What were the conditions that led England, in the fourteenth century, to rehearse the Reformation?
Probably the morals of the clergy played only a secondary role in the drama. The higher clergy had reconciled itself to celibacy; we hear of a Bishop Burnell who had five sons,7 but presumably he was exceptional. Wyclif, Langland, Gower, and Chaucer agreed in noting a predilection, among monks and friars, for good food and bad women. But the Britons would hardly have created a national furore over such deviations, already hallowed by time, or about nuns who came to services with their dogs on leash and their pet birds on their arms,8 or monks who raced through their incoherent prayers. (The humorous English assigned to Satan a special assistant to collect all syllables dropped by “graspers, leapers, gallopers, mumblers, fore-skippers, and fore-runners” in such syncopated devotions, and allotted the sinner a year in hell for each ignored or trampled syllable.9)
What gnawed at the purse nerves of laity and government was the expanding and migratory wealth of the English Church. The clergy on several occasions contributed a tenth of their income to the state, but they insisted that no tax could be laid upon them without the consent of their convocations. Besides being represented in the Upper House of Parliament by their bishops and abbots, they gathered, directly or by proctors, in convocations under the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and determined there all matters dealing with religion or the clergy. It was usually from the ranks of the clergy, as the best-educated class in England, that the king chose the highest officials of the state. Suits of laymen against clergymen, touching Church property, were subject to the king’s courts, but the bishops’ courts had sole jurisdiction over tonsured offenders. In many towns the Church leased property to tenants and claimed full judicial authority over these tenants, even when they committed crimes.10 Such conditions were irritating, but the major irritant was the flow of wealth from the English Church to the popes—i.e., in the fourteenth century, to Avignon—i.e., to France. It was estimated that more English money went to the pope than to the state or the king.11
An anticlerical party formed at the court. Laws were passed to make ecclesiastical property bear a larger and steadier share in the expenses of government. In 1333 Edward III refused to pay any longer the tribute that King John of England had pledged to the popes in 1213. In 1351 the Statute of Provisors sought to end papal control over the personnel or revenues of English benefices. The First Statute of Praemunire (1353) outlawed Englishmen who sued in “foreign” (papal) courts on matters claimed by the king to lie under secular jurisdiction. In 1376 the Commons officially complained that papal collectors in England were sending great sums of money to the pope, and that absentee French cardinals were drawing rich revenues from English sees.12
The anticlerical party at the court was led by John of Gaunt, whose protection enabled John Wyclif to die a natural death.
The first of the English reformers was born at Hipswell, near the village of Wyclif, in north Yorkshire about 1320. He studied at Oxford, became professor of theology there, and for a year (1360) was Master of Balliol College. He was ordained to the priesthood, and received from the popes various benefices or livings in parish churches, but continued meanwhile to teach at the University. His literary activity was alarming. He wrote vast Scholastic treatises on metaphysics, theology, and logic, two volumes of polemics, four of sermons, and a medley of short but influential tracts, including the famous Tractatus de civili dominio. Most of his compositions were in graceless and impenetrable Latin that should have made them harmless to any but grammarians. But hidden among these obscurities were explosive ideas that almost severed Britain from the Roman Church 155 years before Henry VIII, plunged Bohemia into civil war, and anticipated nearly all the reform ideas of John Huss and Martin Luther.
Putting his worse foot forward, and surrendering to Augustine’s logic and eloquence, Wyclif built his creed upon that awful doctrine of predestination which was to remain even to our day the magnet and solvent of Protestant theology. God, wrote Wyclif, gives His grace to whomever He wishes, and has predestined each individual, an eternity before birth, to be lost or saved through all eternity. Good works do not win salvation, but they indicate that he who does them has received divine grace and is one of the elect. We act according to the disposition that God has allotted to us; to invert Heraclitus, our fate is our character. Only Adam and Eve had free will; by their disobedience they lost it for themselves and for their posterity.
God is sovereign lord of us all. The allegiance that we owe Him is direct, as is the oath of every Englishman to the king, not indirect through allegiance to a subordinate lord, as in feudal France. Hence the relationship of man to God is direct, and requires no intermediary; any claim of Church or priest to be a necessary medium must be repelled.13 In this sense all Christians are priests, and need no ordination. God holds dominion over all the earth and the contents thereof; a human being can justly hold property only as His obedient vassal. Anyone who is in a state of sin—which constitutes rebellion against the Divine Sovereign—loses all right of possession, for rightful possession (“dominion”) requires a state of grace. Now it is clear from Scripture that Christ intended His Apostles, their successors, and their ordained delegates to have no property. Any church or priest that owns property is violating the Lord’s commandment, is therefore in a state of sin, and consequently cannot validly administer the sacraments. The reform most needed in Church and clergy is their complete renunciation of wordly goods.
As if this were not troublesome enough, Wyclif deduced from his theology a theoretical communism and anarchism. Any person in a state of grace shares with God the ownership of all goods; ideally everything should be held by the righteous in common.14Private property and government (as some Scholastic philosophers had taught) are results of Adam’s sin (i.e., of human nature) and man’s inherited sinfulness; in a society of universal virtue there would be no individual ownership, no man-made laws of either Church or state.15 Suspecting that the radicals, who were at this time meditating revolt in England, would interpret this literally, Wyclif explained that his communism was to be understood only in an ideal sense; the powers that be, as Paul had taught, are ordained by God, and must be obeyed. This flirtation with revolution was almost precisely repeated by Luther in 1525.
The anticlerical party saw some sense, if not in Wyclif’s communism, at least in his condemnation of ecclesiastical wealth. When Parliament again refused to pay King John’s tribute to the pope (1366), Wyclif was engaged as peculiaris regis clericus—z cleric in the service of the king—to prepare a defense of the act.16 In 1374 Edward III gave him the rectory of Lutterworth, apparently as a retaining fee.17 In July 1376, Wyclif was appointed to the royal commission sent to Bruges to discuss with papal agents the continued refusal of England to pay the tribute. When John of Gaunt proposed that the government should confiscate part of the Church’s property, he invited Wyclif to defend the proposal in a series of sermons in London; Wyclif complied (September 1376), and was thereafter branded by the clerical party as a tool of Gaunt. Bishop Courtenay of London decided to attack Gaunt indirectly by indicting Wyclif as a heretic. The preacher was summoned to appear before a council of prelates at St. Paul’s in February 1377. He came, but accompanied by John of Gaunt with an armed retinue. The soldiers entered into a dispute with some spectators; a fracas ensued, and the bishop thought it discreet to adjourn. Wyclif returned unhurt to Oxford. Courtenay dispatched to Rome a detailed accusation quoting fifty-two passages from Wyclif’s works. In May, Gregory XI issued bulls condemning eighteen propositions, mostly from the treatise On Civil Dominion, and ordered Archbishop Sudbury and Bishop Courtenay to inquire whether Wyclif still held these views; if he did they were to arrest him and keep him in chains pending further instructions.
By this time Wyclif had won the support not only of John of Gaunt and Lord Percy of Northumberland but of a large body of public opinion as well. The Parliament that met in October was strongly anticlerical. The argument for disendowment of the Church had charms for many members, who reckoned that if the King should seize the wealth now held by English bishops, abbots, and priors, he could maintain with it fifteen earls, 1,500 knights, 6,200 squires, and have £20,000 a year left for himself.18 At this time France was preparing to invade England, and the English treasury was almost empty; how foolish it seemed to let papal agents collect funds from English parishes for a French pope and a college of cardinals overwhelmingly French! The King’s advisers asked Wyclif to prepare an opinion on the question ‘Whether the Realm of England can legitimately, when the necessity of repelling invasion is imminent, withhold the treasure of the Realm that it be not sent to foreign parts, although the pope demand it under pain of censure and in virtue of obedience to him?’ Wyclif answered in a pamphlet that in effect called for the severance of the English Church from the papacy. ‘The pope,’ he wrote, ‘cannot demand this treasure except by way of alms.... Since all charity begins at home, it would be the work not of charity but of fatuity to direct the alms of the Realm abroad when the Realm itself is in need of them.’ Against the contention that the English Church was part of, and should obey, the universal or Catholic Church, Wyclif recommended the ecclesiastical independence of England. ‘The Realm of England, in the words of Scripture, ought to be one body, and clergy, lords, and commonalty members of that body.’19 This anticipation of Henry VIII seemed so bold that the King’s advisers directed Wyclif to make no further statements on the matter.
The Parliament adjourned on November 28. On December 18 the embattled bishops published the condemnatory bulls, and bade the chancellor of Oxford to enforce the Pope’s order of arrest. The university was then at the height of its intellectual independence. In 1322 it had assumed the right to depose an unsatisfactory chancellor without consulting its formal superior, the Bishop of Lincoln; in 1367 it had thrown off all episcopal control. Half of the faculty supported Wyclif, at least in his right to express his opinions. The chancellor refused to obey the bishops, and denied the authority of any prelate over the university in matters of belief; meanwhile he counseled Wyclif to remain in modest seclusion for a while. But it is a rare reformer who can be silent. In March 1378, Wyclif appeared before the bishops’ assembly at Lambeth to defend his views. As the hearing was about to begin, the Archbishop received a letter from the mother of King Richard II deprecating any final condemnation of Wyclif; and in the midst of the proceedings a crowd forced its way in from the street and declared that the English people would not tolerate any Inquisition in England. Yielding to this combination of government and populace, the bishops deferred decision, and again Wyclif went home unhurt—indeed, triumphant. On March 27 Gregory XI died, and a few months later the Papal Schism divided and weakened the papacy, and the whole authority of the Church. Wyclif resumed the offensive, and issued tract after tract, many in English, extending his heresies and revolt.
He is pictured to us in these years as a man hardened by controversy and made puritan by age. He was no mystic; rather, a warrior and an organizer; and perhaps he carried his logic to merciless extremes. His talent for vituperation now disported itself freely. He denounced the friars for preaching poverty and accumulating collective wealth. He thought some monasteries were ‘dens of thieves, nests of serpents, houses of living devils.’20 He challenged the theory that the merits of the saints could be applied to the rescue of souls from purgatory; Christ and the Apostles had taught no doctrine of indulgences. ‘Prelates deceive men by feigned indulgences or pardons, and rob them cursedly of their money.... . Men be great fools that buy these bulls of pardon so dear.’21 If the pope had the power to snatch souls from purgatory, why did he not in Christian charity take them out at once?22 With mounting vehemence Wyclif alleged that ‘many priests .... defile wives, maidens, widows, and nuns in every manner of lechery,’23 and demanded that the crimes of the clergy should be punishable by secular courts. He excoriated curates who flattered the rich and despised the poor, who easily forgave the sins of the wealthy but excommunicated the indigent for unpaid tithes, who hunted and hawked and gambled, and related fake miracles.24 The prelates of England, he charged, ‘take poor men’s livelihood, but they do not oppose oppression’; they ‘set more price by the rotten penny than by the precious blood of Christ’; they pray only for show, and collect fees for every religious service that they perform; they live in luxury, riding fat horses with harness of silver and gold; ‘they are robbers .... malicious foxes .... ravishing wolves .... gluttons .... devils .... apes’;25 here even Luther’s language is forecast. ‘Simony reigns in all states of the Church.... The simony of the court of Rome does most harm, for it is most common, and under most color of holiness, and robs most our land of men and treasure.’26 The scandalous rivalry of the popes (in the Schism), their bandying of excommunications, their unashamed struggle for power, ‘should move men to believe in popes only so far as these follow Christ.’27 A pope or a priest ‘is a lord, yea, even ā king,’ in matters spiritual; but if he assumes earthly possessions, or political authority, he is unworthy of his office. ‘Christ had not whereon to rest His head, but men say this pope hath more than half the Empire.... . Christ was meek... the pope sits on his throne and makes lords to kiss his feet.’ 28 Perhaps, Wyclif gently suggested, the pope is the Antichrist predicted in the First Epistle of the Apostle John,29 the Beast of the Apocalypse,30 heralding the second coming of Christ.31
The solution of the problem, as Wyclif saw it, lay in separating the Church from all material possessions and power. Christ and his Apostles had lived in poverty; so should his priests.32 The friars and monks should return to the full observance of their rules, avoiding all property or luxury;33 priests ‘should with joy suffer temporal lordship to be taken from them’; they should content themselves with food and clothing, and live on freely given alms.34 If the clergy will not disendow themselves by a voluntary return to evangelical poverty, the state should step in and confiscate their goods. ‘Let lords and kings mend them’ and ‘constrain priests to hold to the poverty that Christ ordained.’35 Let not the king, in so doing, fear the curses of the pope, for ‘no man’s cursing hath any strength but inasmuch as God Himself curseth.’36 Kings are responsible to God alone, from Whom they derive their dominion. Instead of accepting the doctrine of Gregory VII and Boniface VIII that secular governments must be subject to the Church, the state, said Wyclif, should consider itself supreme in all temporal matters and should take control of all ecclesiastical property. Priests should be ordained by the king.37
The power of the priest lay in his right to administer the sacraments. Wyclif turned to these with a full anticipation of Luther and Calvin. He denied the necessity of auricular confession, and advocated a return to the voluntary public confession favored by the early Christians. ‘Privy confession made to priests... is not needful, but brought in late by the Fiend; for Christ used it not, nor any of His Apostles after Him.’38 It now makes men thralls to the clergy, and is sometimes abused for economic or political ends; and ‘by this privy shriving a friar and a nun may sin together.’39 Good laymen may absolve a sinner more effectively than wicked priests; but in truth only God can absolve. In general we should doubt the validity of a sacrament administered by a sinful or heretical priest. Nor can a priest, good or bad, change the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the physical body and blood of Christ. Nothing seemed to Wyclif more abominable than the thought that some of the priests whom he knew could perform such a Godcreating miracle.40Like Luther, Wyclif denied transubstantiation, but not the Real Presence; by a mystery that neither pretended to explain, Christ was made ‘spiritually, truly, really, effectively’ present, but along with the bread and wine, which did not (as the Church taught) cease to exist.41
Wyclif would not admit that these ideas were heretical, but this theory of ‘consubstantiality’ alarmed some of his supporters. John of Gaunt hurried over to Oxford, and urged his friend to say no more about the Eucharist (1381). Wyclif rejected the advice, and reaffirmed his views in a Confessio dated May 10, 1381. A month later social revolution flared out in England, and frightened all property owners into discountenancing any doctrine that threatened any form of property, lay or ecclesiastical. Wyclif now lost most of his backing in the government, and the assassination of Archbishop Sudbury by the rebels promoted his most resolute enemy, Bishop Courtenay, to the primacy of England. Courtenay felt that if Wyclif’s conception of the Eucharist were allowed to spread, it would undermine the prestige of the clergy, and therefore also the foundation of the Church’s moral authority. In May 1382, he summoned a council of clergy to meet at the Blackfriars’ Convent in London. Having persuaded this assembly to condemn twenty-four propositions which he read from Wyclif’s works, he sent a peremptory command to the chancellor of Oxford to restrain the author from any further teaching or preaching until his orthodoxy should be proved. King Richard II, as part of his reaction to the uprising that had almost deposed him, ordered the chancellor to expel Wyclif and all his adherents. Wyclif retired to his living at Lutterworth, apparently still protected by John of Gaunt.
Embarrassed by the admiration expressed for him by the priest John Ball, a chief protagonist of the revolt, Wyclif issued several tracts dissociating himself from the rebels; he disclaimed any socialist views, and urged his followers to submit patiently to their terrestrial lords in the firm hope of recompense after death.42 Nevertheless he continued his pamphleteering against the Church, and organized a body of ‘Poor Preaching Priests’ to spread his Reformation among the people. Some of these ‘Lollards’* were men of meager schooling, some were Oxford dons. All went robed in black wool and barefoot, like the early friars; all were warmed with the ardor of men who had rediscovered Christ. Theirs was already the Protestant emphasis on an infallible Bible as against the fallible traditions and dogmas of the Church, and on the sermon in the vernacular as against a mystic ritual in a foreign tongue.43 For these lay priests, and for their literate hearers, Wyclif wrote in rough and vigorous English some 300 sermons and many religious tracts. And since he urged a return to the Christianity of the New Testament, he set himself and his aides to translate the Bible as the sole and unerring guide to true religion. Till that time (1381) only small portions of Scripture had been rendered into English; a French translation was known to the educated classes, and an Anglo-Saxon version, unintelligible to Wyclif’s England, had come down from King Alfred’s time. The Church, finding that heretics like the Waldensians made much use of the Bible, had discouraged the people from reading unauthorized translations,44 and had deprecated the creedal chaos that she expected when every party should make and color its own translation, and every reader be free to make his own interpretation, of the Scriptural text. But Wyclif was resolved that the Bible should be available to any Englishman who could read. He appears to have translated the New Testament himself, leaving the Old Testament to Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey. The whole was finished some ten years after Wyclif’s death.
The translation was made from Jerome’s Latin version, not from the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New. It was not a model of English prose, but it was a vital event in English history.
In 1384 Pope Urban VI summoned Wyclif to appear before him in Rome. A different summons exceeded it in authority. On December 28, 1384, the ailing reformer suffered a paralytic stroke as he was attending Mass, and three days later he died. He was buried in Lutterworth, but by a decree of the Council of Constance (May 4, 1415) his bones were dug up and cast into a near-by stream.45 Search was made for his writings, and as many as were found were destroyed.
All the major elements of the Reformation were in Wyclif: the revolt against the worldliness of the clergy, and the call for a sterner morality; the return from the Church to the Bible, from Aquinas to Augustine, from free will to predestination, from salvation by works to election by divine grace; the rejection of indulgences, auricular confession, and transubstantiation; the deposition of the priest as an intermediary between God and man; the protest against the alienation of national wealth to Rome; the invitation to the state to end its subordination to the papacy; the attack (preparing for Henry VIII) on the temporal possessions of the clergy. If the Great Revolt had not ended the government’s protection of Wyclif’s efforts, the Reformation might have taken form and root in England 130 years before it broke out in Germany.