When we speak of ‛Christian’ Britain, what must not be forgotten is that we are talking about Britain as a protestant country. The struggle with the Roman Catholic Pontiff began not with Henry VIII as is widely supposed, but was dragged out throughout many previous centuries. Even the term Anglican Church preceded Henry by several centuries. The eventual break with Rome, when it came, had really been inevitable almost from the moment Christianity itself first reached these shores. England’s relationship with the Papacy was always awkward and conflict frequent. Two things we need to note. First, the independent spirit of the English Church sat uneasily alongside the absolute authority of the Pope. From the New Testament we know that missionaries had already reached Spain. Similarly, missionaries at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain first brought the Gospel to our people. The later missionary expedition sent by Gregory, with its dependence on Rome, did not fit well with what remained of indigenous Christian testimony. Second, genuine Christian testimony did not exist only outside the institutional Church after the Christianisation of the Empire by Constantine. There is much historical evidence of Gospel testimony within the Roman Church right up until the Reformation. After the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) teachings such as that of justification by faith were anathematised. The Church of Rome set its face irrevocably against the biblical Gospel, against the absolute authority of Holy Scripture replacing it with its own. It was, in fact, taking formally into Church law what had been the ruling for many centuries. Nevertheless, those wishing to maintain biblical truth and apostolic testimony to the Gospel had always found themselves in difficulties to the point of laying down their lives. Today the Roman Catholic Church has no place at all for such people within its fold. Only by serious compromise of the teaching of Scripture is association with Rome possible and it will always be on its terms.
Throughout the Middle Ages one characteristic in Britain that stands out is the extent to which foreign elements generated the most violent disagreements. After the Romans left British soil, in the middle of the fifth century the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, all pure Germanic tribes of Lower Germany, invaded and drove the Celtic inhabitants westwards. Five centuries later Danish predatory invasions overran the country. Another two centuries passed before the Saxon population again stirred itself, but then Duke William of Normandy intervened and was crowned king. After the Norman Conquest, the Franco-Norman nationality was dominant. Only after two more centuries did the Anglo Saxon element once more assert itself. Interestingly, the many different peoples in the meantime came together into a nation with well-defined characteristics and an extraordinary vigour. Despite the numerous conflicts from outside, these only served to strengthen the Saxon element at the nation’s heart. This united energy is reflected in the language and literature of the time.
After the first flowering of the Anglo-Saxon language, in the period immediately after the conversion of the people to the Christian faith a second period of growth took place during the days of Alfred the Great. It was a reaction of the Saxons against the tyranny of the Danes. In similar circumstances following the Norman Conquest, the new Anglo-Saxon dialect developed from around 1100. This was a sign that the old Saxon stock were building up resistance to the Norman-French intrusion. On the other hand what we would call English, as distinct from Saxon or old English, developed from a fusion between Norman and Saxon families. The direction was from Norman nobility to Saxon rather than the other way round. Normans then began to think and speak less as Frenchmen and more as Englishmen. The Norman invasion, like the Danish, did nothing to diminish the development of an independent Saxon identity. It was in the conflict and the power usurped that the Saxon nation maintained its own individuality and developed into the English people.
The original British inhabitants of the country had received the Christian Gospel at the time of the Roman occupation, not from the Romans but from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. When the Romans left, most of the country had converted to Christianity. At their arrival, the Saxon, Angles, Frisian and Jutes were themselves ignorant of the Gospel and had brought with them their ancient Germanic paganism. They drove away the indigenous British population and Christianity with them stamping the land with their own paganism. At the end of the sixth century on an initiative instigated by Pope Gregory the Great, a mission was sent to Britain. It resulted in Christianity being carried throughout the Saxon kingdoms. It might now be imagined that the original Celtic-British inhabitants and the Saxons would join hands as Christian believers. There was, however, a problem. The form of Christianity practised by the Celts was in many respects quite different to that of the Saxons. Celtic Christianity was not under subjection to the Pope but completely autonomous and national. The missionaries to the Saxons, on the other hand, had been sent from Rome and their Church was placed into the hands of bishops dependent upon the See of Rome. The resulting struggle for domination led to many deep disagreements.
Rome was never really able to subjugate all Christian believers to its own authority. The old British Church was not subsumed into the new Anglo-Saxon Roman Church disappearing without trace. Instead the British Church made its presence felt in the Anglo-Saxon Church bringing a spirit of autonomy early on, particularly in the north of the country. At this point the Danish invasions took place, importing Scandinavian heathenism. Believing the Church of Christ in the land to be threatened as well as the existence of the nation, vigorous resistance awakened. The wars of King Alfred were inspired by Christian conviction.
The Norman conquest and Duke William’s seizure of the crown went ahead with the full approval of the Pope Alexander II, who hoped to gain complete authority over Anglo-Saxon Christianity. This fitted well with the knights of Normandy who were ready to fight given their devotion to the Church and to the Pope. From the time of the Conquest, closer ties with Rome and the English Church were forged than had hitherto been the case. Norman-French and pure Roman clergy, having no sympathy with Anglo-Saxon Christianity, were installed as bishops. They were strangers in a strange Church. An Italian became Archbishop of Canterbury and a Norman was installed as Archbishop of York. Most bishops were Normans and supported a hierarchical system and the supremacy of the Pope over the Church and of the Church over the State. Despite this, William was not a man to be dictated to by clerics. There ensued serious discord between the Crown and the Primate, now Anselm of Canterbury. The conflict between royal and ecclesiastical powers increased further under Henry II, a hundred years after the Conquest. The right of exemption for the clergy from the authority of the municipal courts was claimed by Archbishop Thomas Becket. The king was complicit in the Archbishop’s assassination by a group of knights. For this deed he was forced to bow in humiliating penance on 12th July 1174 at the grave of the now canonised Becket. It was a victory for the hierarchy, something sought for since the Conquest in 1066.
The power of the Roman Church would reach yet greater heights. What Gregory VII failed to achieve at the Norman Conquest, Innocent III did accomplish. King John, son of Henry II found himself in desperate circumstances, threatened from within and without his realm. On 15th May 1213, he surrendered his kingdom into the hands of Innocent III and his successors. He received it back again immediately, but the relationship was that of a feudal tenant or vassal's sworn loyalty to a lord, in this instance the Pope. England became effectively part of the estates of the Church, part of the Papal state system which already included Portugal, Aragon, Sicily, Hungary, and Bulgaria, among others. In addition to the usual Peter’s pence, an annual tribute of one thousand marks sterling was levied.
From the very moment England succumbed to this feudal supremacy of the Pope steps were afoot to secure its overthrow. The fury of the English nobility knew no bounds blaming the king that he had brought a free kingdom into bondage. For a couple of years the barons in revolt held the power of the State in their hands in which time the Magna Charta, 15th June 1215, the fundamental charter of the liberties of the nation, was negotiated between John and those over whom he ruled. Not a word is found in it about the lordship of the Pope, an intentional omission. This movement had grown in the face of the despotic rule of a distrusted king and against Rome. That the stance of the English Church towards Rome would be affected by the Magna Charta was inevitable for it guaranteed the liberties and rights of the English Church as well as all other classes and institutions in the land. The nobility and the people felt their unity as a nation. The Church was imbued with a spirit of national independence.
So it was that from the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Saxon element of the nation once more began to predominate and the Norman element fell away into the background. Many Norman families in the process of time drew closer to the Saxon population. The baron began to claim those rights and privileges that had been theirs under the Saxon kings. They appealed to them in their struggle with king John. Norman nobles now felt themselves to be Englishmen. This consolidation of the nation influenced greatly the self-consciousness and independence of the English Church. Abbeys paying tribute to Rome were threatened, Roman clerics captured and their goods plundered. Protests were made to Gregory IX by the nobles in support of their violated rights.
In 1258, although Henry III reigned nominally, the parliament of Oxford appointed an administration which was to wield the real power of the State. Its purpose was to put an end to absolute government and replace it with the rule of the Constitution, Law, and Right. Support from the Saxon element of the population was overwhelming. In particular the objection was to the influence of foreigners on public affairs. Edward I (1272-1307) was a powerful king and during his reign the kingdom recovered its strength. Edward II reigned from 1307 to 1327. He was feeble, a weak and incompetent leader and his personal faults led the kingdom to disaster. There was no set procedure for dismissing kings and at first the parliament was ambivalent. However the London crowds called for Prince Edward to take the throne. On 12 January the leading barons and clergy agreed that Edward II should be replaced by his son who became Edward III (1327-1377). The nation gathered its strength together in wars against France. The struggle contributed greatly to the development of the national character and language.
Edward I was a strong ruler even although he made concessions with respect to parliamentary rights and repeated undertakings against Wales, Scotland, and the Continent. Nevertheless, nothing was lost to the Crown. In fact the crown had gained by the rights guaranteed to the nation. The Crown now entered into compact with the nation thus becoming stronger itself. This was amply demonstrated when Boniface VIII tried to interfere in Scottish affairs. First, Boniface asserted his direct supremacy over the Scottish Church as independent of England. He also made himself arbiter of Edward’s claim to the Scottish Crown. Edward resisted all the Pope’s claims. He brought the relevant papers before his parliament gathered at Lincoln on 20th January 1301. The parliamentarians sided with their king. The earls and barons replied to Boniface repelling emphatically his interference, speaking not only for themselves but for the whole nation. They totally denied the Pope’s jurisdiction in the matter. In this way the king by appealing to the nation successfully repelled the Papal aggression.
William of Occam (c. 1287 - 1347) was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher and theologian. He campaigned vigorously against the absolutism of the Papacy. He was a keen, independent thinker. The Pope saw in the world-abnegation of the Franciscans an attack on their own sumptuous lifestyle. The Franciscans believed that neither Christ nor His apostles had owned any property, either as individuals or collectively. The Dominicans held such views to be heretical. Pope John XXII (1316-1334) lived a life far removed from self-abnegation and poverty. Between 1322-1324, the Pope pronounced against the Franciscans in a series of bulls. The Pope finally pronounced excommunication upon anyone confessing this essential teaching of the Order. The Franciscans bowed to this decision. The Pope sought to justify the whole hierarchical system, the riches, the secular spirit of Rome, the territorial possessions, and the well filled Papal coffers. Occam proclaimed that it was erroneous, heretical, to say that the Pope possesses unlimited spiritual and temporal power. He could not depose princes at his pleasure or dispose of the possessions and goods of all men. The Pope was not infallible in making new articles of faith. The whole hierarchy, including the primacy of the Pope is a human order, claimed Occam, and not divine. Christ alone is head of the Church.
Ideas such as these held by William of Occam took some time to percolate down into the consciousness of the English nation. It was during the fifty years reign of Edward III (1327-1377) that the situation with respect to the autonomy of the State in opposition to the Curia became increasingly clear. Foreign wars that consumed so many years of Edward’s reign, expeditions against Scotland, the French wars of succession begun by Edward in 1339, served to draw Crown and Parliament closer together and made them more resolute in resisting all foreign interventions.
Clement VI on becoming Pope tried to make peace between Edward and Philip VI of France. At first a truce succeeded, but then at Easter 1343 with the full agreement of Parliament, Edward refused official intervention by the Pope. What Clement did as a personal friend or private individual was another matter. They were even more determined to repudiate the Pope’s nominations to English livings in favour of foreign prelates. The Popes of Avignon went far beyond their predecessors in draining the finances of the national Churches. This only served to stir up yet more opposition. Clement VI granted two new cardinals to England, one his own grandson, with incomes worth in total two thousand marks a year. The barons, knights, and burgesses assembled in Westminster on 18th May 1343 and composed an open letter to the Pope urging that such monies be used for the maintenance of God’s service, the furtherance of the Christian faith, and the benefit of poor parishioners. The appointment of foreigners, often enemies of the land, ignorant of the language, was something hardly helpful in the exercise of pastoral care and the worship of God. The authors of the letter objected strongly to the wealth of the nation being carried off to foreign parts.
When agents of these cardinals did arrive in England to exercise their new rights and collect the revenues, they were not well received. They were not exactly helped by the King’s officers. The population grabbed them and they were put into prison and then thrown out of the country. The Pope wrote to Edward from Villeneuve near Avignon, 28th August 1343 complaining about their unreasonable treatment. Clement did not have much success with the King who replied referring to a petition from the last Parliament asking for an end to these intolerable impositions. In Avignon no one was prepared to listen and the abuse continued as before. As the Papal Court was not inclined to call an end to such a profitable practice, in 1350 the King with the consent of Parliament enacted a severe penal law to prevent anyone filling Church offices injurious to the King, chapters or private patrons. All such acts were declared null and void; offenders were to be fined and imprisoned; appeals to foreign tribunals were prohibited. Three years later, another penal act was enacted directed against carrying appeals to the Pope from the English courts on questions of personal property under the threat of a fine and imprisonment.
This spirit of the English Church was reminiscent of a former venerable Bishop of Lincoln, Grossetête exactly a century earlier who had also resisted the Pope’s encroachments and inspired the whole nation. About this time a young man was about to appear on the scene, John Wycliffe, who continue in this spirit of national independence and oppose all who dared to make use of the Church for their own ends. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there arose within the English Church a true spirit of Reformation that would never die out in the Church, but would break out with fresh force in order to remove recurring abuses.
Before John Wycliffe came to prominence, there were many others who prepared the ground. One such was Richard Fitzralf, Archbishop of Armagh who vigorously opposed the Mendicant Orders, their begging in particular. They were favoured like pets by bishops and Popes because of the revenues they generated. This became their chief end rather than the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Richard also left behind him a translation of the Bible in the Irish language.
Not only were questions of political and ecclesiastical authority, taxation and Church revenues matters of deep dispute. Doctrinal and theological issues were ever present as the Roman Church sought to bind men to itself as the sole dispenser of salvation. Many of the themes arising were later central to the teachings of the Reformers. A contemporary of William of Occam was Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349), a mathematician, theologian and logician of renown. He was a man who only just became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Elected Archbishop by the canons of the chapter, his appointment was not confirmed by Edward III who preferred John de Ufford. Ufford died in the Black Death. Elected a second time to Canterbury and nominated Archbishop by King and Pope, Bradwardine was consecrated in Avignon only to die of the plague himself on his return.
In Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (see line 476), Thomas Bradwardine is linked, quite rightly, with Augustine and Boethius. His most significant work from the standpoint of the Reformation is his treatise against the Pelagians, De causa Dei contra Pelagium et de virtute causarum. Bradwardine shows himself to be an effective Christian thinker whose great purpose was to do battle ‛for the cause of God’. He preached and taught the unmerited free grace of God as the only source of salvation, not only harking back to the Apostle Paul and Augustine, but looking forward to the Reformers. He did this in an age strongly inclined to believe the opposite, that salvation involved human merit. His words did not fall on deaf ears and he was acclaimed by his contemporaries who gave him the title of ‛Doctor Profundus’. Those hearing his Oxford lecture, many high ranking men among them, pressed him to publish his views. Wycliffe, although not accepting everything taught by Bradwardine, acknowledged his great debt to a man whom he never met.
It was as a student and through the pages of Scripture that his life was turned around. On reading Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy”, was not initially inclined to accept it. In his own words he says, “I had no liking for such teaching, for towards grace I was still unthankful”. Only later does he say that the truth struck upon him like a beam of grace. It is unclear to what extent Bradwardine’s understanding of the truth coincided with that, for example, of Martin Luther and his teaching on justification by faith alone. Certainly, despite some ambiguity, we should be charitable and give him the benefit of the doubt as many of his writings seem to indicate a closeness to the Reformers’ teachings. There can be little doubt that Thomas Bradwardine was at least moving in the right direction and there were many moving with him. He was swimming against the tide of opinion when he wrote: “the doctrine is held by many, either that the free will of man is of itself sufficient for the obtaining of salvation; or if they confess a need of grace, that still grace may be merited by the power of free will, so that grace no longer appears to be something undeserved by men, but something meritoriously acquired.” Certainly the Reformers, preachers of that same grace also opposed all pretentions that salvation can be earned in any way by human merit. In his discussions he used the arguments of the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Scholastics. For no other reason than that in salvation he relies upon the free unmerited grace of God and strikes down any thought of human merit in conversion. He denies much of the favoured teaching of the Scholastics that a man can qualify himself to receive grace, that even in a limited way can deserve grace, still less acquire full worthiness (de condigno), nor in the sense of worthiness (de congruo).
Grace, Bradwardine emphasised, is received as a free gift. Always he seems to have an eye on the practical experience of grace in everyday life. He reminds us of the Apostle Paul, who whilst thirsting for Christ’s blood, was gripped by God’s grace. He refers constantly to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Referring to Augustine, he writes, “like an apostle, he was at first an unbeliever, a blasphemer, and an enemy of the grace of Jesus Christ, but after the same grace converted him with like suddenness, he became, after the apostle’s example, an extoller, a magnificent and mighty champion of grace.” This too, without doubt and in like manner, was Thomas Bradwardine in contrast to the self-righteous spirit ruling at his time.
Like Luther after him, it was not Bradwardine’s intention to place himself in a position antagonistic to the Church. He wishes with all his heart to do battle with the enemies of God and to this end threw himself upon the good mercies of God, who is the ultimate defender of what is His own cause. What we must understand that within the Roman Church, even before the Reformation took hold, those who experienced and had an understanding of the Gospel of God’s free grace and so it was right back to apostolic days. Therefore, it is the more to be regretted that this Gospel was banished from the Church under an anathema at the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento.
We now reach the point where we must consider that more well-known precursor of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1320-1384), whose influence on the Christian Church and England of his day is hard to underestimate. His direct influence on the Reformation, however, may well have been slight. Apart from Jan Hus, it is not known that the Reformers themselves ever read any of his works, all of which remain unprinted to this day. In some way, this only underlines his significance as part of the great movement of antagonism towards Roman absolutism that was present in the English Church right from the beginning. Wycliffe is remembered for his translation of the Bible in the early 1380s, possibly done with the assistance of others. A Yorkshireman by birth, he went up to Oxford when quite young. He had wide interests including philosophy and science; he devoted himself to theology and received his doctorate in 1372. In 1374, King Edward III appointed him rector of Lutterworth. Sometime later, he was made part of the English representatives travelling to Bruges to meet a papal deputation with the purpose of addressing differences between the King and the Pope.
That feeling of national English consciousness, so marked in the fourteenth century, was in many ways personified in John Wycliffe. Both the Norman and the Saxon elements of the nation together with the Crown formed a tight unity. Together they energetically defended the autonomy and interests of the kingdom against outside influences, in particular opposing the Court of Rome. Wycliffe’s writings show a warm patriotism, zeal for the dignity of the Crown and the honour and well-being of his native land. He draws attention to the Magna Charta, regarding it as the fundamental law of the kingdom, binding kings and nobles equally. In his studies, Wycliffe contrasts Roman and English law, always giving preference to the latter. His outlook was not a limited national one, but he reached out to the whole of Christendom, indeed the whole human race. However, his cosmopolitanism grew strength from the deep love he had towards his own country.
Pope Urban V renewed his claim upon Edward III in 1365 for the annual payment of one thousand marks of Feudatory Tribute. He extended this to the payment of arrears for no fewer than the last 33 years. Should the King decline, he was required to appear before the Pope as feudal superior. This, as we saw, was imposed upon King John and his successors by Innocent III. The payments had been made with the utmost irregularity and King Edward III from the outset refused point blank to make any such payments to Rome. Wisely, when Urban demanded payment, Edward referred the matter to his parliament so that King and country would then stand behind the decision. For parliament, it was not simply a matter of the burden of taxation, but the honour and independence of the kingdom. Recent wars with France had given a powerful stimulus to the national spirit. Political right and liberties were now at the forefront of the English mind, proportionate to the sacrifices in property and blood they had been called upon to make.
The King laid the Papal demand before Parliament in May 1366. The unanimous decision arrived at by bishops, nobles and the Commons was that King John had overreached his authority in subjecting his people and land to the feudal arrangement with the Pope. It was, in fact, a violation of his coronation oath. They passed the Act of Repudiation. Furthermore, they said that should the Pope try to follow through on his threats, all the resources necessary would be given to the King for the defence of Crown and country. Urban was forced to back down. Since then nothing has been done by Rome to recover feudal authority over England or demand any of feudal payments - and all this was long before the Reformation began.
It is unthinkable that somewhere John Wycliffe would not have played some part in these matters, but precisely what remains unclear. It is known that he wrote a polemical tract siding with Parliament. We know too that Wycliffe was targeted in person and that he was startled by the vehemence of the oppositions. There were undoubtedly those who would want to discredit him at the Court of Rome and see his Church benefices removed. Perhaps too, his opponents wanted to ingratiate themselves with Rome and see the influence of the Papal Court extended in England. Clearly, Wycliffe had shown himself to be an upholder of the independence and sovereignty of the State with respect to the Church. What we know of the speeches, they could easily have come from Wycliffe’s own soul. Historical evidence suggests that Wycliffe himself had been in Parliament and heard all the speeches as they were made, even although proceedings were at the time unlikely to have been open to the public. Representatives of the lower ranks of clergy were at times summoned to serve in Parliament and Wycliffe may well have had a voice there himself. It then becomes much clearer why he became such a hated figure by many. Certainly, ten years later he was a member of Parliament. Wycliffe declared himself to be a king’s cleric in the sense that he regarded himself as a cleric of the National Church rather than its Papal counterpart.
The Pope still attempted to collect dues for the Curia through agents operating in the country. It was not long before one of them, Arnold Garnier, came into conflict with Wycliffe. He carried credentials from Gregory XI and operated as Papal Nuncio and Receiver of Dues for the Apostolic Chamber. Travelling the length and breadth of the land with a train of servants and horses, he amassed a considerable amount of money. He returned to Rome with his gains in July 1374 returning in due course. Initially, the Frenchman had been granted royal approval for his activities swearing solemnly that the interests of the Crown and the kingdom would be guarded. This, despite the grave misgivings of many patriots, including Wycliffe. Wycliffe wrote a paper claiming that Garnier had perjured his oath and indeed there was an irreconcilable contradiction between collecting money for Rome and guarding the country from wrong. Wycliffe’s writings without doubt expressed the feelings of the population as a whole. His patriotic and national feeling is exceeded by his moral and evangelical spirit insisting that the assistance of God is of greater weight than the help of men. The welfare of the kingdom is dependent upon the Christian piety of the people. His truthfulness, moral earnestness of tone contrasts sharply with the sophistry and guile, the mental reservations and excuses employed by the Papal agents. Significantly, Wycliffe argues the Pope is perfectly capable or error and of sinning. This contradicted the prevalent view of the day that what the Pope thinks fit to do must be right and should have the force of law because he does it. We see Wycliffe already taking a stance against the absolutism of the Curia. He complains about the pressure being put upon the local priests to indemnify themselves at the expense of their poor parishioners. The act of obtaining revenue by begging was, according to Wycliffe, contrary to the Gospel. He is already well down the route of his later assertions that Holy Scripture is the sole guide and standard of the truth for Christian believers.
In 1373 problems arose between Parliament and the Pope with respect to the filling of English Church offices where Rome persistently encroached on the electoral rights of cathedral chapters and others. Ambassadors in France engaged in peace talks with the French after the recent wars were also instructed to negotiate on the differences with the Roman Court. Commissioners travelled to Avignon to speak with representatives of Gregory XI. Promises were made, but the Pope reserved for himself the right to speak with the King.
Further peace conferences were begun in 1374 in Bruges between England and France. At the head of the talks was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III. At the same time, a number of commissioners were appointed by the King to speak with the Pope’s representatives on the pending ecclesiastical problems. Among them was John Wycliffe. They were given plenary powers to conclude a treaty with the Papal Nuncios to secure not only the honour of the Church but to uphold the rights of the English Crown and realm. It was a honour for Wycliffe to have been chosen, but sending him reflected the insights of the Government. On 27th July, Wycliffe left London for Flanders. Bruges was at the time a wealthy and influential city of 200,000 inhabitants. He would have met there many dignitaries of the Church conspicuous for their devotion to Rome. The ‛Anglican Church’, already known by that name, had attained a high degree of independence in contrast to the Italian or Spanish Churches.
Wycliffe’s time in Bruges had important consequences for him because it was here that he came into contact with the Duke of Lancaster, who later stepped out publicly as his patron and protector. At the peace conference the French were reported as being crafty, cunning and appeared to be preparing for yet another war. Discussions did not go much better between England and the Curia which turned out to be somewhat fruitless. Although the Pope made a few concessions, they were more apparent than real. In September 1375, Gregory XI responded to the King with six bulls that amounted to little by way of change. The real point at issue was left insecure and the electoral rights of cathedral chapters were far from guaranteed. This was a real issue in the country, for Parliament to institute ecclesiastical reform, all remained unresolved. It would have been far better to have followed the same pathway as in 1343 and 1350 by using national legislation and then arguing it out with the Papal Court.
By the next spring it was clear that the country would not be silenced or ignored. The Parliament met in April of 1376 and later earned the name the ‛Good Parliament’ in recognition of its actions. The Parliament brought to the King a lengthy memorial showing with what pernicious oppression the Roman See pursued its interests. Rome’s activities were impoverishing the kingdom. Revenues paid to the Pope for Church dignities came to five times as much as taxes going to the King. Princes stood to lose as much as a quarter of their money, which was then removed from the country. Church brokers in dissolute Avignon advertised money for rascals with no learning or appropriate qualifications to occupy livings paying a thousand marks a year. A genuine Doctor of Theology or Cannon law would receive a mere twenty marks, hardly surprising then that learning was decaying. Foreigners, often enemies of the country, were given livings in the English Church, but never saw their parishioners or cared about them. Much of the criticism was directed at the Papal Collector, a Frenchman living in England with other foreigners hostile to the King. He was ever looking out for vacant livings or simply spying and causing great damage. The Pope’s Receiver had a large house in London and collected Peter’s Pence. Occupied by a host of clerks and officers, the place resembled the customs house of a prince. His operation produced around twenty thousand marks a year for the Pope. On top of this, for the first time, he made claims for ‛first fruit’ payments from all newly confirmed livings. At a time when the kingdom had a surfeit of gold, the Pope’s collectors or agents of cardinals would soon carry it off to foreign parts. It was suggested that it become illegal for a Receiver to reside in England on pain of life and limb, nor should it be permitted for any Englishman to act as Receiver or agent for anyone in Rome. It was also complained that the best prebends in England were possessed largely by foreigners living in Rome, but there were a few Englishmen in possession of them. A prebend would be a stipend drawn from revenues of a Cathedral or Church, also property or tithes making up an endowment for that stipend. Many cardinals living overseas were being sent twenty thousand marks a year from England. It was asserted that the Pope would in time hand over the lands belonging to the prebends mentioned to enemies of the kingdom should he continue as previously. Finally, attention was drawn to the fact that the Pope was raising subsidies from the English clergy to buy off Frenchmen taken prisoner by the English in order to pursue his own wars in Lombardy.
There were many more like grievances. Parliament insisted to the King that they had only taken this action because of concern and zeal for the honour of the Church. They saw the recent troubles and disasters that had befallen the country as judgements for the sin of allowing the Church to become so corrupt. It was the year of the King’s jubilee, fifty years on the throne. Surely, this was a wonderful opportunity for him to set some of these matters right. It was suggested that letters be sent to the Pope: one in Latin bearing the King’s seal, one in French bearing the seal of the nobles. Furthermore, it should be ruled that no further money should leave the country on pain of imprisonment.
The response from the King was not encouraging. He replied that he had already previously provided remedy for these evils and, apart from this, he was at that moment in communication with the Papal See on these matters. So lukewarm was the response that in 1377 the Commons suggested that those provisions already made be acted upon. Further complaints were made against the Papal Collector, a Frenchman. These encroachments could easily be remedied were the foreigners, at least for as long as the war lasted, driven from the land. It should also be outlawed for Englishmen to make remittances to the Papal Court without a special licence. The proposals of 1376 and 1377 all bear traits of Wycliffe’s handiwork. The national disasters, the rapid impoverishment of the country, famine and disease among men and animals alike were all attributable to the corruption in the Church and Papal demands. People and Parliament were blameworthy because of their negligence. These kind of arguments appear repeatedly in Wycliffe’s writings. It is thought highly probable by many reliable historians that Wycliffe himself was, in fact, a member of the Good Parliament in 1376. He was an influential personality in ecclesiastical and national affairs, shared the outburst of national feeling and the constitutional spirit that was so characteristic of England at the time. At this point his influence upon these affairs had probably reached its zenith.
At this point when Wycliffe enjoyed the highest regard of his fellow countrymen a storm burst about him. After being in several parishes, by royal favour he became rector of Lutterworth. He did not escape the attention and opposition of the hierarchy of the Church and in 1377 was twice called to appear before tribunals, the second time before commissioners of the Pope. There is no real documentary evidence as to the reasons for this, so we must assume the grounds were political rather than for issues of doctrine. The Duke of Lancaster accompanied him as protector. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as Wycliffe stood before the judges, two of the prelates almost coming to blows as to whether he should stand before them or be allowed to sit. Eventually, a riot broke out that had nothing to do with Wycliffe and he left the scene without uttering a word.
Wycliffe’s enemies, made up largely of Anglican bishops, being highly displeased at this outcome did not let go. They moved proceedings against him before the Roman Court on charges of heresy based on statements made by him at Oxford University in disputation or lecture, but also on his written works. In January 1377, Gregory XI moved with great pomp from Avignon to Rome. On the 22 May in the magnificent Church of St Maria Maggiore he signed five bulls against Wycliffe. Two prelates with plenary powers were to travel to England and ascertain whether the accusations against Wycliffe were true. Should they be so then he was to be imprisoned until the Pope gave further instructions. As back up, should Wycliffe get wind of what was afoot and escape, the prelates were endowed with full apostolic powers to make a public citation against him and seek the assistance of the King eradicating these teachings from the realm. The Chancellor of the University of Oxford was also called, upon pain of loss of University privileges to condemn Wycliffe’s errors and commit him and his followers to prison from where they were to be handed over to the Pope’s commissioners, the Archbishop and the Bishop of London.
One of the five bulls, addressed to the King, soon became null and void because the King died 21 June 1377. At the first Parliament assembled by the new King, Richard II, there was considerable outspoken antagonism towards Rome. This against the background of French attacks along the south coast of England also threats from the Scots in the north. They had more pressing issues than to deal with Wycliffe such as raising supplies for the defence of the realm and the continued systematic draining of resources from the country to the benefit of the Roman Court and foreign Church dignitaries. It was agreed to stop the acquisition of any Church office through Papal dispensation; that foreigners should leave the country whether monks or secular, and for as long as the war continued all their lands and properties should be devoted to the war effort. The income of the French clergy alone from English livings was estimated to be in the region of £60,000 per annum. To this day, the Anglo-Saxon spirit rebels at high taxes levied upon us and laws imposed from abroad without our agreement.
In all this, by command Wycliffe drew up advice for the young King and his Great Council. He particularly emphasised that should things continue as they were the national welfare would be imperilled and England would be impoverished and her population decline. The Roman Curia on the other hand by virtue of the wealth flowing in their direction would become increasingly arrogant and profligate. Englishmen, in the meantime, would become the laughing stock of their enemies for their ‛asinine stupidity’.
However, once the anti-Roman Parliament was prorogued, Wycliffe’s enemies were free to act. The two commissioners immediately issued a mandate to the Chancellor of Oxford University using the appropriate Papal bull. The actions of the commissioners and the contents of the bull were received most unfavourably. Sympathies for Wycliffe were sufficiently strong for them to set aside or ignore much of what was demanded of them conforming only to the more temperate aspects. Wycliffe did present himself fearlessly before the Pope’s commissioners. He submitted a written defence of that of which he was accused which he then expounded. Citizens of London forced their way into the proceedings taking the side of their beloved and honoured theologian and patriot. With the threat of disturbance looming, things did not go the way the commissioners wished. They admonished him not to lecture or preach on these disputed themes not because they were erroneous, but because they might ‛give offence to the laity’. Once more, John Wycliffe walked away from his accusers, not at all what Rome had intended. Thus attacks by the English bishops and also the Pope were successfully repelled. A similar experience to that of the apostles, Peter and John, in Acts 4:16-21): “So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men glorified God for that which was done.” (verse 21)
Both King and country supported Wycliffe. He gave no formal promise to acquiesce to what had been demanded of him and continued to preach and teach as before. Wycliffe, whilst not relinquishing his patriotic interests, turned to concern himself more with ecclesiastical matters, taking the character of a Church Reformer.
To be continued
Please Note: This is an initial draft. As my studies on this subject progress, the article will be revised. God willing, I hope to write a more extensive article on John Wycliffe, his life and teachings. There is much to be learned from the past about how we should behave in the present.
Professor Lechler, John Wycliffe and his English Precursors
Herbert B. Workman, John Wyclif: a Study of the English Medieval Church