In his day the family was a large one, covering a considerable territory. 1324 is the year usually given for Wycliff’s birth. Wycliff probably received his early education close to home. It is not known when he first went to Oxford, with which he was so closely connected till the end of his life.
He was at Oxford in about 1345, when a series of illustrious names was adding glory to the fame of the university, such as those of Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occam, and Richard Fitzralph. Wycliff owed much to Occam. He showed an interest in natural science and mathematics, but applied himself to the study of theology, ecclesiastical law, and philosophy. Even Wycliff’s opponents acknowledged the keenness of his dialectic.
Wycliff’s writings prove that he was well grounded in Roman and English law, as well as in native history. A family whose seat was in the neighborhood of Wycliff’s home, Bernard Castle, founded Balliol College, Oxford to which Wycliffe belonged, first as scholar, then as master. He attained the headship no later than 1360. When he was presented by the college (1361) with the parish of Fylingham in Lincolnshire, he had to give up the leadership of Balliol, though he could continue to live at Oxford. His university career followed the usual course. While as baccalaureate he busied himself with natural science and mathematics, as master he had the right to read in philosophy.
More significant was his interest in Bible study, which he pursued after becoming bachelor in theology. His performance led Simon Islip, Archbishop of Canterbury, to place him at the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365. Between 1366 and 1372 he became a doctor of theology. In 1368 he gave up his living at Fylingham and took over the rectory of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire, not far from Oxford, which enabled him to retain his connection with the university. It was not as a teacher or preacher that Wycliffe gained his position in history; this came from his activities in ecclesiastical politics, in which he engaged about the mid-1370s, when his reformatory work also began.
In 1374 he was among the English delegates at a peace congress at Bruges. He may have been given this position because of the spirited and patriotic behavior with which in the year 1366 he sought the interests of his country against the demands of the papacy. It seems he had a reputation as a patriot and reformer; this suggests the answer to the question how he came to his reformatory ideas. Even if older evangelical parties did not exist in England before Wycliffe, he might easily have been influenced by continental evangelicals who abounded.
It is highly probable that the older type of doctrine and practice represented by the Iro-Scottish Christians of the pre-Roman time persisted till the time of Wycliffe and reappeared in Lollardism. The root of the Wycliffe’s reformation movement must be traced to his Bible study and to the ecclesiastical-political lawmaking of his times. He was well acquainted with the tendencies of the ecclesiastical politics to which England owed its position. He had studied the proceedings of King Edward I of England, and had attributed to them the basis of parliamentary opposition to papal usurpations. He found them a model for methods of procedure in matters connected with the questions of worldly possessions and the Church.
Many sentences in his book on the Church recall the institution of the commission of 1274, which caused problems for the English clergy. He considered that the example of Edward I should be born in mind by the government of his time; but that the aim should be a reformation of the entire ecclesiastical establishment. Similar was his position on the enactments induced by the ecclesiastical politics of Edward III, with which he was well acquainted, which are fully reflected in his political tracts. Wycliffe wanted to see his ideas actualized–his fundamental belief was that the Church should be poor, as in the days of the apostles.
He had not yet broken with the mendicant friars, and from these John of Gaunt chose Wycliffe’s defenders. While the Reformer later claimed that it was not his purpose to incite temporal lords to confiscation of the property of the Church, the real tendencies of the propositions remained unconcealed. The result of the same doctrines in Bohemia–that land which was richest in ecclesiastical foundations–was that in a short time the entire church estate was taken over and a revolution brought about in the relations of temporal holdings. It was in keeping with the plans of Gaunt to have a personality like Wycliffe on his side. Especially in London the Reformer’s views won support; partisans of the nobility attached themselves to him, and the lower orders gladly heard his sermons.
He preached in city churches, and London rang with his praises. The first to oppose his theses were monks of those orders which held possessions, to whom his theories were dangerous. Oxford and the episcopate were later blamed by the Curia, which charged them with so neglecting their duty that the breaking of the evil fiend into the English sheepfold could be noticed in Rome before it was in England. Wycliffe was summoned before William Courtenay, bishop of London, on Feb. 19, 1377, in order “to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth.
” The exact charges are not known, as the matter did not get as far as a definite examination. Gaunt, the earl marshal Henry Percy, and a number of other friends accompanied Wycliffe, and four begging friars were his advocates. A crowd gathered at the church, and at the entrance of the party animosities began to show, especially in an angry exchange between the bishop and the Reformer’s protectors. Gaunt declared that he would humble the pride of the English clergy and their partisans, hinting at the intent to secularize the possessions of the Church. Most of the English clergy were irritated by this encounter, and attacks upon Wycliffe began, finding their response in the second and third books of his work dealing with civil government. These books carry a sharp polemic, hardly surprising when it is recalled that his opponents charged Wycliffe with blasphemy and scandal, pride and heresy.
He appeared to have openly advised the secularization of English church property, and the dominant parties shared his conviction that the monks could better be controlled if they were relieved from the care of secular affairs. The bitterness occasioned by this advice will be better understood when it is remembered that at that time the papacy was at war with the Florentines and was in dire straits. The demand of the Minorites that the Church should live in poverty as it did in the days of the apostles was not pleasing in such a crisis. It was under these conditions that Pope Gregory XI, who in January, 1377, had gone from Avignon to Rome, sent, on May 22 five copies of his bull against Wycliffe, despatching one to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the others to the bishop of London, Edward III, the chancellor, and the university; among the enclosures were 18 theses of his, which were denounced as erroneous and dangerous to Church and State. The reformatory activities of Wycliffe effectively began here: all the great works, especially his Summa theologiae, are closely connected with the condemnation of his 18 theses, while the entire literary energies of his later years rest upon this foundation. The next aim of his opponents–to make him out a revolutionary in politics–failed.
The situation in England resulted in damage to them; on June 21, 1377, Edward III died. His successor was Richard II, a boy, who was under the influence of John of Gaunt, his uncle. So it resulted that the bull against Wycliffe did not become public till Dec. 18.
Parliament, which met in October, came into sharp conflict with the Curia. Among the propositions which Wycliffe, at the direction of the government, worked out for parliament was one which speaks out distinctly against the exhaustion of England by the Curia. Wycliffe tried to gain public favour by laying his theses before parliament, and then made them public in a tract, accompanied by explanations, limitations, and interpretations. After the session of parliament was over, he was called upon to answer, and in March, 1378, he appeared at the episcopal palace at Lambeth to defend himself. The preliminaries were not yet finished when a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of saving him; the king’s mother, Joan of Kent, also took up his cause.
The bishops, who were divided, satisfied themselves with forbidding him to speak further on the controversy. At Oxford the vice chancellor, following papal directions, confined the Reformer for some time in Black Hall, from which Wycliffe was released on threats from his friends; the vice-chancellor was himself confined in the same place because of his treatment of Wycliffe. The latter then took up the usage according to which one who remained for 44 days under excommunication came under the penalties executed by the State, and wrote his De incarcerandis fedelibus, in which he demanded that it should be legal for the excommunicated to appeal to the king and his council against the excommunication; in this writing he laid open the entire case and in such a way that it was understood by the laity. He wrote his 33 conclusions, in Latin and English.
The masses, some of the nobility, and his former protector, John of Gaunt, rallied to him. Before any further steps could be taken at Rome, Gregory XI died (1378). But Wycliffe was already engaged in one of his most important works, that dealing with the truth of Holy Scripture. The sharper the strife became, the more Wycliffe had recourse to Scripture as the basis of all Christian doctrinal opinion, and expressly proved this to be the only norm for Christian faith. In order to refute his opponents, he wrote the book in which he showed that Holy Scripture contains all truth and, being from God, is the only authority. He referred to the conditions under which the condemnation of his 18 theses was brought about; and the same may be said of his books dealing with the Church, the office of king, and the power of the pope–all completed within the space of two years (1378-79).
Wycliffe wrote, “The Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven and the Church militant or men on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ.
No pope may say that he is the head, for he can not say that he is elect or even a member of the Church.”