John Wycliffe (1330 -1384)
John produced some of the first hand written English translations of the Bible and helped to make them widely available. He argued that scripture was the primary source basis of Christianity and criticised both the Papacy and the clerical basis of the Catholic church; He is seen by many as the precursor for the later Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and referred to as the "morning star of the Reformation".
He was born in the North Ridings, Yorkshire. As a young man he moved to Oxford to study natural science, mathematics and theology but he was most interested in theology and studying scripture. He was known for being an excellent scholar with a thorough understanding of the law; gaining the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was made head of Canterbury Hall in 1365. When the Pope pressed England to send taxes, Wycliffe was instrumental in drafting a reply arguing that there was no basis for demanding a tribute from a foreign power.
“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.”
Surprisingly the Pope, withdrew his request.
With support from his patron John of Gaunt, he wrote tracts and books, expressing his views. (The most important was Summa Theologiae) This included denunciations of collecting indulgences for the remission of sin. He also asserted the right of the King to take away property from the church, if justified.
Wycliffe became a popular preacher in London, and many reformers allied themsevles with his views. He also attracted criticism from those with powerful positions in the church, who were now threatened by his talk of reform. After calling for the secularisation of English church property, his opponents argued he was guilty of blasphemy. Wycliffe had to defend himself at Lambeth palace. With opinion split, he was forbidden to speak further on these matters.
However, with powerful backers, Wycliffe continued his reforming attempts. In particular, he began the very significant step of translating and writing out the New Testament in English. This was a radical step as it brought the gospels close to the ordinary person who could not understand Latin, and removed the Church as the ‘interpreter’.
For the next few years he continued to attack the Pope and the church hierarchy. The church sought to destroy the English versions of his bible, but the fact that so many copies survived suggest, that under his leadership, the movement to distribute the Bible in English was quite successful. Wycliffe began to attract a group of followers – known as the Lollards. They spread Wycliffe’s teaching and ideas throughout England. His political influence was such that he was even blamed for the peasant’s revolt of 1381 – though he disapproved of it.
Attacks against Wycliffe continued until his death. But, supported by a sufficient number of people (especially in Oxford, and Parliament) he was never excommunicated or deprived of his position. Twenty years after his death he was condemned as a heretic so his books would be burned and his body would be exhumed and bones crushed. However, he had left a profound mark on English and European thought. He had challenged the authority of the church and Pope, laying the foundation for the future Reformation, which would reject the Papacy and promote the Bible. Also, his work to make an English version of the bible available was a critical moment in English Christianity.