacy are breaking their vows, becoming pregnant and then seeking abortions to conceal the fact.  This is strongly condemned by the writer.
  12. Arts & crafts. Christians, claims the writer, are devoting too much time and energy in the making of beautiful artifacts for the churches, and would do better to devote their lives to godliness and simplicity.

This document is likely to have been written by John Purvey since it is alluded to in the General Preface of his revision of Wyclif’s Bible.  The Conclusions seem to have been well received by the Commons, but badly by the King, Lords and Church.  Richard II, influenced, it seems, by his bride, Anne of Bohemia, had originally been supportive of Wyclif’s teaching, but after Anne’s early death in 1394, Richard seems to have come more under the influence of the clergy.   He was persuaded to condemn the Conclusions in harsh terms, speaking of “damnable errors repugnant to the faith…..which would bring ruin…..if not resisted by the arm of the king’s majesty….lest the wickedness of the lurking enemy thereby infect the people of the whole realm.”  Sir Richard Sury, one of the ‘Lollard knights’ was accused of attaching the conclusions to the doors of St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey and was forced to swear an oath of abjuration under threat of execution.  But generally, Richard would not approve the Church’s desire for the death sentence to be imposed upon the Lollards.  Such a law would not be long in coming, however.

(1) See my previous article

(2) Quoted by David Fountain, John Wycliffe; the Dawn of the Reformation (Mayflower Christian Books, 1984. ISBN 0 907821 02 2).

(3) There are several biographies of Wyclif. A good general book is the one by David Fountain referenced above.

(4) Wylie: History of Protestantism.

(5) From a Wyclif tract. Quoted by David Fountain op cit.

(6) See previous article.

(7) There are several more examples in David Fountain’s book.

(8) Lollard Sermons No. 41.

(9) The full text in modern English is available at





  1. Well done Martin,

    I have researched Wycliffe very carefully on the Continent where much of his material is archived, published several essays and lectured at the university on him. With such a background, one is usually a bit critical when others write on a favourite subject. However, you have written a very fair and well-balanced essay. Perhaps you will find time to evaluate Wycliffe’s doctrines in a later contribution. The more I study them, the more Reformed I find them. Greathead, Bradwardine and Wycliffe must be counted amongst the greatest Reformers in my eyes.

    God bless,


  2. Proper link for (9) includes ‘~chaucer’, not ‘- chaucer’.

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