On the several occasions that John Wycliffe visited London he took the opportunity to preach inside and outside various churches. This is when the bishops started to take him seriously and began to take action against him. What they heard was going on in Oxford was now being proclaimed in their ears.
Often Wycliffe would preach in the open air by St. Paul’s Cross. This form of preaching was certainly not uncommon to the people, for they were accustomed to hearing travelling friars doing the same thing. Yet with this preacher, he did not teach fables to entertain the crowd, he touched their hearts with the word of God. Rome could abide fabulous stories but not the inspired preaching of God’s word that led men and woman to Christ.
In support of the pope the Catholic clergy rallied together and began to publish tracts defending the pontiff’s authority over England and all the nations on earth. These tracts were a great irritation to John Wycliffe since they were well written and well received by those who read them or heard public reading of them. In direct retaliation the reformer conducted a series of public lectures to explain to the people the wickedness, the superstition and the heresies of Rome.
It was not too long before the papacy responded to Wycliffe’s accusations. The pope incited deep hatred for Wycliffe and all he stood for amongst the Catholic hierarchy in England. They were determined to silence him once and for all, and to publicly destroy every piece of literature that had come from his pen. On the 31st May 1377, from the basilica of St. Marie Maggiore, Pope Gregory XI issued three bulls to the English clergy, which condemned Wycliffe as the “Master of Errors”. An abridged version of the text is as follows:
“Gregory, bishop, servus servorum dei, to his beloved sons the Chancellor and University of Oxford, in the diocese of Lincoln, grace and apostolic benediction.
We are compelled to wonder and grieve that you, who, in consideration of the favours and privileges conceded to your University of Oxford by the apostolic see, and on account of your familiarity with the Scriptures, in whose sea you navigate, by the gift of God, with auspicious oar, you, who ought to be, as it were, warriors and champions of the orthodox faith, without which there is no salvation of souls, – that you through a certain sloth and neglect allow tares to spring up amidst the pure wheat in the fields of your glorious University aforesaid; and what is still more pernicious, even continue to grow to maturity. And you are quite careless, as has been lately reported to us, as to the extirpation of these tares; with no little clouding of a bright name, danger to your souls, contempt of the Roman Church, and injury to the faith above mentioned. And what pains us the more, is that this increase of the tares aforesaid is known in Rome before the remedy of extirpation has been applied in England where they sprang up. By the insinuation of many, if they are indeed worthy of belief, deploring it deeply, it has come to our ears that John de Wycliffe, rector of the church of Lutterworth, in the diocese of Lincoln, Professor of the Sacred Scriptures (would that he were not also Master of Errors), has fallen into such a detestable madness that he does not hesitate to dogmatise and publicly preach, or rather vomit forth from the recesses of his breast, certain propositions and conclusions which are erroneous and false. He has cast himself also into the depravity of preaching heretical dogmas which strive to subvert and weaken the state of the whole church and even secular polity, some of which doctrines, in changed terms, it is true, seem to express the perverse opinions and unlearned learning of Marsilio of Padua of cursed memory, and of John of Jandun, whose book is extant, rejected and cursed by our predecessor, Pope John XXII, of happy memory. This he has done in the kingdom of England, lately glorious in its power and in the abundance of its resources, but more glorious still in the glistening piety of its faith, and in the distinction of its sacred learning; producing also many men illustrious for their exact knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, mature in the gravity of their character, conspicuous in devotion, defenders of the Catholic Church. He has polluted certain of the faithful of Christ by sprinkling them with these doctrines, and led them away from the right paths of the aforesaid faith to the brink of perdition.
Wherefore, since we are not willing, nay, indeed, ought not to be willing, that so deadly a pestilence should continue to exist with our connivance, a pestilence which, if it is not opposed in its beginnings, and torn out by the roots in its entirety, will be reached too late by medicines when it has infected very many with its contagion; we command your University with strict admonition, by the apostolic authority, in virtue of your sacred obedience, and under penalty of the deprivation of all the favours, indulgences, and privileges granted to you and your University by the said see, for the future not to permit to be asserted or proposed to any extent whatever, the opinions, conclusions, and propositions which are in variance with good morals and faith, even when those proposing strive to defend them under a certain fanciful wresting of words or of terms. Moreover, you are on our authority to arrest the said John, or cause him to be arrested and to send him under a trustworthy guard to our venerable brother, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of London, or to one of them.
Besides, if there should be, which God forbid, in your University, subject to your jurisdiction, opponents stained with these errors, and if they should obstinately persist in them, proceed vigorously and earnestly to a similar arrest and removal of them, and otherwise as shall seem good to you. Be vigilant to repair your negligence which you have hitherto shown in the premises, and so obtain our gratitude and favour, and that of the said see, besides the honour and reward of the divine recompense.
Given at Rome, at Santa Maria Maggiore, on the 31st of May, the sixth year of our pontificate.” (Please see www.medievalsourcebook.com).
For John Wycliffe the Roman Catholic Church was leading men and women to damnation. On account of his views he was briefly held under house arrest until an examination of his ‘heresies’ could be undertaken. The outcome of such a trial before the hierarchy of the Church was probably already predetermined back in Rome even before the issuing of the papal bulls. Given the fact that Wycliffe was arrested even before they arrived in England, as noted above, for it seems that the clergy already had the pope’s mind on this matter and had prior knowledge of what the documents contained. Their main aim was to take him out of circulation as soon as possible.
Therefore on 19th February 1377, four months before the papal bulls arrived, John Wycliffe was ordered to appear before the ecclesiastical court. In fact the bulls were not published until the 18th December 1377 since one of them needed to be redirected to the new king, Richard II. William Courtenay, son of the Earl of Devon and Bishop of London, commanded the reformer to appear before him in the Lady Chapel of St. Paul’s.
News of his arrest and trial soon came to the ears of two of John Wycliffe’s powerful friends, John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and Lord Henry Percy (Earl Marshall of England and 1st. Earl of Northumberland). Both of these men held him in high esteem and agreed with almost all of his political aspirations. The reformer’s religious convictions were a different issue with these men, but God was still using them to protect His prophet from the enemy. John of Gaunt was zealous in his protection of Wycliffe and stood firmly against any attempt to destroy him, without this he would have been easy prey for those who hated him. On arrival at the doors of St. Paul’s they found it almost impossible to gain entrance into the courtroom; this was due to the huge crowd that had gathered to witness the proceedings.
Already inside, John Wycliffe, dressed in his ministerial clothes, was standing before his judges. He did not appear to be as a man afraid of the premeditated injustice that was sure to follow, but as a man of faith, encouraged by God Himself, and trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit. Since he was a student of Scripture we might suppose that the words of the Lord Jesus Christ would be comforting his heart at such a time as this: “They shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake. And it shall turn to you for a testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate before what ye shall answer: For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist” (Luke 21:12-15).
Wycliffe’s serenity was noted, and it angered the Bishop of London so much that he appeared visibly upset. This anger must have increased with the appearance of Lord Percy and John of Gaunt. Also four friars from the order of St. Austin, who agreed with Wycliffe’s theology and outspokenness against the abuses in the Church, came to defend him if deemed necessary. He would later write of these men, that they “stood by my side fearlessly in the cause of God”.
Lord Percy, realising that it was going to be a long drawn out procedure, indicated to John Wycliffe that he should sit down for the duration of the trial. Bishop Courtenay, already fuming at the support the heretic was receiving, was greatly offended at this and demanded that Wycliffe stand throughout the proceedings. What transpired next would astound anyone in any courtroom today just as it must have back then. John of Gaunt responded to the bishop’s harsh demand by saying, “Lord Percy’s advice is perfectly reasonable, but as for you”, pointing to the Bishop, “You are arrogant and proud, I will see to it that both you and all the prelacy of England be brought down”. “Do your worst”, replied Courtenay, “You stand tall in the name of your parents, but they will not protect you.” After a few more angry exchanges were made the Bishop added, “I do not put my trust in my parents, nor in any man, my confidence is in God alone, and through which I will boldly declare the truth.” The Duke, turning to Lord Percy, was heard to say under his breath, “I will drag this bishop out of the church by the hair of his head.” Unfortunately this remark was overheard and the crowd was stirred into taking the bishop’s side, thus causing a riot right there in the chapel. The spectators took the bishop’s side because John of Gaunt was unpopular with them, for that same week he had proposed a Bill in Parliament that would deprive the City of London of its municipal government.
All the commotion inside caused the crowds outside to become excited enough to force their way into the chapel in the hopes of seeing this spectacle for themselves. Since the room was so overcrowded and likely to cause injury to life and limb, Bishop Courtenay had no alternative but to abandon the trial and send John Wycliffe away with a command to cease from preaching his doctrines further. The citizens were angry enough to lynch John of Gaunt as he left, but both he and Wycliffe managed to escape before the mob could get to them.