The opposition of Parliament to the encroachments of the Popes on the liberties of the kingdom resulted in several stringent laws being passed, especially the Statutes of Provisors and Praemunire.
There were certain benefices in England which the Pope, in the plenitude of his power, reserved to himself. These were generally the more wealthy livings. But it might be inconvenient to wait till a vacancy actually occurred. Accordingly the Pope, by what he termed a provisor, issued an appointment beforehand. The rights of the chapter, or of the crown, or whoever was the patron, were thus set aside, and the legal presentee must either buy up the provisor, or permit the Pope's nominee, often a foreigner, to enjoy the benefice.
The very best of these dignities and benefices were enjoyed by Italians, Frenchmen, and other foreigners, who were, says Lewis, "some of them mere boys; and not only ignorant of the English language, but even of Latin, and who never so much as saw their churches, but committed the care of them to those they could get to serve them the cheapest; and had the revenues of them remitted to them at Rome or elsewhere, by their proctors, to whom they let their tithes." The Statute of Provisors, and the Law of Praemunire which followed, were intended to arrest this scandalous drain of the nation's wealth to Rome.
Hence the king sent four commissioners to Avignon, where Pope Gregory XI. was residing, to request he forego his exactions. The ambassadors were courteously received, but they could obtain no redress. The Parliament renewed its complaint and requested that "remedy be provided against the provisions of the Pope, whereby he reaps the first-fruits of ecclesiastical dignities, the treasure of the realm being thereby conveyed away, which [it] cannot bear".
A Royal Commission was appointed in 1374 to inquire into the number of ecclesiastical benefices and dignities in England held by aliens, and to estimate their exact value. It was found that the number of livings in the hands of Italians, Frenchmen, and other foreigners was so great that, says Fox, "were it all set down, it would fill almost half a quire of paper." The priesthood of England was rapidly becoming an alien and merely nominal one. The sums drained from the kingdom were immense.
Accordingly the king made a second attempt to remonstrate with the Papal court. Wicliffe was second to the Bishop of Bangor amongst the delegates. By now the Papal court at Avignon was in disarray, so nuncios were sent to Bruges in the Netherlands. Negotiation dragged on for two years. The result was merely to equalise the power of Pope and sovereign. The Pope did not renounce his right, he simply abstained from exercising it. The Bishop of Bangor was immediately elevated on his return first to Hereford and then in 1389 to the prestigious St. David's through Papal provisors. This strongly suggests his subserviancy at Bruges.
Wicliffe's eyes opened
But Wicliffe had now met the Italian, Spanish, and French dignitaries of the Church, who enjoyed the confidence of the Pope and the cardinals. This insight, not readily opened to his view in his own country, disgusted him. Avarice, ambition, hypocrisy, these were the gods that were worshipped in the Roman curia - these were the virtues that adorned the Papal throne. And now Wicliffe publicly proclaimed it so. He castigated the Pope as, "Antichrist, the proud worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and purse-kervers" in his lectures. He authored a tract stating, "They [the Pope and his collectors] draw out of our land poor men's livelihood, and many thousand marks by the year, of the king's money, for Sacraments and spiritual things, that is cursed heresy of simony, and maketh all Christendom assent and meyntene his heresy. And certes though our realm had a huge hill of gold, and never other man took thereof but only this proud worldly priest's collector, by process of time this hill must be spended; for he taketh ever money out of our land, and sendeth nought agen but God's curse for his simony".
Battle for England's independence
Soon after his return from Bruges, Wicliffe was appointed to the rectorship of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire. As this preferment came not from the Pope but the king, it may be taken as a sign of the royal approval of his conduct as a commissioner, and his growing influence at court. The Parliament, finding that the negotiation at Bruges had come to nothing, resolved on more decisive measures. The Pope had promised much but performed nothing. He still continued to appoint aliens to English livings, notwithstanding his treaties to the contrary. If these usurpations were allowed, he would soon proceed to greater liberties, and would appoint to secular dignities also, and end by appropriating as his own the sovereignty of the realm.
It was plain to the Parliament that a battle must be fought for the country's independence. They drew up a bill of indictment against the Papal usurpations. In that document they set forth the manifold miseries under which the country was groaning from a foreign tyranny, which had crept into the kingdom under spiritual pretexts, a tyranny which was rapaciously consuming the fruits of the earth and the goods of the nation. The Parliament declared the revenue drawn by the Pope from the realm was five times that which the king received. Single livings were multiple taxed, bishops were moved from one see to another for gain. Meritorious Englishmen were passed over for the pope's appointees. Learning and virtue were bypassed and everything "venal" in "the sinful city of Rome" was promoted.
Simony without shame
English patrons, corrupted by this pestilential example, had learned to practice simony without shame or remorse. The Pope's collector had opened an establishment in the capital with a staff of officers, as if it were one of the great courts of the nation. This papal chancellery transported "yearly to the Pope twenty thousand marks, and most commonly more". The Pope received a richer revenue from England than any prince in Christendom. This revenue he often expended in subsidising the enemies of the country. Parliament concluded since, "God hath given His sheep to the Pope to be pastured, and not shorn and shaven it therefore would be good to renew all the statutes against provisions from Rome. Further 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."
In February, 1372 the papal agent Arnold Garnier, who travelled with a suite of servants and six horses, arrived in England. After remaining uninterruptedly two and a half years in the country, he went back to Rome with a huge sum of money. He had a royal license to return to England, of which he afterwards made use. He was required to swear that in collecting the Papal dues he would protect the rights and interests of the crown and the country. He took the oath in 1372 in the Palace of Westminster, in presence of the councillors and dignitaries of the crown. The fears of patriots were in no way allayed by the ready oath of the Papal agent; and Wicliffe rightly wrote a treatise to show that he had sworn to do what was a contradiction and an impossibility.
Wicliffe nerves Parliament
Wicliffe nerved the Commons of England to fight for the prerogatives of their prince, and their own rights as the free subjects of an independent realm, his trenchant style appearing in the document of the Parliament. The enraged Pope immediately appointing an Italian to an English benefice. But the Parliament stood firm. The temporal Lords and Commons united declared, "We will support the crown against the tiara". The nation rallied in support of the Estates of the Realm. This "Good Parliament" enacted stringent laws. The Pope languidly maintained the conflict for a few years, but ultimately gave way. These statutes were vigorously enforced against every attempt to carry out Papal appointments in England. Thus were the prerogatives of the sovereign and the independence of the country victoriously vindicated.
Rome's two defeats
This was the second great defeat which Rome had sustained. England had already refused to be a fief of the Papal See by withholding the tribute to Urban. Now by repelling the Pontifical jurisdiction, she claimed to be mistress in her own territory. Wicliffe had felt a new power in his soul, propelling him onward in this war and his part in this victory was widely acknowledged. He began to oppose the blasphemous and unscriptural papacy with new boldness and eloquence and a force of argument which he had not till now been able to wield. His sentiments were finding an echo in public opinion. The tide was rising. The hierarchy took the alarm. They cried for help, and the Pope espoused their cause, which was not theirs only, but his as well. "The whole glut of monks or begging friars" says Fox, "were set in a rage or madness, which as hornets with their stings did assail this good man on every side, fighting their altars, paunches, and bellies. After them the priests, and then after them the archbishop took the matter in hand, being then Simon Sudbury".
(To be continued)
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis