John Wycliffe

c.1329-1384. English Reformer. A Yorkshireman who attended Oxford University, receiving the doctorate in theology (1372), he spent much of his life in association with the institution. By 1361 he was a lecturer at the university, but received his living from churches to which he was appointed rector. Wycliffe was a brilliant scholar, and master of the late Scholastic tradition. His talents were useful to John of Gaunt (duke of Lancaster), the son of Edward III, who summoned him to court (1376-78). Gaunt was the effective ruler of England from the death of his father until the emergence of Richard II from his minority (1381).

Wycliffe offended the church with his nationalist, pro- government views, among these being the idea that the civil government should seize the property of immoral clerics. Consequently a meeting was held at St. Paul's (1377) to which Wycliffe was called to answer for his ideas. The duke of Lancaster and the presiding bishop, William Courtenay, argued over their respective rights in the conduct of the session, and the meeting broke up without a word from Wycliffe. By 1377 the pope condemned Wycliffe's teaching in a series of bulls and warned the university to exclude him. Later (March 1378) Wycliffe appeared before the archbishop at Lambeth House, and even though an order from the government forbade his condemnation, he was told to stop spreading his views.

As long as Wycliffe's criticisms were limited to the wealth of the church and the civil power of the clergy, he kept many friends, both among the friars and the aristocracy. But when he attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation and taught a doctrine of the Real Presence (c.1380), he lost much of his support. There were also two other developments that hurt his cause, namely, the Great Schism* of 1378 which caused the English to form closer ties with the Roman Curia, and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Although he was not directly involved in the rebellion, his critics claimed that the disaster was implicit in his heresies.

This situation enabled Bishop Courtenay to force Wycliffe's followers from Oxford. Since he was ill, Wycliffe went to live at his parish of Lutterworth (1382). He died of a stroke (1384) and was buried in the church graveyard. In 1428, due to his heresy, Wycliffe's body was exhumed and burnt and the ashes were thrown into the Swift River.

Wycliffe was a prolific writer. Even during the last ten years of his life, when he was the focus of a sharp attack by the papacy and involved in several trials and hearings, he was so productive that even his enemies were amazed. During these years he completed a Summa Theologica, at least six other books, and numerous pamphlets. He instigated a translation of the Vulgate* into English (see Bible, English Versions), preached hundreds of sermons, continued to lecture at the university until his health failed, and counseled those involved in the “poor priest” movement. His earlier writings dealt with logical and metaphysical subjects. Later he turned to the problem of the relations between the church and the state. Some scholars believe that he was alienated from the papacy because he did not receive an important position; but it is just as likely that the Avignon* papacy caused his alienation.

He has been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Certainly his belief that the Bible was the only authoritative guide for faith and practice would substantiate this claim. In other ways he was a proto-Protestant. He denied transubstantiation, attacked the institution of the papacy, repudiated indulgences, and wished to have religious orders abolished. Wycliffe's teaching did not have much effect in England. His connection with the Lollard* movement is a matter of dispute. The persecution of his followers, especially by the act De heretico comburendo (1401), was effective. What failed in England was successful in Bohemia. Students from that land attended Oxford and took his teachings back to Prague. Through this means Jan Hus* and his followers adopted the ideas of Wycliffe and kept them alive until the Reformation era.

H.B. Workman, John Wyclif (2 vols., 1926); J.H. Dahmus, The Prosecution of John Wycliffe (1952); K.B. McFarlane, John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Non-Conformity (1952); E.A. Block, John Wyclif: Radical Dissenter (1962); J. Stacey, Wyclif and Reform (1964).