John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 2: Wycliffe vs. the Pope

The year 1309 marked a significant turning point in the history of Western Christendom. It was in that year that Pope Clement V (1305-14)—an Aquitanian formerly known as Raymond Bertrand de Got—moved the papal curia to Avignon. This inaugurated a period of nearly 70 years (1309-76) in which the pope and his court resided in an enclave in southeastern France; an era which would later come to be known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

The seven men who occupied the papal chair during these years were all French, and the majority of the period’s cardinals were French, as well. There had been protracted acrimony between King Philip the Fair of France and Clement’s predecessor, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). That quarrel had been so severe that it had resulted in excommunication for the former and three days of capture and abuse for the latter (probably causing the pope’s premature death). But those days of conflict dissipated when Clement took the tiara. Clement, who had been a childhood friend of Philip, shortly proved himself irresolute, and susceptible to the influence of the French king. The papal household grew in extravagance and took on the appearance of the French court. Avignon became notorious through Christendom for nepotism, simony, and avarice—all of which could be traced to the initiatives of the popes. Seeking to justify this abasement, papal apologists were reduced to the absurd claim that the pope was above all earthly laws.[1]

The absence of moral restraint exerted a terrible influence on the environment in which the pope operated. Petrarch called Avignon “the Babylon of the West”[2] and “hell on earth”[3] and lamented:

“Instead of holy solitude we find a criminal host and crowds of the most infamous satellites; instead of soberness, licentious banquets; instead of pious pilgrimages, preternatural and foul sloth; instead of the bare feet of the apostles, the snowy coursers of brigands fly past us, the horses decked in gold and fed on gold, soon to be shod with gold, if the Lord does not check this slavish luxury.”[4]

Petrarch was not the only public figure who criticized the excesses of the popes and their courtiers during this period. Dante Alighieri, Marsilius of Padua, and William of Ockham all went so far as to assail the papal claim to temporal power. Their willingness to challenge these claims is in itself an important doctrinal development. Another man grounded his opposition to papal excesses in God’s supreme law as it is found in the Bible: John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe was born during the reign of the second Avignon pope, John XXII (1316-34), and never knew a Roman pope until he was well into middle age. As such, the reformer’s tender years passed in the shadow of the French scandals. As noted in Part 1 of the present series, Wycliffe established himself in the fields of civil and canon law. Given that it was in the legal arena that various controversies of the age presented themselves, Wycliffe found himself called to weigh in on the prerogatives of sovereigns and subjects over against the church magisterium.

Before 1366, Wycliffe was recognized for his keen mind and noble character, while he served as an Oxford professor and parish priest. Then, at a critical moment, he was called onto the national stage to defend English liberty against the ostentatious encroachments of the pope. The occasion was the revival of the pope’s claim to a financial tribute from the English people. This tribute had first been exacted by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in retaliation against King John. Innocent had annulled John’s appointment of the Bishop of Norwich to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, a reversal that had implied the dominion of the pope over the English monarch. When John resisted this development, he was met with an interdict, followed by a sentence of excommunication. He yielded under these pressures and ultimately submitted to the pope. As a condition of reconciliation, John agreed to pay an annual tribute in recognition of Innocent’s dominion over England and Ireland—a duty that would remain in force under Innocent’s successors. John’s humiliation aroused an indignation in the English people that smoldered for well over a century—until King Edward III ceased offering the tribute, and parliament passed statutes curtailing papal interference in domestic affairs. In 1365, Pope Urban V (1362-70) revived the claim to annual tribute and demanded that arrears be paid, as well. When parliament opened the following May, it concluded that the tribute was unjust, and responded decisively and unanimously:

“Forasmuch as neither King John nor any other king could bring his realm and kingdom in such thraldom and subjection, but by common consent of Parliament, the which was not obtained; therefore that which he did was against his oath at his coronation, besides many other causes. If, therefore, the Pope should attempt anything against the King by process, or other matter in deed, the King, with all his subjects, should with all their force and power resist the same.”[5]

Wycliffe was present for this assembly. Although his precise role remains unclear (he speaks of himself as “the King’s peculiar clerk”), his importance in formulating the parliamentary answer is established in that an anonymous papal apologist penned a rebuttal and specifically called upon Wycliffe to justify his—and parliament’s—refusal to submit to the pope. Wycliffe obliged by publishing seven of the most important speeches delivered during the parliamentary discussion, which reflected the sentiments of the assembly and Wycliffe. The speeches argued that the Pope was treacherously assisting the foreign enemies of English Christians, and that he was committing simony by demanding payment from the English people to retain his favor, alongside asserting the Pope’s holy duty to follow Christ in refusing worldly dominion. Wycliffe quotes one peer as saying:

“Christ Himself is the Lord Paramount, and the Pope is a fallible man, who, in the event of his falling into mortal sin, loses his lordship in the judgment of theologians, and therefore cannot make good any right to the possession of England.”[6]

The reformer places the words of Matthew 10:8 in the mouth of another speaker: “Freely ye have received, freely give;” the pope has no right to impose a tribute in exchange for a spiritual benefit, let alone in pursuit of his personal enrichment.[7]

Urban was chastened by the 1366 assembly. But his successor, Gregory XI (1370-78), audaciously renewed the campaign to reestablish the tribute and to reserve English benefices for papal appointees. So, in 1374, a joint English and papal commission convened in Flanders to seek a resolution. Wycliffe served as one of seven English commissioners. The papal party yielded little on the points of dispute, and their intrusions into English domestic affairs continued. Undoubtedly, this unsatisfactory outcome fortified Wycliffe’s resolve against the papacy; in the reformer’s mind, the pope was the embodiment of worldly ambition, over against Christian humility.

Thereafter, Wycliffe decried the pope as “the Antichrist, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cutpurses.” William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, summoned Wycliffe to appear at St. Paul’s Cathedral to answer for his opinions. Wycliffe acquiesced, but the tribunal adjourned prematurely when a dispute arose between the bishop’s supporters and the patrons of Wycliffe. Wycliffe himself maintained his calm dignity throughout the encounter.[8]

In the meantime, Gregory continued his intrusions and depleted England’s treasury to fund the French clergy. In response, English patriots proposed that foreigners be ordered to leave the kingdom, and that the pope’s agents be required to relinquish their treasures before departing, so that such monies may not be used to fund the realm’s enemies. Wycliffe’s opinion was sought on the matter, and he firmly supported the right of England to deny the treasures to the pope—as they were a biblical freewill offering, not an earthly tribute. When queried about the danger that Gregory may retaliate with an interdict, Wycliffe responded cuttingly, “It is one comfort that such censures carry with them no divine authority, and another comfort that God does not desert those who trust in Him, and who, keeping His law, fear God rather than man.”[9]

Gregory subsequently issued five bulls condemning the Wycliffe’s opinions. The Englishman was ordered to appear before a papal commission, which convened at Lambeth Palace in early 1378. Among the 19 propositions he was ordered to explain or defend were:

“The whole human race concurring without Christ, have not power absolutely to ordain that Peter and all his descendants should rule over the world politically forever.”

“Every one being in justifying grace not only hath a right to all the things of God, but hath them in possession.”

“It is not possible that the Vicar of Christ, merely by his bulls, or by them with his own will and consent and that of his college of cardinals, can qualify or disqualify any man.”

“We ought to believe that the Vicar of Christ either binds or looses, only when he obeys the law of Christ.”

“An ecclesiastic, even the Roman Pontiff himself, may lawfully be rebuked by his subjects for the benefit of the Church, and may be impleaded by both clergy and laity.”[10]

In his written defense, Wycliffe significantly replied, “God forbid that truth should be condemned by the Church of Christ because it soundeth ill in the ears of sinners and ignorant persons; for then the whole faith of Scripture would be liable to be condemned.” But his in-person examination was destined to end prematurely, for before Wycliffe could answer his accusers, a deputy to the Princess of Wales entered the chapel and forbade the passing of sentence. The Princess was sympathetic to the reformer’s views. For the time being, he was rescued from hostile hands.[11] Wycliffe wrote against the pope again in a followup defense, and took the opportunity to argue that his opinions were the plain testimony of the Bible:

“Let [the pope] 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 to be 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 that 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 from this come dispensations that are contrary to the articles of the Christian faith.”[12]

On the heels of the commission came the death of Gregory. His passing marked the first time in over 70 years that a pope had died in Rome (although he had only planned on residing there temporarily), and raised the city’s hope that the papacy would be restored to its ancient seat. The papal conclave met under the shadow of threats from the local populace, who wanted a Roman pope ruling from Rome. The new pope, Urban VI (1378-89), quickly proved obnoxious to most of the men who had elected him, and within six months these men had joined with the French cardinals to elect a competing Avignon pope, Clement VII (1378-94). The Western Schism of the Church had begun and was destined to last for the next 39 years.

Wycliffe was anguished by this rupture, seeing it as yet another indignity for the Church. Nevertheless, he wrote:

“Trust we in the help of Christ on this point, for He hath begun already to help us graciously, in that He hath clove the head of Antichrist, and made the two parts fight against each other. For it is not doubtful, that the sin of the popes, which hath been so long continued, hath brought in this division.”[13]

The ostensible shepherds of the Western Church were now woefully divided, and sapped of their vitality to proclaim the hope of the Gospel to a dying world. Wycliffe continued witnessing against the papal claimants and their apologists for these offenses. His sentiments concerning the corrupt and fractious church hierarchy are encapsulated in his tract, The Devil and His Members:

“Almighty God in Trinity, destroy these nests of Antichrist and his clerics, and strengthen all manner of men to maintain the truth of Holy Writ, to destroy falsehood, and to openly preach against the hypocrisy, heresy, and covetousness of all evil prelates, and priests, and feigned religious, both in word and deed; for then good life and truth, and peace, and charity shall reign among Christian men! Jesus Christ! For your endless mercy, grant us this end! Amen!”[14]

Wycliffe was committed to persevering—through the power of Biblical preaching—against those dissolute Church leaders who had become captive to worldly ambition. But his work did not end there. He also sought to raise up a body of faithful itinerant preachers who would follow the Apostolic pattern of proclaiming the good news of the Gospel to the world. To Wycliffe’s preaching, and to the preaching of these noble itinerants, we will turn in the next installment.

This is part two in a four part series on the reforming work of John Wycliffe.

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 1: Wycliffe vs. The Begging Friars

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 3: Wycliffe and the Poor Priests

John Wycliffe, Reformer Pt. 4: Wycliffe and the English Bible

Miles Foltermann holds degrees from Texas A&M University, McGovern Medical School, and Covenant Theological Seminary. A native Texan, he now lives and practices medicine in Middle Tennessee.

  1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. VI: The Middle Ages, AD 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 86.

  2. James Harvey Robinson (ed.), Readings in European History, vol. I (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1904), 502-04.

  3. Schaff, History, 46-47.

  4. Robinson (ed.), Readings in European History, 503.

  5. John Laird Wilson, John Wycliffe—Patriot and Reformer (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1884), 71.

  6. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 77

  7. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 75-76.

  8. Schaff, History, 316

  9. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 128-30.

  10. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 136-37.

  11. Wilson, John Wycliffe, 138-40.

  12. John Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: Blackburn and Pardon, Hatton Garden, 1845), li.

  13. Robert Vaughan, Life and Opinions of John De Wycliffe, D.D., vol. II (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1831), 5.

  14. Wycliffe, Tracts and Treatises, 56.

*Image Credit: Gilles Despins


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