1378 also brought valuable ammunition to John Wycliffe’s already powerful armoury. Pope Gregory XI who had wanted the reformer dead, died himself on 27th September, which meant that a new pontiff had to be elected.
The majority of the cardinals being French were determined to elect one of their own countrymen as the new pope, but they feared the citizens of Rome who demanded that a Roman be installed in the Vatican. An angry mob fought their way into the conclave towards the end of the election process to make it clear what outcome they expected, and the cardinals, fearing for their lives, managed to escape just in time. Finally a compromise was reached on 8th April 1378, and although a Roman was not elected as pontiff, the people appeared to be pleased with the choice of an Italian pope.
The new man on the throne of St. Peter’s was Bartolommeo Prignano of Naples, who took the name Urban VI. Urban did not live up to his name [the word urbane meaning elegant and sophisticated], but was a man with a very violent and unpredictable temper. Some have suggested that he was a neurotic and mentally imbalanced. This estimation is probably correct in the light of the fact that he had five cardinals who had opposed him executed. Things quickly went from bad to worse for the hierarchy in the Church, for Urban VI ordered radical reforms to take place within the Vatican. He wanted to reconstruct the College of Cardinals in favour of Italians, and because he was angered at the status, privileges and wealth of the cardinals, he described them (presumably the French cardinals) as wicked and blasphemous due to their blatant sin of simony and neglect of pastoral duties.
Because of this, and his erratic behaviour, the Cardinals withdrew their obedience from Urban VI. Out of the twenty-three cardinals, sixteen were French, four were Italian, and the rest were from other European countries. As a group of thirteen French cardinals left Rome for Avignon, Pope Urban, on 18th September, created twenty five new cardinals – an entire college – and in so doing dismissed all those who were defying him. On the 20th September the French cardinals assembled in Avignon to pronounce Urban’s primacy as invalid and illegal. They felt that they had been under great duress regarding his election, and they had listened to the mob rather than their own consciences. In place of Urban VI they elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement VII.
Now the Roman Catholic Church was split and the Great Schism had begun. This brought about warring factions within the Papal system, and the spectacle of two pontiffs fighting each other for supremacy was constant news throughout Europe. The unity of the Catholic Church was shattered, not by invading emperors, but by weakness and worldliness right at the top. France, Naples, Spain and Scotland took the side of Clement VII, whereas England, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Flanders, Italy, Hungary and Portugal accepted Urban VI as the rightful heir to the throne of St. Peter‘s. Behind much of this lay the old anti-French feeling which quickly developed into a crusade against the French Pontiff. Politicians in England did all they could to exploit these circumstances but did not go as far as accepting John of Gaunt’s advice to invade the Castile, since he was claiming the French crown for himself. Pope Urban VI resided in the Vatican, while Pope Clement VII was in Avignon under the protection of King Charles V of France. Therefore all the fighting and arguing between the two factions must be seen as solely a political rather than a spiritual conflict. This situation meant that one half of the Catholic Church considered the other half to be heretical. Each side excommunicated the other, declaring that the opposition’s priesthood, churches, sacraments and doctrines to be blasphemous. Secular and non-Catholic historians find it impossible to judge between the two popes, for there is absolutely no way to figure out who was the true pontiff. Yet, without doubt, we can say that all those who were in favour of the Italian Urban VI were extremely anti-French
John Wycliffe’s allegiance to the king of England is more than likely the reason why he too accepted Urban instead of Clement as the real Bishop of Rome. For in such a climate it would have appeared unpatriotic for anyone to stand by a Frenchman. We must understand that he was an Englishman first and a Roman Catholic second. Despite this Wycliffe had no qualms about declaring Urban VI to be the devil incarnate. Referring to him in his treatise entitled ‘Concerning the Church’ as ‘that terrible devil’ he was making his views clear, that is, he actually supported neither pope on a theological level. Wycliffe’s view hardened later into a belief that the Pope was Antichrist and that now there were two of them only proved how devilish they were. We will see later that it is the same Urban that commanded the reformer to appear before him in Rome in 1384.
Wycliffe was able to use his talents to reveal the utter foolishness and wickedness that was housed in the papal system. He declared them to be, “like dogs quarrelling over a bone” and “like vultures picking from a dead body”. To which he added, “I know that the pope has cloven feet, but now he has a cloven head to match.” He sought to prove that, rather than the pope being the true representative of Christ on earth, he was in fact the vicar of Satan – the Antichrist. He said at the time, “Forasmuch as through his decrees, God’s commandments, by his commandments, Christ’s commandments, by his decretals Paul’s epistles, by his common law, the canonical Scriptures were vilified, nullified, utterly defaced and debased, the pope is potissimus Antichristis – most especially Antichrist.” No doubt he had in mind the text from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” The Great Schism actually lasted until 1417, even resulting in three popes at one time before the issue was finally resolved.
This spectacle of two popes warring for the supreme position of the Roman Catholic Church actually brought John Wycliffe some respite from his foes, for the death of Pope Gregory XI meant that the commission which was commanded to try him had to be disbanded. It is during this time that he worked on the finishing touches and published his treatise entitled ‘Of the Truth of Sacred Scripture’. In this work he sets out why he believes that the Holy Scriptures are the source of all truth, knowledge and logic, and as such should be accepted to be the only infallible authority of the Church.
By the end of 1378 Wycliffe had come down with a very serious illness, which some have described as being palsy. This sickness threatened his life and made those around him, both friends and enemies, believe that he was about to die. The illness was very likely brought on by his self-sacrifice and ceaseless activity on behalf of the Lord and the English people. The Begging Friars (from four different orders) soon heard that the heretic John Wycliffe was dying. They hurried to his bedside with hopes that he would now recant seeing that he was so near death. Such a recantation would bring glory to themselves as well as give them back the liberty to take up their old trade of begging, kidnapping, and carnality again. If Wycliffe repented on his deathbed then maybe the English people would submit to Rome once more. They said to him, “You have death on your lips, repent of your faults and retract in our presence all that you have said against us.” As they stood there pleading with the reformer, he asked his friend Purvey to raise him up a little on his pillow. He proclaimed to the monks, “I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the friars!” And he did just that. Whereupon the friars rushed out of the room as quickly as their legs could carry them. The words of Proverbs 28:1 are well suited for this remarkable scene: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” The lion would roar for some time yet!