THE man who was the mainspring of a movement so formidable to the Papacy must be struck down.
The writings of Wicliffe were examined. It was no difficult matter to extract from his works, doctrines which militated against the power and wealth of Rome.
The Oxford professor had taught that the Pope has no more power than ordinary priests to excommunicate or absolve men; that neither bishop nor Pope can validly excommunicate any man, unless by sin he has first made himself obnoxious to God; that princes cannot give endowments in perpetuity to the Church; that when their gifts are abused they have the right to recall them; and that Christ has given no temporal lordship to the Popes, and no supremacy over kings.
These propositions, culled from the tracts of the Reformer, were sent to Pope Gregory XI who determined Wicliffe must be immediately attended to.
Three papal bulls against Wicliffe
Three separate bulls were drafted on the same day, May 22nd, 1377, and dispatched to England.
These bulls condemned the supineness of the English clergy in not having ere now crushed this formidable heresy. One of the bulls was addressed to Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, and William Courtenay, Bishop of London; the second was addressed to the king, and the third to the University of Oxford.
The university was commanded to ensure detestable and damnable things be not taught. The bull addressed to the bishops condemned the Rector of Lutterworth as "master of errors ... run into a kind of detestable wickedness ... openly publishing (and) vomiting out of the filthy dungeon of his breast divers professions, false and erroneous conclusions, and most wicked and damnable heresies, whereby he might defile the faithful sort, and bring them from the right path headlong into the way of perdition".
John Wicliffe must be imprisoned and all proofs and evidence of his heresy sent securely sealed by trustworthy messenger to the Pope. Thus did Pope Gregory throw the wolfs hide over Wicliffe, that he might let slip his Dominicans in full cry upon his track.
Bishop of London put to confusion
Before the bulls had arrived in England the prosecution of Wicliffe was begun by the zealous bishops. Courtenay, Bishop of London cited Wicliffe to appear on the 19th of February, 1377, in Our Lady's Chapel, St. Paul's. The rumour of what was going on got wind in London, and when the day came a great crowd assembled at the door of St. Paul's. Wicliffe, attended with John, Duke of Lancaster, better known as John of Gaunt, and Lord Percy, Earl Marshal of England. John of Gaunt and Wicliffe had possibly first met at Bruges. Gaunt held the Reformer in high esteem, on political if not on religious grounds. Thus stood Wicliffe in the presence of his judges, a meagre form dressed in a long light mantle of black cloth; his whole appearance full of great earnestness, significance, and character.
Uproar immediately ensued. "Percy," said Bishop Courtenay sharply "if I had known what masteries you would have kept in the church, I would have stopped you from coming in hither". John of Gaunt, replied gruffly, "He shall keep such masteries though you say nay". Percy asked Wicliffe to sit. "He must and shall stand", ordered Bishop Courtenay, "it is unreasonable that one on his trial before his ordinary should sit". John of Gaunt interrupted asserting "Lord Percy's proposal is but reasonable". He then addressed Bishop Courtney "And as for you who are grown so arrogant and proud, I will bring down the pride not of you alone, but that of all the prelacy in England".
Courtney retorted that his trust was in no friend on earth, but in God. John of Gaunt was heard to say that "rather than take such words from the bishop, he would drag him out of the court by the hair of the head". The crowd at the door, hearing what was going on within, burst the barrier, and precipitated itself en masse into the chapel. The bishops having pictured in their minds the humble Rector of Lutterworth standing meekly alone at their bar began to tremble. To proceed with the trial was out of the question. The bishops hastily retreated and "that council, being broken up with scolding and brawling ... dissolved before nine o'clock". Wicliffe returned home unharmed.
May England keep her revenues?
At this juncture events happened in high places which tended to shield the Reformer and his opinions. Edward III died after a long reign on June 21st, 1377. His heir Richard II was 11 years old and his mother, the dowager Princess of Wales, was a woman of spirit, friendly to Wicliffe's views . The new sovereign, two months after his accession, assembled his first Parliament. It was composed of nearly the same men as the "Good Parliament" which had passed such stringent edicts against the "provisions" and other usurpations of the Pope. The new Parliament was similarly disposed. Much favoured, Wicliffe was summoned to speak whilst the bulls to crush him were yet en route. Little wonder the Pope had singled him out as the man to be struck down. He was asked "Whether the Kingdom of England might not lawfully, in case of necessity, detain and keep back the treasure of the Kingdom for its defence and that it be not carried away to a foreign and strange nations despite the Pope himself demanding and requiring the same, under pain of censure".
This appears a very plain matter to us, but our ancestors of the fourteenth century found it encompassed with great difficulties. The best and bravest of England at that day were scared by the ghostly threat with which the Pope accompanied his demand, and they durst not refuse it till assured by Wicliffe that it was a matter in which the Pope had no right to command, and in which they incurred no sin and no danger by disobedience. Nothing could better show the thraldom in which our fathers were held, and the slow and laborious steps by which they found their way out of the house of their bondage.
Peter's successor cannot be both apostle and king
The Popes, banished from Rome, were then experiencing their "Babylonish captivity" at Avignon. Hence a series of Frenchmen occupied the papal chair. Since war was now waging between France and England, the treasure which the Popes raised in England was presumed to be going to support the French side. This was outrageous. Moreover it was rumoured this very moment the Pope's collectors had a large sum in their hands ready to send to Avignon.
Wicliffe‘ s opposition was based on Scripture. God had given to every society the power of self-preservation; and any power given by God to any society or nation may, without doubt, be used for the end for which it was given. This gold was England's own, and might unquestionably be retained for England's use and defence. The contrary argument was that because of his temporal supremacy the pope reasonably demanded this money, and rightly challenged England at its peril to retain it. But who, replied the Reformer, gave the Pope this temporal supremacy? I do not find it in the Bible. The Apostle Peter could give the Pope only what he himself possessed, and Peter possessed no temporal lordship.
The Pope, argued Wicliffe, must choose between the apostleship and the kingship; if he prefers to be a king, then he can claim nothing of us in the character of an apostle; or should he abide by his apostleship, even then he cannot claim this money, for neither Peter nor any one of the apostles ever imposed a tax upon Christians; they were supported by the free-will offerings of those to whom they ministered. What England gave to the Papacy she gave not as a tribute, but as alms. But alms could not be righteously demanded unless when the claimant was necessitous. Was the Papacy so? Were not its coffers overflowing? Was not England the poorer of the two? Her necessities were great, occasioned by a two-fold drain, the exactions of the Popes and the burdens of the war.
Let charity, then, begin at home, and let England, instead of sending her money to these poor men of Avignon, who are clothed in purple and fare sumptuously every day, keep her own gold for her own uses. Thus did the Reformer lead on his countrymen, step by step, as they were able to follow.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis