Political Work of John Wycliffe

In 1365 Parliament was opened for the first time in history in the English language, until then leaders used either Latin or French for legal matters. It was John of Gaunt who had the privilege of signifying to Rome that England was on its way to becoming independent from the Holy See. It was also the first signs of a new age of enlightenment for the people of the nation, for such an event would have been considered unthinkable in the past, and was, as we can imagine, condemned by the Roman Catholic chroniclers of the time.

It was also in the same year that Pope Urban V demanded that England finally and completely submit to the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Such submission entailed recognising the pope as the only legitimate sovereign of England. Yet within Parliament there was a stirring and an awakening from the darkness that had been imposed by Rome for so long. The government was actually discussing the plan of action for resisting the pope’s demands, and even to make use of military force if it became necessary. Such debating by the leaders of the nation over the possibility of casting off the shackles of Rome must have sounded like music in the ears of John Wycliffe as he himself was coming to terms with the theological implications of serving the pope. His preaching against Roman Catholic doctrine must have been noticed by the political leaders as well as the clergy, for during his lectures he would preach on the need for reform both in Church and State. Though John Wycliffe did not realise it at the time, since he was thinking more along a theological line than political, God had was raising him up in England to be the leading light, even if it was only for a short time. Like Queen Esther of the Old Testament he had “come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). The time for his political career was almost ready, but there was to be a few years yet before he would take his place in national and international affairs.

In 1368 Wycliffe received a licence from Bishop Buckingham to spend two years in the study of letters in Oxford University. Later in this same year he vacated the rectory in Lincolnshire to take up that of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, which also meant a greatly reduced income. Even then he was only a sixteen mile horse ride from his beloved Oxford, which he was now calling “The house of God and the gate of heaven”. As Rector of Ludgershall he was made aware of the terrible hardships which the peasants had to endure. Life for the poor was desperate. Government had fixed wages a few years previously, so that when the cost of living rose the wages did not. Men became so desperate that they would prostitute their own wives and daughters to raise money to buy enough food for the table. Back in 1349 both King and Parliament had enacted The Statute of Labourers whereby they were able to fix wages, but this caused the inevitable ill-feeling between the wealthy and working classes. Any person refusing to work for lower wages could be imprisoned for up to fifteen days, and if he tried to flee to another part of the country, he would be sent to the sheriff to have a letter ‘F’ branded upon his forehead. Regardless of the penalties imposed by the State, tension between the two classes was increasing, and would eventually boil over into what became known as The Peasants’ Revolt.

About this time Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), one of the great English poets, who wrote The Canterbury Tales, was becoming widely known for his outspokenness against the evils of the monks and the social injustice of the poor. In 1367 Chaucer had become an esquire (shield-bearer) to King Edward III, and was in the service of John of Gaunt. It would be remarkable if John Wycliffe were not in some way personally acquainted with Geoffrey Chaucer.

What Wycliffe was teaching was not unorthodox, but it did cut right across the worldliness of the Church and her ministers. As persecution for his beliefs intensified so did his determination to do something about the rot which was so evident in society. The reformer did not relent with regards to his views on the papacy. It had become his conviction that the Roman Catholic Church could feed all the poor of Europe and still have enough in reserve. His opinions did not escape the attention of the Bishop of Ely, a former Archbishop of Westminster, Stephen Langham.

On the demise of Archbishop Islip, who had given John Wycliffe the wardenship of Canterbury Hall, Langham removed this privileged position from him. It may surprise us to learn that Wycliffe actually appealed to the pope for reinstatement! His appeal, to say the least, was rejected. Yet it baffles historians in noting that the pope instead grants Wycliffe the canonry of Lincoln. As soon as the pontiff, Gregory XI, being the reigning pope, realised his infallible mistake he removed the canonry from him.

In 1371 he began work on a commentary of the whole Bible. As with the majority of his works this was written in Latin and therefore based upon Jerome’s Vulgate version. He finished this sometime around 1376.

1372 brought an end to Wycliffe’s sixteen year course for the degree in divinity, thus receiving the right to preach on theology; for since 1311 Oxford University would only allow those with such a degree to lecture on the Holy Scriptures.

King Edward III, in 1372, sent four commissioners to Avignon to appeal directly to Pope Gregory XI (reign: 1370-1378). Since 1309 and until 1377 seven popes had been forced to reside in Avignon in the south of France instead of Rome for personal safety. This was known as “The Babylonian Captivity of the Popes”, so-called because of Israel’s seventy year captivity in Babylon. This pope’s reign was dogged with constant fighting between the various Papal States. The pope had written to the King of England regarding his obligation to pay the annual tribute to Rome, he writes, “The Curia had not hitherto made demands, from regard to the necessity of England, which had been involved in grievous wars, but now that peace is restored; England is rich and can satisfy her obligations.” The four commissioners were to petition the pope for a relaxation of the revenue and a kerbing of the gross abuses of the clergy in England.

Government and the King considered that the agreement made between King John and Pope Innocent V to be illegal. King John was basically forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. He had been excommunicated by the Bishop of Rome because of his dispute over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and for his attempt to gain freedom from Rome for England. Finally King John, completely humiliated, would unconditionally submit to the pope and pay large sums of money to the Vatican for the right to continue as King of England.

One of the four commissioners was John Wycliffe. His position in the group of representatives was probably due to his siding with the anti-clerical party in Parliament, and for his continued attack on the sovereignty of the pope, of which he said previous to being sent to Avignon and while Urban was still alive, “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 reject Urban of Rome.”

For two years they negotiated with the Papal Nuncios (from France, Italy, and Spain) in Bruges in the Netherlands. Some commentators suggest that John Wycliffe only remained in Bruges for three months before returning to Oxford, but this seems unlikely given the importance of the position entrusted to him by the king of England, and the fact that the other three commissioners were there for the full term. Nevertheless, all the negotiation with the Church was of no avail, for as soon as the king’s representatives left for home every promise and agreement was immediately broken by the Roman Catholic Church.

The brief visit to Avignon, before the talks were moved to The Netherlands, was a real eye-opener for Wycliffe. What he saw and experienced firsthand, which was hidden from the majority of the Roman Catholic faithful, amongst the pope and his closest men, revealed to him just what depths of depravity and corruption the Church had sunk to. He would later say of the Bishop of Rome that he was truly “Antichrist, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of all pickpockets and purse-keepers”. He was also heard to pray, “Lord, if Christ would not have as much as a little house in which to rest His head, or call his own, how should Christ’s vicar be so great a lord in this world?”

In recognition for his work in negotiating with the Papacy John Wycliffe was appointed Rector of Lutterworth. At this time he had begun to call himself “the king’s peculiar clerk”, which may be an indication that he had become a royal chaplain. This appointment was also a result of Wycliffe’s involvement in drawing up the Bill of Indictment, in which the Good Parliament, as it was then called, expressed their intention of standing against the temporal claims of the papacy, and thus declaring its initial independence from Rome. Such an appointment would normally come from the pope himself rather than the king. The appointment to the rectorship of Lutterworth was a very significant event, for it must be seen as a political manoeuvre by both king and Parliament. It was in fact a signal to the papacy that England was henceforth rejecting the authority of the Bishop of Rome, and claiming the right to promote whom she pleased to ecclesiastical positions.

John Wycliffe, reformer and politician, was fast becoming a national hero, a champion of justice, and a leading light for the people of England. Since he was an expert in Latin and theology he was well able to take on the might of the papacy. He was also well suited to undertake such an important work that would not only affect his own life, and of those around him, but also the Christian Church for the ages that would follow.

But his greatest work was about to commence. It was at this time that he began work on translating the Holy Bible into the common tongue, though there is a possibility that he dabbled in this area as early as 1374. His intention was to produce a literal translation of the text, as close to the Latin as possible, since Wycliffe did not know either Greek or Hebrew, nevertheless his work was vitally important for establishing the Word of God in this nation. His adherence to the text of Scripture would make him one of England’s first fundamentalists. His view of Scripture was, “It is impossible for any part of the Holy Scriptures to be wrong. In Holy Scripture is all truth; one part of Scripture explains another” and “God’s words will give men new life more than the other words that are for pleasure. O marvellous power of the Divine Seed, which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into divine men, those men who had been brutalised by sin, and departed infinitely far from God.” This was to be his guiding principle as he set about translating the Latin Bible into English.