It was in 1360 that Wicliffe's public opposition to the mendicant [begging] friars first became notable.
The Dominican friars entered England in 1321. In that year Gilbert de Fresney and twelve of his brethren settled at Oxford. The same causes that favoured their growth on the Continent operated equally in England, and this little band recruited to their ranks so rapidly that they swarmed throughout the kingdom.
Forty-three English houses of the Dominicans alone were soon established. Their black cloak and hood caused them to be dubbed the Black Friars. Now powerful, they began to attack the very constitutions of Oxford University, claiming independence of its jurisdiction.
First into battle against this "pestiferous canker" of mendicancy was the Chancellor of the University, Archbishop of Armagh Fitzralph (Armachanus). He warned that everything good and fair - letters, industry, obedience, morals - was being blighted by it .After a search he could find neither a Bible nor a good book anywhere.
Fitzralph pleads with the Pope
Fitzralph went to address the pope at Avignon. Foxe reproduces his speech.
"By the privileges granted by the Popes to the friars, great enormities do arise. ...The true shepherds do not know the faces of their flock. Great contention and sometimes blows arise between the friars and the secular curates, about titles, impropriations, and other avails. Divers young men, as well in universities as in their fathers' houses, are allured craftily by the friars, their confessors, to enter their orders; from whence, also, they cannot get out, though they would, to the great grief of their parents, and no less repentance to the young men themselves.
"No less inconvenience and danger also by the said friars riseth to the clergy, forsomuch as laymen, seeing their children thus to be stolen from them in the universities by the friars, do refuse therefore to send them to their studies, rather willing to keep them at home to their occupation, or to follow the plough, than so to be circumvented and defeated of their sons at the university, as by daily experience doth manifestly appear. For, whereas, in my time there were in the university of Oxford 30,000 students, now there are not to be found 6,000.
"The occasion of this great decay is to be ascribed to no other cause than the circumvention only of the friars above mentioned ... For that these begging friars through their privileges obtained of the Popes to preach, to hear confessions, and to bury, and through their charters of impropriations, did thereby grow to such great riches and possessions by their begging, craving, catching, and intermeddling with Church matters, that no book could stir of any science, either of divinity, law, or physic, but they were both able and ready to buy it up. So that every convent having a great library, full, stuffed, and furnished with all sorts of books, and being so many convents within the realm, and in every convent so many friars increasing daily more and more, by reason thereof it came to pass that very few books or none at all remain for other students."
A futile errand
The pope remained unmoved because the friars were indispensable to him. They had been created by him, they were dependent upon him, they lived for him and they were his obsequious tools. Weighed against the services they were rendering to the Papal throne, the trifling interests of literature in England were but as dust in the balance. Not a finger must be lifted to curtail the privileges or check the abuses of the Mendicants. The archbishop had gone on a futile errand. He returned to England, and died three years later. But the friar's rejoicing was short lived. Wicliffe emerged from obscurity and commenced his opposition to the Mendicants that same year, opposition which he maintained to the close of his life .
Wicliffe joins battle
"John Wicliffe, the singular ornament of his time, began at Oxford in the year of our Lord 1360, in his public lectures, to correct the abuses of the clergy, and their open wickedness, King Edward III. being living, and continued secure a most valiant champion of the truth among the tyrants of Sodom".
Wicliffe saw deeper into the evil than Armachanus had done. The Mendicants root was evil. They must be abolished. To obey the Pope, to pray to St. Francis, to give alms to the friar, had become the sum of all piety. This was better than all learning and all virtue, for it could open the gates of heaven. Wicliffe saw nothing in the future if the Mendicants were permitted to carry on their trade of preaching weird fables to the credulous and shriving or hearing confessions and forgiving the sins of the most wicked of men for money, but the speedy ruin of both Church and State.
Wicliffe saw clearly that as the Mendicants went through England, selling to men the pardons of the Pope the very foundation of the Gospel was under attack. Can our sins really be forgiven for a little money? Is it with Innocent or with God that we have to do? This was no mere collision between the jurisdiction of the Oxford authorities and the jurisdiction of the Mendicants; the question was one between the Mendicants and the Gospel. Is it from the friars or from Jesus Christ that we are to obtain the forgiveness of our sins? This was a question which the England of that age eminently needed to have stirred.
The Friar's false move
The Mendicants sought to cover their lucrative trade with sanction of the Saviour. Christ and the apostles, said they, were mendicants, and lived on alms. This led men to look into the New Testament, to see if this really were so. The friars had made an unwitting appeal to the right of private judgment, and advertised a book about which, had they been wise for their own interests, they would have been profoundly silent. Wicliffe perceived what a gulf separated salvation by the blood of the Lamb from salvation by the pardons of the Pope. It was now that the Professor of Divinity in Oxford rose up into the Reformer of England - the great pioneer and founder of the Reformation of Christendom.
Who can forgive sins?
Wicliffe published his Objections to Friars, which fairly launched him on his career as a Reformer. This tractate is more Gospel exposition than polemic.
"There cometh no pardon but of God ... The worst abuses of these friars consist in their pretended confessions, by means of which they affect, with numberless artifices of blasphemy, to purify those whom they confess, and make them clear from all pollution in the eyes of God, setting aside the commandments and satisfaction of our Lord ... There is no greater heresy than for a man to believe that he is absolved from his sins if he give money, or if a priest lay his hand on his head, and say that he absolveth thee; for thou must be sorrowful in thy heart, and make amends to God, else God absolveth thee not ... Many think if they give a penny to a pardoner, they shall be forgiven the breaking of all the commandments of God, and therefore they take no heed how they keep them. But I say this for certain, though thou have priests and friars to sing for thee, and though thou, each day, hear many masses, and found churches and colleges, and go on pilgrimages all thy life, and give all thy goods to pardoners, this will not bring thy soul to heaven ... May God of His endless mercy destroy the pride, covetousness, hypocrisy, and heresy of this reigned pardoning, and make men busy to keep His commandments, and to set fully their trust in Jesus Christ ... I confess that the indulgences of the Pope, if they are what they are said to be, are a manifest blasphemy. The friars give a colour to this blasphemy by saying that Christ is omnipotent, and that the Pope is His plenary vicar, and so possesses in everything the same power as Christ in His humanity. Against this rude blasphemy I have elsewhere inveighed. Neither the Pope nor the Lord Jesus Christ can grant dispensations or give indulgences to any man, except as the Deity has eternally determined by His just counsel".
Who holds the keys?
Wicliffe like the later Reformers perceived that he must topple the false dogma on which the papacy was founded. He began his career by throwing down the gauntlet to the pardon-mongers of Rome. It was "the power of the keys" which gave to the Pope the lordship of the conscience; for he who can pardon sin - open or shut the gate of Paradise - is God to men. Think not, said he, in effect, to his countrymen, that God has given "the keys" to Innocent of Rome; think not that the friar carries heaven in his wallet; think not that God sends his pardons wrapped up in those bits of paper which the Mendicants carry about with them, and which they sell for a piece of silver. Listen to the voice of the Gospel: "Ye are not redeemed with corruptible things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, the Lamb without blemish and without spot". Wicliffe now went into battle under the banner "God pardons men without money and without price".
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis.