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John Wickliffe

This celebrated reformer, denominated the Morning Star of the
Reformation, was born about the year 1324, in the reign of Edward II. Of
his extraction we have no certain account. His parents designing him for
the church, sent him to Queen's College, Oxford, about that period
founded by Robert Eaglesfield, confessor to queen Philippi. But not
meeting with the advantages for study in that newly established house
which he expected, he removed to Merton College, which was then esteemed
one of the most learned societies in Europe.

The first thing which drew him into public notice, was his defence of
the University against the begging friars, who about this time, from
their settlement in Oxford in 1230, had been troublesome neighbours to
the University. Feuds were continually fomented; the friars appealing to
the pope, the scholars to the civil power; and sometimes one party, and
sometimes the other, prevailed. The friars became very fond of a notion
that Christ was a common beggar; that his disciples were beggars also;
and that begging was of gospel institution. This doctrine they urged
from the pulpit and wherever they had access.

Wickliffe had long held these religious friars in contempt for the
laziness of their lives, and had now a fair opportunity of exposing
them. He published a treatise against able beggary, in which he lashed
the friars, and proved that they were not only a reproach to religion,
but also to human society. The University began to consider him one of
her first champions, and he was soon promoted to the mastership of
Baliol College.

About this time, archbishop Islip founded Canterbury Hall, in Oxford,
where he established a warden and eleven scholars. To this wardenship
Wickliffe was elected by the archbishop, but upon his demise, he was
displaced by his successor, Stephen Langham, bishop of Ely. As there
was a degree of flagrant injustice in the affair, Wickliffe appealed to
the pope, who subsequently gave it against him from the following cause:
Edward the Third, then king of England, had withdrawn the tribute, which
from the time of king John had been paid to the pope. The pope menaced;
Edward called a parliament. The parliament resolved that king John had
done an illegal thing, and given up the rights of the nation, and
advised the king not to submit, whatever consequences might follow.

The clergy now began to write in favour of the pope, and a learned monk
published a spirited and plausible treatise, which had many advocates.
Wickliffe, irritated at seeing so bad a cause so well defended, opposed
the monk, and did it in so masterly a way, that he was considered no
longer as unanswerable. His suit at Rome was immediately determined
against him; and nobody doubted but his opposition to the pope, at so
critical a period, was the true cause of his being non-suited at Rome.

Wickliffe was afterward elected to the chair of the divinity professor:
and now fully convinced of the errors of the Romish church, and the
vileness of its monastic agents, he determined to expose them. In public
lectures he lashed their vices and opposed their follies. He unfolded a
variety of abuses covered by the darkness of superstition. At first he
began to loosen the prejudices of the vulgar, and proceeded by slow
advances; with the metaphysical disquisitions of the age, he mingled
opinions in divinity apparently novel. The usurpations of the court of
Rome was a favourite topic. On these he expatiated with all the keenness
of argument, joined to logical reasoning. This soon procured him the
clamour of the clergy, who, with the archbishop of Canterbury, deprived
him of his office.

At this time, the administration of affairs was in the hands of the duke
of Lancaster, well known by the name of John of Gaunt. This prince had
very free notions of religion, and was at enmity with the clergy. The
exactions of the court of Rome having become very burdensome, he
determined to send the bishop of Bangor and Wickliffe to remonstrate
against these abuses, and it was agreed that the pope should no longer
dispose of any benifices belonging to the church of England. In this
embassy, Wickliffe's observant mind penetrated into the constitution and
policy of Rome, and he returned more strongly than ever determined to
expose its avarice and ambition.

Having recovered his former situation, he inveighed, in his lectures,
against the pope--his usurpation--his infallibility--his pride--his
avarice--and his tyranny. He was the first who termed the pope
Antichrist. From the pope, he would turn to the pomp, the luxury and
trappings of the bishops, and compared them with the simplicity of
primitive bishops. Their superstitions and deceptions were topics that
he urged with energy of mind and logical precision.

From the patronage of the duke of Lancaster, Wickliffe received a good
benefice; but he was no sooner settled in his parish, than his enemies
and the bishops began to persecute him with renewed vigor. The duke of
Lancaster was his friend in this persecution, and by his presence and
that of Lord Percy, earl marshal of England, he so overawed the trial,
that the whole ended in disorder.

After the death of Edward III. his grandson Richard II. succeeded, in
the eleventh year of his age. The duke of Lancaster not obtaining to be
the sole regent, as he expected, his power began to decline, and the
enemies of Wickliffe, taking advantage of this circumstance, renewed
their articles of accusation against him. Five bulls were despatched in
consequence by the pope to the king and certain bishops, but the regency
and the people manifested a spirit of contempt at the haughty
proceedings of the pontiff, and the former at that time wanting money to
oppose an expected invasion of the French, proposed to apply a large
sum, collected for the use of the pope to that purpose. The question was
submitted to the decision of Wickliffe. The bishops, however, supported
by the papal authority, insisted upon bringing Wickliffe to trial, and
he was actually undergoing examination at Lambeth, when, from the
riotous behaviour of the populace without, and awed by the command of
sir Lewis Clifford, a gentleman of the court, that they should not
proceed to any definitive sentence, they terminated the whole affair in
a prohibition to Wickliffe, not to preach those doctrines which were
obnoxious to the pope; but this was laughed at by our reformer, who,
going about barefoot, and in a long frieze gown, preached more
vehemently than before.

In the year 1378, a contest arose between two popes, Urban VI. and
Clement VII. which was the lawful pope, and true vicegerent of God. This
was a favourable period for the exertion of Wickliffe's talents: he soon
produced a tract against popery, which was eagerly read by all sorts of

About the end of the year, Wickliffe was seized with a violent disorder,
which it was feared might prove fatal. The begging friars, accompanied
by four of the most eminent citizens of Oxford, gained admittance to his
bed-chamber, and begged of him to retract, for his soul's sake, the
unjust things he had asserted of their order. Wickliffe surprised at the
solemn message, raised himself in his bed, and with a stern countenance
replied, "I shall not die, but live to declare the evil deeds of the

When Wickliffe recovered, he set about a most important work, the
translation of the bible into English. Before this work appeared, he
published a tract, wherein he showed the necessity of it. The zeal of
the bishops to suppress the scriptures, greatly promoted its sale, and
they who were not able to purchase copies, procured transcripts of
particular gospels or epistles. Afterward, when Lollardy increased, and
the flames kindled, it was a common practice to fasten about the neck of
the condemned heretic such of these scraps of scripture as were found in
his possession, which generally shared his fate.

Immediately after this transaction, Wickliffe ventured a step further,
and affected the doctrine of transubstantiation. This strange opinion
was invented by Paschade Radbert, and asserted with amazing boldness.
Wickliffe, in his lecture before the university of Oxford, 1381,
attacked this doctrine, and published a treatise on the subject. Dr.
Barton, at this time vice-chancellor of Oxford, calling together the
heads of the university, condemned Wickliffe's doctrines as heretical,
and threatened their author with excommunication. Wickliffe could now
derive no support from the duke of Lancaster, and being cited to appear
before his former adversary, William Courteney, now made archbishop of
Canterbury, he sheltered himself under the plea, that, as a member of
the university, he was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. This plea was
admitted, as the university were determined to support their member.

The court met at the appointed time, determined, at least to sit in
judgment upon his opinions, and some they condemned as erroneous, others
as heretical. The publication on this subject was immediately answered
by Wickliffe, who had become a subject of the archbishop's determined
malice. The king, solicited by the archbishop, granted a license to
imprison the teacher of heresy, but the commons made the king revoke
this act as illegal. The primate, however, obtained letters from the
king, directing the head of the university of Oxford to search for all
heresies and the books published by Wickliffe; in consequence of which
order, the university became a scene of tumult. Wickliffe is supposed to
have retired from the storm, into an obscure part of the kingdom. The
seeds, however, were scattered, and Wickliffe's opinions were so
prevalent, that it was said, if you met two persons upon the road, you
might be sure that one was a Lollard. At this period, the disputes
between the two popes continued. Urban published a bull, in which he
earnestly called upon all who had any regard for religion, to exert
themselves in its cause; and to take up arms against Clement and his
adherents in defence of the holy see.

A war, in which the name of religion was so vilely prostituted, roused
Wickliffe's inclination, even in his declining years. He took up his pen
once more, and wrote against it with the greatest acrimony. He
expostulated with the pope in a very free manner, and asks him boldly,
"How he durst make the token of Christ on the cross (which is the token
of peace, mercy and charity) a banner to lead us to slay christian men,
for the love of two false priests, and to oppress Christendom worse than
Christ and his apostles were oppressed by the Jews? When, said he, will
the proud priest of Rome grant indulgences to mankind to live in peace
and charity, as he now does to fight and slay one another?"

This severe piece drew upon him the resentment of Urban; and was likely
to have involved him in greater troubles than he had before experienced,
but providentially he was delivered out of their hands. He was struck
with the palsy, and though he lived some time yet in such a way, that
his enemies considered him as a person below their resentment. To the
last he attended divine worship, and received the fatal stroke of his
disorder in his church at Lutterworth, in the year 1384.

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