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Source: Introduction to Tracts and Treatises of John de Wycliffe, D.D. with Selections and Translations from his Manuscripts , and Latin Works. Edited for The Wycliffe Society, with an Introductory Memoir, by the Rev. Robert Vaughan, D.D. (London: Blackburn and Pardon, 1845).
FACTS AND OBSERVATIONS CONCERNING THE LIFE OF WYCLIFFE.
The biographers of Wycliffe all mention the year 1324 as that of his birth. The place of his nativity still bears his name—a village about six miles from the town of Richmond in Yorkshire. The name of Wycliffe, like that of William of Wykeham, is evidently a local one, being written John of Wycliffe; and in England there is no locality bearing the name of Wycliffe beside the place above mentioned. From the time of the Norman Conquest the parish of Wycliffe had been the residence of a family bearing that name, who were lords of the manor of Wycliffe, and patrons of its rectory. During the lifetime of our Reformer there were two rectors of the parish who bore this name: Robert Wycliffe, presented to the living by Catherine, relict of Roger Wycliffe; and William Wycliffe, presented by John de Wycliffe. In 1606 the possessor of this ancient property lost his only son, and by the marriage of his daughter, his patrimony passed to a family of another name.
Dr. Zouch, rector of Wycliffe in the last century, in the inscription attached to the portrait of Wycliffe, by Sir Antonio More, now an heirloom to the holders of that living, speaks of the Reformer without hesitancy—as “a native of this parish.” Birkbeck, a clergyman, who officiated in an adjoining parish during the reign of Charles I. speaks no less decidedly on this point in a work intitled the “Protestant Evidence.” But our best authority is that of Leland, who wrote his “Collectanea” about a hundred and fifty years after the decease of Wycliffe, and mentioning the parish of Wycliffe, describes it as the place where “Wycliffe the heretic was born.”
It is true Leland himself has elsewhere given a somewhat different account. In his “Itinerary,” he makes mention of Spresswell, “a poor village, a good mile from Richmond,” as the place where the Reformer was born. But no trace of such a name can be found anywhere in the neighbourhood of Richmond. Leland travelled for much of his information, but it is manifest, from his errors in respect to Richmondshire, that he could not have visited that county more than very partially. Indeed, an author who could describe the rise of the Tees as being in a meadow near Caldwell, at least fifty miles from its real source, must be supposed liable to mistake on a point of this nature.
Spresswell may have been the name of the family mansion of the Wycliffes, or of some property belonging to them in the neighbourhood; but we are more disposed to trust in the account given by Leland in his “Collectanea,” than in that found in the “Itinerary,” and to connect the birth of Wycliffe with the spot which was certainly the home of his family, and from which, beyond all reasonable doubt, he derived his name.
It must be admitted that the name of the Reformer does not occur in the existing records of the Wycliffe family. But this omission will not occasion surprise, when it is known that all the members of that family continued their adherence to the existing religious system, and that, according to the notions and feelings of the middle age, the man who made himself so conspicuous as the opponent of that system, would be regarded, in the language of the Reformer himself, applied to such cases, as “slandering all his noble kindred, who were ever held true men and worshipful.” It will appear the more probable that the Reformer spoke thus, from remembrances connected with his own history, if we bear in mind, that no examination of his writings has served to bring to light anything concerning his intercourse with his kindred. What Leland has said concerning Spresswell, accordingly, is not of sufficient weight to be allowed to disturb the uniform testimony both of tradition, and of the most trustworthy authorities on this subject.
Concerning the early years of Wycliffe, we possess not a vestige of information. At the age of sixteen, we find him entered as a commoner in Queen’s College, Oxford. This was in 1340, the year in which that college was founded. Queen’s College owed its origin in part to the munificence of Philippa, the queen of Edward III., but still more to the praiseworthy zeal of Sir John Eglesfield, her chaplain. Eglesfield was a native of Cumberland, and the new college was designed chiefly for the benefit of students from the northern counties; a fact which may account for its being chosen in favour of a youth from the borders of Westmoreland and Durham.
In the age of Wycliffe, the means of education were extended far beyond the precincts of the cathedral or the monastery. Not only in the larger cities, but in every borough or castle, schools are said to have been established. Besides a school in the Abbey of St. Albans, in which every branch of knowledge then cultivated was taught, there was one in the same town under Mathew, a physician, and Garinus, his kinsman. Garinus was much celebrated for his knowledge of the canon and civil law; and the praise bestowed by Matthew Paris on this school, implies that there were many such in the kingdom. Not less than five hundred religious houses had made their appearance in England during the interval from the Conquest to the reign of John; and to those houses, schools were generally annexed. It is certain, also, that so early as the year 1138, the instituting of schools in a manner distinct from the monastic establishments, had extended itself in some cases from towns even to villages. No person, however, could act in the capacity of schoolmaster until licensed by a clergyman; and the clergy, whether from jealousy or avarice, were often so exorbitant in their demands on such occasions, as at length to provoke the intervention of authority. In a general council held in the Lateran church at Rome in 1179, and in another convened at Paris in 1212, all exactions for licences to teach as schoolmasters were forbidden.
Even the studies at Oxford and Cambridge in those times were for the most part of an elementary kind, and the pupils were children. Such scholars were received into the schools which Wood describes as the “Nurseries of Grammarians,” until they became capable of ascending to “higher arts.” Children, however, would not often be sent from distant parts of the kingdom to the universities, merely for the sake of such elementary acquisitions as might be made with greater facility and equal effect nearer home. In the northern counties especially, the necessity for so doing was precluded. Edward I. speaks of an establishment as existing in one of the border districts in his time, where two hundred young clerks were receiving education. In some such establishment the northern students generally made such progress as qualified them when they came to the universities to enter upon those higher studies which were peculiar to those celebrated seats of learning. In the provincial schools the Latin language was sedulously taught, as being in those times the only key of knowledge. When thus far instructed, the pupil passed to the study of certain approved works on grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and obtained some knowledge of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These sciences, which, it will be observed, are seven in number, were supposed to be so explained as to present within their mystic circle whatever was deemed important, or even possible to be known. But it is not probable that the preliminary studies of the “young clerks” in such seminaries often embraced much beyond the study of grammar; their progress in the higher arts being reserved to the course awaiting them at the university.
These facts may suggest to our imagination the manner in which Wycliffe had been occupied up to the time of his becoming a commoner in Oxford. But the connexion of Wycliffe with Queen’s College was not of long continuance. Merton, to which he shortly afterwards removed, was a foundation of great celebrity. It could boast of some of the most scientific scholars of the age: it had supplied the English church with three primates: its divinity chair had been recently filled by the celebrated Bradwardine: and within its walls the great schoolmen Ockham and Duns Scotus had put forth those powers, the fame of which filled all Christendom, and was supposed to be immortal. So great was the capacity of Scotus, that, according to his eulogists, had the genius of Aristotle been unknown, here was a disciple who could have supplied his place. His arrival at truth was rather with the readiness and certainty of tuition, than by the slow and doubtful processes common to ordinary minds. The Divine attributes he could describe as one descending immediately from the presence of Deity, and the nature of angels as though it were his own. The mysteries of Providence, he could explain as if apprised of all its secrecies; and the felicities of heaven he could set forth as if they had become the element of his own being. How natural that such a man should be described as the immortal Scotus, and the most powerful and ingenious of the sons of men! But his contemporary Ockham lived to better purpose. He presumed to question the infallibility of Pope John XXII. As a punishment of his temerity, he was compelled to seek the protection of Louis of Bavaria, emperor of Germany; and his publications in defence of the civil power as opposed to the undue pretensions of the ecclesiastical, if not friendly to his repose, contributed largely to his fame. One of his compositions is praised by Selden, as the “very best performance published concerning the limits of the spiritual and temporal powers.”
Wycliffe appears to have felt the influence of the associations into which he thus passed, and to have given himself to the study of the scholastic philosophy with great ardour. Aristotle, according to that system, was the only safe guide to the meaning of St. Paul. Aided by the logic and metaphysics of that great master, there was nothing, either known or supposed to have being, which his disciples did not affect to describe and analyse. In attempting to establish any truth, it was common to state and refute the forms of error opposed to it; and debates conducted after the manner of a most technical and abstruse logic, became to the inmates of colleges much the same thing which the tournament had long been to knights, and nobles, and princes. In the subsequent portions of this volume, the reader will find sufficient illustration of the nature of this science, and of the skill with which the Reformer could avail himself of its weapons.
To his skill in the scholastic philosophy, Wycliffe has the reputation of having added a diligent study of the civil and canon law. The civil law was a system of jurisprudence which had descended from the times of the Roman empire, and in part even from the times of the republic. It was adopted in various degrees by the nations of feudal Europe; but as it had been moulded for the most part by men who acted in obedience to the will of a military despotism, however wise it may have been in some of its provisions, as relating to questions between man and man, it was in every way unfavourable to liberty as between sovereign and subject. The canon law consisted of the decrees of councils and of popes, and constituted an authority which not only took under its jurisdiction every thing properly ecclesiastical, but often infringed upon the province of the civil power. Hence a spirit of rivalry arose between the courts of princes, and the courts of bishops; between the authority of councils, and the authority of parliaments; and between the supremacy claimed by princes in regard to ecclesiastical matters within their own dominions, and the pretensions of the pontiffs, as extending to the control of all such matters, in all the nations of Christendom. Thus it came to be a proverb, that no man could be a good canonist, without being a good civilian—the limits of the canon and the civil law being in many things so difficult to determine, that no one could hope to be expert in the defence of either, without possessing an intimate knowledge of both. But the causes which proved unfavourable to the dominion of the old Roman law, were highly favourable to the growing power of the church; and the sort of empire which the court of Rome laboured to introduce by means of its canons, may be said to have come very much into the place of the old empire of the Cæsars. In most of the nations of Europe, however, there were many laws and usages of Gothic or feudal origin, which were much too free or national in their character to accord readily with either of the systems adverted to. This was eminently the case in England; and the writings of Wycliffe afford abundant evidence of the attention which he had bestowed on all these subjects. He clung with much tenacity to the authority of the civil power as his own just means of defence against the intolerance of churchmen; and often appealed to the laws of the land as a sufficient warrant, especially when sustained by Holy Scripture, for opposing all foreign usurpation within the realm of England, whether civil or ecclesiastical.
We know not to what extent Wycliffe may have applied himself to mathematical studies, but his acquaintance with natural philosophy generally, as taught in those times, was considerable. His great distinction, however, among the distinguished men of his day, consisted in his manner of inculcating religious truth on the sole authority of Scripture, and in the strict exercise of the right of private judgment, long before those terms had become as a watchword among us. It was this peculiarity which secured him the honourable appellation of the “Gospel Doctor.”
It is not without considerable effort of imagination, that we can at all realise the test which must have been applied in those times, to the courage of a man resolved on pursuing such a course. Mosheim, in his History of the Thirteenth Century, remarks, “The method of investigating the nature of Divine truth, by reason and philosophy, prevailed so universally, and was followed with such ardour, that the number of those who, in conformity with the example of the ancient doctors, drew their systems of theology from the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the fathers, and who acquired on that account the name of Biblicists, diminished from day to day. It is true, indeed, that several persons of eminent piety, and even some of the Roman pontiffs, exhorted with great seriousness and warmth the scholastic divines, and more especially those of the university of Paris, to change their method of teaching theology, and laying aside their philosophical abstraction and subtlety, to deduce the sublime science of salvation from the Holy Scriptures, with that purity and simplicity with which it was there delivered by the inspired writers. But these admonitions and exhortations were without effect; the evil was become too inveterate to admit of a remedy, and the passion for logic and metaphysics was grown so universal and so violent, that neither remonstrances nor arguments could check its presumption or allay its ardour.” To this course of things, however, Wycliffe had courage enough to oppose himself, and deduced his system of theology from the Holy Scriptures, in a manner which evinced as little dependence on the “writings of the Fathers,” as on the “logic and metaphysics of the schools.”
In the year 1345, a pestilence, the most destructive in the annals of the world, if we may credit contemporary writers, appeared in Tartary. Having ravaged various kingdoms of Asia, and spread itself over a great part of Lower Egypt, it passed to the islands of Greece, and making its way along every shore of the Mediterranean, fell with special violence upon the states of Italy. Even the Alps proved not a sufficient barrier against its inroads. It was felt in the most obscure recesses, and by every European nation. Two years had been occupied in its desolating progress, when, as the historians of the time relate, the continent of Europe was shaken from its centre to its borders by a succession of earthquakes. From June to December in the same year, England was visited with incessant rains. In the following August the plague appeared at Dorchester; it soon reached the metropolis, and there, in the space of a few months, added many thousands to its victims. The infected perished, for the most part, in a few hours; the strongest failed after the second or third day. Wycliffe was now in the twenty-third year of his age. He saw the distemper passing from men to the brute creation, covering the land with putrid flesh; the labours of husbandry suspended; the courts of justice closed; the timid resorting to every device of superstition for security, and perishing around him, sometimes buoyant with delusion, and sometimes frenzied by despair. It was said that a tenth only of the human family had been spared. Even grave men supposed that the earth had lost full half its population. Whether the man of three-and-twenty, who was ere long to become distinguished as a Reformer of religion, believed in one of these rumours or the other, enough, we may be assured, became known to him, on the ground of unquestionable evidence, to place the calamity before him in aspects deeply affecting; and from his frequent references to it in after life, we learn that the impression made by it, on his humane and devout mind, was deep and abiding.
The moral effect of this event was hardly less lamentable than the physical. The depravity of the people seemed to be maddened rather than subdued by their sufferings. The physician and the priest were often found alike negligent of their duties. The husband was deserted by the wife, and even children by their parents; and plunderers employed themselves in rifling the dwellings which the malady had depopulated. It has ever been thus with humanity, in the same circumstances. In some instances, such visitations have been found to soften the heart, and to produce penitence; but in a greater number their effect has been to give a greater force and desperateness to the selfish passions. When the pestilence passed away, the clergy who survived were unequal to the duties required from their order, and the same want was felt in every department of agriculture and handicraft. But the great lesson which the living appeared to have derived from what had befallen the dead, was the wisdom of exacting the highest possible remuneration for such services, sometimes at the rate of a tenfold increase. Laws, accordingly, were issued to repress this rapacity, both among priests and people.
In reading the lives of distinguished men, two departments of inquiry naturally engage our attention; the one relating to the degree in which such men have been influenced by their times—and and the other, to the degree in which they have given to their age, the impress of their own genius and labour. The effect on the mind of Wycliffe of the direful scourge adverted to, appears to have been to possess him with very gloomy views in regard to the condition and prospects of the human race. At a little more than the age of thirty, he seems to have looked on the state of society generally with painful foreboding, being equally affected by its manifest depravity, by its present sufferings, and by the prospect of the further retribution regarded as assuredly awaiting it.
The pestilence subsided in England in 1348. The earliest of the works attributed to Wycliffe bears the date 1356, eight years later. This piece is intitled the “Last Age of the Church.” We find in it a weakness of judgment, and the traces of an ill-regulated fancy, such as our general idea in regard to the character of Wycliffe would not have taught us to expect. Thus the passage in the ninety-first Psalm, which speaks of “the terror by night”—of the “arrow that flieth by day”—of the “pestilence that walketh in darkness,” and of “the destruction that wasteth at noon-day,” is described as setting forth successive stages in the history of the church. The “nightly dread” or the terror by night, denoted the time when those who slew the saints judged that they did God service. The arrow flying by day was significant of the deceit of heretics. The latter of these tribulations was “put off by the wisdom of saints,” as the former was “cast out by the stedfastness of martyrs.” The pestilence walking in darkness points to “the secret heresies of Simonists;” and the mischiefs of this third tribulation will be so heavy, that “well shall it be to that man of holy church that then shall not be alive.” The fourth tribulation, denoted by the evil which cometh at midday, is the coming of antichrist. The authorities cited in favour of this view, beside the historian Eusebius, the venerable Bede, and St. Bernard, are the abbot Joachim, and the prophet Merlin.
In the same manner, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are allegorised, as the figure of two and twenty hundred years, and as having contained a prophetic meaning. A similar interpretation is given to the Latin alphabet, as relating to the times of the New Testament; and the conclusions deduced from those sources are said to be as certain “as that in the beginning God made heaven and earth.”
But amidst dreams of this nature, we find indications of thought and feeling in regard to the state of society, the existing religious system, and the doctrines of theology, in harmony with those which occur in the undoubted writings of Wycliffe at a later period. In this curious production, the many evils existing, and the greater evils expected, are traced mainly to the character and conduct of a vicious priesthood. Upon that class of men especially, the judgments predicted are about to descend, and the only refuge for the sincere believer, is in turning from dependence on the offices of men, and in looking with humility and devotion to the compassion and grace of their Redeemer. “The vengeance of the sword,” he writes, “and mischiefs unknown before, by which men in those days shall be punished, shall fall for the sin of priests. Men shall fall on them, and cast them out of their fat benefices, and they shall say, ‘He came into his benefice by his kindred, this by covenant made before, he for his service, and this for money came into God’s church.’ Then shall each such priest cry, ‘Alas! alas! that no good spirit dwelt with me at my coming into God’s church!’ ”
In a preceding passage he predicts, on the authority of John of Salisbury and St. Gregory, that “The pestilent smiting together of people, and hurling together of realms, and other harms, shall come to the earth, because the honours of holy church are given to unworthy men.” The tract concludes with the following illustration of a Hebrew tale. “There was a stork had a bird, and his bird was shut in under a vessel of glass; and when the stork saw his bird, and that he might not come to him, he brought a little red worm out of the wilderness, and with his blood he anointed the glass. Then the glass burst, and the bird flew his way. So our Lord, the Father of heaven, had mankind in hell, which was glazen, that is to say, was as brittle as glass. To break it, he brought such a little red worm, which was our Lord Jesus Christ, as David saith in the 21st Psalm, ‘I am a worm and no man,’ and with his blood he delivered man’s nature. Zachariah writeth in the ninth chapter, “Thou truly with the blood of witness, or the testament, hast led out them that were bound in the pit.” So when we were sinful, and children of wrath, God’s Son came out of heaven, and praying his Father for his enemies, he died for us then; much rather now, that we are made righteous by his blood, shall we be saved. Paul so writeth to the Romans: He shall pray for us. Jesus went into heaven to appear in the presence of God for us. Paul to the Hebrews. The which presence may he grant us to see, that liveth and reigneth without end, Amen.”
We may not feel at liberty to applaud the judgment of the author in the selection of his allegory in this case, but the devout perception and feeling of the above passage is not uninstructive.
In attributing this piece to Wycliffe, his biographers have been guided partly by its internal evidence, but still more by the fact that it happens to be bound up in a volume containing other pieces which are unquestionably from his pen. The evidence in regard to its authenticity, however, from both these sources is not such as to preclude all ground for suspicion on that point, though from the contents of the document, as well as from the connexion in which we find it, the evidence appears to me to turn strongly in favour of its having been written by Wycliffe. Bale has given it a place in his catalogue of the writings of our Reformer; and from his description of it, there is reason to think that more than one copy of this work was in existence in the time of that author.
In the year 1360 Wycliffe began his disputes with the Mendicants. In Oxford, where this controversy originated, these new orders were possessed of great power, and numbered among them many of the most able men of the times. The indolence and worldliness of the regular clergy, by scandalising the more severe or the more consistent professors of the Gospel, had been the main causes, some centuries earlier, of the rapid diffusion of the monastic institute—a fault in one extreme disposing many to error in an opposite direction. In the same manner, the great abuse of wealth on the part of the endowed priesthood, taught the Mendicants to throw themselves on a kind of voluntary system; while the general neglect of preaching in the case of the parochial clergy, was the reason assigned by the Mendicants for giving themselves almost wholly to that office as preaching friars. With stricter vows of poverty than had been adopted by the monastic orders, the friars associated a claim to the most important functions of the clergy, and thus aimed to unite in themselves much of the reputation and power belonging to both those classes.
They made their appearance in Oxford in 1221. The causes which had given them such speedy popularity on the continent, were no less powerful in this country. Some wise men, dissatisfied with the conduct of the older clergy, became the zealous patrons of these new fraternities. Their supposed separation from the corrupting influence of wealth, and their assiduity and ability as preachers, appeared to point them out as the sort of men especially demanded by the times. Among the persons by whom they were thus regarded, was the celebrated Grossteste, Bishop of Lincoln; but the men who were for a while favourites of that prelate, became the objects of his bitterest censure before his decease. At a later period, their zeal to proselyte the young in the universities, exposed them to much suspicion and disaffection. Loud complaints had been urged against them in Paris, before Fitz-Ralph, who was chancellor of Oxford in 1333, and became archbishop of Armagh in 1347, distinguished himself as an opponent of their opinions and encroachments. He denied the virtue of their voluntary poverty, censured their inroads on the province of the parochial clergy, and declared, that by their influence, the students of Oxford had been reduced, within his memory, from thirty thousand, to not more than a fifth of that number. In 1357, Fitz-Ralph, better known by the name of Armachanus, submitted his complaints on this subject to the pope at Avignon. But the decease of this zealous prelate three years later, left his purposes unaccomplished, and the event was hailed by the Mendicants as a triumph to their cause.
Wycliffe entered into the labours of Armachanus, and prosecuted the same object with even greater earnestness. None of the extant writings of Wycliffe against the friars can be attributed to so early a period as the year 1360. But his arguments against that class of men are of such constant occurrence in his later works, and are everywhere so much to the same effect, as to leave little room to doubt that the matter of the treatise published in this volume, under the title of “Objections to Friars,” presents the substance of the reasoning employed by him on this subject from the commencement of the controversy relating to it.
His language uniformly was, that if God might be said to have given the friars to the church, it was as he had given a king to Israel,—as a punishment, and not as a boon. “But a sanction was supposed to be imparted to the practices of the Mendicants by the poverty of Christ and of his apostles; and this circumstance had imperceptibly induced a habit of appeal to the sacred Scriptures, as to a decisive authority. The volume of inspired truth was thus brought from its obscurity, and was vested, though for mistaken purposes, with something of the homage due to it as the only competent arbiter of religious opinion. Such as were displeased by the obtrusive services of the friars, were thus naturally directed to the records of the Gospel, that the justice of these novel pretensions might be thus ascertained or confuted; and the arguments opposed with most success to the peculiarities of these innovators, were derived from the source to which they had themselves been the first to appeal. It is scarcely to be questioned, that to these facts we are considerably indebted for Wycliffe’s early attachment to the doctrine which affirms the sufficiency of the Scriptures with regard to all the purposes of faith and duty—a doctrine in which the right of private judgment was obviously implied; and it will hereafter appear, that no modern theologian has been more aware of the importance of these maxims than Wycliffe, or more successful in defending them. It is probable, indeed, that he was very far from discerning the ultimate result of his inquiries, when he first became known as the opponent of the new orders; but we have sufficient evidence to justify the conclusion, that even then, these momentous sentiments had become in a hopeful degree familiar to his mind. The failure of Fitz-Ralph, in his more limited project of reform, had left no room to hope for improvement, as to originate with the papacy, or as to be sanctioned from that quarter; and this state of things appears to have suggested to his successor in the contest, the necessity of a less sparing exposure of existing abuses in the church, and of a more vigorous appeal to the common sense of every class among the people.”
That which distinguished the efforts of Wycliffe in this connexion from those of Armachanus and others, was his setting forth the evils which he describes, as being the natural and necessary consequence of the rules which the friars had pledged themselves to observe. While other disputants were content to seek a reform of particular errors and abuses, Wycliffe sought nothing less than an extinction of the institute itself, as being repugnant to Scripture, and inconsistent with the order and prosperity of the church. Instead of supposing, as some good men had done, that the introduction of such agents would tend better than any other means that might be employed for that purpose to stimulate and improve the character of the parochial priesthood, he insisted strongly that the removal of these intruders was absolutely necessary, if harmony and vigour were to be restored to the ecclesiastical system. He is at the same time careful to distinguish between the institute and the men, being equally concerned to “destroy their errors,” and to “save their persons.”
The men against whom the Reformer committed himself to this extent, were possessed of great power, and so little accustomed to hear reproof with meekness, that, in the language of their antagonist, “a lord would more patiently submit to a severe censuring of his least offence, than friars would hear the soft and mild reproving of their greatest sins.” Wycliffe of course had to lay his account with the utmost mischief that might proceed from the passions of such opponents. During nearly two centuries, the Inquisition had been pursuing its course of torture and destruction on the continent; and through the whole of that period its odious business had devolved chiefly on the orders of St. Dominick and St. Francis. In addition to their power in this form, they were, in the language of Wycliffe, “the confessors, the preachers, and the rulers commonly of all men.”
The year 1360 has been mentioned as that in which Wycliffe became distinguished by the part which he took in this controversy. In the following year the master and scholars of Baliol College presented him to the living of Fylingham, a benefice of considerable value in the diocese of Lincoln. In the same year we find the name of John de Wycliffe entered as that of the newly-elected warden of Baliol. These facts seem to warrant the conclusion that his attempts to defend the regular clergy, and the university, against the obtrusive zeal of the Mendicants, were highly estimated, at least by the parties most interested in his efforts.
But four years later we find the name of John de Wycliffe as that of the person filling the office of warden in Canterbury Hall in the same university. Canterbury Hall was founded by Simon de Islep, Archbishop of Canterbury, a prelate who appears to have acquitted himself with much credit in some of the most important offices in the church and the government. The new hall was designed for the benefit of eleven scholars, eight of whom were to be secular clergymen; the remaining three, and the warden, were to be chosen from the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury. But discord soon arose between the two classes of scholars, and Woodhall the warden took part with the monks. Islep saw the community on which he had lavished his patronage and his substance, conspicuous for dissension rather than improvement, and availing himself of a provision in the founding of the institution, he removed the three monks and the warden, and supplying the place of the former by the same number of clerical scholars, he invited John de Wycliffe to the vacant office of warden. Islep died soon afterwards, and Peter Langham, the Bishop of Ely, who had been previously abbot of Westminster, and a private monk, was raised to the primacy. Woodhall and his expelled associates made their appeal to the new primate, alleging that the late changes in Canterbury Hall had been brought about by illegal and dishonest means; and after the interval of a few weeks, the three monks were restored, and Woodhall was reinstated as warden. It was pretended that what had been done, had been done without the sanction of the founder, or that if such sanction had been given, it was in his last sickness, when he had ceased to be competent to such an office. The only appeal from the judgment of a metropolitan, in such a case, was to that of the sovereign pontiff; and to him appeal was made.
But some doubt has been raised as to whether the John de Wycliffe, of Canterbury Hall, was the same person who had been previously master of Baliol, and who is known to us as the Reformer. The decision of the pontiff, in the case submitted to him from Canterbury Hall, was unfavourable to the appellants; and as the enemies of Wycliffe have been forward to ascribe his zeal as a reformer to this loss of his wardenship, it appears to have been supposed, that service would be done to the reputation of Wycliffe, by throwing some doubt over the point of his ever having been in possession of the said wardenship. But slight incidents do not thus affect the course of great men. Minds liable to be thus influenced to-day, will be no less open to opposite impressions from opposite influences to-morrow, and will never evince steadiness in anything. Some difficulty indeed arises in accounting for the removal of a man from the office of warden in connexion with the older and larger foundation of Baliol, to so small and recent an establishment as that of Canterbury Hall. But we know not what may have happened at Baliol during the four years which intervened between the two appointments; and the fact that the founding of Canterbury Hall was a favourite project with the man who was “Primate of all England,” may go far to explain a circumstance which would otherwise seem improbable. It should be remembered, also, that the appeal in the matter of his wardenship was made in the spring of 1367, and that the decision of the pontiff was not given till the year 1370; and Anthony Wood, Fox the martyrologist, and others, agree in ascribing Wycliffe’s loss of his wardenship to the zeal which he had manifested on the side of ecclesiastical innovation, before the judgment of the court of Rome on that subject had been pronounced. The name of Wycliffe, as we have seen, is of local origin; and that there should have been two distinguished men in Oxford, bearing the name of John de Wycliffe, is most improbable. The confounding of the one person with the other would have been so natural, that in many instances care would have been taken to distinguish between them; and some traces of that distinction would have reached us. If a second John de Wycliffe flourished at the same time in Oxford, we seem shut up to the conclusion, that he must have been of the same family with the Reformer,—a conclusion which it seems hardly possible to admit.
While the suit relating to Canterbury Hall was pending, a somewhat violent dispute arose between the crown of England and the court of Rome, concerning the tribute-money which King John had stipulated to be paid by himself and his successors to the treasury of the pontiffs. Urban demanded of the English monarch the annual payment of a thousand marks, as a feudal acknowledgment for the sovereignty of England and Ireland; those kingdoms being held in fee, it was said, of the successors of St. Peter. Since the decease of King John, this claim had been honoured or neglected, as the favour of the pontiff was felt to be important or otherwise.
Thirty-three years had passed since the last annual payment of this nature was made; and the demand of Urban now was, that the arrears for that interval should be sent to him, and that the annual sum should be regularly transmitted to him in future. In default of such payment, the king was further admonished that he would be cited duly to appear and answer for such neglect in the court of the sovereign pontiff, who had become his civil no less than his religious superior.
Edward received this communication in 1365: in the following year he submitted the question to the decision of parliament. Since the reign of John, the powers of the English parliament, and especially of the House of Commons, had become such that all the greater and more distinctive principles of our constitution may be said to have been called into vigorous exercise. The reign of Edward extended to fifty years, during which period more than seventy parliaments were convened. More than once it was solemnly enacted that one such assembly at least should be annually summoned. Edward, in the person of his chancellor, requested the advice of parliament with regard to the answer which should be returned to the claim made upon him and upon the nation by the pope. The prelates solicited a day for private deliberation. On the morrow, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the members of the commons, declared unanimously, that neither King John, nor any other sovereign, had power thus to subject the realm of England, without consent of parliament; that such consent had not been obtained; and that, passing over other difficulties, the whole transaction on the part of the king was in violation of the oath which he had taken on receiving his crown. By the temporal nobility and commons, it was farther resolved that, should the pope commence his threatened process against the king of England, as his vassal, all possible aid should be rendred, that such usurpation might be effectually resisted.
According to the ecclesiastical theory of the middle age, the church is the parent of the state, bishops are as fathers to princes, and the authority of all sovereigns must be subordinate to that of the successors of St. Peter. On the present occasion, men were not wanting to take this high ground in defence of this papal claim. In a treatise published by an anonymous monk, it was maintained, that the sovereignty of England had been legally forfeited to the pope, by the failure of the annual tribute; and that the clergy were exempt in person and property from all subjection to the authority of the magistrate. We may judge of the celebrity of Wycliffe, at this time, from the fact that he is called upon by name to show the fallacy of these opinions.
The Reformer was not ignorant concerning the motives of his anonymous antagonist in assailing him with this challenge. He assures us that he had reason to know, that the hope of his opponent was, to expose him to the resentment of the pontiff, that, laden with ecclesiastical censures, he might be deprived of his preferments; also to commend himself and his own order to the favour of the Roman court, and to augment the possessions of the religious orders generally, by placing the kingdom in greater subjection to the power of the popes. That he might guard himself so far as possible against the sinister purposes of his opponent, Wycliffe commences by describing himself as a humble and obedient son of the church, and as meaning to affirm nothing that may be reported to her injury, or that may reasonably offend the ears of the devout. The Reformer further describes himself as the king’s peculiar clerk, from which it appears that he had received the honorary distinction of royal chaplain. The right of the king in connexion with parliament not only to deny the tribute claimed by the pope, but to subject all clergymen to the jurisdiction of the magistrate in all civil matters, and in certain cases even to alienate the goods of the church, are all affirmed as doctrines shown to be just, both by the written law, and by the ancient practice of the realm. He does not deny that there may be much in the canons of the church opposed to such doctrines, but he insists that if truly examined these maxims will be found to be in strict accordance with the claims of natural right, with the maxims of civil law, and with the precepts of Holy Scripture.
Having thus stated the grounds on which it would be practicable to work out a full vindication of the above doctrines, he abstains from pursuing that course, and chooses rather to set forth his views, as contained in the substance of a series of speeches, said to have been delivered by certain secular lords, in reference to the demand lately made on the treasury of the king of England by the pope. By this method of reply, the humble Reformer may have hoped to shield himself, under the authority of the said lords, against the resentment to which his opinions might otherwise expose him. The speeches which have been thus preserved may interest the curious reader as presenting a specimen of the manner in which our senators of the fourteenth century were deemed capable of treating questions demanding a good degree of information and discernment. What is reported from them in this document is not of course a complete account of the debate adverted to, but a selection of passages designed to place the series of difficulties inseparable from the claim of the pope in the most lucid form, and in the smallest compass. To us the paper is chiefly valuable, as containing opinions which, by adoption at least, are those of Wycliffe himself, and which in the report made of them have lost nothing of their force, probably from coming into contact with the vigour and intrepidity of his own genius.
The first lord declared all feudal subjection to be founded in the necessary subordinations of political power. But no subordination of this nature, he maintained, could have been the origin of the alleged subjection of England to the papacy; and the pretension of the pope accordingly being without any foundation of feudal justice, the dependence introduced by King John should not be regarded as a compact at all proper to be continued. Should the pontiff attempt to supply the want of feudal law, in support of this feudal pretension, by resorting to force, the speaker expressed his readiness to place the question on the issue of a trial by such weapons. The next speaker extended this line of argument. Feudal tribute, he observed, could not be justly demanded except by a superior, capable of affording feudal protection. Such protection the pope could not bestow on those from whom he now demanded tribute and homage; nor could it become him to employ himself in such matters, whatever might be his power in relation to them, seeing that the character distinguishing his holiness should be that of chief in the following of Christ, the Saviour of the world having been without a place to lay his head, and having taught his ministers in this manner by example, the superiority they should evince to all the fascinations of secular possession and authority. The great duty in this case is therefore said to be not only to resist this pretension to civil dominion on the part of the pontiff, but to insist that the cares of his holiness be restricted to the spiritual things proper to his office.
While it was shown after this manner that the feudal tribute demanded, could not be exacted on the ground of any feudal benefit supposed to be conferred, the third speaker declared that it could not be claimed with greater justice upon any religious ground, inasmuch as the influence of the pope and his cardinals was scarcely otherwise felt in England, than in conveying large portions of its treasure to the hands of its enemies. This nobleman was succeeded by a fourth, who stated that one-third of the property of the kingdom had become that of the church, and that over all such property the pope had long claimed dominion, and that in virtue of such claim, the court of Rome exacted the first-fruits from every vacant benefice in England. This interference of the pope in regard to temporal things, it was observed, must be either as vassal to the king, or as his superior. If the former doctrine would be rejected by the court of Rome, the latter should be no less spurned by the people of England; and it is accordingly recommended that a forcible check should be given to this spirit of usurpation, which may otherwise be found powerful enough, in some interval of disorder, to extend the despotism already imposed on the church, in an equal measure to the state. The remarks of the next speaker were not less pertinent. He professed himself curious to know the expressed condition on which this disputed tribute had been first granted. If granted that absolution might be conferred on the king, or that the papal interdict might be removed from the kingdom, then the whole transaction was a piece of simoniacal dishonesty, proper to be denounced by lords and churchmen. The gifts of the Christian priesthood had been freely bestowed that they might be as freely dispensed; but the pope, according to this view of his conduct, is heard to say, “I will absolve thee, only upon condition that I receive so much money annually and for ever!” If it should be said that the claim preferred had not been made on the ground of any spiritual benefit bestowed, but on the principle of a strict feudal subjection, it is then argued that a plea to dispose of the crown itself might be some day urged with as much appearance of justice. By another lord it was observed, that supposing the land ever to have been the just possession of the pope, his right so to dispose of the goods of the church as to barter an opulent kingdom for the trivial acknowledgment of seven hundred marks a year, was hardly consistent with an honest stewardship. Certainly, the functionary who could depreciate ecclesiastical property after this manner, might alienate it entirely, and must be an authority not greatly to be coveted in the relation of a feudal superior. The same speaker proceeds to state, that “Christ is the supreme Lord, while the pope is a man liable to sin; and if in mortal sin, according to divines, is unfitted for dominion.” And he concludes by observing, “manifestly, therefore, it is enough for us to keep ourselves from mortal sin, to the service of one lord of the kingdom, to communicate of our goods virtuously to the poor, and as in former time to hold our kingdom immediately of Christ, who, as chief Lord, teaches whatever is most lawful and perfect with regard to man’s authority.” The last speaker exposed the injustice of the papal demand still more forcibly, as an attempt to visit the sins of the monarch on the freedom and property of the subject, and that to remote generations. In the supposed compact it is argued, the people were all certainly interested, and according to the good usage of the realm, the assent of all should have been obtained, in place of which, the seal of the king and of a few apostate lords had been deemed sufficient to bring thraldom upon a whole nation. The grant, accordingly, as being one to which the kingdom had never been a party, is treated as a matter which it should never descend to recognise.
Wycliffe speaks of having heard the speeches of which he makes this report. But the reasonings of these secular lords are so pertinent, and for the most part so identical with opinions subsequently published, and reiterated in almost every shape in the writings of the Reformer, that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion, either that the supposed debate is altogether a fiction, or at least that Wycliffe has given to the utterances of the speakers a strong colouring from his own views and impressions. His opponent had stated the claim of Urban in a form of logic from which the escape of an adversary was supposed to be impossible. Having laid down as an axiom, that every dominion granted on condition, is dissolved on a failure of that condition, he proceeds to say, that the pope, as supreme lord, presented the realm of England to King John, after it had been surrendered into his hands, on condition that England should pay annually seven hundred marks to the Roman court. But this condition, he adds, has not been observed, and the king has thereby fallen from the true dominion of England. Wycliffe replied, that the condition assumed in this agreement had been assumed falsely; neither the king, nor those who acted with him, being competent to transfer the realm and the people of England after this manner to the pope. Having challenged the monk to show the contrary of this opinion, Wycliffe concluded by observing, “If I mistake not, the day will come in which all exactions shall cease before such a condition will be proved to be either honest or reasonable.”
By the parliament which disposed in this manner of the arrogant claim of the pope to be regarded as the feudal sovereign of England, some wholesome regulations were made with a view to protect the universities against certain mischiefs which had resulted from the conduct of the friars. It was determined that no scholar under the age of eighteen should be admitted into any mendicant order, that no document tending in any manner to the injury of the universities should be hereafter received from the pope, and that all differences between the mendicants and the older authorities in those seminaries should be decided in future in the court of the king, and without further appeal. We have no direct evidence on the subject, but it is highly probable, from the part which Wycliffe had taken in this controversy, that the suit of the universities against the friars was not conducted without his assistance; and this becomes the more probable if we suppose him to have been present, as he states, when the parliament discussed the question of the tribute claimed by the pope in the manner described. The parliament adverted to, it will be remembered, was the assembly convened in 1366, and Wycliffe, who was then warden of Canterbury Hall, was soon afterwards numbered, as we have seen, among the royal chaplains.
The reign of Edward the Third, who had now reached the fiftieth year of his age, is one of the most remarkable in English history. It was distinguished by military enterprise, but hardly less by general social advancement. The battle of Cressy belongs to the year 1346. The victory of Poictiers belongs to 1356. In the latter year, the king of Scotland was a prisoner in the Tower of London, and the king of France was placed at the head of the many illustrious captives in the hands of Edward the Third. It was natural that such successes should diffuse and strengthen the war passion among the people of England in those times. But much collateral benefit resulted from this course of affairs. During the reign of Edward, the pontiffs resided at Avignon, and being, together with their cardinals, commonly Frenchmen, the animosity against France disposed the people of England to regard the policy of the papal court as that of a power naturally allied to France, and to look on all its proceedings with a suspicion and disaffection which might not otherwise have been felt. The great expense, moreover, inseparable from a protracted war, both in Scotland, and through the provinces of France, obliged the king to assemble his parliament every year, the effect of which was greatly to strengthen the power of such assemblies, to define parliamentary usage, and to familiarise the mind of the people to such a mode of government; while the redress of grievances almost always preceded new grants of money. Commerce also made great progress during this period, and in its train came a marked revival of taste, literature, and general intelligence.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was the patron of Chaucer and of Wycliffe, and is the only male member of the royal family whose name is conspicuously associated with the religion of those times. This prince was born at Ghent in the year 1340, sixteen years subsequent to the birth of our Reformer. At the age of twenty-two, he succeeded, as Earl of Richmond, to the title of his deceased father-in-law, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, and to estates which rendered him the most opulent subject of the realm. He unsheathed his sword in Scotland, France, and Spain, but is less known from his military exploits, than as possessing some taste for literature, and as having evinced a strong sympathy, up to a certain point, with the reforms contemplated by Wycliffe. It has been stated that Wycliffe dedicated a collection of his works to the Duke of Lancaster so early as the year 1368. But this is an error. There is a manuscript volume in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, containing several pieces from the pen of Wycliffe, and along the upper line of the first treatise in that collection, is an insertion describing the volume as consisting of the works of Wycliffe which were so dedicated. But this entry is made by a modern hand, and it is certain that the piece on which it was written was not composed earlier than 1380—that is, subsequent to the papal schism. This description, however, has been copied in a well-known printed catalogue of existing manuscripts, and from that source has been widely adopted.
In 1371 an attempt was made by the English parliament to exclude churchmen from those high offices of state which hitherto had been almost invariably sustained by them. At that time the offices of Lord Chancellor, and Lord Treasurer, and those of Keeper and Clerk of the Privy Seal, were filled by clergymen. The Master of the Rolls, the Masters in Chancery, and Chancellor and Chamberlain of the Exchequer, were also dignitaries, or beneficed persons of the same order. One priest was Treasurer for Ireland, and another for the Marshes of Calais; and while the parson of Oundle is employed as surveyor of the king’s buildings, the parson of Harwick is called to the superintendence of the royal wardrobe. It is known, also, that the clergy often descended to much lower occupations, and gave themselves to such employments in a manner most inconsistent with the proper duties of their office. The attempt to put an end to this usage by authority of parliament, is attributed by historians to the secret influence of John of Gaunt; and concerning the judgment of Wycliffe as strongly opposed to it, the reader will find abundant evidence in the present volume. “Neither prelates,” he writes, “nor doctors, priests nor deacons, should hold secular offices, that is, those of Chancery, Treasury, Privy Seal, and other such secular offices in the Exchequer; neither be stewards of lands, nor stewards of the hall, nor clerks of the kitchen, nor clerks of accounts; neither be occupied in any secular office in lords’ courts, more especially while secular men are sufficient to do such offices.” The prayer of the parliament, and a prayer in which its members appear to have been unanimous, was fully to the effect of the above language. Edward, on receiving it, replied that he would act in the matter with the advice of his council. But in the following month William of Wykeham, the celebrated Bishop of Winchester, resigned his office of Chancellor, and the Bishop of Exeter ceased to be Lord Treasurer. It is hardly probable that the originators of this movement should have regarded their first effort as likely to be attended by a greater measure of success.
This proceeding belongs to the year 1371. It was in the year preceding, that the papal court gave its judgment against the claim of Wycliffe with regard to the wardenship of Canterbury Hall. Against the last will of the founder, Woodhall and the three monks were restored, and two years later they rendered their illegal triumph secure, by paying the sum of two hundred marks, as the price of obtaining a confirmation of the decision of the pope from the crown. We have no reason to suppose that Wycliffe was greatly disappointed by what had happened in this respect. We are not aware of a single reference to it in any of his subsequent writings.
In the year 1372, he performed his novitiate for the degree of doctor of divinity; that degree authorised him to open his own school, as a public teacher of theology in the university. In this capacity he, no doubt, read many of those scholastic pieces still extant among his works, and from this time the influence of his opinions began to be more sensibly felt in the university.
The next point with which the name of Wycliffe is connected in our history, relates to the abuses of the papacy in the matter of “provisors.” In the sixteenth year of Edward III. the recently-elected pontiff, Clement the Fourth, declared the two next vacancies in the Anglican church which should amount to the annual value of two thousand marks, to be, by provision, the property of two among his cardinals. The moment was not favourable to such a proceeding. Complaints which had been often uttered, both by nobles and commons, on this subject, were now loudly repeated. Edward, in his letter to the pope, declared that the effect of this custom of provisors had been to transfer the property designed for the support of religion, to the hands of men who neither dwelt in the country nor understood its language, and who, while seizing on the emoluments of office, were alike unable and unwilling to discharge its duties. This custom, he declares to be alike at variance with his own prerogative, with the authority of the chapters, and with that of patrons in general. His claim accordingly is, that this usage in respect to livings may be forthwith abolished. But the redress of these grievances was difficult to obtain. In 1350 it was found necessary to pass the celebrated statute against “provisors;” and in 1353 to provide a further enactment, well known since that time by the word premunire. The first declared the collation to any dignitary or benefice in a manner opposed to the rights of the king, the chapters, or the patron, to be void; the second was directed against the custom of appealing on questions of property, from the decision of the English courts, to the court of the pontiffs. But in 1373 complaint is still made against the evils resulting from these practices. The spoliation carried on under such pretexts, is said to be even greater than at any former period. Hence, to save the property of the realm, and to silence the murmurs of his subjects, Edward commissioned Gilbert, bishop of Bangor, Bolton, a monk of Dunholm, and William de Burton and John de Shepey, to lay his own complaint, and that of his parliament, before the papal court. Gregory the Eleventh then filled the papal chair, and resided at Avignon. The change demanded was, “that the pontiff should desist in future from the reservation of benefices in the Anglican church; that the clergy should henceforth freely enjoy their election to episcopal dignities; and that in the case of electing a bishop, it should be enough that his appointment should be confirmed by his metropolitan, as was the ancient custom.”
In answer to this complaint some fair promises were made; but from the spirit in which the English parliament returned to the subject in the same year, it is plain that the promise of amendment was regarded either as too restricted, or as not trustworthy. In the following year—the year 1374—an inquiry was instituted as to the exact number of benefices in England which, by means of this custom of provisors, had passed into the hands of foreigners. As the result of this inquiry, a second embassy was appointed, to present a further and stronger remonstrance against these encroachments. The first name in the list of the persons now appointed, is that of the prelate who had been included in the previous commission, and the second is that of John de Wycliffe. Had the seat of the negotiation which followed been at Rome, or even at Avignon, it is probable that such nearer observation of the temper and policy of the papal court, would have given to the mind of the Reformer a strong impulse in the direction toward which it now tended. But the diplomatists met at Bruges. Wycliffe reached that city in August, 1374; and in September of the following year, the result of the commission appeared in the shape of six bulls, addressed by the pope to the king of England, and treating of the questions then at issue between the nation and the papacy. In these documents it was provided that no person at present in possession of a benefice in England, should be disturbed in such possession by any intervention of authority from the pope; that such benefices as had been disposed of, in anticipation of their vacancy, by Urban the Fifth, but which had not yet become vacant, should be left to be filled according to the pleasure of their patrons; that the titles of certain clergymen which had been questioned by the late pope, should be confirmed, and that all demand on the first-fruits of the livings to which those clergymen had been appointed, should be remitted; and also that an assessment should be made of the revenues derived by certain cardinals from livings in England, to effect the repair of the churches and other ecclesiastical buildings holden by them, and which had been allowed to fall into decay—the extent of such assessment to be determined by the verdict of a jury convened from the neighbourhood.
These provisions point with sufficient clearness to one class of abuses then prevalent in the English church, consequent on its relation to the papacy. It is plain that it was scarcely within the power of the king, or of the parliament, or of both conjointly, to protect the ecclesiastical revenues of the kingdom against the rapacity of the popes and their dependents. In the documents adverted to, it will be marked that the only admission of error had respect to certain things done by the preceding pontiff, not to any error in principle as regarded the practice of usurping the place of the crown, the chapters, and the patrons of livings, and alienating their legal property from them, and from the nation, in favour of aliens and enemies. It is admitted that in certain cases the last pope had not exercised this sort of power wisely; but the only solace to the impoverished nation is, that in future these schemes of spoliation are to be conducted with more precaution and sagacity.
That such were the views entertained in England with regard to the papal letters, may be inferred from the continuance of the embassy which produced them. In the April of the following year, the parliament again petitioned the king on this subject, and Edward replied, that the matters in dispute were still in the hands of his commissioners at Bruges. But the health of the aged king was declining rapidly, and his power had waned in a degree not less observable. On the continent his authority and influence were almost annihilated. At home, faction brought its weakness and perplexities. The court of Rome, which never failed to perceive the advantage to be derived from delay, or the policy of seizing on some interval of weakness to embrace or extend its power, could not be brought to more than vague and partial reformation, always connecting such conditions with the points which it appeared to concede, as might furnish, ere long, a sufficient pretext for resuming whatever may seem to have been abandoned. The pope promised not to dispose of English benefices in the way of reservation, on condition that the crown should be found to abstain from all similar liberties with ecclesiastical property; and this was all the fruit of a negotiation of two years’ continuance. It is probable that to the insight into the spirit and policy of the papal court thus obtained, we are to ascribe the severity which subsequently marks the strictures of Wycliffe concerning the higher clergy generally, and especially concerning the popes, and their immediate coadjutors. Two years of precious time expended to so little purpose, must have been anything rather than soothing in its influence on a man of such a temperament.
During his absence, however, the Reformer was not forgotten by his sovereign. In November, 1375, he was presented by the king to the prebend of Aust, in the collegiate church of Westbury, in the diocese of Worcester. About the same time the rectory of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire, became vacant. Lord Henry de Ferars, the patron, was then a minor; it, in consequence, devolved upon the crown to appoint the next incumbent, and the royal patronage was again exercised in favour of Wycliffe.
In the mean time the disposition of the commons, and, we have reason to suppose, of the people at large, to indulge in loud complaint against the court of Rome, rather strengthened than diminished. We can suppose the statistics of the commons, in 1376, to have been somewhat inaccurate when they state that the kingdom, within the memory of the present generation, had lost not less than two-thirds of its wealth and population. But it is instructive to observe, that the disasters, whether of war abroad, or of disease and poverty at home, which were regarded as having changed the condition of the kingdom to such an alarming extent, are imputed mainly to the mal-practices of popes and cardinals. In the preamble to their petition, they state that the taxes paid to the court of Rome for ecclesiastical dignities amounted to five times more than those obtained by the king from the whole produce of the realm. “For some on bishopric or other dignity,” the pope they say reserves, “by way of translation and death, three, four, or five several times; and while for money the brokers of that sinful city—Rome—promote many caitiffs, being altogether unlearned and unworthy, to a thousand marks living yearly, the learned and worthy can hardly obtain twenty marks: whereby learning decayeth, aliens and enemies to their land, who never saw, nor care to see, their parishioners, having those livings; whereby they despise God’s service, and convey away the treasure of the realm, and are worse than Jews or Saracens.” Against these customs they plead “the law of the church,” which requires that all such preferments should be disposed of in charity, “without praying or paying.” They insist further, that it is the demand of reason, that establishments which owe their origin to devout and humane feeling should continue to be subservient to religion and hospitality; and they are not afraid to add, that “God has given his sheep to the pope to be pastured, and not to be shorn or shaven; and that lay patrons, perceiving the simony and covetousness of the pope, do thereby learn to sell their benefices to mere brutes, no otherwise than Christ was sold to the Jews.” By such means the pope is said to derive a revenue from England alone, exceeding that of any prince in Christendom. It is stated, accordingly, that “the pope’s collector, and other strangers, the king’s enemies, and only lieger spies for English dignities, and disclosing the secrets of the realm, ought to be discharged.” It is added, that the said collector, “being also receiver of the pope’s pence, keepeth a house in London, with clerks and officers thereunto belonging, as if it were one of the king’s solemn courts, transporting yearly to the pope twenty thousand marks, and most commonly more: that cardinals and other aliens, remaining at the court of Rome—whereof one cardinal is a dean of York, another of Salisbury, another of Lincoln, another archdeacon of Canterbury, another archdeacon of Durham, another archdeacon of Suffolk, and another archdeacon of York, another prebendary of Thane and Nassingdon, another prebendary of York, in the diocese of York—all these, and divers others, have the best dignities in England, and have sent over to them yearly, twenty thousand marks, over and above that which English brokers lying here have; that the pope, to ransom Frenchmen, the king’s enemies, who defend Lombardy for him, doth always, at his pleasure, levy a subsidy of the whole clergy of England; that the pope, for more gain, maketh sundry translations of all bishoprics and other dignities within the realm; and that the pope’s collector hath this year taken to his use the first fruit of all benefices; that it would be good, therefore, to renew all the statutes against provisors from Rome, since the pope reserveth all the benefices of the world for his own proper gift, and hath, within this year, created twelve new cardinals—so that now there are thirty, whereas there were wont to be but twelve in all; and all the said thirty cardinals, except two or three, are the king’s enemies.” It is further argued from these facts, that the popes, if left without check, may ere long proceed to confer the civil offices and the states of the realm upon their creatures, after the manner in which they had “accroached” to themselves the appointment of heads to “all houses and corporations of religion.” As the only adequate means of protecting the country against a system of spoliation which doomed it to perpetual poverty, and which drained from it the emolument that should be as a bounty to its learning and intelligence, it is urged, not only that the provisors of the popes should be sternly resisted in all cases, but that “no papal collector or proctor should remain in England, upon pain of life and limb; and that no Englishman, on the like pain, should become such collector or proctor, or remain at the court of Rome.”
Such were the proceedings of an assembly, which, from its enlightened public spirit, in regard to secular as well as to religious questions, obtained the honourable appellation of the “good parliament.” About six months intervened between the dissolution of that parliament and the meeting of another; and the opening of the next parliament is connected with a remarkable event in the life of Wycliffe. It is manifest that the doctrines of the Reformer were now widely diffused, both among the people, and among that class of persons from whom the representatives of the people in parliament were chosen. The clergy began to be alarmed. It was deemed expedient that something vigorous should be done to prevent the scattering of these seeds of religious change through the land. Courtney, one of the most imperious churchmen of the age, had been recently elevated to the see of London. In the last parliament this prelate had committed himself in a marked degree against the Duke of Lancaster, the known patron of Wycliffe; and the bishop now employed himself to rouse and concentrate the indignation of his order against the opinions and conduct of the Reformer. The houses of convocation met on third of February, in 1377, a week after the opening of the new parliament, and one of its earliest proceedings was to issue a summons requiring Wycliffe to appear before it, and to answer to the charge of holding and publishing certain erroneous and heretical opinions. The nineteenth day of the same month was fixed for the hearing of his defence, and, in expectation of his appearance, the place of assembling, which was the cathedral of St. Paul’s, was crowded with the populace. Wycliffe and the Duke of Lancaster had met recently at Bruges, the Duke to negociate a peace with France, while the Reformer was employed in the matter of his treaty with the delegates of the papacy. When Wycliffe presented himself to the convocation in St. Paul’s, it was in company with John of Gaunt, and with Lord Percy, who then filled the office of Earl Marshal. It was with difficulty that the authority even of such persons secured an avenue through the crowd for the approach of the Reformer to the presence of his judges. The disturbance thus occasioned attracted the attention of Courtney, and the sight of Wycliffe, as sustained by the presence of two such powerful personages, was manifestly as unwelcome as it was unexpected. The following dialogue is given by Fuller, as having passed on the occasion:—
Lord Percy, if I had known what maisteries you would have kept in the church, I would have stopped you out from coming hither.
Duke of Lancaster.
He shall keep such maisteries here, though you say nay.
Wiclif, sit down, for you have many things to answer to, and you need to repose yourself on a soft seat.
It is unreasonable that one cited before his ordinary, should sit down during his answer. He must, and shall stand.
Duke of Lancaster.
The Lord Percy’s motion for Wiclif, is but reasonable. And as for you, my lord bishop, who are grown so proud and arrogant, I will bring down the pride, not of you alone, but of all the prelacy in England.
Do your worst, sir.
Duke of Lancaster.
Thou bearest thyself so brag upon thy parents, which shall not be able to help thee; they shall have enough to do to help themselves.
My confidence is not in my parents, nor in any man else, but only in God, in whom I trust, by whose assistance I will be bold to speak the truth.
Duke of Lancaster.
Rather than I will take these words at his hands, I would pluck the bishop by the hair out of the church.
These last words were uttered in an under tone, but sufficiently loud to be heard by some of the by-standers. Great pains had been taken by the clergy during the sitting of the last parliament, to conciliate the popular feeling, and to direct it against the duke, as meditating a suppression of the mayoralty of London, and other grave inroads upon the liberties of the citizens. The crowd nearest the place of this dispute, consisting probably in great part of the dependents of the clergy, as well as of persons who had been filled with suspicion and disaffection by the above means, raised their voices against the duke, and the disturbance altogether became such, that the meeting separated without anything being said by Wycliffe, or any of its proper business being entered upon.
This meeting, it will be remembered, took place in February, 1377. In the following June, Edward the Third expired; and in October of the same year, Richard the Second assembled his first parliament. This parliament included nearly all the members who had constituted the “good parliament,” and they returned with more determination than ever to their former labour—the labour of concerting measures to prevent the court of Rome from draining the land of its treasure. As a remedy against evils which had hitherto resisted every influence opposed to them, it was urged that the procuring of a benefice by papal provision, should be punished with outlaw; and that the same penalty should be incurred by the man who should farm any living in the English church holden by a foreigner. It was also urged, that proclamation should be issued, requiring “that all aliens, as well religious as others, do, by Candlemas next, avoid the realm; and that during the war, all their lands and goods should be applied thereto.” The war with France had for some time taken a disastrous course. The people had been heavily burdened to sustain it; and the victories which distinguished it, brilliant as they were, yielded no substantial fruit. The temper of the nation, accordingly, was that of irritation and bitter disappointment; and no power felt the effect of this popular disaffection more immediately or strongly than the court of Rome. The above language, set forth as the grave resolution of parliament, seems to bespeak an almost desperateness of feeling on the subject of papal encroachment; and it was by this parliament that a question is said to have been submitted to the judgment of Wycliffe, to the following purport:—“Whether it would not be lawful in a kingdom, in case of necessity, and as the means of defending itself, to detain its treasure, that it might not be conveyed to foreign nations, though even the pope himself should demand the same, under pain of his censures, and in virtue of the obedience said to be due to him?” Wycliffe, as may be supposed, answers this question in the affirmative. The paper setting forth the reasons of this decision, will be found among his works printed in this volume.
In the month of June, 1377, several letters were sent to England by the pontiff, concerning certain false and dangerous opinions said to be holden and promulgated by John de Wycliffe, rector of Lutterworth, and professor of theology in the University of Oxford. One of these letters was addressed to the king, another to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a third to the university. The purport of these letters was to require that measures should be immediately taken to ascertain the opinions of the party accused; to condemn such as should be found erroneous or heretical; and to prevent the diffusion of such doctrines by every means adapted to that end.
When the heads of the university were apprised that such a communication had been sent to them, the propriety of allowing it to be read, or of declining to receive it, became a matter of serious discussion. This hesitation may be attributed in part to the sympathy of many with the opinions of the Reformer, but still more probably to that feeling of jealousy in respect to all papal interference, which was so often manifested by the universities of the middle age. Walsingham, the monastic historian of the time, expresses his astonishment that any such hesitancy should have been shown; but it is evident, from the letters of the pope, that the persons holding the opinions of the Reformer, in a greater or less degree, were known to be numerous and powerful, and that the execution of the papal mandates was expected to be attended with difficulty.
The call made upon the hierarchy to be vigilant and resolute in this affair, was met by a more prompt and cordial response. Sudbury, now Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Chancellor of Oxford, reminding him of the commands received from the pope, and requiring the execution of them with all diligence and faithfulness. The chancellor is required especially to obtain, by the assistance of the most orthodox and skilful divines, correct information in regard to the alleged heresies and errors, and to send along with his statement of the doctrines certainly propagated by Wycliffe, his own judgment respecting them, delivered under the university seal. It was, moreover, enjoined upon him, that, as chancellor, he should cite the erroneous teacher, or cause him to be cited, personally to appear before his ecclesiastical superiors, in the church of St. Paul’s, London, on the thirtieth day from the date of the citation.
This letter was written on the eighteenth of December, and early in the following year—the year 1378—Wycliffe appeared before a synod convened at Lambeth. On this occasion the Reformer appeared alone. But though the distinguished men who accompanied him when he last fronted his enemies, were absent, the favour of the powerful, as well as of the people, was still with him. The citizens of London surrounded the place of meeting: numbers forced their way into the chapel where the synod was assembled, proclaiming their attachment to the person and doctrine of Wycliffe. The dismay produced by this tumult was augmented, when Sir Lewis Clifford entered the chapel, and, in the name of the queen-mother, forbade the bishops proceeding to any definite sentence concerning the conduct or opinions of the Reformer. Walsingham, in relating this disastrous course of things, censures the pusillanimity of the synod in the strongest terms. “The delegates,” he remarks, “shaken as a reed with the wind, became soft as oil in their speech, to the open forfeiture of their own dignity, and the injury of the whole church. With such fear were they struck, that you would think them a man who hears not, or one in whose mouth are no reproofs.” Such interferences with regard to matters of public interest, were not unusual in those times. A little previously, the queen-mother had interposed in the matter of the dispute between the Londoners and the Duke of Lancaster. The persons delegated “to entreat the citizens to be reconciled with the duke,” were Sir Alfred Lewer, Sir Simon Burley, and this same Sir Lewis Clifford: and “the Londoners answered, that they, for the honour of the princess, would obey, and do with all reverence what she would require.” Walsingham also relates, that a similar tumult arose, some four years later, during the trial of Ashton the Lollard.
But the historian who complains in such terms of the conduct of the synod, informs us, that before its members separated, Wycliffe delivered to them a paper, containing a statement of the opinions imputed to him, with explanations annexed. These explanations were not deemed satisfactory; and though no further proceedings were instituted against him at present, he was commanded to abstain from teaching such doctrines, either in the schools or in his sermons. This paper has been much misrepresented by the enemies of Wycliffe, and much misunderstood by his friends. The former have described his explanations as characterised by subtlety, timidity, and evasion; and the latter, by judging of the several articles separately, in place of regarding the document as a whole, have sometimes contributed to strengthen the prejudice thus created, rather than to remove it. As the contents of this paper have been regarded as presenting the most vulnerable point in the history of the Reformer, we shall print it without abridgment, and shall add to it such observations as may serve to give a fair exhibition of its general and real meaning. It commences thus:—
First of all, I publicly protest, as I have often done at other times, that I will and purpose from the bottom of my heart, by the grace of God, to be a sincere Christian; and as long as I have breath, to profess and defend the law of Christ so far as I am able. And if, through ignorance, or any other cause, I shall fail therein, I ask pardon of God, and do now from henceforth revoke and retract it, humbly submitting myself to the correction of Holy Mother Church. And as for the opinion of children and weak people concerning the faith which I have taught in the schools and elsewhere, and which by those who are more than children has been conveyed beyond the sea, even to the court of Rome; that Christians may not be scandalised on my account, I am willing to set down my sense in writing, since I am prosecuted for the same. Which opinions I am willing to defend even unto death, as I believe all Christians ought to do, and especially the pope of Rome, and the rest of the priests of the church. I understand the conclusions, according to the sense of Scripture and the holy doctors, and the manner of speaking used by them; which sense I am ready to explain: and if it be proved that the conclusions are contrary to the faith, I am willing very readily to retract them.
I. The first conclusion is, that all mankind, since Christ’s coming, have not power, simply or absolutely, to ordain that Peter and all his successors should rule over the world politically for ever. And this is plain, as it is not in the power of man to hinder the coming of Christ to the last judgment, which we are bound to believe according to that article of the creed, from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. For after that, according to the faith delivered in Scripture, all human polity will be at an end. But I understand that political dominion, or civil secular government, does pertain to the laity, who are actually living, whilst they are absent from the Lord: for of such a political dominion do the philosophers speak. And although it be styled periodical, and sometimes perpetual (or for ever); yet because in the Holy Scripture, in the use of the church, and in the writings of the philosophers, perpetuum is plainly used commonly in the same sense as eternal; I afterwards suppose that term to be used or taken in that more famous signification, for thus the church sings, Glory be to God the Father, and to his only Son, with the Holy Spirit the Comforter, both now and for ever [in perpetuum]. And then the conclusion immediately follows on the principles of faith; since it is not in the power of men to appoint the pilgrimage of the church to be without end.
Wycliffe here contents himself with explaining the phrase “for ever” scholastically, in its literal and most extended sense, and as being in that sense opposed to the known pleasure of God in respect to the duration of all earthly powers and relationships. But the reader will find, as he proceeds, that if the Reformer has deemed it sufficient to speak under this article, merely to the point of the perpetuity claimed for the papal supremacy, it was not because he had no other doctrine which he might honestly avow on that subject, but because other articles were to follow with which, in his view, it would be preferable to connect his more peculiar opinions relative to the nature of that power.
II.Godcannot give civil dominion to any man for himself and his heirs for ever; in perpetuum. By civil dominion, I mean the same that I meant above by political dominion, and by perpetual, or for ever, the same as I did before, as the Scripture understands the perpetual or everlasting habitations in the state of blessedness. I said, therefore, that God, of his ordinary power, cannot give man civil dominion for ever. I said, secondly, that it seems probable that God, of his absolute power, cannot give man such a dominion, in perpetuum, for ever, because he cannot, as it seems, always imprison his spouse on the way, nor always defer the ultimate completion of her happiness.
Here the same kind of argument occurs. It is merely saying that the natural power of God has been restricted to a given course by his moral purposes.
III.Charters of human invention concerning civil inheritance for ever, are impossible. This is an incident truth. For we ought not to reckon as catholic all the charters that are held by an unjust occupier. But if this be confirmed by the faith of the church, there would be an opportunity given for charity, and a liberty to trust in temporalities, and to petition for them; for as every truth is necessary, so every falsehood is possible on supposition, as is plain by the testimony of Scripture, and of the holy doctors, who speak of the necessity of things future.
Under this article we have the same method of reasoning. But in a second paper, containing answers and explanations concerning these alleged errors and heresies, and made public by Wycliffe a short time after the meeting at Lambeth, the Reformer states, in regard to this conclusion, that it was a passing remark which arose in conversation with a certain divine, who magnified such charters so far as to prefer their authority to that of the Scriptures. “To which,” he states, “I replied, it would be much better to attend to the defence and exposition of the Scriptures, since many such charters were necessarily such as could not be executed.” He complains, accordingly, that opinions should have been imputed to him from hearsay, or as reported by “children and weak persons.”
But if the reader will pass on from the first three articles in this series, to the last, he will perceive that the Reformer had simply reserved his obnoxious doctrine on this subject, that it might be set forth more fully at the right point, and that it is simply scholasticism, and not a timid concealment, with which he is chargeable. In that article he is described as saying, that in certain cases an ecclesiastic, and even a bishop of Rome, may be corrected by his inferiors, and not merely by his inferiors among the clergy, but by the laity. He is described also as teaching that this may be done whenever the good of the church shall be thought to require it. Wycliffe does not disown this doctrine, offensive and alarming as he knew it to be. In support of this opinion, he assumes the pontiff to be a peccable brother, sharing, in common with other men, in a tendency to what is sinful; and he thence infers, that popes, in common with other men, are subject to the laws of brotherly reproof and correction. He accordingly writes, “If it be evident, therefore, that the college of cardinals are remiss in performing their service for the necessary welfare of the church, it is manifest that others, and it may chance principally the laity, may reprove and implead him, and bring him to a better life.” It is admitted that the impeachment of a pontiff is a grave business, not to be rashly entered upon; but it is added, that where ground for such a proceeding really exists, to shrink from the duty is not only to know that the pope is an offender, but to conclude that he is an offender beyond the hope of recovery. In conclusion, he exclaims, “God forbid that truth should be condemned by the church of Christ, because it sounds unpleasantly in the ear of the guilty or of the ignorant, for then the entire faith of the Scriptures will be exposed to condemnation!” If the laity might be justly employed in impeaching a pontiff, and in bringing even the successors of St. Peter to a better life, of course the subordinate members of the hierarchy must be regarded as subject to the same kind of discipline. The right of the people also, to judge in such case as to what is, or is not, for the good of the church, is clearly assumed as the foundation of this doctrine. Yet the doctrine is avowed, committed to writing, and delivered into the hands of the papal delegates: we wonder not that their counsel was, that such opinions should “not be published in schools or pulpits.” It is important also to observe, that it does not appear from any source that Wycliffe had committed himself against the papacy, previously to this time, in any stronger form than in the matter of the article adverted to: such of his writings as contain stronger expressions on that subject, I have shown elsewhere to be the productions of a later period.
IV.Every one being or existing in grace justifying finally, has not only a right unto, but in fact hath all the things of God; or, has not only a right unto the thing, but, for his time, has by right a power over all the good things of God. This is plain from Scripture, Matt. xxiv., because the Truth promises this to those citizens who enter into his joy: Verily I say unto you, that he shall make him ruler over all his goods. For the right of the communion of saints in their own country is founded objectively on the universality of the good things of God.
V.A man can give dominion to his natural or adopted son, whether that dominion be temporal or eternal, ministerially only. This is plain from hence, that every man ought to acknowledge himself in all his works an humble minister of God, as is evident from Scripture: Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ. Nay, Christ himself so ministered, and taught his principal apostles so to minister. But in their own country the saints will give to their brethren the dominion of goods, as is plain from their acting in the body, or their disposal of inferior good things by nature, according to that of Luke vi.: Good measure, pressed down and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.
This article, and the preceding, relate to an obscure topic, and they are not much elucidated by the sort of explanation attached to them. The doctrine to which they refer is that of “dominion founded in grace,” of which mention is made in a preceding portion of this work.
VI.If God is, temporal lords may lawfully and meritoriously take away the goods of fortune from a delinquent church. That conclusion is correlative with the first article of the Creed, I believe in God, the Father Almighty. I understand the word may as the Scriptures do, which grant that God may of stones raise up children unto Abraham; for otherwise all Christian princes should be heretics. For the first conclusion the argument is thus formed. If God is, he is Almighty; and if so, he may prescribe to temporal lords to take away the goods of fortune from a delinquent church; and if he does thus prescribe to them, they may lawfully so take them away. Ergo, from whence, in virtue of that principle, have Christian princes put in practice that opinion. But God forbid that from thence it should be believed, that it was my meaning that secular lords may lawfully take them away when and howsoever they please, or by their bare authority; but that they may only do it by the authority of the church in cases and form limited by law.
Concerning the doctrine of Wycliffe on the subject to which this article refers, it is necessary to look to the sixth, the sixteenth, and the seventeenth articles together. In these articles, taken collectively, he is accused of teaching, that all church endowments are left conditionally; that if the clergy fail to apply their wealth to the end which it was designed to promote, it must devolve on the magistrate to enforce such an application of it; and that, in every such case, the civil power is not only authorised so to do, but, if needful to the reformation of the order, to deprive churchmen of their possessions entirely, and this notwithstanding any censures from the church which might be fulminated against them. Such is the doctrine which Wycliffe is described as holding with regard to the enormous wealth of the clergy and of the religious orders; and in his paper, given to the papal delegates, this doctrine, instead of being denied, evaded, or softened down, is fully avowed as a part of his creed. With the prelacy of England as his judges, and the papal power as their ally, he does not fear to add, that if there be any difference between the obligations of the magistrate to secure the just application of civil or ecclesiastical endowments, his duty to that end in the latter case is even more binding than in the former, inasmuch as the mischiefs consequent on any mal-administration in the matter of ecclesiastical endowments are the more momentous. In the theory of Wycliffe, the last appeal in respect to all such questions was to the crown, and not to the mitre. The temporal power of the pope was denied, not merely in respect to the property of the state, but in respect to the property of the church. In his view, the pontiff who claimed such powers aimed at usurpation; and the clergy who in any way ceded such power to the papacy, did so at the risk of a just allegiance to their sovereign and their country. It was natural, we repeat, that injunction should have been given against the publication of such doctrines “in schools or pulpits.”
The next article in the pope’s schedule is here omitted, and No. VIII. follows, which is here numbered the Seventh.
VII.We know that it is not possible that the vicar of Christ, merely by his bulls, or by them together with his own will and consent, and that of his college of cardinals, can qualify or disable any man. This is plain from the Catholic faith; since it behoves our Lord in every vicarious operation to maintain the primacy. Therefore, as in every qualifying of a subject, it is first required that the subject to be qualified, be meet and worthy; so in every disqualification there is first required a deserving from some demerit of the person thus disqualified, and, by consequence, such qualifying or disqualifying is not made purely by the ministry of the vicar of Christ, but from above, from elsewhere, or from some other.
This article, and the seven articles following, relate to one subject—the spiritual power of the clergy.
VIII.It is not possible that a man should be excommunicated to his damage, unless he be excommunicated first and principally by himself. This is plain; since such an excommunication must be originally founded on the sin of the party damaged. From whence Augustine, in his twenty first sermon on the words of the Lord: Do thou, says he, not misuse thyself, and man shall not get the better of thee. And to this day the faith of the church sings, No adversity shall do us any hurt, if iniquity does not prevail. Notwithstanding, all excommunication is to be dreaded on many accounts, even although the excommunication of the church be, to the humble excommunicate, not damnable but wholesome.
IX.Nobody ought, except in the cause of God, to excommunicate, suspend, or interdict any one, or to proceed according to any ecclesiastical censure by way of revenge. This appears from hence, that every just cause is the cause of God, to which chiefly respect ought to be had. Nay, a love for the excommunicate ought to exceed a zeal or desire of revenge, and an affection for any temporal things; since, otherwise, even he that excommunicates injures himself. To this ninth conclusion we add, that it is agreeable to it, that a prelate should excommunicate in human causes, but principally on this account, because an injury is done to his God. 13. 9. c. inter querelas.
X.Cursing or excommunication does not bind, finally, only as far as it is used against an adversary of the law of Christ. This is plain, since it is God that binds absolutely every one that is bound, who cannot excommunicate, unless it be for a transgression of, or prevaricating with his own law. To this tenth conclusion we add, that it is consonant to it, that the ecclesiastical censure be used against an adversary of a member of the church, notwithstanding it does not bind absolutely but secondarily.
XI.There is no power granted or exemplified by Christ to his disciples to excommunicate a subject (chiefly) for denying any temporalities, but on the contrary. This is plain from the faith taught in Scripture, according to which we believe that God is to be loved above all things, and our neighbour and enemy more than all our temporalities of this world, necessarily and because the law of God is not contradictory to itself.
XII.The disciples of Christ have no power to exact by civil compulsion, temporalities by censures; as is plain from Scripture, Luke xxii., where Christ forbade his apostles to reign civilly, or to exercise any temporal dominion. The kings of the Gentiles, says he, exercise lordship over them, but ye shall not be so. And in that sense it is expounded by St. Bernard, St. Chrysostom, and other saints. We add to this twelfth conclusion, that, notwithstanding, temporalities may be exacted by ecclesiastical censures accessorie in vindication of his God.
XIII.It is not possible by the absolute power of God, that if the pope, or any other Christian, shall pretend that he binds or looses at any rate, therefore he doth actually bind or loose. The opposite of this would destroy the whole catholic faith; since it imports no less than blasphemy to suppose any one to usurp such an absolute power of the Lord’s. I add to this thirteenth conclusion, that I do not intend by that conclusion to derogate from the power of the pope, or of any other prelate of the church; but do allow that they may, in virtue of the head, bind and loose. But I understand the denied conditional as impossible in this sense: that it cannot be that the pope, or any other prelate, does pretend that he binds or looses at any rate, [or just as he lists,] unless he does in fact so bind and loose, and then he cannot be peccable or guilty of any fault.
XIV.We ought to believe that then only does a Christian priest bind or loose, when he simply obeys the law of Christ: because it is not lawful for him to bind and loose but in virtue of that law, and by consequence, not unless it be in conformity to it.
In the preceding articles, the doctrine of Wycliffe, in regard to spiritual censures, is said to be, that they should never be employed as an instrument of revenge; that they should never be used as means of extorting temporal contributions from the laity; and as they should not be employed alone for that purpose, so neither should they be used to that end conjointly with the authority of the magistrate. This the Reformer admits as his doctrine; and in the paper subsequently published, he repeats, that the use of church censures, and of the authority of the magistrate to extort from the people a revenue for the priesthood, are customs unknown to the better ages of the church, and to be numbered among the corruptions consequent on “her endowment under Constantine.” He even proceeds as far as to say, that a state of things might arise, in which, to deprive the church of her wealth, would be a much more Christian act than to have bestowed it upon her.
But Wycliffe did not restrict his complaints to the bad use which was frequently made of this sort of power; he questioned the validity of the power itself. He insisted that no man is in reality at all the better for the benediction of a priest, or at all the worse for the anathema of a priest. The judgment of man in such case he accounts as nothing, except as it shall have been in accordance with a previous judgment of God in that case. In the thirteenth proposition, the assumption of an unconditional authority in the forms of binding and loosing, so that whatever is bound or loosened by a priest on earth, must be supposed to be bound or loosened in heaven, he has condemned as a tenet destructive of the whole catholic faith, as a usurpation of authority proper only to God, and as being no less than blasphemy, inasmuch as God himself never bestows pardon thus unconditionally. So completely did the Reformer take man out of the hands of man in the concerns of religion, and thus sapped the entire foundation of the received ecclesiastical system.
XV.This ought to be believed as catholic, that every priest rightly ordained, (according to the law of grace) hath a power according to which he may minister all the sacraments secundum speciem, and, by consequence, may absolve him who has confessed to him, and is contrite, from any sin. This is plain from hence, that the priestly power is not more or less sufficient in its essence; notwithstanding the powers of inferior priests are now reasonably restrained, and at other times, as in the last article, of necessity are relaxed. I add to this fifteenth conclusion, that, according to the doctors, every prelate has a twofold power, viz.—a power of order, and a power of jurisdiction and government; and that it is as to this last that they are prelates, as being of a superior majesty and government.
This oneness of priesthood in the church, and the consequent right of the humblest priest to be occupied in the discharge of every priestly function, the Reformer always maintained. Hence he censured the practice of restricting confirmation to the office of the bishop. (See the chapter on Confirmation from the Trialogus.)
XVI.It is lawful for kings, in cases limited by law, to take away the temporalities from churchmen who habitually abuse them.
This is plain from hence, that temporal lords ought to depend more on spiritual alms, which bring forth greater plenty of fruit, than on alms for the necessities of the body: that it may happen to be a work of spiritual alms to correct such clergymen as damage themselves, soul and body, by withholding from them the temporalities. The case the law puts is this: when the spiritual head or president fails in punishing them, or that the faith of the clerk is to be corrected, as appears xvi. p. 7, Filiis, 40 di.
XVII.If the pope, or temporal lords, or any others, shall have endowed the church with temporalities, it is lawful for them to take away in certain cases, viz. when the doing so is by way of medicine to cure or prevent sins, and that notwithstanding excommunication, or any other church censure, since these donations were not given but with a condition implied. This is plain from hence, that nothing ought to hinder a man from doing the principal works of charity necessarily, and that in every human action the condition of the divine good pleasure is necessarily as in the civil law. Collationis Decorandi, c. 5, in fine Collationis 10. We added to this seventeenth article, God forbid that by these words occasion should be given to the temporal lords to take away the goods of fortune to the detriment of the church.
XVIII.An ecclesiastic, even the pope of Rome himself, may, on some accounts, be corrected by their subjects, and for the benefit of the church be impleaded by both clergy and laity. This is plain from hence, that the pope himself is capable of sinning, except the sin against the Holy Ghost, as is supposed, saving the sanctity, humility, and reverence due to so worthy a father. And since he is our peccable brother, or liable to sin as well as we, he is subject to the law of brotherly reproof; and when, therefore, it is plain that the whole college of cardinals is remiss in correcting him for the necessary welfare of the church, it is evident that the rest of the body, which, as it may chance, may chiefly be made up of the laity, may medicinally reprove him and implead him, and reduce him to live a better life. This possible case is handled, Diss. 40, si papa fuerit a fide devius. For as so great a lapse ought not to be supposed in the lord pope without manifest evidence; so it ought not to be presumed possible that when he does so fall, he should be guilty of so great obstinacy as not humbly to accept a cure from his superior with respect to God. Wherefore many chronicles attest the facts of that conclusion. God forbid that truth should be condemned by the church of Christ, because it sounds ill in the ears of sinners and ignorant persons; for then the whole faith of the Scripture would be liable to be condemned.
It will be seen that in this document there is little referring to what may, with strict propriety, be described as theological opinion. But even in relation to such opinion, there is much implied, and implied with all the certainty of direct statement, though little is expressed. Its chief value, however, consists in its presenting a clear and authentic record concerning the doctrine of Wycliffe at this period, in respect to the limits which should be imposed on the pretensions of the papacy; on the scarcely less extravagant claims of the clergy generally; on the authority of the magistrate in relation to the wealth of the church, and the persons of churchmen; on the legitimate means of securing to the clergy an appropriate revenue; and on the power supposed to belong to the priest, with regard to the present character and future allotment of the worshipper. From the inconsiderate and imperfect notices of this paper by most writers, we are left to suppose that its explanations were such, as to furnish nothing which could awaken the fears or the displeasure of the contemporary clergy. But the silence imposed on Wycliffe by the synod to which the document was submitted, is evidence to the contrary. It was a professor of divinity whose zeal was thus employed to familiarise the mind of the nation with a doctrine which vested the laity with the right to judge, and even to correct, their spiritual instructors, extending this principle of reformation, as circumstances might demand, to the pontiff himself; and could such a man be regarded by the ecclesiastics of the fourteenth century as a safe preceptor for youth? In setting forth the authority of the crown as that which should be final in determining the applications of ecclesiastical property, the Reformer became a teacher of doctrines against which synods, and councils, and the papal court, had directed their most powerful engines of destruction. But so deeply laid was the fabric of the reigning superstition, that every attack of this nature on its mere outworks, must have rebounded on the head of the assailant, so long as its theory of spiritual power was allowed to remain unquestioned. This successful fiction, by placing the rewards and punishments of a future state at the disposal of the priesthood, served as a basement to the whole superstructure; and it should be distinctly remembered, that it is against this doctrine that the greater number of the conclusions which Wycliffe is accused of holding, are plainly directed; and that in his explanations at Lambeth, even according to the showing of his enemies, not one of the propositions relating to that system of priestly fraud, was for a moment denied, or in the slightest degree modified.
The clergy of the middle age are described as believing that the sentence of excommunication exposed the parties excommunicated to the fires of purgatory, and often to eternal torments. But if such was their faith, their frequent employment of that sentence to avenge some trivial offence, or to extort some paltry contribution, must be regarded as imparting a most odious aspect to their general character. The readiness, indeed, with which such censures were resorted to in those times, obliges us to suppose that the confidence of churchmen in the truth of this scheme was more apparent than real. To doubt this, must be to view them as sharing less in the nature of men, than in that of demons. On this subject, the religion and the humanity of Wycliffe spoke forth too loudly to be misunderstood. He saw in the Romish polity and doctrine, a machinery artfully devised to raise ecclesiastics into the place of the Almighty, so as to connect the doom of impiety with every thing which men should do contrary to their pleasure. In his noble effort to deliver the souls of men from this snare, Wycliffe exposes the inconsistencies, the worldliness, and the cruelty so manifest in the ordinary exercise of that spiritual authority which the clergy had thus assumed. The maxim—“By their fruits ye shall know them,” was applied to churchmen no less freely than to the laity; and to rescue the popular mind from its subjection to this ghostly thraldom, men were urged to study the principles of their faith as set forth in Holy Scripture, and to judge for themselves with regard to the pretensions of all persons claiming to be honoured as spiritual guides.
In his comment on the articles contained in the preceding paper, which the Reformer published immediately after his appearance at Lambeth, it is in the following terms that he adverts to the pontiff: “Let him not be ashamed to perform the ministry of the church, since he is, or at least ought to be, the servant of the servants of God. But a prohibition of reading the Holy Scriptures, and the vanity of secular dominion, and a lusting after worldly appearances, would seem to partake too much of a disposition towards the blasphemous advancement of Antichrist, especially while the truths of a scriptural faith are reputed tares, and said to be opposed to Christian truth by certain leaders, who arrogate that we must abide by their decision respecting every article of faith, notwithstanding they themselves are plainly ignorant of the faith of the Scriptures. But by such means there follows a crowding to the court of Rome, to purchase a condemnation of the sacred Scriptures as heretical; and thence come dispensations, contrary to the articles of the Christian faith.”
The work in which the Reformer thus speaks, he has described as “A sort of Answer of the Bull,” meaning, evidently, the letter addressed by Gregory to the university. In his closing paragraph he observes, “These conclusions have I delivered as a grain of faith separated from the chaff by which the ungrateful tares are set on fire. These, opposed to the Scriptures of truth, like the crimson blossom of a foul revenge, provide sustenance for Antichrist. Of this the infallible sign is, that there reigns in the clergy a Luciferian enmity and pride, consisting in the lust of domination, the wife of which is covetousness of earthly things, breeding together the children of the fiend, the children of evangelical poverty being no more.” A judgment of the fruit thus produced may be formed also from the fact, that many even of the children of poverty are so degenerate, that either by what they say, or by what they do not say, they take the part of Lucifer; not being able to stand forth in the cause of evangelical poverty, or not daring so to do, in consequence of the seed of the man of sin sown in their hearts, or from a low fear of forfeiting their temporalities. But the statements which he had now published, he avows himself prepared to defend, even “to death, if by such means he might reform the manners of the church.”
This escape of Wycliffe from the power of his enemies, and his reiteration, in still stronger terms, of his most obnoxious opinions, called forth an attack from an anonymous divine, who is described by the Reformer as a “motley theologian:”—the purport of the whole piece appears to have been to vindicate the infallibility of the pontiff. By this writer, it seems, the pope was affirmed to be incapable of mortal sin, and whatsoever his holiness should ordain, was to be accounted true and just. In reply, Wycliffe observes, that if this doctrine were admitted, the pope might exclude any book from the canon of Holy Writ; might introduce any novelty into its place; might alter the whole Bible; and make the very Scripture heresy, establishing as catholic what is opposed to the truth. The Reformer then adverts to the efforts the pontiff had made to arm the authority of the prelates, the court, and the university against him, because he had ventured to question this assumption, and some others no less impious.
The remaining portion of this piece consists of two parts—the first containing a farther explanation of certain articles in the series already objected to him, and to which his answers had been given; the second, consisting in a spirited exhortation, addressed to his readers to cast off the yoke, both secular and spiritual, which a foreign power had so long imposed on them.
The articles cited are the seventh, tenth, and thirteenth; and also the sixteenth and eighteenth. The sixteenth relates to the office of the magistrate with regard to the goods of the church. The eighteenth, to the correction of an offending pontiff, in extreme cases, by the authority of the inferior clergy, and even by that of the laity. In the instructions of the pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the primate is required to ascertain the real opinions of Wycliffe, but is not to pronounce any definite sentence concerning them, until the judgment of the papal court shall be known. In the course of this tract, the Reformer speaks of the delegates as waiting to receive this decision before proceeding to announce the fate of his conclusions; and he states for their information, that, according to the report which had reached him, the doctrine which he had confessed in regard to the goods of the church, and the peccability of the pope, had been condemned as in a special degree heretical.
From these articles he proceeds to those which treat of the power of absolution; and presuming that the delusion respecting them would be, that the pope and the clergy generally do in every case bind or loose when they affect so to do, his indignation becomes impetuous. The man who should thus make himself equal with God is described as a blasphemer and a heretic, as a delinquent whom Christians ought in no way to tolerate—certainly, not as their leader, since his guidance can only serve to conduct men blindfold to destruction. Secular lords are, therefore, called upon to resist the arrogant claims of the pope, and to do so, not merely with respect to the heresy which the pontiff had imposed on them in declaring them incompetent to withdraw their alms from a delinquent church, nor merely because the same authority had declared it to be heretical to affirm, that any distribution of the goods of the church by the court of Rome can be only ministerial or subordinate, but because that power had taken from them the liberty of the law of Christ, and brought in an Egyptian bondage instead. It is urged, therefore, that no fear of suffering, no thirst of gain, no love of distinction should prevent the soldiers of Christ, as well seculars as clergy, from appearing in defence of the law of God, even unto blood! Should the lord pope himself, or even an angel from heaven, promulgate doctrines conferring upon a creature a power of absolving peculiar to the Deity, it is asserted, that every member of the Christian commonwealth should feel bound in such case to exert himself to the utmost for “the saving of the faith.”
In the following manner the Reformer reasons on the bearings of that spiritual authority which the churchmen of the day were so zealous to maintain. “Let it once be admitted that the pope, or one representing him, does indeed bind or loose whenever he affects to do so, and how shall the world stand? For if, when the pontiff pretends to bind all who oppose him in his acquisition of temporal things, either moveable or immoveable, with the pains of eternal damnation, such persons assuredly are so bound—it must follow, as amongst the easiest of things, for the pope to subvert or to destroy every ordinance of Christ, and to wrest unto himself all the kingdoms of the world. And since, for a less fault than this usurpation of a Divine power, Abiathar was deposed by Solomon, Peter was reproved to the face by Paul, nay, and many popes have been deposed by emperors and kings, what should be allowed to prevent the faithful uttering their complaints against this greater injury done to their God? For on the ground of this impious doctrine it would be easy for the pope to invert all the order of the world; seizing, in connexion with his clergy, on the wives, the daughters, and all the possessions of the laity without opposition; inasmuch as it is their saying, that even kings may not deprive a churchman of aught, neither complain of his conduct do what he may; while to whatever the pope may decree, obedience must be instantly rendered.” So clear and comprehensive were the views of Wycliffe in respect to the sources of false power in the church, and so steadily and firmly did he direct the axe toward the root of that evil.
But men who live in the midst of such excitements, need a much greater measure of physical power than commonly falls to the lot of humanity. Judging from his portraits, we must regard Wycliffe, in this respect, as placed at great disadvantage, if compared with Luther. The last eight or ten years in the life of our Reformer, must have been years of extraordinary labour. Much the greater portion of his works known to us were manifestly written during that interval; while the almost ceaseless harassing to which he was exposed, from the prosecutions instituted against him, must have made a still further, and, perhaps, a still greater, demand on his strength of body, as well as on the resources of his mind. We have reason to think, that the events of 1377 and 1378, together with the excessive labour to which he applied himself immediately subsequent to that period, laid the foundation of the malady which proved fatal some years later. The sickness which befel the Reformer at this juncture, was such as to leave little prospect of his recovery. Such also was the force of religious prejudice in the fourteenth century, that his old antagonists, the Mendicants, could not regard it as possible, that a heretic so notorious, should suppose himself on the confines of a world to come, without the most terrible apprehensions with regard to the vengeance there awaiting him. But while thus persuaded of their own rectitude, and certain that the doctrines taught by the Reformer could be no other than so many suggestions of the great enemy, some advantage, it was thought, might be obtained, if this dying member of the evil one could be brought to utter some sort of recantation. Wycliffe was in Oxford when this sickness arrested his activity, and confined him to his chamber. From the four orders of friars, four doctors, who were also called regents, were formally deputed to present themselves to their expiring enemy; and to these the same number of civil officers, called senators of the city and aldermen of the wards, were added. When these persons entered the apartment of the sick man, he was seen stretched on his bed. Some expressions of sympathy were dropped, and some of hope concerning his better health. But it was presently intimated, that he must be aware of the many injuries which the whole Mendicant brotherhood had sustained from his hands, having been the special object of attack in many of his sermons and writings; and as it was now manifest that death was about to bring his course to its conclusion, it was only charitable to hope that he would not conceal his penitence, but that, with due Christian humility, he should revoke whatever he had said tending to the disreputation of fraternities so eminent in learning, sanctity, and usefulness. Wycliffe continued silent and motionless until this address was concluded. He then beckoned his servants to raise him in his bed; and this done, he fixed his eyes on the persons assembled, and summoning all his remaining strength, exclaimed, “I shall not die, but live; and shall again declare the evil deeds of the friars!” The doctors and their attendants looked confusedly at each other, and retreated in disappointment and dismay. They lived also to feel the truth of the prediction which had been thus sounded in their ears; nor will it be easy to imagine another scene more characteristic of the parties composing it, or of the times with which it is connected.
One of the labours on which Wycliffe was intent at this time, was a translation of all the books of the Old and New Testament, from Latin into English. This work he undertook, that his countrymen, of every class, having the Scriptures made thus accessible to them in their own tongue, might be armed in the most effectual manner against the errors and superstitions of the times. It was a noble thought, and the name of Wycliffe is that of the first Englishman who gave it lodgment. Before his time, portions of the Sacred Scriptures had been translated into English, and passed, probably, in some instances, into the hands of wealthy and distinguished persons among the laity; but a translation of the whole volume into the language spoken by the people, that the highest and the lowest might be alike readers of the Bible in their own tongue, and that men might everywhere appeal to it as their ultimate authority in respect to all questions of truth and duty,—that truly Protestant purpose,—owes its origin in our ecclesiastical history, to the intelligence, the piety, and the intrepidity of Wycliffe.
In the seventh century, Cedman, an Anglo-Saxon monk, produced a composition, which claimed the attention of his countrymen, as exhibiting the first application of their language to Christian poetry, and as the first attempt to set forth any part of the Sacred Scriptures in the speech of our forefathers. The poem attributed to Cedman bears all the marks of the antiquity assigned to it; it touches on the leading events of Old Testament history,—as, the creation of the world; the fall of angels and of man; the deluge; the departure from Egypt; the entrance upon Canaan; and on some subsequent events. In the following century, Aldheln, Bishop of Sherborne, and Guthlae, the celebrated anchorite, produced Anglo-Saxon versions of the Psalter. In the same age, the venerable Bede prefers his claim to the honour of a literal translation of St. John’s Gospel. A manuscript copy of the Latin Gospels, a Saxon version, interlined, known by the name of the Durham Book, is attributed on probable evidence to about the time of Alfred. We possess another Latin transcript of the Gospels, with a Saxon translation, introduced after the same manner, known by the name of the Rushworth Gloss. This manuscript appears to be a production of the tenth century. Among the valuable manuscripts of Benet College, Cambridge, is a third copy of the Gospels in the Saxon tongue, written a little before the Conquest. And a fourth belonging to the same period, and which appears to have been copied from the former, may be seen in the Bodleian Library.
But an ecclesiastic, who did more than all his brethren towards supplying his countrymen with instruction from the Scriptures in their own language, was Elfric. This laborious scholar lived during the reign of Ethelred, and subscribes himself at different periods as monk, mass-priest, and abbot. In his epitome of the Old and New Testaments, composed for Sigwerd; a nobleman, we are informed, that at the request of various persons, he had translated the Pentateuch, the books of Joshua and Judges, those of Esther, Job, and Judith, also the two books of Maccabeus, and part of the first and second books of Kings. In his epitome of the Old and New Testaments, Cedman has not only made his selections from the Scriptures, but has frequently added things to the sacred story from other writings. A copy of this work, printed with an English translation, by William l’Isle, in 1623, is in the Bodleian, and another has been for some time in my possession. It begins thus: “Abbot Elfricke greeteth friendly Sigwerd. True it is, I tell thee, that very wise is he who speaketh by his doings; and well proceedeth he, both with God and with the world, who furnisheth himself with good works. And very plain it is in Holy Scripture, that holy men employed in well doing were in this world held in good reputation.” Alfred is mentioned as having prefixed a translation of several passages from the Mosaic writings to his code of laws, and is said to have made considerable progress in a Saxon version of the Psalms a little before his death.
This, however, is the extent of our information on this interesting question; as connected with the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. The Anglo-Norman clergy were much more competent to have supplied the people with religious instruction in this form; but the example of their predecessors in this respect was slighted, or rather disapproved. The first attempt, subsequent to the Conquest, to translate any complete portion of the Scriptures into English, appears to have been made by the author of a rhyming paraphrase on the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, intitled “Ormulum.” Of nearly the same date, is a huge volume bearing the name of Salus Animæ, or, in English, “Sowle Hele,” in which the object of the compiler or transcriber seems to have been to furnish a volume of legendary and scriptural history in verse. He professes to set forth an outline of the historical portions both of the Old and New Testaments, but has introduced fragments of religious history with little regard to any principle of selection. The composition of this work is supposed to have preceded the opening of the fourteenth century. In Benet College, Cambridge, there is another work of the same description belonging to the same period, and containing accounts of the principal events recorded in the books of Genesis and Exodus. There is also in the same collection a copy of the Psalms in English metre, which is attributed to about the year 1300; and two similar works, of nearly the same antiquity, have been preserved, one in the Bodleian Library, the other in that of Sir Robert Cotton.
But it is not until the middle of the following century that we trace any attempt to produce a literal translation even of detached portions of the Scriptures. It was about the year 1350, that Richard Roll, better known to ecclesiastical antiquaries as the hermit of Hampole, engaged in a work of this nature. His labours, however, were restricted to a little more than half the book of Psalms; and to the Psalms which he translated, a devotional commentary was annexed. Contemporary with this recluse, were some devout men among the clergy, who produced translations of such passages from the Scriptures as were prominent in the offices of the church; while others ventured to complete separate versions of the Gospels or Epistles. The persons thus laudably employed were certainly few in number; but parts of St. Mark and of St. Luke, and several of the Epistles, as thus rendered, have descended to us. It should be added, that these versions, which are of various merit, are generally guarded by a comment.
Some, Catholic writers have been disposed to deny that there was anything original in the conception of Wycliffe, with regard to the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular language; but the preceding statements will suffice to show in what form, and to what extent, that claim may be urged in favour of our Reformer. Knighton, a contemporary of Wycliffe, gives full expression to the different opinions which obtained in his own time on this subject. “Christ,” says that historian, “delivered his doctrine to the doctors of the church, that they might administer to the laity and weaker persons according to the state of the times, and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it more open to the laity, and to women who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. And in this way the Gospel pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine; and that which was before precious to both clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people; and what was hitherto the principal gift of the clergy and divines, is made for ever common to the laity.” So spoke the canon of Leicester on this matter. Nevertheless, if we may credit some modern Catholics, there was nothing new—nothing inconsistent with sound Catholic usage, in what Wycliffe had done in this respect! Not so thought the English clergy, when assembled in council, in 1408, with Archbishop Arundel at their head. Their enactment on this subject reads as follows:—“The translation of the text of Holy Scriptures out of one tongue into another is a dangerous thing, as St. Jerome testifies, because it is not easy to make the verse in all respects the same. Therefore we enact and ordain that no one henceforth do, by his own authority, translate any text of the Holy Scriptures into the English tongue, or any other, by way of book or treatise; nor let any such book or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe aforesaid, or since, or hereafter to be composed, be read in whole or in part, in public or in private, under the pain of the greater excommunication.”
Before the Conquest, and during a considerable space afterwards, there was little evil to be apprehended from any attempt to translate the Scriptures into the spoken language of the country. The repose of ignorance was too profound to be readily broken, and the vassalage both of the body and of the mind had been too long continued to admit of being speedily disturbed. But in the age of Wycliffe, the augmented population of the country, the progress of commerce and of a representative government, and the partial revival of learning, had all contributed to improvement; and, together with the bolder encroachments of the papacy, and the spirit of complaint and resistance which those encroachments had produced, proved eminently favourable to the zeal of our Reformer, as employed in applying the popular language to the pure records of the Gospel. His opponents, we have seen, were by no means insensible to the probable result of his efforts in this respect; and to his own discernment that result was obvious in a much greater degree. Nearly twenty years had now passed since his first dispute with the Mendicants, and during that period his writings disclose a growing conviction with regard to the sufficiency of the Scriptures, and with regard to the truth of the doctrine which we designate by the term—the right of private judgment. The success, also, which attended his controversy with the friars manifestly prepared him for his present enterprise; the effect of which, according to his enemies, was to make the truths of the Gospel better known to the laity, and even to females, than they had hitherto been to the most distinguished among the clergy.
Many passages illustrative of the arguments with which the Reformer opposed the clamours of his adversaries on this question, will be found in the ensuing pages. In one of his earliest vindications he thus writes:—“Seeing the truth of the faith shines the more by how much the more it is known, and that lords bishops condemn the faithful or true opinion in the ears of secular lords, out of hatred of the person who maintains it; that the truth may be known more plainly and diffusively, true men are under a necessity of declaring the opinion which they hold, not only in Latin, but in the vulgar tongue. It has been said, in a former Looking-glass for Secular Lords, written in the vulgar tongue, that they ought wholly to regulate themselves conformably to the law of Christ. Nor are those heretics to be heard who fancy that seculars ought not to know the law of God, but that it is sufficient for them to know what the priests and prelates tell them by word of mouth; for the Scripture is the faith of the church, and the more it is known in an orthodox sense the better. Therefore, as secular men ought to know the faith, so it is to be taught them in whatsoever language is best known to them. Besides, since the truth of the faith is clearer and more exact in the Scripture than the priests know how to express it; seeing, if one may say so, that there are many prelates who are too ignorant of the Scripture, and others conceal points of Scripture, such, to wit, as declare the poverty and humility of the clergy, and that there are many such defects in the verbal instructions of priests, it seems useful that the faithful should themselves search out or discover the sense of the faith, by having the Scriptures in a language which they know and understand. Besides, according to the faith taught by the apostle, Heb. xi., the saints by faith overcame kingdoms, and by the motive of faith chiefly hastened to their own country. Why, therefore, ought not the fountain of faith to be made known to the people by those means by which a man may know it the most clearly? He, therefore, who hinders this, does his endeavour that the people should continue in a damnable and unbelieving state.
“The laws, therefore, which the prelates make, are not to be received as matters of faith, nor are we to believe their words or discourses any further or otherwise than they are founded in the Scripture, since, according to the constant doctrine of Augustine, the Scripture is all the truth. Therefore this translation of the Scripture would do at least this good, that it would render priests and prelates unsuspected in regard to the words of it, which they profess to explain. Further, prelates, as the pope, or friars, and other means, may prove defective, and Christ and his apostles, accordingly, converted the most part of the world by making known the Scripture in a language which was most familiar to the people. For to this purpose did the Holy Spirit give them the knowledge of all tongues. Why, therefore, ought not the modern disciples of Christ to collect fragments from the same loaf, and after such example open the Scriptures clearly and plainly to the people, that they may know them? For this is no fiction, unless it be to one who is an unbeliever, and desirous to resist the Holy Spirit.
“The faith of Christ is therefore to be explained to the people in a twofold language, the knowledge of which is given by the Holy Spirit. Besides, since, according to the faith which the apostle teaches, all Christians must stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, and be answerable to him for all the goods with which he has intrusted them, it is necessary that the faithful should know what these goods are, and the uses of them; for an answer by a prelate or attorney will not then avail, but every one must then answer in his own person. Since, therefore, God has given to both clergy and laity the knowledge of the faith to this end, that they may teach it the more plainly, and work in faithfulness according to it, it is clear that God, in the day of judgment, will require a true account of the uses to which these goods have been applied.”
Such were the motives of the Reformer in translating the Bible into English; and the achievement is one which of itself can never cease to associate a special honour with the name of Wycliffe.
In the life of Wycliffe, the controversy relating to the translation of the Scriptures was soon followed by that relating to the eucharist. Until about the middle of the ninth century, the manner in which the body and the blood of Christ are present in that sacrament was the subject of debate, or rather of a peaceful difference of opinion, among persons holding the highest offices in the church. But in the twelfth century, the advocates of the mysterious dogma, which then began to be known by the name of transubstantiation, became numerous and powerful. The progress of this doctrine, however, was far from being uninterrupted. Among its opponents in those times, the most distinguished place must be allotted to Berengarius, a Gallic prelate, whose learning and genius were greatly above the character of the age. His doctrine was strictly that of the primitive church, and of the existing Protestant communities. The zeal and ability with which he maintained it, called forth the enmity or admiration of the clergy through all the churches of the west. In the cause of his opinions, the disputant submitted to spiritual censure from the pontiff, and from a council assembled at Paris; and the displeasure of the French king, which his zeal had provoked, was followed by the forfeiture of his episcopal revenues. The burden of such wrongs was probably lightened, by remembering that his disciples in France, in Italy, in England, and especially in the States of Germany, were many and increasing. But such it appears was the extent of the suffering, which this advocate of truth and reason was prepared to endure in defence of his tenets. Thrice was he compelled to appear at Rome; and as often was his doctrine formally renounced, only to be again avowed as the prospect of impunity returned. Towards the close of life, he retired from the agitated scenes which, for more than thirty years, had been familiar to him; and the remembrance of the indecision which had been allowed to sully his character, is said to have embittered his seclusion. But he died with a reputation of sanctity, and his doctrine never ceased to find disciples.
The Vaudois and the Albigenses never relinquished this doctrine, and were animated in their opposition to the doctrine of transubstantiation by the labours of Berengarius and his partisans. That the sectaries had adopted the heresy of that prelate, was often urged against them by their persecutors; and it is manifest, from certain fragments of their reasoning on this subject which their enemies have preserved, that supposing the assertion correct, the disciples must be acknowledged as by no means unworthy of their master. From one of their adversaries, we learn that they were accustomed to appeal to the Apostles’ creed, and to the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, as containing every essential article of Christian doctrine, expressing their surprise, that in those summaries of religious truth no reference should have been made to the matter of transubstantiation. They are described also as exposing the intrinsic and surpassing difficulties of that doctrine with a severity of criticism which must greatly have bewildered their antagonists,—urging, with fluency, almost every question tending to involve the subject in contradiction and absurdity.
But we are principally concerned to know the fate of this doctrine in England. Our Saxon ancestors were in general sufficiently obedient to the opinions and customs of the papacy, and we may believe that the doctrine of transubstantiation was not unknown, nor wholly unapproved, by their spiritual guides. We have, however, the most decisive proof, that the dogma so named, was not a part of the national creed in the tenth century. Elfric, a contemporary of St. Dunstan, and an ecclesiastic of much celebrity in his time, has adverted in one of his epistles to the elements of the eucharist, in a manner which incidentally but most distinctly repudiates the Catholic doctrine. This letter was addressed to Wulfstan, archbishop of York; and as its translation into the vernacular language was in compliance with the request of that prelate, it must be admitted as a document of no mean authority. According to this writer, the “housel (host) is Christ’s body, not bodily, but spiritually. Not the body which he suffered in, but the body of which he spake when he blessed the bread and wine, a night before his sufferings.” The apostle, he observes, “has said of the Hebrews, that they all did eat of the same ghostly meat, and they all did drink of the same ghostly drink. And this he said, not bodily, but ghostly, Christ being not yet born, nor his blood shed, when that the people of Israel ate that meat, and drank of that stone. And the stone was not bodily, though he so said. It was the same mystery in the old law, and they did ghostly signify that ghostly housel of our Saviour’s body which we consecrate now.”
In his homily, “appointed in the reign of the Saxons to be spoken unto the people at Easter,” the doctrine of Elfric, and of the Anglo-Saxon clergy generally, on this subject, is still more explicitly presented. The good abbot there repeats his allusion to the manna, and to the rock of the wilderness; and speaks of the bread in the Christian sacrament as being no more the body of Christ, than the waters of baptism may be said to be the Holy Spirit. In describing the difference between the body in which Christ suffered, and the body which is hallowed in the bread, he states, that the one was born of Mary, and that the other is formed from a gathering together of many corns, and that “nothing, therefore, is to be understood therein bodily, but all is to be understood ghostly.” The bread, which is further described as having a bodily shape, is again contrasted with the body of Christ, which is said to be present only in the sense of a “ghostly might.” The body, moreover, in which Christ rose from the dead never dieth, but the consecrated bread, that is temporal, not eternal. The latter is divided into parts, and some receive a larger portion and some a less; but the body of Christ, “after a ghostly mystery,” is undivided, and equally in all. This series of distinctions the writer concludes by observing, that the signs appealing to the senses in the eucharist are a pledge and figure of truth, while the body of Christ is truth itself. The authenticity of the document which thus speaks is attested by the signatures of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and by those of the prelates suffragan to them.
But though it is thus plain that the doctrine of transubstantiation was not a recognised dogma of the Anglo-Saxon church, it is not to be doubted that there was much in the ignorance and superstitions of those times favourable to that general admission of this tenet which followed immediately after the Conquest. The political influence of the pontiffs in this island was for a while materially impeded by that event. But Lanfranc, who filled the see of Canterbury under the Conqueror, was the most distinguished opponent of Berengarius: and from that time to the age of Wycliffe, the doctrine of the eucharist, as expounded by Lanfranc, became that of the Anglican church.
It is by no means surprising that a study of the sacred Scriptures, conducted through so long an interval and so devoutly, and which had led to the abandonment of so many received opinions, should have prepared the mind of the Reformer to question, and ultimately to reject, this most unreasonable tenet. From the frequent mention of his doctrine on this subject in his sermons, it is probable that it had been often broached from the pulpit before attention was called to it in his lectures at Oxford. But in the spring of 1381 this new heresy was promulgated in the university. Twelve conclusions were then published, in which the Reformer challenged the attention of the great men in that ancient seat of learning to his exposition of this sacrament. In these conclusions, while admitting that the words of consecration conferred a peculiar, and even a mysterious dignity, on the bread and wine, Wycliffe declares that those elements are not to be considered “as Christ, or as any part of him,” but simply “as an effectual sign of him.” To the easy faith of the people, and even of the learned, in those times, scarcely anything in religion was difficult of credence, if it had once been sanctioned by the church. But to some minds it was a matter of strange perplexity that the sensible qualities which had distinguished the bread and wine of the eucharist before consecration, should continue, to all human perception, precisely unaltered, after that ceremony had been performed. To counteract this inconvenient verdict of the senses, the genius of the Mendicants struck out a new path in logical science. They affirmed that an accident, or the property of an object, as the whiteness or roundness in the sacramental bread, may be supposed to remain after the bread itself had ceased to exist. This hardy subterfuge was deeply offensive to the discernment of Wycliffe. From the time when he began to examine this subject with his characteristic independence of thought, his writings abound with allusions to it, and with special denunciations against the fraudulent temper betrayed in the above method of defending it.
In the conclusions published at Oxford, the Reformer declares that the bread and wine remain in the sacrament after the consecration, and describes the above argument in favour of transubstantiation as heretical.
It was in the nature of this doctrine that it should tend greatly to exalt the notions of the laity concerning the power of the priesthood. Men who could do such wonders as the priest was supposed to perform, when he pronounced the words of consecration—to what else might they not aspire? It was a speculative notion which could not exist alone. It carried a mighty influence along with it. On this new ground the Reformer had to lay his account with new and most determined hostility. It appears, also, that much the greater portion of the honours of the university was possessed at this time by the religious orders, notwithstanding the attempts which had been made to reduce their influence. The chancellor, William de Berton, awed by the power of the enemies of Wycliffe, or being opposed to this boldness of opinion, became a party to the measures which were speedily adopted with a view to prevent the diffusion of the new doctrine. In a convention of twelve doctors, eight of whom were either monks or Mendicants, the Reformer was represented as teaching that in the sacrament of the altar the substance of material bread and wine remains without change after the words of consecration; and that in the same venerable sacrament, there is the body and blood of Christ, not essentially, nor substantially, not even bodily, but figuratively or tropically—so that Christ is not there truly or verily in his own bodily presence. It will be seen that the doctrine of the Reformer, as expounded by his judges, stood directly opposed to transubstantiation. It was agreed, accordingly, to describe these opinions as erroneous, and as opposed to the decisions of the church; and at the same time, to set forth what should be regarded as the true doctrine of the eucharist, which is said to be—“That by the sacramental words duly pronounced by the priest, the bread and wine upon the altar are transubstantiated, or substantially converted into the true body and blood of Christ, so that after consecration, there is not in that venerable sacrament the material bread and wine which before existed, considered in their own substances and natures, but only the species of the same, under which are contained the true body of Christ and his blood, not figuratively or tropically, but essentially, substantially, and corporally—so that Christ is verily there in his own proper and bodily presence.” Wycliffe had challenged discussion; he was met by the intervention of authority. By this assembly of doctors, it was resolved, that the sentence of the greater excommunication, suspension from all scholastic exercises, and imprisonment, should be the penalty incurred by any member of the university, who should inculcate, either in the schools or elsewhere, the opinions now published by Wycliffe. Even to listen to such opinions, was to become liable to this punishment.
The meeting which adopted these resolutions appears to have been privately convened; and we are told, that the Reformer was in the room of the Augustinians, lecturing among his pupils on this very doctrine, when a messenger entered the apartment, who, in the name of the chancellor, and of the divines, his coadjutors, read the above sentence concerning the sacrament of the altar, and all persons who should favour the erroneous opinions recently made public on that subject. Wycliffe paused, as if taken by surprise, and in hesitancy with regard to the best method of meeting the hostility which had so suddenly assumed this formidable shape. But a moment was sufficient to recover his self-possession. He then rose, and complaining that authority and coercion should have been thus substituted in the place of reason, he challenged any number of his opponents to furnish a fair refutation of the opinions which they had thus condemned. Wycliffe had often declared it to be the duty of the magistrate to protect the life, the property, and in all such cases as the present, the personal freedom of the subject. On this maxim he now resolved to act. The alternative placed before him was silence or imprisonment, and the chancellor was therefore informed, that since it had been determined to punish the persons who should avow the condemned opinions with civil penalties, it was his own determination to appeal from the decision of his present judges to the protection of the civil power. They were looking to that power to suppress freedom of thought,—he would look to it in support of such freedom.
Some time, however, was to elapse before the meeting of the next parliament, and we may suppose that during that interval the lectures of the Reformer were occupied with topics less dangerous to his personal freedom. The jurisdiction of the chancellor, moreover, was restricted to the university. It did not affect Wycliffe as rector of Lutterworth; and to the silence thus imposed on him at Oxford, we should probably attribute his great labours as an author so observable during the subsequent period of his history.
The summer of this year is memorable for the insurrection of the commons under Wat Tyler. Sudbery, archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered by the insurgents, and in the following October, Courtney, bishop of London, was raised to the primacy. It will be remembered, that this prelate had already distinguished himself as a haughty opponent of the doctrines of Wycliffe. Early in May in the following year, a new parliament was convened at Westminster. At the same time, Courtney adopted measures to convene a synod for the purpose of deliberating with regard to the course which should be taken in respect to certain strange and dangerous opinions said to be widely diffused, “as well among the nobility as among the commons of this realm of England.” On the seventeenth of May, accordingly, a meeting was convened, consisting of eight prelates, fourteen doctors of civil and canon law, six bachelors of divinity, fifteen Mendicants, and four monks. The place of meeting was the residence of the Black Friars, in the metropolis, and the course contemplated by the archbishop appears to have been, in the first place, to obtain a formal condemnation of the obnoxious opinions, and then to commence a zealous prosecution of all persons who, being suspected of such opinions, should hesitate to renounce them.
It happened, however, that the synod had scarcely approached the matters to be adjusted by its wisdom, when the city was shaken with an earthquake, and the courage of some of the parties assembled was so much affected by that event, that they ventured to express their doubts, whether the object before them might not be displeasing to Heaven, and it began to be probable, that the meeting would dissolve without coming to any decision. But the ready genius of Courtney gave a different meaning to the incident, comparing the dispersion of noxious vapours produced by such convulsions to the purity which should be secured to the church, as the result of the present struggle to remove the pestilent from her communion. The courage of the wavering being thus restored, twenty-four conclusions were read, as those which had been preached “generally, commonly, and publicly, through the province of Canterbury and the realm of England.” After the “good deliberation” of three days, it was agreed, that ten of these conclusions were heretical, and the remaining were declared to be erroneous.
The doctrines described as heretical, related to the sacrament of the altar, as being perfected without any change in the substance of the bread and wine—to priests and bishops as ceasing to be such on falling into deadly sin—to auricular confession as unnecessary—to ecclesiastical endowments as unlawful—and to the claims of the pope, when he shall happen to be a depraved man, as being derived solely from the edict of Cæsar, and not at all from the authority of the Gospel. The propositions described as erroneous are those which declare, that a prelate excommunicating any man without knowing him to be condemned of God, is himself a heretic, and excommunicated—that to prohibit appeals from the tribunal of the clergy to that of the king, is to withhold from the sovereign the allegiance due to him—that priests and deacons all possess authority to preach the Gospel, without waiting for the licence of popes or prelates—that to abstain from preaching the Gospel from the fear of clerical censures, must be to appear, in the day of doom, under the guilt of treason against Christ—that temporal lords may deprive a delinquent clergy of their possessions—that tithes are simply alms, to be offered as the judgment or conscience of the laity may determine, and only as the clergyman shall be devout and deserving—and finally, that the institution of the religious orders is contrary to Holy Scripture, and being sinful in itself tends in many ways to what is sinful.
The substance of these doctrines was, no doubt, maintained by Wycliffe and his disciples, but in the above statement, they have some of them received a partial colouring from the ignorance or prejudice of the men who pronounced judgment upon them. The form and pomp with which that judgment was given, were often appealed to in vindication of the measures afterwards adopted to free the land from these religious tares. It is certain that the people of the metropolis were deeply infected with Lollardism; and Courtney well knew that the same heresy had diffused itself widely in the university, which had been so long the residence of Wycliffe. In a letter addressed to the Bishop of London, having announced himself as legate of the apostolic see as well as metropolitan of all England, the archbishop laments, that in contempt of certain canons which had wisely restricted the office of preaching, whether publicly or privately, to such as are licensed by the holy see, or by their prelates, many were everywhere found preaching doctrines subversive of the whole church, “infecting many well-meaning Christians, and causing them to wander grievously from the catholic communion, without which there is no salvation.” The bishop is then reminded of the high authority by which the propositions referred to had been condemned as heretical and erroneous; and he is, in conclusion, exhorted, in common with all his brethren suffragans of Canterbury,—to admonish and warn that no man do henceforth hold, preach, or defend, the aforesaid heresies and errors, or any of them. To secure this object, it is enjoined, that in future, neither himself, nor any other prelate, shall admit any suspected persons to the liberty of preaching; shall listen in any degree to the abettors of such pernicious tenets; nor lean in any way to them, either publicly or privately; but rather resist the publishers of such doctrines, as serpents diffusing pestilence and poison, and that this course be pursued on pain of the greater excommunication, that being the sentence pronounced on all and every one who shall be found in these things disobedient.
As this letter was not only sent to the Bishop of London, but to all the prelates suffragans of Canterbury, a copy must be supposed to have reached the Bishop of Lincoln, Wycliffe’s diocesan. We know that by that prelate, official documents were immediately addressed to the abbots, and priors, and the different ecclesiastical officers, and to all the rectors, vicars, and parochial chaplains, throughout the district in which the church of Lutterworth was situate. That church is described as in the deanery of Goodlaxton, in the archdeaconry of Leicester. Wycliffe was thus canonically admonished of his obligations in regard to the heresy of the times, but was not found in a condition to profit by such warning.
That the greater solemnity might be given to this crusade against heresy, it was arranged, that during the ensuing Whitsuntide a religious procession should pass, with many signs of woe about it, through the streets of London. On the appointed day numbers of the clergy and the religious contributed to the edification of the profane laity by moving barefooted through the most crowded places toward St. Paul’s. There a Carmelite friar ascended the pulpit, and reminded the mourning multitude of their duty in that foreboding crisis, with regard to the church and her enemies.
We do not know in what degree the populace of London were affected by this spectacle; but in Oxford the course of the persecutor was much impeded. At this time, one Peter Stokes, a Carmelite, and a doctor of divinity, had distinguished himself in that university by the ardour with which he had opposed the new opinions. His conduct in this respect procured him the notice and patronage of the archbishop, who, in a letter dated a week subsequent to the meeting at the Black Friars, commands the zealous Mendicant to publish the decisions of that assembly in all the schools of the university. In this document, which is nearly a transcript of that sent to the bishops, the primate adverts to the contempt of the episcopal office observable in the conduct of the new preachers; to their doctrine, as being subversive of that faith in which alone there is salvation; to the great learning and wisdom of the synod by which these novelties had been condemned; and having declared that to refuse the needful aid for saving men from such destruction, must be to become chargeable with their blood, he commands that the persons maintaining the heresies and errors specified, be holden in the strictest abhorrence, under the penalty of the great anathema.
But it was of little avail to despatch such instructions to the university, while its chancellor and a large portion of its members were the secret, if not the open, disciples of the doctrine thus denounced. That office, which in the preceding year had been sustained by William de Berton, was now filled by Robert Rigge, a scholar who exposed himself to much inconvenience and suffering on account of his known attachment to some of the Reformer’s opinions. In the documents of this period the name of Doctor Nicholas Hereford is also of frequent occurrence, as that of a principal follower of Wycliffe. Before the assembling of the late synod, this divine, to use the language of Courtney, had been “vehemently suspected of heresy.” At this moment, however, Hereford is called by the chancellor to preach before the university; and the service which thus devolved upon him was deemed the most honourable of its class through the year. It was at this time also that a similar mark of approbation was conferred on Ralph Rippington, who was also doctor of divinity, and equally an admirer of Wycliffe; and the discourses of both are described as containing a fervent eulogy on the character and the general doctrine of the Reformer. But this exercise of the chancellor’s authority was instantly reported to the archbishop, and an expostulatory letter was suddenly despatched, advising a more dutiful exercise of his authority. It required him, indeed, to loathe the opinions and fellowship of such “presumptuous men,” and, that his own freedom from heretical pravity may be above suspicion, to afford immediate aid to Peter Stokes in giving all publicity to the letters which had been sent to the university; that so the reign of a sect against which the king and the lords had promised to unite their authority might at length be brought to its close.
The allusion of the archbishop to the intentions of the government, was not unadvisedly made. Richard II. was now in the sixteenth year of his age: the difficulties of his exchequer were many and distressing, and the repeated efforts of his ministers to extricate the vessel of the state seemed only to increase its perils. In the train of these perplexities came an insurrection such as had not been hitherto known in our history, and which appeared to menace the overthrow of every privileged order in the state. The zeal and sagacity of such churchmen as the present archbishop would not be slow in suggesting to the young king that convulsions of this perilous nature were to be expected if such men as Wycliffe and his followers were allowed to continue their appeal to the unbridled passions of the populace. Amidst the manifest disaffection of the people, it became a point of great importance to propitiate the clergy. Their influence might be used to allay exasperated feeling, and their wealth might enable the government to abolish, or, at least, to abate, that sort of taxation which had recently goaded the commons into madness. Lancaster, too, who, during the late commotions, had been employed in treating with the Scots on the border, had shared much in the resentment of the insurgents; and there were other causes which rendered him far from acceptable to the existing ministry. The juncture, accordingly, was favourable to a nearer alliance between the mitre and the crown.
In these auspicious circumstances the English clergy united in preferring to the sovereign and the court a series of complaints against the doctrine and practices of the followers of Wycliffe. With a view also to increase the odium so freely cast upon the disciples of the Reformer, they were now designated Lollards—a name which had long distinguished certain sectaries on the continent, to whom, after the manner of the times, almost everything degrading had been imputed. The persons in England now classed with those injured people, are described by the prelates, abbots, and friars, representing the orthodoxy of the times, as teaching, that since the age of Sylvester there has not been any true pope, and that the last to whom that name should be given is the existing pontiff, Urban VI.: that the power of granting indulgences, and of binding and loosing, as claimed by ecclesiastics, is a delusion, and that those who confide in it are deceived and accursed; that auricular confession is a superfluous service; that the bishop of Rome has no legislative authority in the Christian church; that the invocation of saints is an unauthorised custom; that the worship of images or pictures is idolatry, and the miracles attributed to them so much fraud; that the clergy are bound to reside on their benefices, and not to farm them to others, and that the men who fail in such duties should be degraded as wasters of the goods of the church; and, finally, that the pomp of the higher orders of the priesthood should be in all things done away, and their doctrine in regard to the vanity of the world enforced by example. It is scarcely necessary to remark, that doctrines at all of this nature could not have been widely disseminated without deeply irritating the men to whose pretensions they were so explicitly opposed. As the result of this appeal, the clergy obtained the sanction of the king, and of certain lords, to a sort of statute or proclamation, which occurs as the first in our history providing for the punishment of the crime designated heresy. For this reason, and as it farther discloses the activity and energy with which Wycliffe’s poor priests were now prosecuting their plans of reform, we shall insert this paper without abridgment. “Forasmuch as it is openly known that there are divers evil persons within the realm, going from county to county, and from town to town, in certain habits, under dissimulation of great holiness, and without the license of the ordinaries of the places, or other sufficient authority, preaching daily, not only in churches and churchyards, but also in markets, fairs, and other open places, where a great congregation of people is, divers sermons containing heresies and notorious errors, to the great blemishing of the Christian faith, and destruction of the laws and estate of holy church, to the great peril of the souls of the people, and of all the realm of England, (as more plainly is found, and sufficiently proved, before the reverend father in God, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishops and other prelates, masters of divinity, and doctors of canon and of civil law, and a great part of the clergy of the same realm, especially assembled for this cause,) which persons do also preach divers matters of slander to engender discord and dissension between divers estates of the said realm; which preachers being cited or summoned before the ordinaries of the places, then to answer to that whereof they be impeached, they will not obey to their summons and commandments, nor care for their monitions, nor for the censures of holy church, but expressly despise them; and, moreover, by their subtle and ingenious words do draw the people to hear their sermons, and do maintain them in their errors by strong hand and by great routs. It is, therefore, ordained and assented to in this present parliament, that the king’s commissions be made and directed to the sheriffs and other ministers of our sovereign lord the king, or other sufficient persons learned, and according to the certifications of the prelates thereof, to be made in the Chancery from time to time, to arrest all such preachers, and also their fautors, maintainers, and abettors, and to hold them in arrest and strong prison till they shall justify themselves according to the law and reason of holy church. And the king willeth and commandeth that the chancellor make such commission, at all times, that he by the prelates, or any of them, shall be certified and thereof required as is aforesaid.”
This document did not obtain the sanction of parliament; but, invalid as it was in point of law, it did something towards rendering the magistracy through the kingdom the passive instruments of that “holy office,” which the scheme of the archbishop was meant to set up in every diocese. That the suspected through the nation might be placed under immediate “arrest, and in strong prison,” the force at the command of the sheriffs was to be subject in every place and at every season to the bidding of the prelates; and no process instituted was to terminate except as the parties accused should “justify themselves according to the law and the reason of holy church.” And if it be remembered that our statute book had not hitherto contained the remotest provision for punishing men, on account of their religious opinions, the matured form in which this oppressive policy was introduced, must be viewed as bespeaking no mean confidence of strength on the part of the ruling clergy.
On obtaining the powers set forth in this instrument, the attention of the primate was first directed to Oxford. The synod which held its first meeting on the 17th of May, was again convened in the chamber of the Preaching Friars on the 12th of June; and Robert Rigge, the chancellor of the university, and William Brightwell, a doctor of divinity, appeared at the place of meeting to answer in respect to their late conduct in favour of Hereford and Rippington; and also as to their opinion concerning the “aforesaid articles.” Rigge was a zealous advocate of the university, as an establishment which should be subject to the authority of the civil power, and not to ecclesiastical interference of any kind. The religious orders, on the contrary, were concerned that it should be subject to the authority of the primate as legate of the apostolic see. Wycliffe had maintained the doctrine embraced by Rigge. To what further extent the chancellor had embraced the opinions, or sympathised with the spirit of the Reformer, we do not know; but before the synod he was induced to declare his assent to the judgment which had been passed on the twenty-four heretical or erroneous conclusions in the former meeting; and Brightwell, after some hesitation, followed his example. It is hardly to be doubted, that in this act both were chargeable with some concealment of their opinions, and, perhaps, deemed themselves justified in opposing something of the wisdom of the serpent to the power of the wolf. It is certain that a letter was now delivered by the archbishop to “his well-beloved son in Christ, the chancellor of Oxford,” requiring him to publish the judgment of the synod concerning the proscribed articles in all the schools and churches at the hours of lecturing and preaching; and to give the greater notoriety to this proclamation, it was to be published in Latin and in the vulgar tongue. In this document, mention is expressly made of John Wycliffe, Nicholas Hereford, Philip Rippington, John Ashton, and Lawrence Redman, as being persons notoriously suspected of heresy; and referring to these persons, and to all who should in any way favour their persons or their doctrine, the primate says, “We suspend the same suspected persons from all scholastic exercises, until such time as they shall have purified themselves before us; and we require that you publicly denounce the same to have been, and to be, by us suspended; and that you diligently and faithfully search after all their patrons and adherents, and cause inquiry to be made respecting them through every hall in the said university: and that, obtaining intelligence of their names and persons, you do compel all and each of them to abjure their errors by ecclesiastical censures, and by any canonical penalties whatsoever, under pain of the greater anathema, the which we now denounce against all and each who shall not be obedient to these instructions.” The primate also adds the following cautious provision: “And the absolving of such as may incur the sentence of this instrument, we reserve wholly to ourselves.”
But the chancellor had scarcely left the place of meeting, when the suspicions of Courtney appear to have been awakened anew. In a letter dated on the same day with the above, and from the same place, he informs the same Robert Rigge, that he had learned from credible information, and partly from experience, his disposition to favour “the aforesaid damnable conclusions,” and his intention to molest, by his authority as chancellor, the persons who should oppose them in the schools of the university. In consequence of this information, the archbishop thus writes: “We admonish thee, Master Robert, chancellor as before named, the first, second, and third time, and peremptorily, that thou dost not grieve, hinder, nor molest judicially, publicly nor privately, nor cause to be grieved, hindered, or molested, nor procure indirectly by thyself or others, to be grieved, the aforesaid clerks, secular or regular, or such as favour them in the points determined in their scholastic acts, or in any other condition whatsoever.”
In explanation of this proceeding, it should be remembered that the ecclesiastics who had joined with the archbishop in these proceedings against the chancellor of Oxford, were most of them members of the university. On returning to Oxford, the men who had sat in judgment on the chancellor would become subject to his authority, and to protect these men against the probable resentment of “Master Robert,” the above monition was addressed to him by Courtney.
The synod, we have seen, assembled on the 17th of May, and re-assembled on the 12th of June, was again convened on the 18th, the 20th, and the 28th of the same month, and on the 1st and 12th of the month ensuing. In all these meetings, the prosecution of Hereford and his associates was continued. Wycliffe resided at this time upon his rectory, but was a close observer of these proceedings. In one of his sermons, written at this juncture, he clearly refers to the measures in progress against Hereford, and against “Master John Ashton.” There is good reason to think that the Reformer was assisted by Dr. Hereford in his translation of the Scriptures, and that divine is supposed to have been the author of some pieces in English, designed to forward the contemplated reformation. Ashton was known through nearly half the kingdom as an itinerant preacher, and from the account given of him by his enemies, we must suppose that his ability as a preacher was of a highly popular and powerful description. To the doctrines of Wycliffe he is said to have added some novelties of his own. Knighton, who describes his appearing in coarse attire, and with a staff in his hand, as an affectation of simplicity, bears testimony to the assiduity with which he frequented churches, and mingled in family circles, to secure the dissemination of his tenets. The same writer has preserved the outline of two sermons said to have been delivered by this pedestrian teacher, the one at Leicester, the other at Gloucester. In these discourses we find the doctrine of Wycliffe in regard to the authority of the crown in relation to the church—the delusions and abuses connected with the spiritual powers assumed by the clergy—the corrupting influence of wealth upon the priesthood—the unscriptural origin of the hierarchical distinctions which had obtained among churchmen—the errors and absurdities involved in the doctrine of transubstantiation, together with much invective against crusades, which are especially denounced as being one of the chief fruits of the dispensing power so mischievously exercised by the clergy. That neither the learning of Hereford, nor the zeal of Ashton, might be longer employed in diffusing opinions so little in accordance with the existing order of things, both were summoned to appear before the archbishop, who in addition to the title of primate, is pleased to describe himself as “chief inquisitor.”
In one of his parochial discourses, Wycliffe refers to this process as then pending. These proceedings he attributes mainly to the zeal of Courtney, whom he describes as “the great bishop of England,” and as being deeply incensed, “because God’s law is written in English to lewd men.” “He pursueth a certain priest,” says the preacher, “because he writeth to men this English, and summoneth him, and travelleth him, so that it is hard for him to bear it. And thus he pursueth another priest, by the help of pharisees, because he preacheth Christ’s Gospel freely, and without fables. Oh! men who are on Christ’s behalf, help ye now against Antichrist, for the perilous times are come which Christ and Paul foretold!” The reader is left to imagine the sympathy with which the auditory of Wycliffe would listen to this impassioned language. But if we may credit the accounts of their persecutors, the efforts made by the men who were thus pathetically adverted to, in hope of escaping from the strong hand of their oppressors, were made in vain.
But when the primate had committed himself to this struggle, it was important that he should seem to have done it with suitable precaution and success: and the report transmitted to us is, that Hereford and Rippington, after many attempts to evade any confession of their faith, at length admitted the twenty-four conclusions censured by the synod to be, with certain explanations, partly heretical, and partly false. They are described also, as stating that they had not, in any instance, publicly avowed the tenets which in those conclusions were imputed to them. This confession, however, such as it was, proved so little satisfactory, that each member of the synod declared it to be, with respect to several articles, “heretical, subtle, erroneous, and perverse.” But the accused could not be induced to present any further explanation, and the sentence of excommunication was pronounced upon them; and that it might operate the more powerfully as a warning to the infected, it was pronounced with much publicity and form.
Ashton conducted his defence with great spirit, but refused to answer the questions of his judges on the conclusions set forth as containing the heresies and errors with which he was charged. He was repeatedly enjoined to make his communications to the court in Latin, that no injurious impression might be made upon the mind of the laity who were present. But the consciousness of a bad cause betrayed in this injunction, excited the indignation of the accused, and turning to the crowd which his popularity as a preacher had brought together, he addressed them in their own tongue in such terms, that great noise and disorder ensued, and the archbishop hastened to bring the business of the day to a close. The refusal of Ashton to answer the questions put to him, was construed as proof of his guilt, and he was sentenced to undergo all the penalties which had been attached to the holding of the censured articles.
Knighton, indeed, states that Ashton and Hereford delivered written confessions to the synod on the matter of the eucharist, setting forth the doctrine of transubstantiation in the fullest terms. But it is a suspicious circumstance, that in the Courtney register, where so large a space is assigned to the account of these proceedings, no trace of such documents is to be found. In addition to which, in the paper which Knighton has published, as supplied by Ashton, he is made to declare, that he had not, on any occasion, expressed doubt concerning the received doctrine on that subject, a statement which, according to what the historian who has adopted it has said elsewhere, was contrary to fact, and one that must have contained a falsehood in the greatest degree impolitic, inasmuch as it admitted of being so easily exposed. With regard to Hereford, also, his escape would not have been attributed, as it certainly was, to the powerful interference of the Duke of Lancaster, if his confessions had been such as to account for his release without any necessity for such interference. In 1387, Hereford was generally regarded as a disciple of Wycliffe; and so late as the year 1392, he solicited and obtained the protection of the court against the machinations of his enemies as arising from that cause. Rippington ultimately complied with the demands of the church; and even Ashton so far satisfied his judges, as to be permitted to resume his scholastic exercises; but it is supposed that the latter died as he had lived.
It appears from a discourse composed by Wycliffe about this time, that he was by no means ignorant of the attempts which were thus made to suppress the intended reformation of religion, by securing the aid of civil power for that end. Commenting on the entombment of Christ, and on the vain efforts of the priests and the soldiers to prevent his resurrection, the preacher adverts to the measures above described in the following terms: “Thus do our high priests and our new religious fear them, lest God’s law, after all they have done, should be quickened. Therefore make they statutes stable as a rock, and they obtain grace of knights to confirm them, and this they well mark with the witness of lords; and all lest the truth of God’s laws, hid in the sepulchre, should break out to the knowing of the common people. Oh, Christ! thy law is hidden thus; when wilt thou send thine angel to remove the stone, and to show thy truth unto thy flock? Well I know that knights have taken gold in this case, to help that thy law may be thus hid, and thine ordinances consumed. But well I know, that at the day of doom it shall be manifest, and even before, when thou arisest against all thine enemies!” The man who addressed himself in these terms to the people of his charge in Lutterworth, well knew that each step in the progress of the pending prosecutions was preparatory to the meditated blow against himself. Should that blow be struck, and struck effectually, it would be well that his countrymen should know distinctly the opinions for which he suffered. It was at this juncture, accordingly, that Wycliffe published a summary of the most important of his tenets, in the form of a petition (or complaint) to the king and parliament. This work is among the treatises printed in this volume. The assembly to which it was addressed, was assembled on the nineteenth of November, 1381, and in this document it is supposed to be already sitting. It appears also to have been known, that the subjects with which the great men of the realm, “both seculars and men of holy church,” were about to be occupied, embraced the articles discussed in this paper.
This bold and admirable production appears to have made the kind of impression on the parliament which it was designed to produce. In a petition to the king, the members of the commons set forth the provisions of the spurious statute which had been recently obtained by the primate, and which, to effect the imprisonment of the new preachers and their abettors, until obedient to the church, had made every sheriff in the kingdom the mere instrument of his diocesan, requiring him to root out by the sword, the errors which neither the persuasions nor the terrors of the hierarchy had been sufficient to destroy. But, inasmuch as this pretended law “was never agreed to nor granted by the commons, but whatsoever was moved therein was moved without their assent,” the prayer of the whole parliament is, “that the said statute be disannulled.” The petitioners further declare it to be “in no wise their meaning, that either themselves, or such as shall succeed them, shall be farther bound to the prelates than were their ancestors in former times.”
But in those times, to procure the enactment or repeal of statutes, was a work of less difficulty than to bring the proceedings of the government into strict conformity with the decisions of parliament. Hence the custom so prevalent in the earlier history of our constitution, of confirming anew even its most acknowledged principles. It is not too much to say, that to this bad faith, the policy of the court of Rome, in the use made of its dispensing powers, greatly contributed.
In his letters, Richard had been made to threaten exclusion from the university, imprisonment, and confiscation, against all who should hold the doctrine of Wycliffe, or should in any way favour its abettors. And though the monarch subsequently declared himself pleased with the repeal of the statute on which those instructions had been founded, the violent measures which that piece of fabrication had been devised to sanction, were still pursued, and with only too much success.
It was, as we have remarked, on the nineteenth of November, that the parliament and the convocation assembled at Oxford. The primate, in addressing the clergy as there convened, informed them that their first business was to grant a subsidy to the crown, and that their next object must be to apply some remedy to certain disorders which had too long disgraced the university, and the effects of which were extending to the community at large, in the diffusion amongst them of many dangerous and false opinions. Wycliffe was summoned to appear before this assembly. There were circumstances, however, which seemed greatly to narrow the ground of impeachment taken up against him at this juncture. By this time the Reformer had given full expression to his obnoxious opinions in his different writings, and he had reiterated most of them in the address which he presented to the parliament now sitting.
But the meditated encroachment of the prelates had excited in the said parliament, certain feelings of suspicion and resentment, which it was deemed prudent not to augment by any course of proceeding which might become the occasion of farther umbrage. On this account, it would seem, the convocation determined to restrict their prosecution of Wycliffe to a matter of doctrine, passing over the more questionable matters of polity and discipline. The article selected was that of the eucharist. The doctrine of Wycliffe on that subject was known to be directly contrary to the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Duke of Lancaster is said to have advised the Reformer to submit in all doctrinal matters to the judgment of his order. This conduct on the part of the duke was highly praised by the clergy, but its only effect on Wycliffe was to call forth new evidence of his firmness and integrity. To have denied his doctrine on the eucharist, or simply to have abstained from teaching it, would have been to continue sheltered from the resentment of the clergy, by the favour of the nobleman of whose power they still stood in much wholesome apprehension. To proceed in opposing the received doctrine on that sacrament, notwithstanding the counsel of the duke, was to front the unrestrained malice of his enemies. The latter course, however, was his choice. We also learn, and from a writer who has shown himself not a little solicitous to fasten the reproach of equivocation upon the name of Wycliffe, not only that the Reformer proved to be as little influenced by the advice of the duke as by the command of the archbishop, but that in his public defence on this sacrament, “like an obstinate heretic, he refuted all the doctors of the second millenary.”
Fully to understand the zeal with which the Reformer assailed the doctrine of transubstantiation, the reader must bestow his best attention on the exposition given of that doctrine in the several treatises and chapters contained in this volume. The adoration of a piece of bread in the place of the Deity, Wycliffe denounced as idolatry. The conduct of the officiating priest, in pretending to remake his Maker, he proclaimed as the last step of presumption and blasphemy. Let this pretension be admitted, and nothing remained, however much opposed to Scripture, to reason, or to the senses, which the same men might not, on the same ground, introduce. The doctrine is described, accordingly, as the master device of Satan, constructed that it might serve as an inlet to every abomination. Hence the opposition of Wycliffe to this doctrine, was, in his view, a defence of the human mind, and of all freedom.
It was with such views, not lightly taken up, but thoroughly formed, that Wycliffe appeared before his judges at Oxford. The assembly before him consisted of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Lincoln, Norwich, Hereford, Worcester, Salisbury, and London, with a numerous selection of doctors, together with the chancellor of the university, and many of the inferior clergy. Around him were assembled a crowd of the laity, as auditors variously interested in the object of the meeting. Before this array of power, Wycliffe stood alone and unfriended. The investigation related to a point of theological doctrine, with which neither the parliament nor any secular personage, however powerful, could interfere, without some appearance of impropriety. More than forty years had now passed since Oxford had first become the home of the Reformer, and during all those years it had been more or less associated with all his purposes and labours. Before him it stood a venerable establishment, formed to nurse the intellect of his country, so that it might well acquit itself in the duties of philanthropy, patriotism, and religion. Hence he had always been amongst the foremost to defend its jurisdiction, as independent of all foreign control, and especially against such control as proceeded from the prelates or from Rome. His hair was now grey, not perhaps from age so much as from those religious solicitudes, and that mental activity, which appear to have always surpassed the strength of his physical nature, and of late to have especially exposed him to the inroads of disease. In that city, where he had now to front his enemies on such unequal terms, and as one wholly in their power, admiring converts had often given loud utterance to their delight, as his voice was heard proclaiming doctrines dear to the purer ages of the church. Nor is it to be supposed that his numerous followers had become suddenly extinct. But at this moment the ruling clergy had so diffused the terrors of their strength, that the Reformer, like another Elijah, stands apparently alone amidst the generation of his countrymen.
His defence, we have seen, was such as to extort from adversaries the praise of an unrivalled acuteness. His written confessions, which the same adversaries have transmitted to us, contain the most distinct statements of the doctrine which he had previously taught on the sacrament to which they relate. Two confessions were presented, one in Latin, and one in English. The Latin confession treats the question in a style which the more learned of his judges must have seen to have been adapted to their taste, simply for the purpose of defeating them with their own weapons. The English document touches but distantly on the distinctions of the schools, and is framed to meet the popular apprehension. In the Latin confession, Wycliffe applies himself to demonstrate that “this venerable sacrament is naturally bread and wine, but sacramentally the body and blood of Christ.” It is alleged that there are six modes of subsistence which may be attributed to the body of our Saviour: three of these may be affirmed of that body as it is present in the eucharist, and three of the state in which it exists in heaven. In the eucharist, the body of Christ is virtually, spiritually, and sacramentally present; but his substantial, corporeal and dimensional presence, is said to be restricted to his mode of existence in the celestial state. The Reformer then repeats the doctrine maintained on this subject by himself and his followers, denies the charge of their adoring the elements of bread and wine, and observes that he had often exposed the fallacies of his opponents, who, in citing the language of the Fathers on this sacrament, were always disposed to confound the notion of a sacramental with that of an identical presence. The result of this mistake is said to be, the insane fiction of an accident without a subject, or of a quality without its substance—a notion which he denounces as dishonourable alike to God and the church.
It must be remembered by the reader, that to affirm the existence of bread in the eucharist after the words of consecration were pronounced, was to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation. In these papers, this affirmation is not only made, but reiterated, and with a plainness which is obvious upon the slightest attention. Nor was it deemed enough to set forth the most explicit statements of his own doctrine; he has assailed that of his opponents, and in a manner fully as uncompromising as on any occasion in his history. It must be borne in mind, that the properties of whiteness and soundness pertaining to the sacramental bread, before the act of consecration was supposed to take place, were acknowledged as existing afterwards; but that it was nevertheless contended, that the bread itself had ceased to exist. Wycliffe knew well that this was the formal doctrine of the men who were now before him as his judges. This doctrine, however, he describes as erroneous, heretical, and a mockery of human perception; as an imputing of blasphemy to Christ, and to his saints; and of all the delusions suffered to spread themselves through the church since the fatal hour of Satan’s enlargement, this is said to be the one most repugnant to the religion of the Bible. We know of nothing written by Wycliffe on this subject previously to his appearance before the convocation at Oxford, or subsequently, which is not in strict agreement with the statements there made. If the confessions adverted to be compared with his Wicket, or with the chapters on this subject in his Trialogus, no room will be left for doubt on this point. He often speaks of the bread as being very God’s body, and as being exalted in some sense by the sacred use to which it is assigned; but he never resorts to such expressions in a manner inconsistent with his real doctrine, which is, that the bread remains in the sacrament, that it is not transubstantiated, and that it is the body of Christ only in a sacramental sense. But though all this is clear as evidence can render it, Knighton speaks of the Reformer’s confessions as a recantation, and Anthony Wood takes up the reproach, but contradicts the calumny in the same page, by stating that “this confession was encountered by no less than six several antagonists, immediately after its publication.”
From this period, and on the authority of letters obtained from the king, Wycliffe was made to desist from his labours in Oxford. But this was not till the seeds of his doctrine had been sown there with such profusion as never to be wholly eradicated. That the penalty inflicted on him was not more weighty must be attributed in part to his popularity, but much more to the favour which had been shown him by the learned and the powerful. Henceforward he is found amidst his duties at Lutterworth, and employing himself in writing the greater number of those tracts and treatises which have come down to us from his pen.
It was about this time that Wycliffe was summoned by Urban to appear at Rome, and to answer before that court on the matters imputed to him. His declining health afforded sufficient ground for his refusing compliance with this citation. His letter on the occasion is printed in this volume. It contains some expressions of courtesy toward his holiness, but teems with that portion of the Reformer’s doctrine which must have been most unwelcome to the race of men who claimed to be regarded as the successors of St. Peter.
We are now approaching the close of the life of Wycliffe, and it is manifest, that as the evening of his day was felt to be at hand, his zeal to purify the religion of the Bible, as it was professed around him, his superiority to the fear of man, and his devout anticipation of the end of his course, all became more strongly marked features of his character. The substance of his language is, that to oppose the errors which time, and custom, and law had established, and to publish aloud the too long-forgotten truths contained in the Holy Scripture, was the imperative obligation of every Christian man. This course he declares to be binding on every such man, though the evils incurred by pursuing it should be scorn, imprisonment, and death. The course of action which would be sure to bring such consequences along with it, he describes on many occasions, and it is precisely that which his own daily conduct exemplified. The closing years of his life, accordingly, were passed in the full expectation, that incarceration, and probably death at the stake, would ere long be added to that contumely and privation, which he had already so largely incurred. Every man who listened to his instructions, and every man who read his publications, must have known that no wrath could be more merciless, than that which would be excited by such an exposure of those fictions in regard to the soul and the future world by means of which the priesthood had contrived to secure to themselves their vast possessions, and their worldly dominion. But those fictions were nevertheless assailed, and the uses commonly made of them were denounced as an impious and selfish fraud, most contrary to the religion of Holy Scripture, but every way becoming the practice of the children of Antichrist. While nations were called upon to reject much of that spiritual authority which their religious guides had assumed, their rulers are admonished, that as they hope to escape at the day of doom, it will behove them to divest that class of men of their vain authority and needless wealth, which could only serve to constitute them blind leaders of the blind, and to be the ministers of destruction rather than of salvation to the people.
It is not, of course, pretended, that the views of Wycliffe on these subjects were, in all instances, characterised by comprehensiveness or impartiality. Nor can we undertake to justify the severe language in which he often denounces his opponents. But in this occasional one-sidedness, and in this strength of invective, we see the character of the age fully as much as that of the man. It may be, that a mind more calm, and more equally balanced in its judgments, would have been ill suited to the kind of service which Wycliffe had to perform. His opinions were, nearly all of them, substantially true, and they were holden with a tenacity, and avowed with an intentness, becoming truth. When all fair deduction of this nature is made, enough remains to place him before us as the most extraordinary man of his times.
Wycliffe knew the temper of his opponents sufficiently to be aware, that he owed the continuance of his personal liberty, and even life, to their weakness, more than to their forbearance. But his anticipations, that the time would come when their power would be equal to their inclination, were not to be realised. The fact admits of explanation. It was known that the Duke of Lancaster, though he had not deemed it expedient to interpose on his behalf, when the point at issue was a question of theology, would probably do so if any severe measures were instituted in regard to him. The papal schism, moreover, absorbed the attention of the pontiffs: and disquietude in England had for some time rendered the factions who swayed its affairs fearful of each other. Added to all these causes, as serving to delay the introduction of a more sanguinary policy, was the declining health of the Reformer. His days, it was presumed, could not be many, and the evil which he had done might be expected to die with him.
Some time before his decease, Wycliffe had availed himself of the assistance of a curate in discharging his parochial duties. Almost the only credible tradition preserved in the town of Lutterworth, as illustrating the character of Wycliffe, describes him as most exemplary in the performance of his duties as a parish-priest, devoting a portion of the morning in each day to relieving the needy, administering the consolations of religion to the aged, the sick, and the dying. With that originality and power of intellect which anticipated a reform of Christianity more pure than the genius of Protestantism in the sixteenth century could attain, Wycliffe united that obscure condescension and assiduity which became the pastor of a village cure.
We scarcely need remark, that this consistency so observable in the character of our Reformer will hardly admit of explanation, except as resulting from deep religious principle. His sermons, fragmentary as they are, abound with expressions which show that he looked for the reward of his labours from a higher source than the favour of mortals. “If we hope to be rewarded in this life,” he writes, “our hope of heavenly bliss perisheth.” In another discourse, he remarks, “Christ came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and to enlighten the world. And as Christ, God and man, came hither with this intent, should not the truth keep his disciples while standing thus for its defence, labouring even unto death? Christ and the Baptist, and many more, had not their reward here for doing this, but in heaven they have bliss hidden from men.” In this manner the Reformer continued to preach and labour; and he is said to have been employed in administering the bread of the eucharist, when assailed by his last sickness. The paralysis which then seized him deprived him at once of utterance if not of consciousness. This happened on the twenty-ninth of December, 1384, and on the thirty-first day of that month, his devout spirit passed to the world of rest. Many good men have prayed that they might be summoned to their home while occupied in such services. We know not that Wycliffe ever presented such a petition, but we know that he was “taken from the evil to come.”
“Thus, prematurely,” writes an eminent and liberal churchman, “was terminated the career of this extraordinary man. His days were not extended to the length usually allotted to our species. Ten more years of vigorous exertion might reasonably have been expected, from the virtuous and temperate habits of an exemplary life. But the earthly tenement was probably worn out by the intense and fervid energy of the spirit within; and if his mortal existence be measured by the amount of his labours and achievements, his must appear to us as full of days as he was of honours. It now remains that we endeavour to form a righteous estimate of him, as he presents himself to our conceptions, through the haze and mist of ages. Unfortunately, he is known to us almost entirely by his writings. Over all those minute and personal peculiarities which give to any individual his distinct expression and physiognomy, time has drawn an impenetrable veil. To us he appears, for the most part, as a sort of unembodied agency. To delineate his character in the fullest and most interesting sense of that word would be to write a romance, and not a biography. During a portion of his life, indeed, he is more or less mixed up with public interests and transactions; but of these matters our notices are but poor and scanty: and if they were more copious, they would probably do little towards supplying us with those nameless particulars to which biography owes its most powerful charm. With regard to the details of his daily life—the habitual complexion of his temper—the turn of his conversation—the manner of his deportment among his companions—his inclinations or antipathies—his friendships or his alienations—we must be content to remain in hopeless ignorance. The only circumstance recorded concerning him, that falls within the description of an anecdote, is the reply with which he confounded the meddling and insidious friars, who intruded themselves upon him, when they thought he was about to breathe his last. This incident is, indeed, most abundantly characteristic; and it makes us bitterly regret that it stands alone. A few more such particulars would have been quite invaluable. As it is, we must be satisfied to think of him as of a voice crying in the wilderness, and lifting up through a long course of years, a loud, incessant, heart-stirring testimony against abuses which for ages had wearied the long-suffering of Heaven.
“Respecting his gigantic successor, Martin Luther, we are in possession of all that can enable us to form the most distinct conception of the man. We see him in connexion with the wise, and the mighty, and ‘the excellent of the earth.’ We behold him in his intercourse with sages and divines, with princes and with potentates. We can trace him through all those bitter agonies of spirit through which he struggled on and on, till at last he seized upon the truth which made him free for ever. But to us, Wycliffe appears almost as a solitary being. He stands before us in a sort of grand and mysterious loneliness. To group him, if we may so speak, with other living men, would require a very strong effort of imagination. And hence it is, that we meditate on his story with emotions of solemn admiration, but without any turbulent agitation of our sympathies.”
- Lordinges, there is in Yorkshire, as I ghesse,
- A marishe contre, callid Holdernesse,
- In which there went a Limitour about,
- To preche, and eke to beg, it is no dout.
- And so bifell, that on a day this frere
- Had preched in a chirche in his manere,
- And specially abovin every thing,
- Excitid the pepill in his preching
- To trentalls, and to geve for Goddis sake,
- Wherewith men mighten holie housis make.
- There as divine service is honourid,
- Not there as it is wastid and devourid;
- Ne there it nedith not for to be geve,
- As to possessioners that may els leve,
- Thonkid be God, in wele and haboundaunce.
- Trentalls, quoth he, deliverith fro penaunce
- There frendis soulis as well olde as yonge,
- If so that they ben hastily ysonge,
- Not for to holde a preest jolie and gay,
- (He singith not but o masse in a day,)
- Delivereth out, quoth he, anon the soulis,
- Full hard it is with fleshe-hoke, or with oules
- To ben yclawid, or to brenne or bake,
- Now speede you hastily for Crisis sake.
- And when this frere had said al his entent,
- With Qui cum Patre, forth away he went.
- Whan yfolk in chirche had yeve him what hem lest,
- He went his way, no lengir would he rest,
- With scrip and tippid staffe ytucked hie:
- In every house he gan to pore and prie,
- And beggid mele, and chese, or ellis corne.
- His felaw had a staffe tippid with horne,
- A pair of tables alle of ivory,
- A poyntell polished full fetously,
- And wrote alwey the namis as he stode
- Of all the folk that yave hem any gode
- Askauncis, as if he wolde for hem prey.
- Yeve us a bushell whete, or malt, or rey,
- A Goddis kichell, or a trip of chese,
- Or ellis what ye list, I may not chese,
- A Goddis half-peny, or a masse-peny,
- Or yeve us of your brawn if ye have any,
- A dagon of your blanket, leve dame,
- Our sustir dere, lo, here I write your name,
- Bacon or befe, or such thing as ye find.
- A sturdie harlot went hem ay behind,
- That was her hostis man, and bare a sacke,
- And that man yeve hem laid it on his backe.
- And when he was out at the dore anon,
- He playned away the namis everichone,
- That he before had writtin in his tablis:
- He servid hem with nyfles and with fables.Sompner’s Tale.