CHAPTER XX: JOHN WYCLIF (AD c1324-1384)
At this time arose a reformer of a different kind from any of those who had gone before him. He was a Yorkshireman, named John Wyclif, who had been educated at Oxford, and had become famous there as a teacher of philosophy before he began to show any difference of opinions from those which were common in the Church. Ever since the time when King John disgusted his people by his shameful submission to the pope (p 219), there had been a strong feeling against the papacy in England; and it had been provoked more and more, partly because the popes were always drawing money from this country, and thrusting foreigners into the richer places of the English Church. These foreigners squeezed all that they could out of their parishes or offices in England; but they never went near them, and would have been unable to do much good if they had gone, because they did not understand the English language. And another complaint was, that, while the popes lived at Avignon, they were so much in the hands of their neighbours, the kings of France, that the English had no chance of fair play if any question arose between the two nations, and the pope could make himself the judge. And thus the English had been made ready enough to give a hearing to any one who might teach them that the popes had no right to the power which they claimed.
There had always been a great unwillingness to pay the tribute which King John had promised to the Roman see. If the king was weak, he paid it; if he was strong, he was more likely to refuse it. And thus it was that the money had been refused by Edward I, paid by Edward II, and again refused by Edward III, whom Pope Urban V, in 1366, asked to pay up for thirty-three years at once. In this case, Wyclif took the side of his king, and maintained that the tribute was not rightly due to the pope. And from this he went on to attack the corruptions of the Church in general. He set himself against the begging friars, who had come to great power, worming themselves in everywhere, so that they had brought most of the poorer people to look only to them as spiritual guides, and to think nothing of the parish clergy. In order to oppose the friars, Wyclif sent about the country a set of men whom he called "poor priests." These were very like the friars in their rough dress and simple manner of living, but taught more according to a plain understanding of the Scriptures than to the doctrines of the Roman Church. It is said that once, when Wyclif was very ill, and was supposed to be dying, some friars went to him in the hope of getting him to confess that he repented of what he had spoken and written and done against them. But Wyclif, gathering all his strength, rose up in his bed, and said, in words which were partly taken from the 118th Psalm, "I shall not die but live, and declare the evil deeds of the friars." He was several times brought before assemblies of bishops and clergy, to answer for his opinions; but he found powerful friends to protect him, and always came off without hurt.
It was in Wyclif's time that the rebellion of Wat Tyler and Jack Straw broke out, as we read in the history of England (AD 1381); but, although Wyclif's enemies would have been very glad to lay some of the blame of it at his door, it is quite certain that he had nothing to do with it in any way.
In those days almost all books were written in Latin, so that none but learned people could read them. But Wyclif, although he wrote some books in Latin for the learned, took to writing other books in good, plain English, such as every one could understand; and thus his opinions became known to people of all classes. But the greatest thing that he did was the translation of the Bible into English. The Roman Church would not allow the Scriptures to be turned into the language of the country, but wished to keep the knowledge of it for those who could read Latin, and expected the common people to content themselves with what the Church taught. But Wyclif, with others who worked under him, translated the whole Bible into English, so that all might understand it. We must remember, however, that there was no such thing as printing in his days, so that every single book had to be written with the pen, and of course books were still very dear, and could not be at all common.
It is said that Pope Urban V summoned Wyclif to appear before him at Rome; but Wyclif, who was old, and had been very ill, excused himself from going; and soon after this he died, on the last day of the year 1384.
Wyclif had many notions which we cannot agree with; and we have reason to thank God's good providence that the reform of the Church was not carried out by him, but at a later time, and in a more moderate and sounder way than he would have chosen. But we must honour him as one who saw the crying evils of the Roman Church and honestly tried to cure them.
Wyclif's followers were called Lollards, I believe from their habit of lulling or chanting to themselves. After his death they went much farther than he had done, and some of them grew very wild in their opinions, so that they would not only have made strange changes in religious doctrine, but would have upset the government of kingdoms. Against them a law was made by which persons who differed from the doctrines of the Roman Church were sentenced to be burnt under the name of heretics, and many Lollards suffered in consequence. The most famous of these was Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, a brave but rather hotheaded and violent soldier, who was suspected of meaning to get up a rebellion. For this and his religious opinions together he was burnt in Smithfield, which was then just outside London (AD 1417); the same place where, at a later time, many suffered for their religion in the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary.