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
xpected, 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Edward the Third, then king of England, had withdrawn the tribute, which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.